A Successful “Just-in-Time” Winter Rescue on Picuris Peak

At midday on January 18th, 2021, Taos Search and Rescue was activated to rescue a stranded motorist on Forest Road 114 to Picuris Peak. The subject had called 911 after their vehicle had gotten stuck. The subject said they had been stranded for 9 days.

At approximately 3:00pm, an incident base was established at US Hill. TSAR members Chris, Gary, Nate and Roy drove up FR 114 in 2 personally-owned 4×4 vehicles. About a mile uptrail, the teams decided to consolidate to 1 vehicle as road conditions worsened.

Approximately 3.5 miles uptrail, the team located the subject, who was alive and well. The subject was returned to incident base at 5:30PM, just 2.5 hours after the team had left IB. Darkness fell and a snowstorm was rolling in, making this rescue “just-in-time”.

Many factors contributed to make this a successful rescue:

1. The subject followed the instructions of emergency dispatchers to shelter in place, allowing rescuers to locate them easily.
2. The subject had supplies of food and water, and the ability to make a fire to stay warm.
3. Conditions allowed a relatively easy and fast rescue using wheeled vehicles.

When you are driving in northern New Mexico:

1. Carry adequate supplies in the event that you become stranded.
2. Understand your GPS or navigation system and it’s limitations.
3. If you become stranded off-highway and you are lost, stay where you are and call 911.

TSAR member David was Incident Commander for this mission. TSAR member Marcia worked at Incident Base.

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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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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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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 – [email protected]

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
[email protected]

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
[email protected]

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.


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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Delinda VanneBrightyn of Dogology, president of Taos Search and Rescue and head of canine unit

Be prepared and thoughtful when walking. Stay alert and keep your dog under control. If you are diligent with your dog, you show respect and protect yourself from liability.

I don’t recommend dropping the leash of your own dog, if you are charged by aggressive dogs. It does work sometimes, but if it doesn’t, you’ve lost all control of your dog.

I carry a walking stick and use it or a backpack to put between me and the dog – keeping my dog behind me. I make my voice low – like a bear growl and say, “Get back” or “Get away.”

I also carry Stop That spray. It makes a noise that startles dogs and has positive pheromones and is completely safe to use. Bear or pepper spray is another possibility – you just have to ensure it doesn’t come back into your face. I also look around for rocks or sticks and have no problem using them. If the dogs get into a fight, you might be able to separate them by kicking the ribs or throwing water on them.

Be aware of coyotes, too. I know of several instances in which small dogs were grabbed by a coyote.

Make sure to educate and empower yourself to be prepared and protect yourself and your dog – that way you can turn a bad situation into a nonevent. We are lucky that we are able to take our dogs on public lands here. That is not the case everywhere. We live in a remarkable place – let’s keep it that way.

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Tireless & Passionate: Delinda VanneBrightyn, TSAR President & K9 Unit Leader

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Taos News covers our 2018 Fundraiser

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TSAR joined with the Civil Air Patrol for a joint training with a simulated downed aircraft search on the edge of the Rio Grande Gorge on July 28, 2108.

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