A week after Vaughn Fetzer was reported missing on Blanca Peak, the fourth highest mountain in Colorado, friends found his body in an unstable area. Rescuers spent several days in freezing temperatures searching near vertical cliffs and scree fields but suspended the mission after a search team member was injured by falling rock in a steep couloir below the 14,344-foot summit.
The discovery of the 57-year-old Durango nurse marked the third time in less than a year that friends stepped in to assist search and rescue teams in finding a lost loved one. (Rescuers recovered Fetzer’s body the next day.)
When backcountry skiers Dr. Jeff Paffendorf and Albert Perry did not return from their ski trip to an area called Battleship near Ophir Pass on Dec. 19, friends rallied. They skied into the area in the dark, after a search helicopter had spotted a large avalanche with ski tracks heading into it. Around 11 p.m. the friends located the bodies of the two beloved Durango skiers from a large avalanche debris field. Rescuers the next day retrieved the mens’ bodies.
On June 17, expert kayaker and mountain guide Chason Russell separated from his kayak in the middle of the daunting Meatgrinder rapid on the Crystal River near Redstone. As his longtime paddling partner Stan Prichard attempted to haul his friend to shore, Russell disappeared into a churning hole.
Searchers spent most of Thursday evening and Friday morning scouring the river downstream but could find no sign of Russell. Meanwhile, an army of Russell’s friends gathered from all over Colorado and the West. They were all experts – professional kayakers, climbers and skiers with years of experience in the mountains – and they launched their own highly technical recovery.
“I have to say this right off. This is a bit of a slippery slope. People are always going to want to chase down their friends ... the first speech we gave that morning with Chase in the river was that he is not really there. We are just getting his body,” said Josh Borof, an accomplished mountaineer and paddler from Telluride who helped orchestrate the recovery of his friend with a singular focus on safety for the ad hoc recovery team. “That was our top, top, top priority. No one even falls in the water.”
Six weeks earlier, Borof and his 17-year-old son had scouted Meatgrinder. As they walked back to their kayaks above the rapid, Borof decided to walk around the rapid and positioned himself with safety ropes below the rapid for his son, who flipped but rolled in the exact same spot Russell disappeared.
“There are sieves all over in there. It’s a pretty scary rapid,” he said.
Russell was one of the most skilled kayakers in the state. He’d spent decades exploring some of the West’s most difficult stretches of whitewater. The 41-year-old expert skier, climber and paddler guided people into the mountains, shared his skills with younger athletes and volunteered with Mountain Rescue Aspen. And along the way, he gathered an array of impressively skilled friends.
His colleagues on the rescue team on Thursday had deployed drones to study sections of rapid but could not find any sign of the missing paddler. More than two dozen of Russell’s friends were gathered on the banks of the Crystal River the Friday after he disappeared. Prichard was sure he knew where his friend’s body was in the river. Two intrepid paddlers had recovered his PFD and other gear from a hole downstream, where aerated, foaming water had prevented search-team drones from seeing the equipment.
“We all know Stan and his ability is unrivaled,” Borof said. “I’ve never met anyone with more technical proficiency in so many different realms. So when a dude like Stan says ‘That’s where he is.’ We listened. We said ‘We are with you. Let’s do this.’”
The team of friends solemnly rigged a complex system of ropes across the river. They grabbed Russell’s 12-foot raft and ferried it on the ropes to the middle of the river. First they tried it empty. Then they loaded it with rocks. Then they tried it with three people. Kayakers waited downstream in their boats. Paddlers on shore stood ready with throw bags to rescue anyone who might have tumbled from the raft into the Class V rapids.
It is uncommon for Colorado search and rescue teams to give their blessing to civilians to conduct their own search and rescue missions. (Except, of course, when teams need large numbers of people to scour non-technical terrain.) The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which oversees Mountain Rescue Aspen, gave Russell’s friends access to the Redstone fire house as a staging area.
“They said we understand and you need to be careful,” Borof said. “We were so glad they were not being adversarial in that situation.”
(Which has happened before. In 2010, Clear Creek County sheriff’s deputies arrested, handcuffed and jailed a pair of veteran, swiftwater-trained river guides who rescued a 13-year-old who had fallen from one of their company’s rafts. The charges were eventually dropped and now guides and rescuers in Clear Creek County often train together.)
