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It started with a post on the 14ers Facebook page asking for partners to do a winter ski on Culebra. Although there isn't enough snow for a ski descent in January, a lot of people do skin up the road and then boot up the ridge. Taylor was interested in the idea, so the two of us signed up and joined a Facebook Messenger chat with other interested parties. In total, eight people signed up for Saturday, Jan 28th and all but one stayed at the San Luis Inn. The night before the hike, everyone on the chat met at Mrs Rios Restaurant in the town of San Luis, a unique Mexican / Thai fusion with great food. We personally knew Emily but everyone else was new to us. It reminded me of the old days when we used to meet up with randos for 14er adventures. Russ was the organizer and over dinner, he talked about Culebra being his 14er finisher, touted his ski descent of North Maroon, and his plans to ski the Landry Line on Pyramid. After dinner, we headed back to the hotel, packed our gear and got some sleep.
When the alarm went off at 4:30am, the first thing I checked was the weather forecast. Over the past few days the forecasted winds had gradually crept up and unfortunately, they had gotten even worse overnight. I talked with Taylor about our options, since we had already paid the $150 to reserve our spot at the ranch, we were kind of stuck. Taylor suggested we skin up the road, see what conditions were like above treeline, and then likely ski back down. We estimated we had a 10% chance of summitting, basically needing the forecast to be wrong.
"Hey, you never know until you go," Taylor chirped.
"Some days, I just don't wanna know," I replied pessimistically.
Cielo Vista Ranch
In the summer you can drive to the upper trailhead at 11,240' but in the winter, you have to start at the ranch headquarters around 9,000'. Everyone started up the road together on skis and a splitboard. There was a snowmachine track from headquarters to Four Way, which made for easy skinning. The sunrise was beautiful and for the first few hours, to our delight, there was no wind.
Russ was leading the charge, setting the skin track with Laura and Emma directly behind him. A few hundred feet below them were Taylor, Mark, and I followed by Emily and Angela a few hundred feet below us. Around 13,000', visibility started to decrease in the strong winds. I lost sight of Taylor and Mark as a cloud engulfed us and visibility dropped to about 15' in the howling winds. I kept moving forward at a slow pace, looking to regroup with the other members who would be turning around soon. The heavy winds erased their skin track but I could still make out Taylor's pole marks in the windblown snow and I had my GPS for navigation. After a few minutes, I saw Laura and Emma to my left making a bee-line for me. I was surprised by their appearance because the big cairn was up ahead and to the right.
Emma and Laura told me that they had lost Russ and I responded that in these conditions, he could be very close. "No, he fell into a hole and disappeared." "He just vanished." They were convinced he was gone and Laura insisted that everyone needed to turn back now. When they lost Russ, Emma pressed the SOS Button on her Garmin InReach and then they followed their tracks back to this location. I noticed that Laura had a white spot on her face, which looked like the early stages of frostbite. Another figure emerged out of the abyss - it was Taylor, who had turned around at 13,350' at the large cairn. The four of us talked the situation over and hatched a plan: Taylor would take Laura down the mountain while Emma and I would go look for Russ at the location where he disappeared. We'd also keep an eye out for Mark, who was somewhere nearby. We assumed that Emily and Angela had already turned around. Before heading down, Taylor said to me, "You go take a look but don't go climbing down into anything. Make sure you come back." Emma and I headed into a sea of swirling and blinding snow.
Searching for Russ in a Whiteout
Emma navigated me towards the spot where Russ had disappeared, marked by the SOS function on her Garmin InReach. Visibility was maybe 10' and the blasting winds pelted us with particles of snow. After 10 minutes in the whiteout, Emma stopped. "This is the spot, be careful!" I looked through the pounding waves of wind and snow, looking for signs of... anything. There in the whiteout, I spotted an upside-down ski pole sticking out of a cornice. Then an arm appeared and then Russ' head peaked up over the edge of the cornice. We walked to the last rock visible next to the cornice and stopped where it turned to all snow. We couldn't get any closer or we would risk breaking the cornice and falling down the ridge. "Come on Russ, you can do it." Russ grunted as he pulled himself over the cornice. He stood up straight and looked at us with manic smile on his face, goggles hanging off the back of his helmet and iceballs stuck on his eyebrows. I thought he might have a head injury but when I looked him over, I didn't see any signs of physical trauma. We shouted over the howling winds.
Nick & Emma: "Are you okay?" Russ: "Yeah!" N&E: "What happened?" R: "I fell off the mountain! 200 feet down and I climbed back up!" N&E: "Where are your skis?" R: "They're still down there." N&E: "What do you want to do?" R: "Fuck the skis! I'm getting out of here!"
I wasn't going to argue with that.
