SILVERTON – Famed Colorado mountaineer Gerry Roach remembers the relief he felt last month when members of the Silverton Medical Rescue team reached him after he fell about 100 feet down a scraggly rock debris field at nearly 13,000 feet in elevation west of Silverton.
Roach, who turned 80 a few days after the Aug. 9 accident, suffered five broken ribs, a collapsed lung and maybe a concussion. He spent 12 days at Mercy Hospital and is now recovering at his home in Montrose.
Roach recalls feeling a sense of calm, well-being and assurance after rescue workers reached him.
“It was very good once they arrived,” he said during an interview Wednesday with The Durango Herald. “ … I have a great respect for that Silverton rescue group.”
The Silverton Medical Rescue team is unlike most search and rescue teams in Colorado, said DeAnne Gallegos, the group’s spokeswoman. It is made up of search and rescue members, alpine medical providers and elite athletes.
A sampling of just five of the 55 members reveals they are backpackers, high-elevation hikers, rock and ice climbers, backcountry skiers and long-distance runners. The team ranges in age from 24 to 60-plus, but the average age is in the mid-30s. They are evenly split between male and female members.
The team responds to incidents in San Juan County, one of the least populated counties in Colorado and a recreational mecca for backcountry skiers, high-elevation hikers and recreational-vehicle enthusiasts. The county has the highest mean elevation in the Lower 48 and some of the most rugged terrain.
“The amazing part about our team is we can access any patient in any condition at any time in any weather because of the skills all of the individuals bring to the team,” said Tyler George, director of Silverton Medical Rescue. “It’s pretty amazing some of the places that we’re able to get into to render patient care and then transport the patient out.”
The team has been nominated for a Colorado Mountain Club Valor Award for its response in April to an avalanche on King Solomon, where two skiers were caught and critically injured. The area is difficult to operate in because it is steep and rocky and conditions are dangerous in the wintertime.
“(Silverton Medical Rescue) trains for this type of extrication regularly, but no amount of practice can prepare a team for how much work a real incident takes,” the team’s Facebook page says.
George can sound like the brains behind a superhero group. He is familiar with the unique skill sets each of his team members possess, and can place them in the field and rely on their abilities like a skilled carpenter pulling tools from a toolbox.
He knows who to call if he needs a speedy response, followed by people who can lug in a bunch of equipment, assisted by people who can set up a rope and litter rescue system – all while doing it on backcountry skis.
But it takes more than being an extreme athlete to be on the team, he said. Group members must receive medical training, avalanche training and have impeccable situational awareness.
“The people that live in Silverton live here because they have these mountain skill sets, and then they’re able to bring them to our team,” George said. “ … It does take years of experience to actually figure out, ‘Can we move through here safely?’ or ‘Can we go up to the top of this peak in August at 4 o'clock in the afternoon or are we going to get struck by lightning?’”
Team coordinator Ian Ellis said members are generally well-versed in all seasonal sports. Silverton is so small that members are friends and know each other’s skill sets.
“It’s hard to state how fluid and naturally some of these calls go because of how well-rounded everyone is,” Ellis said. “When I’m out there running an incident that’s high-stress, I’m not ever worried about the physical abilities of my team, which helps so much with easing my stress when I have to take care of a critical patient.”
Search and rescue missions begin with an intense planning phase. An incident command team creates a plan, revises the plan, comes up with a contingency plan and assesses the weather. Even then, every call can be so dynamic in the high country that group members must adapt and change to meet conditions.
“We take this time to look at the situation as a whole and see it as a big picture to then slow our thinking down, slow our heart rates down, and essentially allow us to provide input and think about things that we may have not thought about going into it,” Ellis said.
One of the first goals is to make speedy contact with a patient, especially in critical situations. A “hasty team” will go in ahead of everyone else to make that contact, deliver basic needs, then report back to other team members.
Hannah Green was one of the first two people to reach Roach on Aug. 9. She has twice completed the Hardrock Hundred, a 100-mile run in the San Juan Mountains that includes 33,000 feet of total ascent at an average elevation of 11,000 feet.
She said running 100 miles can get kind of “boring,” but responding to a patient makes her focused as an athlete.
She has been volunteering with Silverton Medical Rescue for about two years.
