Hikers airlifted from Quandary Peak in daring rescue

Elise Reuter
Rescuers airlifted four stranded hikers from a small ledge on the west slope of Quandary Peak (circled in red). Every year, several hikers get lost or stranded on the western route, a more technical hike than the primary ascent.
Courtesy of the Summit County Rescue Group |

Rescue crews worked together to airlift four hikers stranded on a narrow ledge on the west face of Quandary Peak. At 13,600 feet, the hikers braved a 20-degree night on Sunday before they were hoisted one-by-one into a Black Hawk helicopter on Monday morning.

“It is very common for people to do what these guys did and get stuck,” mission coordinator Becky Baylor said. “You never know what you’re gonna get. You never know what you’re going to need to get the mission accomplished.”

The Summit County Rescue Group (SCRG) received a call from the hikers’ concerned family members around 6 p.m. on Sunday. Baylor initiated the search after Summit County Sheriff’s officers located the missing hikers’ vehicle at the Blue Lake trailhead. Two teams looked at Quandary’s east and west ridges where they heard shouts for help just above Blue Lakes.

On the west ridge, a steeper, more technical section than the main ascent, with class-three elements, rescuers spotted the light of cell phones about 800 feet above the lake. The four individuals were perched on a tiny ledge, measuring about two-feet by eight-feet.

“We’ve been out on Quandary at least a dozen times, if not more this year,” mission coordinator Brian Binge said. “You’re actually on a sharp ridge between west end of Quandary and the summit — it’s a decently technical route. People seem to think they see a shortcut. They go through a cliff band area and can’t figure out how to get back up or how to get down, and they get cliffed out.”

He said the group had just summited Quandary and was moving downward when they lost the trail. Rescuers have responded to so many reports of trapped hikers on the route that they have bolted anchors into the side of the mountain in order to climb down safely.

Throughout the night, six SCRG members attempted to use a Flight For Life helicopter to reach the stranded hikers. While the helicopter passed over the hikers several times to verify their location, guiding rescuers on the ground, they were not able to reach the ledge in the darkness on such rugged terrain.

The following morning, Binge put together a response team involving Alpine Rescue Team members from Evergreen, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group from Boulder, the Vail Mountain Rescue Group from Edwards, the Colorado Search and Rescue Board, the Air Force Rescue command Center and the Gypsum-based High Altitude National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS). With the help of a HAATS UH-60 Black Hawk specially modified for high-altitude training, a rescuer was airlifted 50-feet down to help harness the stranded hikers into a foldout seat.

”We thought we would have to spend all day rigging up rope systems to lower them down,” Binge said. “Unless the pilot is completely comfortable doing something like that, it’s a high-risk maneuver for the helicopter pilot. … It is unusual, by the way, that a Black Hawk would be able to do that.”

The hikers returned safely to the ground, with no injuries, though a bit shaken.

“They’ll have a story,” he added. “Getting hoisted up into a military helicopter off of a small cliff like that, some people might think it was fun, but they were not in any hurry to repeat that experience.”

The SCRG consists of 55 volunteers, including eight mission coordinators like Binge and Baylor. They remain on-call one week at a time, with about one-third of members responding to each call.