Impromptu Rescue on Red Mountain Pass

Ouray Mountain Rescue Team

At 6:00am this morning, I met up with 12 friends in Ouray to head out for a day of cat-skiing in the mountains near Purgatory. Packed in four vehicles, we headed up Red Mountain Pass in the darkness and dumping snow. Several miles up the pass from Ouray, my friends in the lead truck noticed a set of tire tracks disappearing off the road into oblivion. Anybody who has ever driven the pass knows how scary steep and treacherous this road is – in places carved through sheer cliff mountainsides. A closer look down into the canyon revealed the dim glow of headlights in the bottom about 400 feet below.


Off Red Mountain Pass

As luck would have it, about half the people in our crew today are on the Ouray Mountain Rescue Team, and by the time I got out of our truck, my buddy Jeff was already harnessed up and rappelling off a truck hitch down into the gorge with his headlamp. Part way down, he stopped at a 50′ cliff and was able to yell down to the driver. Miraculously, and to our great relief, the driver responded back that he was ok.

Basically, as we learned in due time, this semi-truck driver was driving up the pass when another semi-truck came around an inside corner a little too wide. The outside driver gave him a bit too much room, and once the wheels fell off into the soft snow on the edge, it was too late and the truck slid off the road into the chasm below, launching off a 50′ cliff midway down. Somehow the semi flipped around and hit trailer first, which was probably an enormous stroke of good luck which may have saved the driver’s life. Although the truck was completely crumpled and the engine torn out, miraculously the driver survived with only minor injuries. And as further luck would have it, our caravan of Ouray Mountain Rescue Team members just happened to be passing by just a few minutes later. Unbelievable.

Perhaps the strangest thing to me is to imagine how the driver felt, after surviving the death ride of his life, stuck in the bottom of a steep snowy gorge in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of a full winter snowstorm, and then just a few minutes later a rescuer rappels down into the gorge asking if he’s ok! So strange.

Red Mountain Pass Rescue

Anyhow, while Jeff and the others worked on getting down to the river to help the driver, calls were made to the rest of the rescue team and within minutes a whole array of rescue trucks, firemen, and an ambulance were on scene to help out. The firemen set up a flood light while the rescue team prepared to haul the driver out of the steep ravine on a stretcher (still unsure of possible injuries). It was pretty amazing to me how many people were up there so fast to help out. I’m not sure if they all sleep in their clothes or what, but it was definitely a cool thing to see.

Mountain Rescue

In the picture above, you can barely see part of the crumpled wreck of the semi trailer down in the bottom of the gorge. Clint, Kevin, and Jeff hauled the driver up this couloir, but the truck itself had fallen off a much more treacherous section of cliffs left of this photo.

mountain rescue stretcher

Once the driver was safely hauled up out of the snowy canyon and into the ambulance, we piled back into our cars/trucks and resumed our mission over the pass to go cat-skiing. We had only lost a few hours, and there was no hurry as the snowcat would be waiting for us in Purgatory (Durango Mountain Resort).

Inside the Snowcat

Well here we are inside the snowcat, happy about the outcome of the morning’s strange turn of events, and pumped to ski and snowboard some perfect untracked powder all day long.

Snowmobile

Little did we know that after 3 or 4 good runs, the snowcat would break down, stranding us four miles from the ski area. The Durango Mountain ski patrol finally came to our rescue, dragging us out with towropes behind their snowmobiles. Despite our immense disappointment, all we could do was just laugh at the random craziness of today.

As I write this, I kind of want to go to the corner pub for a beer and a sandwich, but I’m wondering if I’d be better off just staying home for the remainder of the evening. Who knows what else is in store on this cursed day?

26 thoughts on “Impromptu Rescue on Red Mountain Pass

  1. Incredible story and great pics to go along with, Jack. Sounds like a fun, if a little short, time skiing. I’m hoping I get my butt up to the slopes this weekend. Fingers crossed.

  2. Jeez, that’s one insane mountain morning! One for the record books, fo’ sho’. Good thinkin’ documenting the whole thing and HUGE props to the rescue folks who volunteer for the love of helping mankind.