Our first objective was complete: Russ is alive and we're heading down. Sans two skis and pole, Russ walked as Emma and I skinned back to the spot where he had the group discussion. The winds were blasting so strong that every time I pulled my phone out of my pocket, I had to slip my hand up under my base layers on my bare chest just to warm them up enough to be able to use my fingers. As we arrived back to the route, another figure emerged from the storm. It was Mark! He had made it to the large cairn and then turned around. We had now completed our 2nd objective. We skinned down a few hundred feet until visibility improved a little bit. Emma, Mark, and I removed our skins and prepared for the ski down while Russ kept descending by plunge stepping through the windblown snow. It donned on me at this point that since Emma had pressed the SOS button, SAR was mobilizing and we needed to somehow call off Russ' search and rescue. I was surprised that I still had a cell signal, so at 12:18pm, I sent a text to Taylor, "Found Russ and Mark, everyone is okay." I then called 911 for a bizarre phone call. I told the operator we were on Culebra Peak (a 14er in the Sangres) and we had a missing skier and a group member pressed the SOS button. We now have found the skier, so they can call off the rescue. "Cancel the rescue!"
At this point we had found Russ, located Mark, and everyone was heading down. Things were looking up! Now we just had to ski down to treeline, regroup and then cruise the road back to the ranch. In a couple of hours, we could be eating lunch at Mrs. Rios Restaurant and this time, I could try the Mexican side of the menu. Mark chose a ski line down the middle of the drainage on skiers right, where the snow was better. I chose to ski back down the same route on the slope that we had ascended, and Emma skied down between Mark and me. I wanted to go down the same way we went up to clear the skin track, check in on Russ, and make sure Taylor & Laura made it down okay. After skiing a few hundred feet of nasty wind-slabbed snow, I finally found a nice soft section with some good ski turns. Ah finally! I made three nice turns and then noticed someone waving frantically to my left. It was Taylor, I traversed over to him.
"Hey! We found Russ and Mark. How are you doing?"
"Not good. Emily broke her leg."
Emily's Broken Leg
While skiing down, Emily's left ski took a dive under the snow. She fell forward over her skis, but her binding never released, breaking her lower leg (very similar to Otina's story). When I talked with Emily, she was alert and in good spirits. I pulled out my big yellow Black Diamond Primaloft puffy and put it on her. "Don't worry, Emily, we're going to get you out of here." Taylor suggested we move her down to treeline to get of the wind, which seemed like a good idea. He had Russ and Laura carry his pack down a few hundred feet to treeline and Russ was taking Emily's skis back to ranch headquarters. Taylor and I made a splint using a ski pole, recalling what I had learned a few years ago in my Wilderness First Aid class. Then we tried to move Emily down to a lower elevation, but the undertaking was too painful. I was worried that we might risk damaging the leg more, so we decided to dig in and wait for the rescue. Emily had called Javier (son of Carlos) at ranch headquarters and they were already enroute on the snowmachines, so we just had to tough it out for a bit until they got there.
Taylor and I built a wall out of snow blocks we chipped away from the windblown section on the slope. The work kept us warm and provided a wind break for Emily. Although visibility had improved and the sun was out, the winds were still blowing around 20 mph and temperatures were in the teens. After an hour, we were no longer in the sun and the wind picked up to a sustained 30 mph, which felt a lot colder. Taylor skied down to his pack, placed his skis in an X at the base of the hill to give Javier a point of reference, which turned out to be a really smart move. It took about 20 minutes for him to hike back up. While he was gone, I huddled with Emily behind the snow wall. She was shivering uncontrollably, and I was also getting cold. Since I had given her my emergency layer, I didn't have anything extra to put on. I was starting to lose feeling in my toes. Safety for me was skiing down but that meant leaving Emily and Taylor. Then a troubling thought entered my mind: at some point I would have to head down but what if that was before the rescuers got here? Logically it was straightforward - stay as long as I could and head down when I was in danger. Emotionally that decision would be extremely difficult. Then I remembered... we brought a stove.
"When Taylor gets here, we'll use his Jet Boil to heat water," I told Emily. That would be the key to staying warm, we'd boil water in Nalgenes and make the ultimate handwarmers. I peered down at Taylor trekking his way up the hill with his backpack. He looked really tired, not a sight I was used to seeing. I started to hike down to him but he waived me off, so I stayed with Emily for a few more minutes until he arrived. Taylor and I had split our emergency gear the night before, so between us, we had what we needed for a rescue. Taylor had also called Javier and the good news: they were still coming to get Emily. The bad news: they were only able to take the snowmachines to Four Way. They were hiking in the rest of the way and pulling a plastic jet sled for Emily. Taylor pulled out the Jet Boil and I handed him my isobutane fuel and some strike-anywhere matches. We hunkered behind the wind shelter, turned on the stove, lit a match, and watched it burn slowly on top of the Jet Boil. We could smell the fuel, but the backpacking stove would not light. We tried another canister of fuel and added a lighter to complement the burning match. The damn stove still wouldn't light. That was demoralizing. Taylor took a long look at treeline, searching for a sign of anyone else on the mountain.