“I try to show up to calls when I can or if I think I’ll be able to help,” she said.
Green’s speed and knowledge of the San Juan Mountains is one of the tools in George’s toolbox.
“Everybody on our team is fast,” George said. “But if we need to send some people in off-trail or something pretty rugged, she knows the area incredibly well and she's very, very fast.”
Other members come in behind the hasty team to deliver more supplies and equipment, including warm clothes, sleeping bags and rescue gear.
Reaching a patient can be “intense,” George said. Rescuers have a heightened sense of adrenaline and often don’t know what to expect upon reaching the patient. The person could be in good spirits or could be heavily maimed and fighting for survival.
“Having the ability to run up the side of a mountain, whether you’re on skis or on foot, and then calm yourself down when you get to the patient and be able to actually render patient care – that takes a lot of work,” he said.
Ellis compared responding to a patient like being a duck on water: He looks calm on the surface, but below the water his legs are kicking.
“When you’re walking up to the patient, you still have in the back of your mind, ‘Am I about to see something terrible and or grotesque or very traumatic? How am I going to respond to that? How am I going to offer care while being that stressed?’” he said.
Nancy Stanley, an EMT and volunteer with Silverton Medical Rescue, said responders know in certain situations the sooner they reach a patient, the better chance that person will have for survival. She has to remind herself to take care of herself and communicate with her team to provide the most effective response.
Stanley was on the hasty team and one of the first to reach Roach.
“The humaneness and the relatability of the team is what makes a difference for me,” she said. “I feel comfortable on this team, to be honest.”
That sense of calm Roach felt while in the care of Silverton Medical Rescue is by design, team members said. In the same way that athletes must take care of themselves mentally, emotionally and physically, they must do the same as first responders. They subscribe to the idea that they can’t help others if they don’t take care of themselves.
Ellis, a rock climber, backcountry skier and full-time paramedic, sees little difference between his outdoor pursuits and rendering first aid.
“If you’re not focused and sharp (when climbing and backcountry skiing) you can get extremely hurt,” he said. “And then on the flip side, if you’re not doing those same things when taking care of a patient, you can cause them harm.”
If a rescue member skis up to a patient and crashes, that may not instill the highest level of confidence, they joked.
“That calm demeanor to your patient, regardless of how injured they are, is huge,” Ellis said. “You’ll see it time and time again when you finally show up to a patient who’s hurt, and if you can bring forth that confidence that you’re going to get them out of there, their willingness to continue to fight for their life is there.”
Rescuers never want to add to the complexities of a critical-incident response. That means they must be prepared for eventualities, like a sprained ankle or an unplanned overnight stay in the wilderness.
When rescue members reached Roach, they quickly realized it was too late to bring him down. They were too high in elevation and the terrain was too rugged to coordinate a helicopter rescue. Instead, several members of the Silverton Medical Rescue team spent the night with Roach and his wife, Jennifer, keeping him warm until a military Black Hawk helicopter could respond at 7:30 a.m. and hoist him to safety.
“This EMT guy, he lay right next to me and they put the little tent over us,” Roach said. “I was warm, and that was a good thing, and we just waited.”
Not every mission is a battle for life and death. Sometimes, Silverton Medical Rescue is called to recover bodies. One winter, the team recovered 12 bodies within six months. They try to keep team sizes small in those instances to reduce the number of members exposed to the traumas.
“A lot of search and rescue, unfortunately, is body recovery,” Ellis said. “That, I think, is personally the hardest part of the job at times.”
After every intense rescue mission, team members debrief and check in on each other’s mental wellness. George or Ellis will make a “very strong, commanding” ask that if anyone is struggling to reach out to a licensed therapist made available to team members, Gallegos said.
“One thing I really respect about this team is that mental health is always top (of mind),” she said.
The hybrid group of athletes and medical providers was formed out of necessity, George said. It is a model used in Switzerland, which tries to put doctors in the field as first responders.
“It was just really a natural evolution,” Ellis said. “After enough incidents throughout many, many years of accidents in the mountains here, I think everyone recognizes that, ‘Hey, maybe we should put the trained medical people up there with them, too. That might make a difference.’”
An earlier version of this story misspelled Nancy Stanley’s last name.