A skier needed a fast rescue, but could it be done?
By Mark Esper
A fierce storm was just getting started in the high San Juans and it was snowing pretty hard at about noon on Friday, Dec. 16, when Alex Lewis, 29, of Denver and his friend Matt Koch, 32, of Gypsum started skiing up the Ophir Road from U.S. 550 on a trek to the OPUS Hut, a remote mountain lodge near the summit of Ophir Pass.
“It was just the two of us,” Lewis said on Monday. “We encountered a lot of snow and we were moving slower than we anticipated.”
Lewis said they were trudging along and were within a half mile of the OPUS Hut as darkness fell, when they just ran out of energy.
“We had good navigation. It was more of a snow and fitness issue,” he said.
The OPUS Hut sits at 11,600 feet, about three miles up the Ophir road from U.S. 550.
“We decided to build a snow fort about a third of a mile from the OPUS Hut. We spent Friday night in the fort, or shelter, or whatever you want to call it,” Lewis said. “Saturday morning we got up pretty early and packed up. We could see the hut.”
But getting there was another matter.
“Due to maximum exhaustion, general coldness and dehydration, we maybe made it up another few hundred meters, at which point I triggered a small avalanche,” Lewis said.
“About a 20-inch slab slid me into the trees,” Lewis recalled. “I traveled probably 50 feet down.”
At that point, Lewis and Koch decided to turn around and head back to the car.
“It was probably about 9 a.m. on Saturday,” Lewis said. “We were just above the Forest Service road and we skied backed down as directly as we could and backtracked.”
But Koch was struggling in the deep snow and howling winds.
“The whole time, Matt was getting more tired and more cold,” Lewis said. “We were wavering between ‘we can do this’ and ‘we’ve got to get the hell off this mountain.’”
But Koch was suffering from exhaustion, Lewis said, “at which point, at about 10 a.m., we decided I would leave my pack with him and take his phone and mine and call for help as soon as I could get cell-phone access.”
Lewis said he skied down the Ophir Pass road, stopping every quarter of a mile or so to “take a breath and see if I had better reception.”
All the while, Lewis could hear avalanches crashing down around him.
“The mountains were noisy,” he said. “My head was on a wobble, freaking out.”
Eventually, when he was maybe a quarter mile from U.S. 550, Lewis connected to emergency dispatchers.
“Sheriff Conrad met me there at the trailhead,” Lewis said, along with Mark Gober of Silverton, forecaster for the Colorado Avalanche Information Center.
Weighing the risk
“I got the page as a backcountry emergency,” said Sheriff Bruce Conrad. “I paged out search-and-rescue and we met at the Carriage House. What information we had was limited.”
Red Mountain Pass, meanwhile had been closed Friday night, so Conrad had to call CDOT and have them open the gate north of Silverton.
Conrad said he drove to the Ophir Pass trailhead, and met Gober there.
Conrad said conditions at that point were horrible, with howling winds and severe avalanche danger.
“It was really, really bad timing for a ground team,” Conrad said.
But he said Lewis “knew exactly where the patient was. That’s such a rarity. Usually, we get information but typically it’s not accurate.”
Conrad said he had a team assembled “and ready to go in,” equipped with snowmobiles “appropriate for the task.”
San Juan County Search and Rescue Team leader Jim Donovan was on hand, along with Jeremy Yanko, Ryan Copenhagen, John Jay, Leo Lloyd, John Jacobs, Stoney Molina, Ryan Mason, Calvin Davenport, Donnie Curnow.
But the risk was high.
“I realized that the decision I was making (not sending in a rescue team) was probably going to kill someone,” Conrad said. But he figured if he sent a team in under those conditions, “this could probably kill many.
“There was just no way I could make the decision to have rescuers cross a lot of big slide paths,” Conrad said. “Things were running. And it was being loaded as we spoke. We had heavy, wet snow coming down. Everything was all red flags. We made the very difficult decision to not go in.”
He said that Lewis was understanding of the situation.
“Alex took that very well,” Conrad said. “He understood the realities of what we were looking at here.
“The mountains were angry.”
