The crash happened in an instant, in that sickening way accidents often do. One moment we were descending the Colorado Trail rubber side down, and the next second, a pair of orange mountain bike shoes were cartwheeling through the thin air, hydraulic brakes screeching alarm.
In a matter of a few pedal strokes, Jim, a cyclist’s cyclist and former U.S. National Junior Champion, had Supermanned off his bike in an inexplicable crash, breaking ribs number 10, 11 and 12. Ribs number two through nine were broken in two places. His shoulder was separated. One lung punctured. Sternum broken; his chest was flailing. There was no one else around.
Out of range of cell phone service, deep in the trees, somewhere west of Keystone Mountain, on an August day in 2018, unfolded the type of story that remains of critical importance in 2021.
At the time, we did not know the extent of Jim’s injuries in the old mining backcountry. By the sickening sight of the crash and the unholy landing, I assumed my friend’s back was broken. The hemorrhagic shock of the wicked thud likely meant the worst kind of traumas were happening inside him.
We were stranded amongst, what Walt Whitman called during a Colorado visit, “reckless heaven-ambitious peaks.”
In the matter of companions, amongst the alpine summits, Jim had drawn a short straw. Beyond CPR training and a couple of degrees from Mom University, I was woefully unable to provide aid. My hydration pack became a pillow. My bike jersey, a postage stamp-sized blanket under the Rocky Mountain sky.
Luckily for my friend, another cyclist came down the trail eventually. The cyclist donated his spare jacket and sped off quickly, promising to go find help in Breckenridge STAT.
Now known as a quintessential Colorado ski town, Breckenridge’s birth was dusty and rough-hewn, but her cradle was made of gold.
Prospectors discovered the precious metal in 1859, a year and a half before Colorado became a U.S. territory. Following the first shout of “Eureka!” on the Blue River, early miners collected $5,150,000 worth of gold from 1859 to 1863 using pans and rocker boxes.
The current value of the gold nuggets and particles from those first five years is estimated to be worth more than half a billion dollars in today’s market, according to Bill Fountain, Breckenridge historian and co-author of numerous books about mining in Summit County.
Some of the underground gold extraction that followed in the 1880s produced valuable specimen gold that “sold for ten times its normal value due to its beauty,” Fountain said. The U.S. Census counted 1,657 residents in Breckenridge in 1880.
There were two dance halls in the classic western town. More than 10 hotels. And no fewer than 18 saloons downtown.
A silver boom followed in the wider vicinity in the late 1870s and the 1880s — but the nearby ghost towns of Dyersville, Preston, Saints John — prove that the prosperity did not last. By the end of World War II, Breckenridge had dwindled to an estimated 250 people.
The luck of the down-and-out old mining outpost changed when Breckenridge’s first ski lift was installed in 1961. Ticket prices that first December were $4 for adults and $2.50 for children. Today, Breckenridge Resort boasts 187 trails over 2,908 acres and the highest chairlift in North America.
The five peaks of Breckenridge Resort stretched before us to the west, while Jim lay stranded on the forest floor to the northeast.
Immobile two miles above sea level, the color was nearly gone from Jim’s face, when a trio appeared around the switchback below us.
With overnight hiking packs and a wooden sled, three mountaineering members of the Summit County Rescue Group arrived expedition-style. The trio had double-timed it on foot for many kilometers of climbing to reach us.
Sage Miller, 27, an EMT, ran lead on getting Jim’s vitals and assessing the cyclist’s acute medical situation. His other two SCRG teammates got to work getting Jim in a warming space bag to regulate his body temperature. After lying on the pine needle covered loam for so long in a sweaty bike kit-turned-cold, they were worried that a case of the shivers would be excruciating if Jim had any broken ribs. Little did we know, all but one pair of Jim’s ribs were broken.
The three men, with the confidence and agility of battlefield medics, went to work. They moved deliberately, making lots of purposeful conversation with Jim, parroting his wit.
To solve the problem before us, they defied the instinct to descend that mountain. Because the fastest way out was up, they tackled the grade and started climbing up the trail with one 154-pound cyclist in tow.
