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TSAR Cooperating and Training with the Sheriff’s Department

Drone's eye view of the Rio Grande Gorge.
Drone’s eye view of the Rio Grande Gorge.

By TSAR Drone Unit Leader LJ Beckman

Editor’s Note: Before the pandemic lock-down took effect mid-March, the Taos Search and Rescue drone had multiple trainings assisting the Taos County Sheriff’s Office. The drone unit has continued to operate and assist in missions during the pandemic, including a successful multi-agency rescue effort near the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge in May

The first training was on March 6th to help locate potential subjects thrown out of a car during an accident. The wreck occurred on NM Highway 150, a truck went over the guardrail and had rolled into a precarious location. The grade was very steep and the ground had ice and snow. Our search area was from the road down 200 feet to the vehicle and an area of about 2.5 acres.  Unit members present included LJ B., Chelsea, Karlis and Gary J.

Working with the Taos County Sheriff’s Dept.

We utilized our DJI Mavic 2 Zoom and FPV goggles. LJ piloted, while Karlis wore the goggles and directed him where to go. Chelsea was a visual observer and Gary was on standby to lend support.  We covered the area in two flights and the clarity of the images was stunning. We were able to see 4” shards of vehicle plastic under a tree.

Our second training was at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge Visitor Center on March 10th. A woman had been missing 7 days and the drone unit offered its services to fly the river under the bridge and survey the area. LJ piloted the drone while Chelsea wore the goggles and Craig was the visual observer. We got very good coverage on the area and when we shared our results with the Sheriff, it saved the department from having to have an officer make the dangerous hike down in person.

Our third training was at the scene of another accident; this time a head on collision. Initially we were sent out to search for additional persons that may have been ejected from either vehicles. Once we arrived on scene the accident had been contained and we were requested to take aerial photos of the accident to help illustrate the report and give some more clues as to what happened. LJ piloted with Craig and Gary providing visual observer support.

All of these trainings help us become better drone pilots and searchers as well as foster interagency relations and to better serve the public.

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TSAR Responds to Successful Mission in Rio Grande Gorge

LJ Beckman and the drone team captured this shot of the Rio Grande Gorge visitors center during the mission.

On May 5, Taos Search and Rescue assisted a mission in the Rio Grande Gorge.

During a private trip down the river a day earlier, John Nettles from TSAR’s Swiftwater Rescue Unit happened to come across an injured man on a beach who was hungry and cold. Nettles and his party didn’t have an extra personal flotation device or the needed gear such as a wetsuit to carry the man down the river safely, but gave him some food and told him they’d call for help as soon as possible. 

After law enforcement was notified, assistance was requested from emergency responders and search and rescue teams across the state, including Taos Search and Rescue (TSAR). 

Four TSAR units responded to the scene – swiftwater, technical (high angle), drone and base.

A helicopter from the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s office and medics from the Bernalillo County Fire Department would work to retrieve the man by lifting him to a waiting ambulance. But contingency plans were also set in motion. 

TSAR’s Drone Unit met at the Rio Grande Gorge Visitor Center at 5:30 a.m. While the various teams waited for a helicopter to arrive, a drone was deployed from the rim of the gorge with the goal of gathering precise coordinates of the subject. 

The subjects were located within two minutes of deployment,” said Drone Unit leader LJ Beckman. “We were fortunate to already know the general location to search and the subjects and Sheriffs’ had a campfire that made the locating them very quick.”

Meanwhile Nettles and Swiftwater Unit leader Kelly Grossetete were preparing to put oars in the river and members of the TSAR high angle team were readying gear in case there should be a need to hoist the subject up from the river to the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge. 

The man was successfully lifted to safety via a short haul line attached to the helicopter and, as with all missions, the TSAR team was left with lessons learned that will be integrated into future training and missions. 

Learn more about TSAR by keeping up with our website and following the team on Facebook and Instagram. 

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A Coordinated Rescue Success in the Rio Grande Gorge

Vertical Magazine had this great summary of May’s rescue mission in the Rio Grande Gorge, which was a success thanks to the team effort of a number of organizations, including the Taos County Sheriff’s Office, Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department, Bernalillo County Fire Department, Taos Search and Rescue, Taos Fire Department and New Mexico State Police.

