Small mission for Mountain Rescue Aspen, big relief for the victim
August 30, 2011
ASPEN – When Bill Sprague finally returned to Aspen earlier this month after last visiting in 1969, he was prepared to spend a week in the wilderness alone. Instead he found himself helpless after half a day.
Sprague, a retiree, was looking forward to escaping the “oppressive heat” of the Houston area, so he was going to take his time backpacking the Four Pass Loop in the Snowmass-Maroon Bells Wilderness. He set out early on the morning of Aug. 11 with a 47-pound pack and enough food to last seven days and six nights.
Sprague planned to go only about four miles up West Maroon Creek Valley and set up his first camp. Disaster struck about three and a half miles from the trailhead.
“Immediately after crossing the first stream crossing, while attempting to climb out of the riverbank, I fell and broke the tibia and fibula on my left leg just above the ankle,” Sprague wrote in an account of the accident. “I do not know the exact cause of my mishap – it was over before I could react.”
What happened next wasn’t fodder for a gripping survivor tale, à la Aron Ralston: Sprague wasn’t in a remote location that required a daring rescue, and he definitely wasn’t alone – West Maroon Creek Valley in the summer is somewhat of a wilderness superhighway. However, he said Monday by telephone from his Kingwood, Texas, home, his rescue is a perfect example of an excellent – and often unheralded – job by the folks of Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA).
“They’re the story. I’m not the story,” Sprague said. “I’m just a sack of potatoes they hauled off the mountain.”
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Sprague said he is aware that MRA officials are reluctant to toot their horns and they don’t speak about specific incidents, so he decided to share his story to give credit where due.
Sprague, 61, is the advancement chair for Boy Scout Troop 1377 in Kingwood. He handles administrative duties when the 70 boys in the troop earn badges. When word got out that he had an accident in the Colorado backcountry and had to be rescued, the boys wanted to hear his story. He posted a 3,000-word story on the troop’s website and provided a copy to The Aspen Times.
When Sprague fell at West Maroon Creek, he tumbled backward into shallow water, but the backpack shielded his head and body from injury on the rocks. While getting his bearings, he realized his left foot was at a right angle to his leg, and knew he was in for a very long day. He said he is an experienced backpacker and “a very independent person,” so it was disconcerting to be in such a vulnerable position.
Another solo backpacker was crossing the creek in a different location, so Sprague called out for help. The backpacker, a guy named Scott, helped pull Sprague and his pack up to the streambank. Up to that point, Sprague wasn’t suffering. That soon changed.
“Apparently my ‘golden minute’ had expired, and any further movement of my broken leg was excruciating,” Sprague said.
The other backpacker helped situate Sprague on a sleeping bag with his water supply, then took a note with Sprague’s vital information down the valley to the nearest hikers, so they could relay the message to authorities. Shortly after, another hiker, a person “associated” with MRA came across Sprague. After assessing Sprague’s condition, that hiker departed for the trailhead to supply more information for a rescue team.
Sprague counted 30 hikers encountering him on the trail after his accident. All stopped to render what aid they could, he said. One group gave him ibuprofen and attempted to situate him on his sleeping pad. “Good idea but big mistake” because the pain shot up his entire leg, he said.
The first member of MRA arrived at 4:35 p.m., and soon a large team assembled around him. He was placed on oxygen, and they immobilized his leg, something Sprague expected to be painful. Instead, he didn’t have the slightest discomfort, even though the MRA team was operating in high wind, rain and cold.
The team used a one-wheel gurney to get Sprague down to Maroon Lake, where an ambulance transported him to Aspen Valley Hospital. He was in a doctor’s care 10 hours after the backcountry accident. Sprague said MRA handled all aspects of his rescue to perfection.
“No finer people have walked this earth than the folks from Mountain Rescue Aspen,” he wrote. “Everyone was polite, caring, and professional. Being flat on my back, my view of all who arrived and what they did is not entirely clear. What was clear was everyone had a job to do and everyone did his or her job with care and compassion for my well-being and comfort.”
He said roughly 128 man-hours were necessary to get him out, plus supplies and equipment, at no cost to him. He urged everyone venturing out in public lands to purchase a Colorado Search and Rescue Card. Revenues go to a state fund that search and rescue teams can tap for the cost of their missions. The cost is $3 for one year and $12 for five years. They are available online and at many sporting goods shops in Colorado.
Sprague is also using the experience to teach his hometown Scout troop a list of things to do and things to avoid when venturing into the backcountry.