Search and rescue crews in Southwest Colorado have a new toy to aid missions deep in the backcountry, and this one is tailored to ride on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad tracks.
As recreation increases in the Animas River Canyon, so too do emergency rescues on a stretch of remote backcountry with little access aside from the D&SNG locomotives that run from the Rockwood station, about 18 miles north of Durango, to Silverton.
For years, San Juan County Sheriff Bruce Conrad said he has pushed for his department to have its own vehicle to run on the tracks, which would allow rescue crews to get injured people out faster.
“That area is so remote, there’s not a road in sight,” Conrad said. “So I felt it was necessary to have a shortcut for access.”
This summer, the D&SNG delivered, giving the San Juan County Search and Rescue team a Haflinger military vehicle – think mini-Volkswagen bus – outfitted to ride on the narrow gauge tracks.
“This will drastically decrease our response time in a variety of instances in that region,” Conrad said.
In the past, the D&SNG has been the default lifeline for rescuing recreationists in the Animas River Canyon.
“The train’s really been the hero for a lot of years,” said Ron Corkish, president of La Plata County Search and Rescue.
John Harper, general manager of American Heritage Railways, which owns the D&SNG, said passing locomotives pick up six to 12 injured hikers, climbers, kayakers or rafters a year.
“We train all our operating crews in first aid and get them AED (automated external defibrillator) certified,” he said. “And sometimes we even have EMTs on our trains.”
And it’s not just D&SNG locomotives and pop cars there to help.
Tall Timber Resort, a resort along the Animas River and railroad tracks accessible only by train or helicopter, has its own railroad cars, and it’s not uncommon for them to work with the D&SNG in rescues.
Just last weekend, a kayaker injured on the expert rapids on the Upper Animas was taken by a Tall Timber car to the resort, then transferred to a D&SNG car for the ride to Durango.
“That happens on a regular basis,” Harper said.
But for more intensive rescue missions, search teams in San Juan County and La Plata County are at the ready. Still, reaching people in the Animas River Canyon can take valuable time.
Around 2009, a master plan was started by local emergency responders that plotted plans of rescue for each area in the Animas River Canyon. In it, about 20 landing zones for helicopters were identified in a 25-mile stretch between Rockwood and Silverton.
But helicopters aren’t always needed. And sometimes, it’s not an option because of bad weather, tight landing areas or busy flight crews.
When a canyon rescue is needed, D&SNG or Tall Timber Resort will be called, Corkish said.
Denny Beggrow, founder of the resort, said the nearly 50-year-old business has been helping people out of the canyon for years.
“It’s something we’ve always done,” Beggrow said. “We’re already here and quick to respond, so we’re more than willing to help.”
Each mission calls for a different response, Corkish said, but search and rescue crews have train access to shuttle emergency responders, reducing time spent hiking.
“It’s a fine-tuned tool,” he said. “And it allows us to bring in whatever equipment we may need.”
Over the past five years, hikers, rafters and kayakers have increasingly accessed the Animas River Canyon, Conrad said. And he can quickly rattle off the number of times his team has helped someone out.
Last year, for instance, an elderly person had a heart problem going up the Snowflake Trail, and emergency responders drove a side-by-side vehicle down the railroad tracks to get him out.
“But that vehicle is not designed for that and was really dangerous,” he said.
In the past, search crews have had to rely on the D&SNG or Tall Timber to speed into the canyon. But now, San Juan County Search and Rescue will be able to ride its own vehicle, designed for the narrow gauge tracks. Conrad added the vehicle can even help with firefighting efforts.
Still, it’s going to take precise coordination with the D&SNG, Conrad said.
First, Conrad said about five people on his team will be trained to drive the vehicle. When the need arises, the team’s first call will be to the D&SNG dispatch center to communicate whether any locomotives may be headed to Silverton.
“It’s going to require a stout training program,” he said.
A few tweaks and repairs are required before the vehicle can be up and running, Conrad said, but he hopes to have it ready by the end of July.
“With this emergency vehicle on hand, we’ll be able to quicken our response rather than have to wait,” he said.