Bernalillo County Sheriff helicopter uses short haul line to rescue man from 800-ft gorge

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Taos Search and Rescue During the Coronavirus / COVID19 public health emergency

During these unprecedented times, Taos Search and Rescue will still be responding to missions as usual, rest assured. But given the current circumstances with coronavirus/COVID19, SAR responders will not be dispatched out of state until the Governor lifts the ban on out-of-state travel for state employees. To maintain our own health and to help prevent the potential spread of the virus, we have cancelled our in-person general meeting and training set for Wednesday, March 18. We will be holding a virtual meeting and training online this week instead to keep each other informed and sharp for the next mission!

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Successful Sunday Night Search For Skiers Near Santa Fe

On Sunday, February 9, 2020 three members of Taos Search and Rescue joined teams from across northern and central New Mexico for a mission in the Pecos Wilderness above Santa Fe.

Three backcountry skiers contacted law enforcement from the Pecos Wilderness east of the Santa Fe Ski Basin Sunday evening. They reported that they had skinned up Raven’s Ridge to Deception Peak, followed the Knife Edge to Lake Peak and intended to ski down Heaven’s Hill but took the wrong chute. The party came across a jumble of rocks and one of the skiers lost both his skis and was only able to recover one of them.

The group began to make their way up a trail heading to Puerto Nambe but became exhausted, stopped, built a fire and called for help.

The search and rescue mission was activated at around 18:30 with Ski Santa Fe as incident base and Al Webster as incident commander.

Three teams were assembled consisting of members of Atalaya Search and Rescue, Cibola Search and Rescue, the Los Alamos Auxiliary Fire Brigade, Santa Fe Search and Rescue Group, Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council and Taos Search and Rescue.

The teams hit the trail in waves as more help arrived on skis and snowshoes. The first team made contact with the subjects after about three hours on the trail. All three of the subjects were uninjured and showed no signs of hypothermia, but were tired.

One member of Atalaya SAR manually adjusted the bindings on their skis and gave them to the skier who had lost a ski. The team was carrying extra snowshoes and all team members and subjects were able to make the slow hike back out to Ski Santa Fe, arriving around sunrise.

Webster reported that the successful mission went well in part because the subjects were able to report accurate coordinates for their location.

“We knew right where they were,” he said.

Temperatures were well below freezing in the Pecos with some snowfall and wind, but all parties emerged from the woods healthy, happy and perhaps a bit hungry.

Thanks to everyone involved for staying up late on a Sunday night to ensure a successful outcome!

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Male shed hunter found near Ojo Feliz

Map of the area northeast of Mora, NM where subject was located.

At 5:34 AM on May 4th, 2019 Taos Search and Rescue was called out for a search for a 42-year old male adult who had not returned from shed hunting on private land near Ojo Feliz, New Mexico.

The subject had gone looking for antlers with a friend on Thursday, May 2. That evening, the two separated and the subject did not return at the prearranged time and place. The subject’s friend later found the subject’s backpack. The subject’s friend left the area and returned again to find the subject’s backpack was now gone. The subject’s disappearance was reported Friday evening.

Over 65 search and rescue volunteers eventually were involved in this search, along with two planes and a National Guard helicopter.

A team of five TSAR members (Jim, Luke, LJ B., Chelsea and Craig) left incident base at 9am. They were assigned to perform a “line search” of an area near the subject’s missing backpack, and later searched an area to the northwest, but found no additional sign of the subject.

Meanwhile, two members of TSAR’s Base Unit (Jon W., Marcia) helped run communications and map preparation at Incident Base. One other TSAR member (Jerry) arrived later.

At approximately 3:30pm, a team from Santa Fe SAR that was leaving the area to return home found the subject, who had flagged them down. The subject was in good condition.

More coverage of this mission in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

As with all search and rescue incidents, Taos Search and Rescue was just one of many teams responding, and we thank our colleagues in the New Mexico SAR community for their fast and professional response to this incident. Mission Reports from Taos Search and Rescue are written from our perspective and from the accounts of our responders, and may lack detail about the entirety of the search and rescue response. Media are encouraged to contact the New Mexico State Police. For comments, corrections or questions about this report, please email info@sar-taos.org.

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A mountain rescue on a moonless night

Taos Search & Rescue Saves Woman after hours-long descent

Kelly Grossette The red line marks the path Taos Search and Rescue took to find and help a hiker who was stranded in a chute outbounds near Taos Ski Valley. Courtesy photo/Kelly Grossette. Posted Taos News, Thursday, April 4, 2019 5:00 pm By Robin Martin – publish@taosnews.com

Avalanche chutes. Slopes exceeding a 45-degree pitch. A moonless night. Temperatures dropping to zero. Nevertheless, a high-altitude search and rescue operation in the Wheeler Peak Wilderness last week brought a 36-year-old Miami woman to safety.