The two of us huddled together behind the snow wall with Emily, it was classic Netflix & Chill, ... well, minus the Netflix with -10F wind chill. I told Taylor that I had about 20 to 30 minutes left before I would need to head down. "You gotta take care of yourself first," Taylor told me. He was right. I was going to stick it out as long as I could but eventually, I would have to make the tough decision to head down. Taylor sat up and peered down the valley once again. "Hey, I think I see someone!" At first I didn't see anyone but then, I noticed a small black dot far away in the snow, then there were two. "Yeah, I see them." A third dot appeared. "They're coming!" That was the best thing we had seen all day.
Our snow shelter on the slope around 12,400'.
The Cavalry Arrives
We decided I should ski down to meet Javier and direct him to Emily's location. I left some food and water with Taylor, strapped on my skis and took a quick video before heading down. The snow was decent and found a few soft turns as I skied down into the trees. As I approached the creek bottom, I found the 4 men trudging through the snow. It was Javier and his brothers pulling a giant camouflaged jet sled, the kind used for ice fishing or hunting. I gave them an update on Emily's condition, pointed them in the direction of Taylor's skis crossed in an X. They would head straight up the hill a few hundred feet from there. I noticed they didn't have snowshoes and were sinking into the deep snow up to their waists, trudging on in boots and jeans. Stunned, I asked if they needed anything, water, jacket, headlamp, etc. and they said they were good. One of the men had a radio and 9mm handgun, and they said they had called a helicopter. Javier told me to hang out in the ranch HQ until they got back down with Emily. I called Taylor at 2:21pm and gave him the update. "They're coming but they're moving slowly."
As I headed down back towards the road, I first heard and then, saw a white and gray non-military helicopter fly by. I wondered how and where they could attempt to land.
I skied down the road and when I got back to ranch headquarters, I gave an update to the other hikers. I learned that Russ had tried to use Emily's skis to ski down the road, which obviously didn't fit. When he fell, he sent one of her skis flying down the road that flew past the other skiers and disappeared in the snow. I was astounded, Russ was now losing other people's skis. If any hikers find a women's ski with a Dynafit binding somewhere along the road next summer, Emily would appreciate getting it back.
About an hour later, Taylor made it down safely and reported that Emily was in the jet sled and they were pulling her down. Visibility had decreased again, making it harder for Javier and the crew to find them. In the last hour on the mountain, Emily had gotten very cold and lethargic, and Taylor had to actively keep her awake, signs of hypothermia. The sun set, Russ and a few other members left. After what felt like a long time, we heard the sound of snowmachines outside, Emily was down safely.
Four of us carried Emily into the ranch headquarters and placed her on the couch with warm blankets. Javier said that the helicopter couldn't land because of wind conditions and concerns about private property, so they had to complete the rescue themselves. Slowly, Emily started to warm up and became more talkative. An ambulance came and transported her to Alamosa, where she was diagnosed with a spiral fracture in her fibula and a broken tibia. She underwent surgery the next day and returned home to Denver the following day. The surgery went well, and she is recovering. Emily gave me permission to share her story in this trip report.
After a long day, Taylor and I headed back to Mrs. Rios Restaurant with a big appetite. I devoured a steamed gyoza appetizer and waited for my taco combination plate, while Taylor went with the unconventional combination of pad thai and a Mexican beer. I looked up at Taylor and busted out laughing. Taylor: "What?" Me: "You know, this is all my fault." T: "How so?" M: "I told your Mom not to worry about us, because nothing exciting ever happens on Culebra."
Special Thanks and Appreciation
The Cavalry - Javier (son of Carlos) and the crew. Thank you for leading the courageous effort to get Emily down the mountain. What you guys lacked in fancy mountaineering gear you made up for with grit and determination. Thank you for cowboying your way up the mountain and not giving in when conditions got tough.
Taylor, you've been a close friend for years, and we've shared many adventures on winter 14ers, centennial ski descents, exploring national parks, and fly fishing. You hiked the most vertical feet, and you stayed on the mountain longer than anyone else just to help Emily. Your combination of athleticism and mountaineering skills likely saved Emily's life. When everything went bad, I'm glad you were there. Thanks for looking out for all of us and coordinating with the Javier to get Emily down.
Emily - I know this isn't how you planned for the day to go but despite tremendous pain and difficult conditions, you were always positive and a real pleasure to be with. For hours you remained optimistic and kept sharing encouraging words with Taylor and me. You provided a lot of encouragement when we were all struggling. Heal up and let's do some hiking when you've recovered.
