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Short-haul operations a specialty of Mesa Verde Helitack

Technique rescues Black Canyon climber; available for fire personnel transport
Members of the Mesa Verde Helitack watch as a team member is lifted skyward by a helicopter during training at the old campus of Fort Lewis College in Hesperus.

If you are badly injured in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, the rescue may include dangling from a fixed line attached to the Mesa Verde Helitack helicopter.

Short-haul operations are a specialty of Mesa Verde Helitack, an eight-person firefighting and rescue crew based at Mesa Verde National Park.

The organization has partnered with Black Canyon park rangers to assist with rescues in the rugged canyon popular with experienced hikers, rock climbers and boaters.

On June 2, the helitack team performed its first short-haul rescue at the national park, northeast of Montrose.

Short-haul rescue in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park on June 2. The injured climber was loaded into a litter attached to the fixed line and hauled to the south rim.

A climber had taken a 50-foot lead climbing fall on the 15-pitch Scenic Cruise climbing route in Cruise Gully. Despite having a broken ankle, the 43-year-old climber from South Jordan, Utah, was able to rappel to the base of the route.

Rangers responded to the scene and called in Mesa Verde Helitack’s Type III Bell 407 helicopter to haul him out on a litter to the south rim helipad using a fixed line.

Black Canyon rangers have been training with the helitack crew for two years, said Sandra Snell-Dobert, a public information officer.

The park does not have its own helicopter, so a partnership was formed with Mesa Verde Helitack, she said.

The unique short-haul rescue technique is necessary in the incredibly deep and sheer canyon, which reaches 2,722 feet at its greatest depth. The canyon features the rapid-choked Gunnison River, which drops an average of 43 feet per mile.

“There is no place to land a helicopter in the Black Canyon, and some rescues require getting airlifted out,” Snell-Dobert said. “Working with the team from Mesa Verde National Park is the perfect fit.”

Black Canyon rangers have noticed an uptick in “walk-out rescues” from canyon routes, in which the injured person exits the canyon with assistance.

“These are not your normal hiking conditions,” said Chief Ranger Chris Mengel. “These are loose rock scrambles on extremely steep grades that require dexterity and preparation.”

The early season rescues, are “alarming” officials said, as usually calls for help come in July and August.

“Often with rescues, people take on more than they are capable of, or do not take enough water. They underestimate the challenge,” Snell-Dobert said.

A Mesa Verde Helitack helicopter is used to attack wildfires in the Four Corners.

Mesa Verde Helitack was formed in 1979. Today it consists of eight wildland firefighters trained in helicopter operations. As a National Park Service Fire helicopter, it provides initial attack and large fire support for Mesa Verde, San Juan National Forest, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Indian Affairs and other state and local agencies in the Four Corners.

In 2016, it developed a short haul rescue program, and in 2019 expanded it to include using the system to transport wildland firefighters.

“We believe that short-haul operations for fire can be a safe, efficient, and effective aerial delivery method of qualified firefighters into terrain that may present access challenges,” according to its website.


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