A hunch and a yodel save stranded skier
March 7, 2002
Rick Deane had a hunch in the middle of the night, and it just might have saved a man’s life.
The hunch led Deane into the wilderness Tuesday night to a lost and stranded skier who was facing a long night of below-freezing temperatures in nothing but a wet sweater, wet ski pants and wet gloves.
Instead of dying or losing digits and limbs to frostbite, the stranded skier was rescued. Thanks to Deane’s hunch.
“I think Rick Deane is a hero,” said Mario Strobl, a deputy at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office. “I would say there is a very good possibility that Rick Deane saved that man’s life. He certainly saved him from much more severe frostbite than he ended up with.”
The rescue story, as recounted by Strobl and Deane, began Tuesday afternoon when the skier, Christian Rupp of Germany, and a group of friends took off their skis and hiked into the Hanging Valley Wall at the Snowmass Ski Area. Rupp took off ahead of the group and soon left them behind.
By the time the group reached the head wall, their fast-walking friend was nowhere in sight. That apparently wasn’t cause for worry, however, because the 34-year-old German was the fittest and most adept skier of the bunch. They just figured he had skied down ahead of them.
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In fact, Rupp had walked through a backcountry gate and past warning signs to a section of the Wall that is well out of the ski-area boundary. But nobody knew that.
By the time everyone finished skiing there was still no sign of Rupp. As the afternoon waned, he remained missing. At 5:30 p.m. his friends reported that fact to the Snowmass Village Police Department. About an hour later, the Snowmass Village police handed the case off to Strobl at the sheriff’s office.
Strobl found several members of Mountain Rescue-Aspen, the backcountry-rescue team, working through a table-top exercise in their cabin/headquarters on Main Street. Deane was among them. Strobl and the rescuers reckoned Rupp was stranded along Willow Creek, but with darkness setting in the search had to wait until morning.
Willow Creek winds about 10 miles from Willow Lake high in the wilderness near the Maroon Bells to the T Lazy 7 Ranch, where it spills into Maroon Creek. The valley has long been a trap for those unfamiliar with its pitfalls. It is filled with dead trees felled by avalanches that occur regularly throughout the winter. The creek has several sections that are impassable. “Cliffs on both sides and a waterfall in the middle,” as Deane put it.
At about 11:30 on Tuesday night, Landon Deane, Rick’s wife, called Strobl to say that her husband and an employee at the T Lazy 7, Austin Mathews, had started out in search of Rupp. Landon said Rick had a hunch about where Rupp might be.
Rick Deane was born and raised on the T Lazy 7, which his family owns. Willow Creek is his back yard. Familiarity with the terrain made the midnight search for Rupp possible.
Deane and Mathews snowmobiled as far as they could and then continued up the creek on snowshoes. After about a mile of hiking, Deane started yodeling. Presently, Rupp yodeled back. Deane’s hunch was right: Rupp was stuck above a particularly treacherous stretch of Willow Creek.
Rick radioed Landon and reported Rupp’s location. Landon called Strobl for more help. While Strobl and fellow deputy Randy Smith were driving out to the T Lazy 7, Deane and Mathews hiked around the cliffs and waterfalls and up toward Rupp.
To assist his rescuers, Rupp rigged his pocket camera so it would flash. “We were about 50 feet from him when he flashed it,” Deane recalled. “We were talking to him at that point, but it helped.”
Deane gave Rupp an extra parka he had carried in. “He was soaked,” Deane said. “All he had on was a sweater, and it was frozen solid.”
Meanwhile, Landon and T Lazy 7 employee Bruce Gardner were leading Strobl though the snow to Rupp and his rescuers. “The snow was rotten and deep. Even with snow shoes we were post holing,” Strobl said.
Deputy Smith remained at the ranch to coordinate the rescue after Rupp was retrieved from the backcountry.
Strobl’s party reached Rupp, Deane and Mathews at about 2:30 a.m. with a change of clothing and a pair of snowshoes for Rupp, so he could hike out.
Shortly before 4 a.m., Rupp arrived at Aspen Valley Hospital, where he was treated for frostbite on his toes and released.
“It was a hunch Rick had, and it paid off, this time,” Strobl said.
Strobl said Rupp’s story is a familiar one. “This type of stuff usually happens to people who are here for the week and don’t have a clue. They make a couple of bad choices, and they get into big trouble.”
Rupp called Deane yesterday to thank him. Deane said the German had stayed off the slopes and spent the day sleeping.