About 11:30 a.m., Thursday, (March 28), a 911 dispatcher received a call from a hiker who had become lost while trying to reach Wheeler Peak. According to her rescue team, the woman had started about 7:20 a.m. from the Williams Lake parking lot above the village of Taos Ski Valley. Part way up the trail, she took a left instead of a right turn where Summit Trail meets the ridge.

When she realized her mistake, the rescuers said, she decided to head directly downhill. She mistook the above-timberline mountainside for a ski run and dropped into Peace Sign Chute. Because the snow was starting to thaw, it became unstable when she stepped on it. After sliding down the slope, she finally reached a tree, where she hung on, the rescuers said.

Taos Search and Rescue (TSAR) team member Kelly Grossetete received a call about the situation at 3:30 p.m., as she was returning from skiing.

She and her family own the St. Moritz Condominiums on Twining Road, and she is resident manager. She spent her early childhood in Taos Ski Valley, later working as a ski patroller at Alta in Utah, as a white-water river guide and as a professional airplane pilot.

A rescue begins

Grossetete collected her pack, which had a first-aid kit, emergency overnight gear, extra warm clothes, water, an avalanche shovel, beacon and probe, hand warmers and snacks. She took skins and crampons for her skis, then met two other TSAR members and a state police officer at the Williams Lake parking lot. TSAR volunteers Roy Dunlap and Gary Jones had snowshoes with them as they went up the Williams Lake trail.

The team was able to triangulate the hiker’s location from cellphone pings, realizing she was in an avalanche chute between Wheeler Peak and Mount Walter. They called and used horns but couldn’t hear a reply. The three stopped where the Williams Lake trail intersects a track used by skiers who use skins to climb and ski the chutes. The other team members continued on several hundred feet but were not able to go farther on their snowshoes, stopping near the bottom of the chute where they remained in radio contact with Grossetete, who continued on alone.

They had made an informed decision to split up. Grossetete had better equipment for reaching the hiker. Given the avalanche danger, it was safer for only one rescuer to cross the steep slopes.

She climbed up through the trees on her skins, following the trail backcountry skiers use. At tree line, she traversed higher, and arrived at the top of the chutes where skiers descend on their powder runs.

A helicopter, in contact with Taos Ski Valley patroller Leland Thompson, flew by. The pilot spotted Grossetete, but decided it was too windy and the slopes too steep to land.

Grossetete yelled out to the hiker and heard a faint response. She crossed the first chute, Pinkie Chute, on her skis, spending as little time as possible in the traverse because of the avalanche danger. She passed through the relative safety of trees and rocks on the far side of the chute, then quickly crossed Ring Finger Chute. Again, safety in the trees and rocks, and she was at the edge of Peace Sign Chute, in voice contact with the hiker.

The sun had set and as the temperature dropped, the snow became more stable. The chute seemed to have avalanched several days before, and Grossetete traveled below the crown, where top layers of snow had already slid away.

In the fading light, she couldn’t see the hiker until the woman moved. Grossetete took off her skis. The snow was mid-thigh deep. She “postholed” down the right flank of the chute, using her skis as support.

When she reached her, Grossetete was relieved to find that the woman was in “great shape.” She was wearing a warm jacket, hiking pants and non-waterproof hiking boots. She was sitting on a small blanket, alert, oriented and shivering. Shivering is a good sign to rescuers because it means a person is not hypothermic. “She was scared and thought she was going to die there,” Grossetete said.

A treacherous descent

They were at an elevation near 11,800 feet. It was almost dark. The temperature had dropped to about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. The slope was near 50 degrees.

Grossetete made a platform in the snow on the side of the chute, where she could unload her pack. She gave the hiker warm clothes, hand warmers, water with electrolytes and checked her hands and feet, which were still warm.

TSV patroller Thompson and TSAR member Chris Kodey had started up the mountain to assist Grossetete. More than 1,000 feet below, the rest of the TSAR group had been joined by four other rescue teams from as far away as Santa Fe.

The two women started down the chute. Since it had already avalanched, Grossetete thought it would be safest to go straight down.

She said it was a clear, pitch-dark night, and “the stars were magnificent.” They went down backwards, like descending a ladder.

Grossetete kicked toeholds in the snow with her ski boots and guided the hiker’s foot into each one with her hand, saying “right foot, left foot” over and over. “There was no chatter,” Grossetete said. She didn’t want the woman to lose her concentration. Some steps were long, some short, on the uneven slope. They each used a ski, binding side down, to stabilize themselves.