The journey to the nearest trailhead would take more than three hours — ever so delicately — to meet other members of the search and rescue team. In addition to mission coordinators, there were nine members of SCRG deployed in the field on Jim’s behalf that day.
In SAR parlance, the way the world-class SCRG teammates hand-carried Jim off the mountain is called a carry out or roll out. Jim was then transported to Summit Medical Center in Frisco before a medevac helicopter ride to Denver.
The Summit County Rescue Group likely saved Jim’s life that day. He is now fully recovered. His rescue was one of more than 102 such deployments in 2018.
From the time of the crash until he was lifted into the ambulance, Jim had been on his back with a punctured lung and a flail chest for more than seven hours. And it was strangers — calm, resourceful, poised Coloradans — who came to our aid and who knew what to do.
And eleven teammates spent their day off with us, choosing to be on call that summer Monday. The group is ready to respond 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year. There is never a charge for their services or their expenses.
Sixty active members serve on SCRG — men and women and several very good dogs — and they are all unpaid volunteers.
SCRG deployed into the field 155 times in 2019. The numbers rose to more than 185 calls in 2020. Likely due to increasing visits to the wide-open outdoors for socially distanced reprieve from coronavirus and the hot weather of 2021, SCRG has already had 150 calls by early August 2021, according to Charles Pitman, public information officer and mission coordinator of SCRG. This will likely be SCRG’s busiest year to date.
At the coordinates where the trio of SCRG teammates rescued us, the elevation is 10,817 feet. Luckily, the responders specialize in high altitude, steep and rocky trails, and harsh weather, Pitman said. Calls range from climbing injuries, lost hikers, missing mountain bikers, ATV mishaps, to paraglider accidents.
There are more than 50 SAR teams in Colorado, filled with dedicated non-paid professionals. The Colorado Search and Rescue Association calculated there were 2,875 search and rescue incidents in Colorado in 2019. Their volunteer tally totaled 353,655 work hours that year. When the world locked down during quarantine, CSAR deployments jumped to 4,052 across Colorado in 2020.
Complex are the crises we face back down in the valley: a changing climate, once-in-a-century public health woes, harm to the preservation of the open spaces, and wildfires that threaten “the purple robed West, the land that is best,” as per Colorado’s state song.
Historian and author Dr. Sandie Mather noted the area’s documented tradition of aid: in the early days, long before danger awaited on ski runs and mountain-bike trails, the women of Breckenridge knit the community together, creating safety nets in organizations like the Rebekah Lodges or the original churches that quietly performed works of mercy when “an ill member needed nursing care or a family faced severe hunger,” she said. Fraternal organizations arranged for disability benefits to its members and cared for the widows of the deceased in Summit County.
In an unlucky instant, a random accident on the Colorado Trail proved how easily widows can be made, still, in the Rocky Mountains. The crash granted us a day in, what Cy Warman — known as the Poet Laureate of the Rockies — called “the mountains high and hoary.” It flashed a daguerreotype of the unforgiving terrain and ornery weather of the timeless frontier.
But it flashed something more.
In that part of the White River National Forest, the Colorado Trail runs together with the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, on the ridge that travels from the northernmost Rockies to the Andes in South America.
On the spine of the continent, the effort of SCRG reveals the backbone of outdoor life in the west.
In the great spaces, search and rescue teams are the helpers to the helpers: the park rangers, sheriff deputies, ski patrollers and firefighters. Across the west, these men and women advocate, educate and coordinate emergency response amongst the reckless peaks and in the hoary forests. Their office is the place where helicopters and ATVs cannot go, amid the harshest conditions, on adventurers’ worst days.
During these challenging times, the outdoors has never been more important to the worried and weary public. The backcountry embodies precious common ground to Americans.
To paraphrase historian Fountain, search and rescue service feels ten times its normal value due to its beauty as we attempt to put the COVID-19 pandemic in the rear view mirror.
Search and rescue groups remind us that there are professionals — good and true — amongst us who can calmly hike us up this trail to get us out of the upheaval days, constant heroes in the unfamiliar wilderness of these times.
Shannon Hogan, of Seattle, is a former pro cyclist and recreational ultrarunner, whose friend Jim currently is racing his bike in Boulder, fully recovered from his unexplained crash of Aug. 6, 2018.