A tantalizing combination of palpable anxiety and radio static hung in the air late Friday night, May 10, within the remote interior of Pike National Forest’s Lost Creek Wilderness.
Under a steady downpour of sleet at about 9,000 feet elevation, and speaking by way of a mobile radio unit to a team of five rescue personnel, Park County Search and Rescue incident commander Wes Sumrall repeated his question numerous times, attempting to ascertain the condition of lost campers Dave and Heather Skillman.
“The subjects are in an area where the radio signal fades in and out,” Sumrall said. “They are in a deep ravine with steep walls on all sides.”
At that time, the Lakewood couple had been missing near the Goose Creek Trailhead for almost 60 hours, and had been in the park since Sunday morning, May 5, some five-and-a-half days earlier.
Perfect storm of ominous circumstances
Making matters more ominous for the lost subjects was that the Pike National Forest area where the campers were located had been under a winter weather advisory starting Tuesday night and remaining in effect until Thursday.
Various forms of frozen precipitation had been falling since mid-day Tuesday, with temperatures consistently hovering in the low twenties to mid-thirties.
The Goose Creek Trailhead is located approximately 11 miles from County Road 77, and is accessible only by a narrow, winding dirt road riddled with a washboard surface. Making the 11-mile trip to the trailhead from CR 77 typically takes about 45 minutes.
Much to the delight of Sumrall, as well as Park County Sheriff Tom McGraw, a faint response from rescuers at 9:55 p.m. Friday night, indicated that the subjects were found alive and well. The Skillmans, accompanied by their loyal rottweiler, were cold, wet and hungry, but in otherwise good condition.
A long-awaited sense of relief and big smiles on the faces of Sumrall and McGraw, however, quickly gave way to the reality that the Skillmans were located in a narrow ravine about four-and-a-half miles away, and that a technically demanding extraction still needed to be carefully planned and executed by rescuers on the ground.
“The subjects walked right off the trail because snowdrifts made the path invisible,” Sumrall said. “Our own team of experienced rescuers lost the trail twice en route to their current location. This is a notoriously precarious area with drastic altitude changes all along the way, and extraction will be challenging.
“There is an adjacent area to this one called Refrigerator Gulch, and many searches in that area have not concluded with good outcomes. These particular subjects are extremely fortunate, but now we have to get them out of there.”
It was not until approximately 6:20 a.m. Saturday morning, almost eight hours later, that five weary rescuers, two severely fatigued campers and their happy canine companion appeared in the trailhead parking lot, which was bustling with search and rescue vehicles.
Needle in a haystack
Sumrall started the rescue effort with a search area encompassing more than 200 square miles. Weather conditions did not allow for air support during the first two days of the operation. Weather broke nicely Friday morning, but it was not until 3:39 p.m. that the Skillmans were spotted by a Colorado Air National Guard Lakota model helicopter making its second pass over the search area.
Communication and assessment of the Skillmans condition was extremely limited from the air, but the helicopter crew was able to drop a message informing them that it would likely take about eight hours before rescuers on the ground could reach them.
“Once our teams came up empty on trails they might have taken, we started searching off the beaten paths,” Sumrall said, pointing with a flashlight at a detailed map.
“Lost subjects usually take the path of least resistance once they get off of marked trails. In this case, this narrow gulch more than four miles northeast of here provided just such a path. Both teams are physically exhausted, and the fact that there were no tracks to work with because of new and blowing snow made things difficult.
“There is always a sense of frustration when we have no success, and no clues over an extended period of time like we did during the first two days of this search. We are really fortunate the weather broke long enough to get eyes in the air. The probability of success decreases with the length of time a search continues.”
Sumrall said he could only speculate as to the Skillmans ultimate fate had the weather not cleared long enough for air support.
“We got really close to the subjects yesterday but didn’t know it,” Sumrall added.
Sumrall and PCSAR team members were characteristically modest regarding the heroic efforts that had been required to rescue the lost campers. The Sheriff, however, was quick to sing the praises of the team.
“This was an extreme effort by a great search and rescue team,” McGraw said. “They covered an extremely rough two hundred square mile area for three days. Great thanks to all entities involved in reaching this happy conclusion.”
Playing to the Skillmans favor
While a number of factors culminated to make the rescue effort especially challenging, several others worked to the Skillmans favor.
McGraw pointed out that Sumrall skillfully utilized a methodical process of elimination as the search extended to areas where educated guesses and raw speculation were required.
Sumrall, under severe time constraints and less than ideal conditions, used his experience, knowledge of the area and gut instincts to coordinate the efforts of teams at his disposal.
Rescuers on the ground were physically and mentally conditioned to sustain a multi-day search in inhospitable terrain and dicey weather conditions, while also maintaining a spirit of determined optimism when their efforts yielded few if any positive results.
The five members of PCSAR who eventually escorted the Skillmans to safety boast many years of combined experience.
Also working in the Skillman’s favor was PCSAR’s recent accreditation by the National Mountain Rescue Association. That recognition is only attained by the nation’s most accomplished rescue teams that flawlessly master four test modules, or areas of expertise – high angle/low angle, search, winter tech and avalanche.
The rigors of qualifying for that lofty accreditation, earned in March of this year, undoubtedly served both the team and the Skillmans well throughout last week’s ordeal.
The Skillmans wisely let a neighbor know where they were going and when they planned to return prior to their departure from Lakewood.
When the Skillmans failed to return Tuesday night, May 7, their neighbor promptly contacted Park County authorities with timelines and information pertaining to their location.
The Skillmans were also fortunate to have planned for an overnight stay in the wilderness, and not just a brief day trip into the backcountry.
Additionally, the lost campers did just as they should have once they determined they were lost, and did not roam from their present location.
The search and rescue effort was also strengthened considerably by outside assistance from around the state.
The Colorado Air National Guard, and search and rescue teams from Teller, Jefferson, Douglas and Summit Counties also pitched in. The Colorado Search and Rescue Association, the Alpine Rescue Team, Lake George Fire Protection District and the Hartsel Fire Protection District were also involved in the massive search and rescue effort.
PCSAR is a volunteer organization that is funded exclusively through grants and private donations. Those interested in voluntering can obtain more information online at www.pcsar.org.