Grossetete knew the consequences of a fall. There would have been no chance for self-arrest on the frozen snow.

Help on the way

The hiker had a headlamp that ran out of battery after about an hour. Grossetete clipped her 1,000 lumen light to the bottom of her radio harness, so it would illuminate her feet. The radio, tuned to the state’s fire frequency because the search and rescue channel was faint, also had a light that shone on the snow from Grossetete’s chest.

Below, the other rescuers kept a light trained on Grossetete’s pack, monitoring the descent. After several hours, Kodey, and later Thompson, reached the pair, one on snowshoes, one on touring skis. They brought more light and checked the hiker’s health. They all continued down to where days ago the avalanche had stopped, leaving a pile of rubble.

Grossetete was sinking into the snow above mid-thigh. The two women turned on their backs and proceeded down like crabs.

As they reached the bottom end of the debris pile, the snow became smoother, and Thompson gave the hiker snowshoes. Grossetete continued walking, as her ski binding had frozen.

After they reached the other rescuers, TSV Search and Rescue member Christof Brownell carried a grateful Grossetete’s skis and pack to the parking lot, where after a debriefing, and plenty of hugs and thanks for Grossetete, everyone dispersed. The mission was over by 3 a.m. The temperature was zero degrees Fahrenheit.

Grossetete said she “thanked the Lord for His presence.” She had been scared, but “it was like a good scared. It kept you on your toes, to make good decisions.”

The hiker was taken in a state police car to her motel room in Taos. Grossetete drove to her condominium where she took a hot shower, turned on a heating pad and tried in vain to sleep: “Thinking about what if this, what if that … I don’t know if anybody sleeps after something like that.”

She said her “quads were super sore the next day.” But this week she is back to normal, after soaking in the hot springs at Ojo Caliente and “eating everything in sight.”

Grossetete is grateful that the story had a happy ending. A rescue is a group effort, she said, between all team members. (TSAR does not disclose names of those they help without their permission.)

Disclosure: Robin Martin is a cousin of Kelly Grossetete.

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Sheriff: Missing man left suicide note

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com

Multiple searches around the Río Grande Gorge Bridge where Anthony Hildebrand’s car was found early this month have turned up no signs of its owner, a man who law enforcement say had expressed suicidal thoughts and emailed a note to friends telling them he planned to take his own life.

The Taos County Sheriff’s Office, whose officers were assisted by New Mexico State Police and Taos Search and Rescue, is now putting their search on hold.

Hildebrand, 35, was reported missing April 5. His car was found parked at the rest area on the west end of the bridge, the same location where a vehicle belonging to Holly White, a Taos woman, was found abandoned before she went missing on May 7, 2016.

Sheriff Jerry Hogrefe said he deployed his specially trained tactical team multiple times to look for what they expect to find under similar circumstances: a body somewhere in the canyon below the bridge.

But deputies who searched the canyon with binoculars were unable to locate Hildebrand. Drone flights conducted by members of Taos Search and Rescue and a helicopter flyover of the gorge by New Mexico State Police were similarly unsuccessful. Members of search and rescue also searched the river on kayaks, but again could find no sign of the missing man.

Hogrefe said he may deploy members of his office on a river raft at some point in the future, but is holding off for now.

“Although we are suspending the active search [that] doesn’t mean we are done,” the sheriff said. “Mr. Hildebrand is still missing and we encourage everyone to report anything they know or hear.”

In 2018, it took two months to locate the body of Ignacio Perez Jr., a 49-year-old man from Albuquerque who was reported missing in May 2018 after his car was also found parked near the bridge. His remains were found some two and a half miles downstream from the bridge by two kayakers who were making a summer run down the river.

An initial press release from the sheriff’s office described Hildebrand as 6 feet, 3 inches tall with a medium build and weighing roughly 215 pounds. He was last seen wearing blue jeans and a camouflage coat.

Hogrefe said Hildebrand is originally from Pennsylvania.

According to the Carnegie Mellon University website, Hildebrand graduated from the University of Kansas and was at one time pursuing a degree at Carnegie Mellon in entertainment technology.

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Body Recovered from Río Grande Gorge

By John Miller
jmiller@taosnews.com

A recovery crew in Taos County pulled a body from the waters of the Río Grande Gorge Thursday afternoon (April 25) that had been found by rafters earlier this week.

Taos County Undersheriff Steve Miera acted as incident commander for the recovery, which was carried out by members of the sheriff’s office Special Response Team, Taos Search and Rescue and Bureau of Land Management.

