Search and rescue team member Daniel Dunn wrestles with a mountain — and his own feelings — during a strenuous mission on a popular Colorado 14er
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a two-part story about a recent rescue mission on Quandary Peak, often described as an “easy” 14er. Despite that reputation, Quandary claims live on a regular basis, both in winter and summer, keeping local search and rescue volunteers busy. Visit the Summit County Rescue Group online to learn more. Click here for Part 2.
Story and photos by Daniel Dunn
The page comes in. 11:30 a.m., wow, on a Tuesday. West Ridge of Quandary. Should be no big deal, I’m sure just some lost, or thinks they’re lost, hiker. They’ll get to the truck in 20 minutes, we’ll be stood down before I even get to the trailhead. No biggie. I probably shouldn’t even go, I have so much work to do, jeez I’m behind. Ah, whatever, it is Quandary, at least it’s on my side of the county, I’ll make an appearance and get credit for showing up. Cool.
Luckily, I had just packed and repacked my gear in the back of the car, and I had just eaten lunch. But, I took enough insulin to bring my BG down to normal range, not exercise range, but no worries, I have 45 minutes in the car and a few minutes of getting ready and debrief, I’ll just top up with some cookies and milk, and digest in time. BG on the rise.
Grab a layer out of the closet and I’m off in record time, cool. Jump in the Subi, and start driving. I love calls on Quandary when I’m at home, I live in Breck, so it’s so much easier for me than going to God-forsaken Green Mountain Reservoir — that drive sucks!
Thrown in some tunes, and — holy cow, that’s a dark cloud. Wow, it just starting dumping on the South end of town. Jeez! that’s really coming down. Oh boy, if this does go out, this could suck. Like really suck. The freakin trailhead is 11,000 feet and goes up quickly from there. The only stuff that gets people in trouble back there is totally above treeline.
Oh crud, I just realized, with this weather, and that terrain back there, and what did the news/weather guy just say? An inch per hour! Of rain! Good God, this could get crazy!
Cruising along, at least the rain just let up a little. At the turnoff from Highway 9, hmmm, no stand down page yet, wonder what’s going on? Will this thing really happen? Maybe.
Just got to the trailhead, there’s Joe Ben, and Cale right with him. Damn, it’s raining really hard now. This is gonna suck. They all have their hoods up and look cold. Oh well, better start gearing up. First though, I better check, you now how these things go Dan, you get all excited and forget to eat something, and you’re 30 minutes in and you’re low. So check now, ok, good shape, 179. Perfect. Go gear up.
God it’s dumping! Cale just said a freaking’ inch of rain an hour, with flash flooding happening at lower elevations. JB just looked at me, and the first words out of his mouth are, with that stupid grin he has every time he asks this question, “How you feelin today? Strong?”
I totally know what he’s getting at when he asks me that. He should have said, “Daniel, you’re going to the top.The hard way. With gear.” Because I know he wants me to hustle. Someone is in trouble, and they’re up there high, and the weather completely and totally sucks. I’m just now starting to think that this could be a long day.
“Colin and Punchy are on their way, I need you guys to go light and fast.” Cale says. The light part is arguable, the fast part isn’t. We’re all really experienced in the high mountains, and I can tell by the sound of his voice that some guys are in a bad place.
They’re up high, close to the summit, somewhere around 14,000 feet based on triangulation of the cell phone coordinates. How cool is that? I’m still amazed at that stuff; sometimes we can get a fix on someone’s position using some space-age technology.
Well, JB did do this stuff for the Navy. And it’s proven itself before, so I trust it. We put coordinates into the GPS, and sure enough, they’re not far from the top. Only thing is, is it easier to go this way, or up and over the top. Gosh, that’s crap land up there. All choss and scree and steep as HELL. That is a really crappy area to be stuck in guys — why do people even go back there?
That’s the thing with Quandary, it’s so easy from the East side, and it’s absolutely heinous from pretty much all other aspects. I think I’m going to self-acknowledge that it’s the loosest-crappiest-rock mountain on the planet. Steep and gnarly and no trail of any kind on that back southwest side, especially up high.
Well, there’s the beginning of a trail, but it turns to nothing after an easy 20 minute hike. Then you’re in GNAR-ville. There’s even a freakin sign warning people back there. The sign says something to the effect, “I know your Grandmother would feel comfortable back here, on this trail, but this thing gets crappy and you should be careful, and have some experience if you’re going to hike this thing to the top.”
But people ignore it. That will come back to be funny later on. In a really twisted sort of way.
In the field
OK, here we go. Colin is team lead, with myself, Punchy, Sheri, and Mike, who I don’t know really well. But he’s always smiling; I like that. The rain has let up a little bit, but everything is soaked and so are we by the time we go through our third patch of head-high, tight willows. I’m 20 minutes in and I’m soaked. This is gonna suck.
Treeline. At least we don’t have to deal with willows anymore. Man, all this rain is making things slick and dicey, to say the least. And holy crud, that cloud up there looks angry, like we haven’t even begun to see stormy weather. I’ve been in the mountains enough’ this is when I go home and read. Or nap.
