The largest vertical rope raise done in North America—since the last one in the same canyon five years ago
By Katherine Nettles
For some Gunnison Valley locals, warm-weather activities take them outside of town for the climbing, boating or other wilderness activities of the summer seasons, to return in the fall with stories of their adventures. This year, some of those locals have some big stories, having helped perform one of the largest technical rope rescues in the nation’s history during the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park’s final days in October before it closed for the winter.
The rescue was of two male climbers located on a route along the North Chasm View Wall of the Black Canyon’s North Rim. The North Rim is known as the quieter, more rugged side of the park with limited services. Two men were approximately 800 feet up the Stoned Oven route when the lead climber, a 27-year-old man from Boulder, fell approximately 25 feet and fractured his lower leg. He and his partner, both experienced climbers, did manage to “self-rescue,” meaning they rappelled themselves back down to the bottom of the canyon. In the meantime, they called out to other climbers that they needed help.
Crested Butte resident Tom Schaefer, the park’s acting lead climbing ranger, headed the rescue team that made contact with the climbers and eventually brought them both to safety. Schaefer’s fellow Black Canyon Search and Rescue team members who aided in the rescue included Crested Butte local Erik Forsythe and three students from Western State University: Andy Lloyd, Walker Bryce and Ty Sanderford.
The climbing rangers on the North Rim heard there were climbers calling for help, and began the process of figuring out who, and where, those climbers were.
Schaefer knew who the climbing parties in the area were via the wilderness permit system, and checked on several groups using binoculars. Once he narrowed down that it was the climbers on the Stoned Oven route who needed help, he used a spotter from the South Rim who could see across. The climbers were rappelling down the wall themselves, which took them six hours.
During that time, Schaefer and other rangers kept a constant eye on the climbers using a spotting scope to be sure of their safety.
“We tried to get communications with them. It’s super difficult, there’s a raging river down there, and it’s a deep canyon. We had a megaphone, and we tried various hand signals… but it was very challenging,” says Schaefer. He and two nurses, also experienced climbers, began rappelling down several sections of the canyon wall to get to the two men. They brought overnight gear along with their medical supplies, and arrived at the bottom of the canyon at the same time as the patient.
Once the rescuers had made contact with the climbers, they determined the extent of the patient’s injuries, which, although not life-threatening, would require a lengthy extrication. Schaefer recalls, “the [patient and his partner] were in good spirits, but one look at his leg and you knew he wasn’t going anywhere on his own.”
Schaefer climbed back out of the canyon, bringing the uninjured member of the climbing party with him and leaving the nurses with the patient for the night. The park’s search and rescue team would need to lower a titanium litter 1,800 feet down the next day, and then haul it back up with the patient.
Schaefer explained that the complexity of lowering into the steep, narrow 2,000-foot canyon and back up is what makes it so challenging.
“There have been several 2,000- to 3,000-foot lowers in North America. But raises, that’s what is really unique about it,” he said. “There are places in Yosemite where rescues can go up pretty high, but we have to go down first and then back up.”
As Schaefer and his team had assessed the extent of the endeavor before them, they had reached out to other rescuers for backup, which included the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue team and Ouray’s Search and Rescue team.
“It’s kind of a unique situation. We are two hours away from anybody in the North Rim,” said Schaefer. Since the patient was not in critical condition, rescuers did not want to add the risk of using a helicopter to get the patient out of such a narrow canyon.
“It was such a big operation,” said Schaefer. “So I went to Randy Felix [head of Crested Butte Mountain Rescue] to see how many people were available,” said Schaefer.
Schaefer later stood down both Ouray and Crested Butte as full-response teams, but he was happy to get a few members from each team to aid in the operation.
This included Tanner Perkins, who also lives in Crested Butte and volunteers for Crested Butte Mountain Rescue team and the Crested Butte Fire Protection District (CBFPD). Perkins just joined the Crested Butte Mountain Rescue team this spring after turning 18, and he was a volunteer with the CBFPD throughout high school. While he had done some rescues before, he said it was nothing like this.
“It’s really rare to have an 1,800-foot lower and up-haul. There are not many places that will do that in the country… So for me, it’s pretty special to be a part of it, that’s for sure,” he said.
It took 25 people on the scene and about six hours to complete the full operation of raising the litter. This included rescuers coming from all directions: National Park Service staff, volunteer search and rescue team members, Crested Butte Mountain Rescue and Ouray Search and Rescue. Forsythe said he left Grand Junction at 4 a.m. to make the drive and join the rescue.
“We train all the time for this,” he said. “But rescues there are few and far between, because the level of climbers is pretty high. They tend to be super competent people who do a great job of taking care of themselves. But obviously sometimes they do get hurt,” said Forsythe.
During the rescue itself Forsythe offered technical rope assistance, acting as an “edge attendant” and a “rope attendant” and working on the backup safety line. Perkins was also a technical rope technician who helped raise the patient litter out of the canyon.
Schaefer spoke highly of all the key players.
“Our volunteer search and rescue teams with the Park Service really ran this,” he said. “It’s a highly specialized team of folks who can do a lot for an operation. It’s a resource that we are all very fortunate to have available.”
Schaefer said the local teams use very similar rope systems, which makes them easy to call upon. “[The Crested Butte team members] are a valuable asset,” he said. “Having these additional resources that have experienced rescuers in technical rope and wilderness medical staff is very beneficial. That goes both ways, with those teams being available to the Park Service, and our being available to them.
“I give kudos to the team, because it really is all volunteers,” said Forsythe. ”The remarkable thing about it to me is to maintain such a high level of expertise, and it’s done as a hobby. It was really cool to get the support from other teams in the region. And it’s really wonderful to see how well they work together.”
Perkins felt the same way, even as a relative newcomer. “The wealth of knowledge that was there that day was unbelievable. There are some really experienced people working on that operation, and it’s humbling to work with those guys,” he said.
Schaefer said the patient and his climbing partner also worked in every way they could to aid with the rescue effort. The uninjured climbing partner actually helped the rescue team with the ropeline the following day, as a way to be involved in solving the problem.
Schaefer said of that patient, “He was very appreciative. He was blown away by the whole rescue when he realized we were going to raise him up.”
The patient and his partner provided their own transportation to a medical facility for further treatment, and the patient is reportedly recovering well from the ordeal and the surgery he had afterward.
The vertical length of this rescue is rare anywhere else across the United States, and even the world, says Forsythe, “aside from Yosemite and a few places in the Alps.” Yet a rescue like this happens in the Black Canyon once every five years or so, for a variety of people and reasons.
“Even for a simple ankle sprain for someone fishing, this is the same way we are going to do this rescue,”said Schaefer. Spending the night with the patient is pretty common in the Black Canyon as well, due to the length of time it requires to plan and evacuate them.
“I think folks need to be aware of the risk involved in that area. The Black Canyon is in our backyard. People need to be prepared for self-rescue,” advised Schaefer.