When a Search-and-Rescue 
Hits Close to Home

1

The sound of a helicopter circling over our property near Telluride, Colorado, filled my ears for several days straight. The sight of teams of volunteers dressed in hiking gear, fanning out in the aspen groves and bushwhacking off trail while shouting, “Tim,” pulled at my heart.

A 55-year-old well-liked local man who’s an avid cyclist and hiker went for a solo outing in the mountains on Sunday morning, July 8, and never returned. That same day, an afternoon electrical storm and downpour made the mountainsides shudder with thunder and spew debris flows of mud and rock here in the San Juan Mountains.

The missing man’s wife, Amy, drove down our road looking distraught and joined the volunteers daily to look for him. My brother taught their kids at the local high school. Almost everyone in town knows Tim and wants to find him.

Two days after his disappearance I deviated from my regular run on the Deep Creek Trail and immersed myself in looking for Tim. Based on what he told his wife the morning he left, rescuers believe he attempted to hike a steep, bald rocky ridge above this trail. But he could have gone anywhere. He left no clues, except for his car parked a mile from our home. He kept his phone turned off, so rescuers couldn’t ping it for a signal.

For about 10 miles I ran and hiked around offshoots of the trail, following a few animal trails while peering into the thick underbrush tangled with downed logs. I realized I normally keep my eyes straight ahead while running and rarely look to the sides, as I did on this day. Never have I studied the forest’s features in such vivid detail.

On one level, this run filled me with greater appreciation for the landscape’s beauty – and its inherent risks – through the act of running mindfully and highly attuned to the surroundings. But my scanning yielded nothing. Theories of what could have happened – a lightning strike on the ridge, a trip and fall with a head wound and unconsciousness, a mountain lion attack – filled my head.

Reluctantly, I gave up and ran back feeling upset and defeated, lost in thought about how much I value solo running in the mountains but haunted by what can go wrong. As if to remind me to be careful and mind the trail’s unpredictability, I caught a toe and fell hard on a familiar switchback a half mile from home, which sent me skidding on forearms. My shoulder ached, and I developed bruises on my arms and legs, but I made it home just fine.

The next night, I met with a small group in the nearby town of Ouray for the start of a three-day backcountry mountain-running camp that I coached and co-guided. Over dinner, we talked about trail safety, and I gave a show-and-tell of all that I carry in my hydration pack when I go on a mountain outing solo or with others. I don’t compromise on safety gear when I’m with a friend, I explained, because I want to be able help others who may get into trouble too.

“Ask yourself, if you got hurt and had to stop moving – say, from a rolled ankle – could you take care of yourself, and stay warm as your body temperature drops, for a half hour or longer? Would anyone know how to find and help you?” Savor the experience of running trails solo – but leave information about your route and take precautions to take care of yourself along the way.

Sadly, about three weeks after his disappearance Tim’s body was found in the wilderness where we had been searching. We will never know for sure but it is believed that he was the victim of a tragic fall in the mountains.

 

Sarah’s Pack Contents

  • Hydration (including a Katadyn Be Free bottle with built-in filter to refill at streams) and extra calories
  • First aid kit including self-adhesive bandage to wrap an ankle, a small syringe to flush out a wound, lots of bandages and antihistamine in case I come upon someone suffering an allergy attack
  • An emergency bivvy
  • A signaling whistle
  • A light source (lightweight headlamp if I head out in the afternoon; otherwise, I keep my phone on lowbattery mode and could use its built-in flashlight)
  • Map (paper map and/ or photo of a map on my phone)
  • Matches
  • Extra layers of clothing: gloves, hat, windbreaker, lightweight poncho
  • Sunscreen and other sun protection
  • My phone with the sheriff’s search and rescue number listed under “favorites”
  • And perhaps the most valuable investment: a SPOT tracker that shows my family where I am. I’m in the habit of sending an “OK” message via the SPOT whenever I reach a summit.
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About Author

Sarah Lavender Smith is an ultrarunning coach, writer and mom of two who divides her time between the Bay Area and southwestern Colorado. She is the author of the book, The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. Follow her blog TheRunnersTrip.com.

1 Comment

  1. Sarah
    So sorry to here about your friend. Interesting enough your pack items is what is required in races in Europe. I just ran Ultra tour Mount Rosa in switzerland and Italy. So hard and we were required to carry all of that. It does give you a sense of peace to know you are prepared if something does happen. I would encourage everyone who is going to do an extreme hike /run in the mountains to carry all of that.

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