The multi-agency crew rafted from John Dunn Bridge several miles downstream to where the body had been tethered to the west bank of the river.

The body had not been identified as of Thursday evening (April 25).

For more on this story, see the May 2 edition of The Taos News.

IMAGE:

Taos County Sheriff’s Office, Taos Search and Rescue and emergency personnel strategize Thursday (April 25) before recovering a body from the Río Grande. by: Morgan Timms / The Taos News

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Lost hiker rescued near Wheeler Peak

At 3:37pm on March 28, 2019, Taos Search and Rescue was called out for a search near Taos Ski Valley for a 36 year old female.

A female hiker had become lost and disoriented after attempting to ascend Wheeler Peak. The subject was not from the area and had no skis or snowshoes, and called 911 when she realized the terrain had become precarious and she was lost. She had begun to descend what she thought was a ski slope, but was actually the avalanche path known as Peace Sign Chute.

As the snow started warming up, it started to slide under her feet. The subject slid into a tree and called 911 between 11:30am – 12:00pm. She did not move until she was rescued.

Incident base was established at the Phoenix Restaurant area. TSAR’s first responders arrived at approximately 5pm, where New Mexico State Patrol was already waiting. TSAR formed the initial search team, with members Gary, Roy, and Kelly. This team ascended the Williams Lake Trail to a point below where the subject’s cell phone had “pinged” on the 911 call. The team attempted to signal the subject with an air horn but no return call was heard.

At this point, the team made an unusual decision to split. Kelly, an experienced backcountry skier and former ski patroller, would follow a skin track to the top of the north slope, which she had used many times before. Gary and Roy, on snowshoes, would attempt to ascend the north slope separately. After about 100 yard of ascent, Gary and Roy decided the way was impassable due to their equipment and inexperience dealing with avalanche conditions. They followed Kelly’s ascent from the bottom of the ridge, maintaining visual and radio contact with Kelly at all times.

Kelly ascended the slope on her alpine touring (AT) ski gear. At the time of the team’s dispatch from incident base, avalanche conditions were moderate to severe. However, as Kelly ascended the slope, she judged that the situation was improving rapidly as the sun went down and the temperature dropped, re-freezing the snowpack and decreasing avalanche danger.

An air ambulance service had been pre-emptively called and was hovering nearby, but could not remain in the Taos Ski Valley area due to wind conditions.

Eventually, Kelly’s voice calls to the subject were answered. After again evaluating the avalanche conditions at that altitude and aspect, and encouraged by the rapidly refreezing snow, Kelly crossed Pinky Finger chute, and then Ring Finger chute. Kelly was trying to stay as high as she could, skinning slowly over rocks and difficult terrain features. The subject’s voice calls led Kelly to Peace Sign Chute. It was getting dark. Kelly located the subject in the dark, on the opposite side of the chute.

Kelly judged that Peace Sign Chute had previously avalanched. She crossed the avalanche path below the crown, on the bed surface, and reached the 50 degree slope where subject was hanging onto a tree. Kelly reached the subject at 7:20pm. Other than a little discomfort, the subject was in good condition and was only mildly hypothermic. Kelly dressed the subject in warmer clothing and began to assess the descent.

TSAR member Chris and a TSV ski patroller were beneath Kelly, near the bottom of Peace Sign Chute. They dug a snow pit, an avalanche danger assessment tool which would allow them to judge the condition of the snow in the area to determine the danger to Kelly and the subject on the descent. Their assessment was that the snow was in low danger of avalanche, and it was best to descend the chute now rather than wait until morning.

Subject and Kelly descend Peace Sign Chute. Photo by Chris of TSAR.

Kelly guided the subject slowly down the tricky and technical descent. They were met midway by TSAR member Chris. After a long descent, the subject was handed off to waiting additional SAR personnel on the valley floor.

This was a very technical mission with many hazards. A very conservative approach was used throughout the decision making process. Many factors played a role in the success of this mission (stable snowpack, good weather, fit and mobile subject).

TSAR members Gary, Kelly, Roy, Chris, Jim, Chelsea and LJ B. responded to this mission.

As with all search and rescue incidents, Taos Search and Rescue was just one of many teams responding, and we thank our colleagues in the New Mexico SAR community for their fast and professional response to this incident. Mission Reports from Taos Search and Rescue are written from our perspective and from the accounts of our responders, and may lack detail about the entirety of the search and rescue response. Media are encouraged to contact the New Mexico State Police. For comments, corrections or questions about this report, please email info@sar-taos.org.

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