Emma - Thanks for leading me back to the spot where we found Russ and for being extra cautious. That was an experience I'll never forget. Thank you for being prepared and looking out for others.
Angela and Laura - Thanks for waiting for Emily to get down, driving her car to Alamosa, staying with her another night, and helping her get back to Denver. And Angela, thanks for the 14ers stickers.
Cielo Vista Ranch - Thank you for allowing the 14er community access to hike Culebra. I know it's a lot of work getting everybody in and out each weekend. We remember times in the past when the mountain was closed to all hikers, and we appreciate your commitment to keeping it open.
Things I Learned
A lot of stuff happened and there's much to reflect on.
I'm so thankful things turned out okay for everyone, because it could have been much worse. Although I've read a handful of books and talked with many people who have assisted with rescues or been rescued themselves, I feel like nothing can fully prepare you emotionally for an event like this until you've experienced it.
Because this was a ski ascent, I had to go with a smaller pack to allow for the range of motion in my arms. It was a 5,000'+ ascent on low angle terrain and a ridge. I brought enough layers to survive in bad conditions but when I gave those layers to someone else, I was exposed to the cold. Consider this when packing your emergency layers.
Splitting up gear with Taylor worked out really well. We only needed one shovel; one stove could have been enough if it had worked (we had 2 fuel canisters). I had my large puffy and we both had our InReach / Bivy stick devices.
Taking a Wilderness First Aid class was really helpful but as I discovered, splinting a leg in the backcountry was more complicated than I expected (arms are a lot easier). Here's a good video on how to splint a broken leg using ski gear.
All 14ers are tough in winter, especially above treeline when the weather turns bad. Be as prepared as you can reasonably be. Remember that on Culebra, the ranch doesn't have the resources that a county search & rescue does, so they are working with what they have.
Overall, we did enough things right to have a safe outcome and for that I am so thankful. Even so, you can do everything right and still lose a person. For the past few days, I've been thinking about my friends and other climbers who have assisted with rescues, especially those when the injured party did not survive. After this incident, I can better understand how painful that experience has been, which I know it has affected some of you deeply. Thank you for helping out however you were able to help. If anyone wants to talk more about this, feel free to reach out.
At the end of the day, the only thing that matters, is everyone gets home safe.
My GPS Tracks on Google Maps (made from a .GPX file upload):
This is a great example of why good solid partners and carrying the right gear really can matter, especially in winter. A lot of people don't realize that when you press the SOS on a emergency device or call 911, depending on the weather and even where you are in the state, the response can be many hours away. It's easy to be lulled into the belief that you press the button and a blackhawk will be landing next to you in the next hour. Often that just isn't the case despite the videos that are sometimes seen on social media of rescues.
Overall, great write up and thank you for sharing!
I will be eternally grateful to all of you for coordinating the rescue and to Taylor and Nick for staying with me and keeping me from drifting into frozen sleep. I would have 100% encouraged Taylor to go down if Javier and Team couldn't have come or if it got too cold. And I'm glad you took care of me and yourself too. And I know it was an emotional day for everyone involved. Thank you again!
Great write-up, Nick. I'm so glad everyone made it out ”ok.”
Emily, I wish you a quick, full recovery! Stupid Dynafit. BTW, if anyone has a GPS marker of the approximate location of your ski, I could take some time to look when I'm up there in a few weeks. I don't know how to contact Russ but if he has the location, feel free to forward it to me.
Something that others should be aware of: the ranch will let you reschedule to avoid weather like this, even close-in. The last thing they want is have to deal with a situation like this, or heaven forbid someone dies. I hope the ranch owner doesn't reflect on this experience and decide he doesn't want the risk of hikers on the mountain (winter or otherwise).
I write this as someone who spent the same money and failed to summit Culebra this winter because I turned back when I felt I needed to.
I had goose bumps reading this report. I still cannot believe that Javier and his team were up there, as you said, in jeans and no snow gear embracing the elements... Do you know if they were all ok?. Winter, Summer, Fall, Spring.... no matter the season, Nature is Nature.
I am so glad that it turned out to be ”ok” and Emily will recover. Russ falling down a cornice was no fun to read...
I hope all of you can reunite when Emily recovers again. A group that goes through something like this, will always be together because the emotional and mental challenge was just more than putting all of you to the test. Sending the best vibes and energy to all of you!Teresa
The greatest piece of gear you have is your partners because when it really comes down to it those are the hands your life is held in. Nick and Taylor, what you did for Emily was amazing. Carrying that gear is so crucial. I take the heavier pack. I carry the sleeping bag. I have been made fun of for having a stove. But when you need it you need it. Selfless acts with a great outcome from almost everyone.
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