Experienced climber learns lesson on Snowmass Mountain, airlifted out after serious leg injury
Anything can happen at any time when you climb high peaks, regardless of how difficult the route might be.
That’s the hard lesson solo climber Alex Pancoe said he learned Tuesday afternoon on Snowmass Mountain after a minor fall near the summit left him with a major leg injury that required rescue and a lift to the hospital in a Blackhawk helicopter.
“When you’re out of (cellphone) range where there are not a lot of people (on the trail) you need to be with someone,” the 31-year-old Chicago native said Wednesday in a phone interview from his Aspen Valley Hospital bed. “I owe so much to these guys (his rescuers). I owe them my life.
“I literally owe them everything.”
Pancoe is no weekend warrior.
He is in the middle of climbing the highest summits on each of the seven continents in a quest to raise $1 million for pediatric brain tumor research at the Ann and Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago. The issue is close to his heart because he had a brain tumor as a child, Pancoe said.
He said he just climbed 14,410-foot Mount Rainer in Washington last week and has been training on Colorado’s fourteeners of late in preparation for upcoming climbs in the Himalayas. Pancoe said he was supposed to climb the Maroon Bells on Tuesday with a friend but the partner canceled.
Pancoe decided he didn’t want to chance the class 4 Maroon Bells climb alone, so he thought the tamer, class 3 route up 14,092-foot Snowmass Mountain “made sense.” Pancoe said he felt good on the climb to the summit, though he didn’t see any other hikers beyond Snowmass Lake.
He said he reached the summit in the early afternoon, but noticed bad weather coming so he began descending soon after. About 100 feet below the summit, Pancoe said he was walking in a scree field on a steep slope and was holding onto a rock for stability.
As they are known to do in the Elk Range, the rock broke off in his hand, sending him down the slope several feet into a jagged rock that tore into his leg about mid-shin, he said.
“I looked down at my leg and it was literally hanging open … 3 to 4 inches,” Pancoe said. “Blood was pouring down my leg. I’m seeing things I haven’t seen before … like muscle and bone.”
Despite feeling panicky, he took a light puffy jacket from his pack, wrapped it around his leg and used another jacket as a tourniquet. He elevated his leg and the bleeding began to subside.
He looked at his cellphone and realized he wasn’t getting a signal, Pancoe said. Then it started to rain.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to die here,’” he said. “I started making (goodbye) videos to my family.”
Pancoe dragged himself down the scree slope and crawled under a rock to try to get out of the rain. When the rain stopped he said he began crawling further down the mountain in hopes of possibly getting the attention of people camping about 1,500 feet below him at the lake, he said.
After about 100 feet of crawling, he checked his phone again, saw it had one bar of service and was able to reach a Pitkin County 911 dispatcher about 2 p.m.
“I never thought I’d say this, but thank you AT&T,” Pancoe said.
However, the connection with dispatchers was not good, so he wasn’t sure they received all the necessary information. He said he thought he heard a helicopter several times before the Blackhawk actually showed up. The helicopter made contact with him about 4:45 p.m., according to a Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office statement.
At that point, a Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteer was lowered from the helicopter, bandaged Pancoe’s wounded leg, strapped him into the harness and raised him up to the helicopter, Pancoe said.
He said he might have died if he’d had to spend the night on the mountain. In addition, he said he could have lost most of the muscle in his leg had rescuers from MRA and the National Guard not showed up so quickly because those muscles die when they’re cut.
“Everything I’ve been working for would have been over,” Pancoe said. “Now I will be back (to climbing) in several weeks.”
Pancoe profusely thanked the Blackhawk National Guard team, MRA volunteers and doctors at AVH who helped him.
“There’s heartfelt thanks and so much gratitude from me,” he said. “I need to give praise and thanks to those involved in the rescue.”
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