Volunteers rescue skier trapped in Fish Creek Canyon after leaving resort boundary
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A team of seven Routt County Search and Rescue volunteers spent nearly nine hours Saturday night into Sunday morning rescuing a skier who had left Steamboat Resort’s boundary and was unable to get back.
The skier had left the resort through gate five with a group, but the skier did not return with the group. Instead, while trying to find his way back to the resort, the skier ended up getting stuck in the Fish Creek drainage area below Hell’s Wall.
It is relatively common for skiers to venture out of the groomed ski area in search of untouched powder, but Search and Rescue, as well as resort officials, warn that people should only enter what some call the “side country” if they are familiar with the area.
“He went out with some friends who are more local, and when they all returned to the ski area, he did not return with them,” said Kristia Check-Hill, incident commander for Routt County Search and Rescue.
The skier, a male in his 50s, was cold after falling in the creek and had injured his knee. Steamboat Resort Ski Patrol asked Search and Rescue to assist, and the team of seven went to find the skier by exiting the same gate five the skier had left.
“Because of the terrain and the conditions — or lack of snow, I should say — it was really slow going,” Check-Hill said.
Large boulders in the area, which likely would have been covered with snow in an average year, were difficult for the team to maneuver around, and it took them until about 10 p.m. to reach the man when the initial call came in a little after 6 p.m.
The team used a toboggan provided by Ski Patrol designed for the backcountry to get the skier out because he was unable to ski or walk out on his own.
“He was wet from getting in the creek, he was pretty cold, unable to ski out on his own, and he was unfamiliar with the area,” Check-Hill said.
The terrain, which had open water and dense vegetation in addition to the boulders, made route finding tricky for the volunteers. At times it would take 30 minutes for the team to make 150 yards of progress pulling the toboggan. At midnight, two additional volunteers were paged to support the exhausted team as it made its way out.
“Since there is hardly any snow in there, they were basically having to pull and push the toboggan up and over boulders,” Check-Hill said. “Had there been more snow like a normal January, it would have been a much different set of circumstances.”
Eventually, the team members reached the Fish Creek Falls hiking trail and tried to call a medical helicopter, but there wasn’t an appropriate landing zone, so they continued to hike out. They met Steamboat Springs Fire Rescue at the Fish Creek Falls Bridge, and their crew helped make the last stretch up the hill to the ambulance in the parking lot.
The man finally made it to UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center around 3 a.m. and is expected to make a full recovery.
Maren Franciosi, spokesperson for Steamboat Resort, said it is common for people to leave the resort and enter the backcountry, but the resort asks people not to leave through a gate if they are not familiar with the area.
“We have the gates, they are there, and you can access the backcountry from the resort, but if you don’t know your way or aren’t sure in your ability to get back, then we ask that people do not go,” Franciosi said.
There are signs that indicate the potential danger lying outside the boundaries of the resort. The resort does not track when people leave the resort through one of its gates.
Accessing the backcountry via one of the resort’s eight U.S. Forest Service gates is advantageous because a skier can take a lift up rather than having to skin or hike to access those areas.
“Some of what people enjoy is that it is not maintained out there, so that is untouched powder for the most part, especially when we have a great snow year,” Franciosi said. “It is not a groomed run situation, so I think people enjoy that. They like to get out where it is a bit more organic and natural.”
To reach Dylan Anderson, call 970-871-4247 or email danderson@SteamboatPilot.com.
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