JB did say these guys were holed up in some sort of cave. CAVE! Holy crap, they only things that resembles caves are around 13,800 feet. That’s high. My pack is probably more than 40 pounds. I have my harness and technical gear. I have four harnesses for the overdue party. I have extra layers for me or them, whoever needs in first. And a bunch of extra water, gatorade, and a thermos of hot water. On top of all my other gear. Heavy pack going up. Far up.
Nothing like crossing a slick boulder field with a heavy pack on. Jeez, one wrong move here and you can get seriously screwed up, really quick. Not only is this ankle-twisting terrain, this is getting-your-teeth-knocked-out terrain. This is wrist-breaking terrain. Everything is jagged, really hard, sharp, and going at a completely different angle than the thing right next to it. With large, deep holes next to that. Really easy to slip on a ginger foot stop, have it go into that huge hole, up to your crotch, and slam your face on that boulder that happens to be in just the right place, while you’re breaking your wrist as you try to catch yourself. And we’re not even on the steep stuff yet.
Seriously, why do I do this? I can get really, really messed up out here. I give a ton of my free time to train and respond to missions and become first aid certified. You think driving all over the county, responding in the middle of the night, is cheap, when gas is $3.75 per gallon?
That’s a $10 roundtrip to Quandary, in my car, which does well on mileage. All this gear I use and totally abuse is expensive. Go check out your typical Patagonia or North Face jacket, $300 easy. But you can’t use the cheap stuff, because if you have the cheap stuff up high in the mountains, on the wrong day, you die. Your gear is your life. The weather up high changes in an instant, and if you’re soaking wet, and really cold, and that rescue turns into an all-nighter, with that crazy summer snowstorm that just rolled in, you are a dead man. Gear is your life, ask any guide who spends his entire life outside, in the mountains. Good gear ain’t cheap, to put it bluntly.
Man, I’m behind on work. What about that edit? I gotta schedule three interviews for that other project for this week, oh yeah, the horse therapy edit, two huge groups in Telluride two weeks from now, I gotta get that stuff to Carson in New York, he’s working on that super-cool movie about ski patrol and search and rescue and he told me he wants to see some of my work — Why haven’t I sent him anything yet?!!
Jeez, Dan, that’s exactly what you want to do, why don’t you send him something, cause you’re behind, that’s why. And three house edits and one huge house shoot that we still need to plan and then get decent weather for-ARGHHHHH!!!! That’s everything that’s on my plate and I’m out here in this horrible, craptastic weather, on the high side of some loose, dangerous mountain, looking for four guys who made a bad freaking decision!! It’s not my fault they were idiots!! Screw these guys, let ‘em take care of themselves!
No, Dan, you can’t think that way. It’s OK for a minute, but only to yourself. Yes, these guys made a bad choice or two. But you have made so many more than that in your day, and you still do. The good Lord gave you many things, you’re not perfect by any means. But you’re here for many reasons, and of some of your talents, you can run up the side of a mountain, in crappy weather, in the middle of a dark, scary night, and find people, and help them.
They’re scared, they’re cold, they’re lonely, they want to get home, they might be hurt, and they’re really scared. Did I just say that twice? That they’re scared, because they are. And you can get them, so they can sleep in their own bed, and their families can be happy. We all have different skills, and those are yours. So drop the attitude and go get these guys.
At 13,000 feet, it’s getting harder to breathe now, wow, it’s around 5:30 p.m. and Thank God! it’s actually been pretty nice all day, boy, if that crappy weather kept up, we’d be really screwed, but no, it’s actually been kinda nice. The clouds are rolling, the fog is in and out, but yeah, it’s been kinda nice. So happy about that. Found a nice flat spot. Man, it sure is pretty up here, the valley below is so green. Water everywhere keeps things green. Can’t believe this late in the summer, usually everything is brown and dry and kinda burnt looking.
Take a quick break here and wait for Punchy. Colin just took his pack off, he’s gonna boogie up a little higher and see if he can find someone. Last 30 minutes we’ve been hearing voices, louder and louder. It’s just tough to know if they are near or far, the way these gullies channel sound. But we are getting closer. In fact, the last time they replied, they sounded really close, so that’s why Colin has dropped his pack and going out for a look see. Punchy just got to me and we’re gonna sit for a sec. This is hard work and a little breather will do us all good in the long run. It won’t do anyone any good, if we are unable to help, because we’re too whupped. Gotta go slow, to go fast. Sit, breathe, eat, drink.
Daniel Dunn volunteers with the Summit County Rescue Group, one of the busiest all-volunteer mountain rescue units in the country. He always tell people that it’s not like the rescues you see in the movies, all the while secretly hoping that it will be just like that, and he’ll also get the girl in the end.
Filed under: Colorado, hiking, recreation, Summit County Colorado, Summit County news Tagged: | Quandary Peak, Quandary Peak rescues, search and rescue, Summit County Colorado, Summit County News, Summit County Rescue Group