by Mary Lowers

According to Sheriff Dan Warrick, on Friday July 24 at 9:32am the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office received a call from 911 Dispatch. A climber had fallen 800’ to 1000’ around the Red Gully area of Crestone Peak. Despite timely and determined efforts of emergency personnel and volunteers from many agencies and the military, headed up by Saguache County Search and Rescue (SCS&R) Christopher Kiryluk, 34, of Denver was pronounced dead in the Baca Ambulance at the soccer field landing area near County Rd. T.

Kiryluk was part of a twelve-person hiking group. When the call came in and personnel reached the scene the victim was breathing but unconscious with broken bones and bleeding. Sheriff Warwick told me after SCS&R was paged out, Eagle Medical, a new fight-for-life helicopter out of Salida, was called for assistance. “Very quick response time by Eagle Medical allowed us to get SCS&R close to the victim,” according to the sheriff. Custer County Search and Rescue (CCS&R) were also called out along with the Gunnison Mountain Rescue Team and the National Guard. Gunnison never made it to the scene.

The National Guard sent a Blackhawk helicopter with members of the Aspen Search and Rescue team. Kiryluk was hoisted to the helicopter and flown down to the waiting Baca Ambulance crew at the soccer field near the POA. When he was loaded into the ambulance and his vital signs were taken, “Rio Grande Hospital was called,” Sheriff Warrick said, “and it was determined no rescue was possible.” The victim had flat-lined. “The end result was not what we wanted but we got a tremendous amount of support from professionals and volunteers,” the Sheriff said. It is not known if Kiryluk had a CO Hiker’s Card.

Two weeks prior to this tragedy, a pair of Search and Rescue (S&R) missions were launched on the weekend of July 11. Saguache County S&R, Custer County S&R, and the Western State Mountain Rescue Team from Gunnison were all needed to bring a woman, 39, with a broken leg and other injuries down from 13,000’ on a south-facing slope once again in the Red Gully area of Crestone Peak. To the south, on Mount Blanca, Alamosa Search and Rescue, along with the National Guard, was hunting for two Missouri women in their forties who had been reported missing on Friday.

The two hikers on Blanca were found Saturday and extracted by Black Hawk helicopter in the late afternoon. According to the Valley Courier, except for being hungry and thirsty the two women were fine.

It was a different story for the mid-July S&R mission above Crestone. According to Crestone S&R member Warren Stephen, Incident Commander who coordinated the ground operations and communications for this rescue, the call came in after 2pm Saturday. Two friends, a man and woman, had been climbing up around 13,000’, and the woman was injured. Warren told me, “The hiker was 700’ above the landing zone on a snowfield.”   Flight-for-life service Eagle Medical out of Salida assisted in the rescue, getting crews up to where they needed to be.

CCS&R indentified the climbers, as Adam Vonnehme, 39 and Jennifer Staufer, 39, of Superior. Vonnahme called S&R when Staufer fell 150’, breaking her leg and sustaining other injuries. Cell phone communication was helpful to S&R crews until the phone batteries died. According to the press release from Custer County, “difficult terrain, darkness, wet rock, running water, snow and ice” made this a difficult mission.

The Blackhawk military helicopter that was used for the Blanca S&R mission refueled and was able to come back and help with the Crestone mission.  According to Stephen it took crews from 7pm to 1am to safely get the injured woman down. She was flown to Memorial Hospital in CO Springs.  Fourteen personnel were involved in this rescue from Custer and Saguache counties. It is not known if the climbers had Colorado Hikers Cards.

Stephen said the Baca Fire Department and the Ambulance Service assisted in the Crestone rescue at the landing zone. The Ambulance Service was able to help lodge for the night the uninjured hiker and a CCS&R team member who got soaked and chilled getting the injured hiker down off the mountain.

At 2pm on Sunday, July 12 Custer County S&R were called out again to assist a hiker in the Crestone Peak area on the east side of the mountains. This hiker had also fallen in the Red Gully area and had an injured ankle. While assisting the hiker another person who needed medical assistance due to low blood sugar was helped.

S&R teams from both sides of the mountains want to remind everyone to use extra caution this year while climbing in the Crestone group. These fourteeners include Crestone Peak, Crestone Needle, Humbolt Peak, Kit Carson and Challenger Point. These areas are on the border between Saguache and Custer Counties. Late season snow pack, ice and rock falls are a consideration, as is lightening. Hikers are advised to have equipment to spend a night in an emergency. A well charged phone and a Colorado Hikers Card are also recommended. While Sheriff Warrick could not comment on greater danger on the peaks due to the unusually wet year he did say, “Danger is extremely high.”

The many rescue missions so close together in time and geography explain all the helicopters that were seen and heard in Crestone and the Baca. Given the extra hazardous conditions up on the peaks, we can expect to see more helicopters in our skies.