Pitkin County Sheriff’s Deputy Parker Lathrop said his sheriff sized up Russell’s friends gathered that Friday “and he weighed the risks and rewards.” Lathrop, the sheriff’s chief deputy of operations, explained that the office could not sanction the civilian rescue, but deputies would not forbid them either.
“That was unique. We had some very experienced people there,” said Lathrop, who warned Borof and the crew that county rescuers might not be able to help them if something went wrong during the recovery mission. “That set up and what they did was impressive.”
Three members of the Mountain Rescue Aspen team were injured, one very seriously, on Aug. 4 by rockfall as they worked to recover the body of a hiker below Capitol Peak. The body of Kelly McDermott was spotted earlier that day by a helicopter after he was reported missing. Because of the threat of rockfall, rescuers still have not been able to reach the body of the 32-year-old Wisconsin man.
Lathrop said McDermott’s family understands that rescuers are unable to risk more injuries or worse to recover that man’s body, which is located in a precarious spot about 500 feet below the Knife Edge ridge that leads to the summit of Capitol Peak.
In mountain communities, where adventurers have a more intimate grasp of the hazards in the mountains, rescuers are able to more clearly share the reasons they may not be able to promptly recover a lost loved one.
“We are very lucky to have that understanding and awareness up here,” Lathrop said. “It’s just a different mindset.”
Most experienced kayakers and backcountry travelers do not count on outside help in case of an accident. They travel with safety gear and are prepared to self-rescue. Especially kayakers who regularly venture into the most challenging, Class V rapids.
Swiftwater rescue teams are ready to help people stranded in cars or on rocks in the middle of rivers. They can help locate bodies that have swept downstream. Their river rescue skills, however, do not compare to paddlers who have spent hundreds of hours navigating challenging whitewater.
“I would say 99.9% of all serious rescue incidents in whitewater nationwide are handled by outfitters or private paddlers who are there. It’s pretty unusual for them to require outside help,” said Charlie Walbridge, who, since 1975, has tracked almost 2,000 incidents in U.S. rivers for American Whitewater, almost all of them fatal accidents. “Whitewater paddlers, we take care of ourselves and we rarely need help. That’s what this recovery shows.”
County sheriffs who direct search and rescue teams have the final say on allowing civilian rescues. There is no formal state policy that addresses the nuanced scenarios where sheriffs consider outside assistance. Policies can differ by county but some of the liability and safety concerns are the same, said Colorado Search and Rescue Association spokeswoman Anna Debattiste.
By midday Friday, Russell’s friends had assembled enough rescue gear to outfit any swiftwater team. In fact, some of the friends were volunteer rescuers. One even trained teams in swiftwater rescue.
They used upstream anchors. They had tension lines on those anchors to pull the raft even further upstream in the rapids. Downstream lines were connected to the stern of the raft. A bow line kept the nose of the craft out of the steep pour-over hole. Each side of the river had logistical coordinators, all working together via radios.
The group had been probing the hole for about an hour when thunderclouds gathered. It started raining hard. They were moving the raft from low in the hole toward the front, essentially grid searching a 15-foot-by-15-foot area.
“There was lightning and hail. The whistle was in my mouth, ready to ripcord this and get everyone out of the water when they stuck him. We had him out in 15 minutes. Just as the sun came out. It was some pretty intense (expletive),” said Borof, pausing as he remembered the moment his friend’s body emerged from the river.
It was likely impossible to gather a more qualified group of people to conduct a recovery in one of the most dangerous rapids in the West. Borof said everyone acknowledged their emotional connection to the mission, but they stayed focused on the hazards. They knew they were recovering Russell’s body. He was not alive. It was not worth another injury or worse.
“Personal safety was our pinnacle purpose. We made an emotional decision with unemotional consequences. We had to be calculated,” Borof said. “We felt like we had to do something and we were capable. I admit there were some sad smiles at the fire station afterwards. We got closure and we got a chance to act and do something.”
Sometimes, friends of the fallen step up for perilous rescue missions when formal searches are suspended.