Frigid, 10-hour Aspen Highlands rescue saves snowboarder

Two skiers also were in danger in another incident nearby around the same time Thursday

Aspen Highlands officials sent 20 ski patrollers as well as 17 volunteers from Mountain Rescue Aspen to help save a snowboarder on Thursday at Highlands.
Anna Stonehouse / The Aspen Times archive

Thirty-seven Aspen Highlands ski patrollers and Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers braved frigid temperatures and treacherous terrain Thursday to rescue a stranded snowboarder below Olympic Bowl, an official said Friday.

The more than 10-hour operation occurred just after two skiers in nearly the same area on the west side of Aspen Highlands had to be guided down safely via cell phone by ski patrol after running into similar trouble, said Parker Lathrop, director of operations at the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office.

“All three got incredibly lucky they didn’t get caught in an avalanche or end up going off a cliff,” Lathrop said. No injuries were reported among rescuers or those who were rescued.

Emergency dispatchers first heard about the two 23-year-old female skiers — one from New York, one from Los Angeles — about 11:40 a.m. from Aspen Highlands ski patrollers, according to a news release. The two skiers realized they were going to cliff out, called for help and ski patrol was able to guide them by cellphone down the correct chute and into the Maroon Creek Valley above the T-Lazy 7 Ranch, Lathrop said.

Fifteen minutes after being notified about the two skiers, dispatchers were alerted to the plight of the snowboarder, a 23-year-old male from Chicago visiting with a group of students from Loyola University, he said. He was cliffed out in an area known as the Staircase on the west side of Highlands, according to the news release.

“The snowboarder, unfamiliar with the area, ended up on a cliff that he was unable to move from,” the release states.

Deep snow from the recent snowstorm made movement uphill extremely difficult, Lathrop said.

Ski patrol was able to provide the snowboarder with snowshoes in an effort to guide him back up the mountain, but he could only move about 100 feet in two hours, Lathrop said. With that plan not working, ski patrol called MRA, who in turn called in the Colorado National Guard’s Blackhawk helicopter rescue team based in Gypsum for a hoist rescue attempt.

However, by the time the helicopter arrived with an MRA team on board, weather moved in, visibility dropped and the hoist attempt was abandoned about 3:30 p.m., he said.

“(The Blackhawk crew) with MRA rescuers made multiple attempts at hoisting the subject but were unsuccessful due to weather and limited visibility,” according to the press release. “(The Blackhawk) dropped a survivor pack and aborted the helicopter attempt.”

MRA then sent 17 volunteers to the top of Aspen Highlands to join 20 ski patrollers attempting to rescue the snowboarder, Lathrop said. The teams set up a rope and pulley system in dangerous snow conditions to haul the snowboarder up the mountain about 1,500 feet back to the ski area, according to Lathrop and the press release.

“Where he was was incredibly high-risk,” Lathrop said. “It very easily could have been fatal.”

The teams were out of the field by about 10:30 p.m., he said.

All three who needed rescue Wednesday missed the ski area boundary rope at the bottom of the No Name run below Olympic Bowl, which led them into territory that requires specific knowledge of individual chutes in order to avoid cliffs, Lathrop said. None had that knowledge or the proper backcountry gear to attempt the difficult terrain, he said.

All three were fortunate that cellphone reception worked or Wednesday night’s subzero temperatures likely would have meant death, Lathrop said.

“If (cellphone reception) doesn’t work, they would be on their own,” he said. “Both (ski patrol and MRA) are amazing groups of people and it’s a lot of work, especially as cold as it was (Thursday) night.”


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