In the winter, with a cold front rolling in and the sun setting, Colorado’s Western Slope can turn deadly quickly. US Forest Service photo.
When emergency dispatchers radioed deputies patrolling Colorado’s Mesa and Delta counties on Feb. 1, all they knew was that a 61-year-old skier and “Poppy,” her cousin’s 40-pound short-haired mutt, were lost on the Grand Mesa.
Sunset was coming before 5:30 p.m., which was less than an hour away, and a cold front was moving in, so the temperatures on the world’s tallest tabletop mountain were going to topple to below zero.
The skier was a speck somewhere on the 500 square miles of snow-covered shale, sandstone, and basalt running between the Colorado and Gunnison rivers. And she was going to die that night if rescuers didn’t reach her.
“It’s a big area, big country out there, so that was my biggest concern,” Mesa County Sheriff’s Office Emergency Service operations supervisor Sgt. Rich Acree told Coffee or Die Magazine. “I’ve done enough searches up there. It all looks alike. If you don’t know it, well, you’re going to get lost.”
But Acree knew where to start looking for clues. There are only a handful of trailheads into the wilderness in the winter, and the skier would’ve parked her compact SUV in a plowed lot near one of them.
As the sun sank behind the mountain, a Delta County sheriff’s deputy pulled into the Mesa Top Trailhead parking lot. There was the skier’s SUV.
“It was the only car in the parking lot,” Acree said.
The deputy walked about a football field’s length down the trail, yelling for the woman and the dog, but there was no answer. It was time for the Mesa County Search and Rescue teams to take over.
“I had all my people on standby as I investigated it, so I went ahead and proceeded, having my resources deploy,” Acree said.
Established in 1966, Mesa County Search and Rescue is a nonprofit. The three teams of SnowSkippers that night were volunteers. They were joined overhead by a CareFlight of the Rockies helicopter crew using night vision goggles and a searchlight to hunt for the woman.
Temperatures fell quickly as rescuers’ snowmobiles climbed the mesa. At around 11,000 feet in elevation, the windchill atop the mountain dipped below minus 25 degrees.
When the mercury plummets that low, exposed skin suffers frostbite within 15 minutes and hypothermia stalks any stranded victim. Uncontrollable shaking gives way to memory loss, disorientation, slurred speech, drowsiness, and then death.
“The cold has an effect on you, too, psychologically. Your brain doesn’t think as well,” Acree said.
The small hand on the clock showed it was 3 a.m., but rescuers still hadn’t located the lost skier. They found some tracks, but a light dusting of snow covered them. The tracks petered out in the black night, leading to no one.
The rescuers also hadn’t expected high humidity on the mountain, but it was fogging their snow goggles, and they struggled to see anything.
Not sure whether the woman was even alive, the teams reached out to the physician on duty at St. Mary’s Medical Center to calculate her odds. How long could someone survive in those conditions? Was it worth continuing the hunt?
“We knew we were on the edge of that at that point,” Acree said. “We just weren’t finding anything.”
Everyone decided to make one last-ditch drive into the night and then pause, resuming the canvass after dawn. But it was during that final push that the cold took out one of the teams. Their snowmobiles, GPS devices, and phones began to fail.
Now one of the rescue teams needed to be rescued, too. The stranded team built a fire and waited for one of the other crews to reach them. They were lucky. Before the subzero temperatures zapped their phones, a compass app pinged their location.
Around 4:30 a.m., one of the other teams was still motoring toward their stranded colleagues when they heard a voice in the woods. And then the lost skier, who they’d thought might’ve been dead, stumbled out of the night and into their path, dog in tow.
“That was just a miracle,” Acree said.
Reached through a public information officer, the skier declined to speak to the media and asked law enforcement agencies to protect her anonymity.
She told Acree that she’d heard the helicopter around 2 a.m. and had roused herself to move on sheer adrenaline. When she listened to the snowmobiles, she knew she had to get to them before they gave up the search, Acree said.
She was about 6 miles from her SUV and had spent the night inside a shelter she’d erected with her ski blades. Poppy helped keep her warm, too. But that probably wouldn’t have been enough to keep her alive overnight.
“Four layers on her upper body and three on her lower, which really is what saved her life, in my opinion,” Acree said.
Noelle is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die through a fellowship from Military Veterans in Journalism. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism and interned with the US Army Cadet Command. Noelle also worked as a civilian journalist covering several units, including the 75th Ranger Regiment on Fort Benning, before she joined the military as a public affairs specialist.
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