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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.