    You could just stay home, but then you may fall on the ice when you go out to get the mail…

  3. Thanks for telling us this story. It is wonderful that you guys stopped to see where the tracks went. If you had kept going I wonder if anyone would have noticed that the truck had left the road. Great job!

  4. I think Kevin is the same guy who I was on that rescue on Denali with. Is it Kevin Koprek? He guides ice climbing in the park there. Small world huh?
    Too bad your cat died.

  5. Thank you so much for all you do for those in need. I’ve been helped and feel a tinge of guilt for not being more helpful myself. I am inspired by this story.
    Seth

  6. Great Work!!! That’s what being on SAR is all about…taking pride in helping others. If I ever get in a jam I would DEFINATELY want Kevin and Mark coming to get me. Thanks for the strong work with Rigging for Rescue in September in Summit! You guys are awesome! Ben-SCRG.

  7. Hi Jack- Your photos are beautiful and your narration is clear and interesting. You really have talent. Hope all is going well with you and your folks. Say hello from us and keep having fun.

  8. Great story, great photographs, good work everyone!!!!

    As Father Nat(from Ouray), would say, it is all in how you look at it. It was a day full of blessings.
    I don’t think any of you will look back on this day and think of it as a ruined ski day, it was a day of everything working out well in the end.

  9. I loved the inspirational story and pictures. “As luck would have it” or “as God would have it.” I see this as not a coincidence – the rescue crew arriving 2 minutes after the accident and how the truck miraculously landed on its box rear side down – but as a God-incidence. I praise God for protecting my friend and parishioner Kelly, the truck driver.

  10. You know for sure that God is watching out for you when you crash and a SAR team is so quick at hand. Happened to me with Helo crash in 99 and I was sure glad my SAR comrades were there so fast. You guys got to save a life and still play in the same day. The way I see it, your ski day was not abbreviated, it was punctuated! Well Done OMRT! Mark – LCSAR

  11. I ould gladly go for that beer and a sandwich. What you called a cursed day was pretty miraculous to me. That’s some beautiful country up there in Colorado. The Lord put y’all in the right place to help another soul. Wonderful story and great pictures. Thanks for sharing – jh

  12. Thank the Lord first and all the helpers next. My friend Kelly, his wife and little dog Shorty I see several times a week.
    Thank you God for your guidance.

  13. Now that is GOD at work!! We have known the driver for many years! You all were in the right place at the right time! Is it not funny how GOD works things out! Kelly the driver has more to do in his life! Thank You for listening to the insight that LORD gave you that day.

  14. On behalf of La Plata County SAR I would like to congratulate everyone on a job well done, and the good fortune of the day! It’s great to see all your dedication and training turn into a successful outcome.

  15. Nice work guys, you made the difference in this mans life and all risked your lives. I’ve only traveled this pass in the summer and refuse to take it in the winter. It’s even scary in the summer time and i usually straddle the center line heading south, the drops offs are just too much for me to deal with. It is probably the most scary highway in Colorado. Thanks for helping this man to safety, you really made a difference! Guys like you rule and we need you all!

  16. The driver who was rescued is my daughter’s father-in-law. Both he and his wife are devout Christians and wonderful folks who live in Montrose. The entire family is so grateful for his survival because his two little grandsons (also my grandsons) will be better off for having him.

    Mark

  17. One more thing. The Ouray Search and Rescue is a class organization. In September of 2009, they rescued my wife in the Amphitheater above Ouray. She had slipped and severely broken her leg while hiking a semi- steep section of trail. Two rescues within nine months for this family. Our thanks goes out to Ouray Search and Rescue!

    Mark Mahlum
    Bayfield, Co.

  18. What a great story! I came across this while searching for pictures of snowcats in anticipation of a trip to Mammoth in March. Very glad to hear you helped save a stranger’s life. As others have said, God was watching over you that day.

  19. Great to hear the driver got out unscathed. Lucky for him. Timely rescue and great collective help.

    In summer of 2011, little did we know how scary the highway was when my wife and I embarked on a trip from Colo Springs to Durango and when we got to the top of this pass it was too late to turn around and it was almost dark and the ride scared the heck out of me. I can still feel it today. Unforgettable drive. Scary but magical place.

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