Help from the Hut
Then, according to Conrad, with the rescue team unable to respond from the trailhead, “someone said ‘let’s see if Bob’s up there,’” referring to Bob Kingsley, owner of the OPUS Hut.
The OPUS Hut does have cell phone service, and soon, rescuers had ‘OPUS Bob’ on the line.
Donovan described Kingsley as an experienced mountaineer “who assembled a team from the hut and mounted a search for the stranded person.”
“We had real good communication to Bob by telephone,” Conrad said, “and OPUS Bob in turn had radio contact with the search party.”
“After a couple of hours they located Koch and transported him back to the hut via sled due to the seriousness of his injuries,” Donovan added. “He was just a quarter mile from the hut.”
“It was about 3:15 p.m. when they retrieved him,” Conrad said. “I was definitely concerned about loss of light. I figured we had about an hour and a half of visual left.”
Conrad said “we were all in the Carriage House when we heard OPUS Hut made contact and he was alive.”
Conrad said Koch was immobile when taken to the hut and warmed up.
Koch spent Saturday night at the hut. On Sunday morning, the Flight For Life helicopter was able to land near the hut and fly him to Mercy Medical Center in Durango.
From there he was almost immediately flown to University of Colorado Medical Center in Aurora.
Koch’s fingers are badly frostbitten and it is yet to be determined if all the fingers can be saved, according to Lewis.
On Monday morning, Lewis and Sheriff Conrad were discussing the episode over coffee at Mobius.
Conrad was stressing the importance of good decision-making and preparedness.
Lewis explained his routine of packing in emergency equipment in the backcountry.
“I have my 10 essentials, including a solar blanket we used,” Lewis said. “But it’s never enough.”
Lewis said that in hindsight, “a mile or two in — that’s when we should have called it. Snow conditions were not in our favor.”
“It’s interesting,” Conrad observed. “He’s on it. He’s fit, prepared, and he still got into a situation like this. It’s a dangerous world.”
Lewis said he was able to stay calm through it all. But he recalled being shaken when he was safe at the trailhead, with his friend still stranded in the blizzard and rescuers were unable to respond.
“I think the first realization I had of what we were facing is when he (Sheriff Conrad) asked about a ‘Plan B.’ I hadn’t really thought about that. At that point, it was like, whoa. That was really concerning and that’s when the alarms really went off for me.”
Conrad said the OPUS Hut team saved the day.
“They had the skills and ability to get him back to the hut. That was key.”
From his hospital bed in Aurora, Matthew Koch on Monday recalled the ordeal, starting with the trek in on Friday.
“I realized time was limited trying to locate the hut and at the same time preserving energy. I threw out the option of stopping where we were and at least attempting to build a snow pit,” Koch said. “Alex had way more energy than I did. And I knew if we separated he’d never find me.
“We made it through the night, very cold, with lots of shivering.”
The next morning, Koch said, “we woke up, took off what wet clothing we could and put on some dry stuff. I put on decently dry gloves, but they were way too thin.”
They started out again toward the hut, but didn’t get far.
“Alex went a little higher than I could and triggered a small slide,” Koch said. “At that point we decided to call it quits.”
As his friend, Alex, went for help, Koch said he pretty much was just “sitting there, freezing, shivering and waiting.”
“The heroes here were not me by any means. It was my buddy who hoofed it out. I was thinking about him. I think he had to cross something like three avalanche chutes. That was the biggest thing in my thought process.”
Then the rescue team from OPUS Hut finally arrived.
“They were whooping and hollering,” Koch said. “They rolled right in and wrapped me up in a blanket and instantly I was back. Not 100 percent, but I came back, for sure.”
The next day, the helicopter evacuation was not a sure thing either.
OPUS Hut residents packed down a landing zone in the deep snow for the Flight for Life chopper.
“I would like to thank everybody involved. I owe them a huge debt of gratitude.”
Koch described his current condition as “recovering.”
On Wednesday, Dec. 21, Lewis e-mailed the Standard, having had time to reflect on the ordeal.
“I cannot emphasize enough how helpful, candid, and respectful Sheriff Conrad and the search-and-rescue team were,” Lewis wrote. “All of them were great to work with during the stressful and uncertain time.”