By Karen James
TELLURIDE – Exactly two months after a Colorado Springs man was killed in a rockslide while traversing the trail between Mt. Wilson and El Diente in Dolores County, the treacherous route claimed another life on Sunday (Sept. 26).
John Merrill, 30, of Cortez died immediately from blunt force trauma after being caught in a rockslide similar in nature and location to one that killed retired Army colonel Peter Topp, 59, on July 26, according to a statement released by San Miguel County Coroner Bob Dempsey.
Merrill was hiking alone with his dog, Oof, a Kuvasz mix, on what was his fifteenth summit of a peak over 14,000 feet, when the accident occurred at approximately 12:30 p.m. Sunday.
Merrill had called his pregnant wife reporting he was one hour from the summit of El Diente, according to Dempsey.
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said it was unclear whether Merrill had reached the summit at the time of the slide.
The San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office, which conducted the recovery operation on behalf of the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office, received notification of the accident after witnesses to the slide (including one San Miguel County search and rescue volunteer) called it in on Sunday. According to Masters, however, a helicopter from New Air Helicopters in Durango was not available for the recovery operation until Monday.
Masters said that the witnesses did not see anyone caught in the slide when it occurred, but that they subsequently found Merrill’s body.
“We could have called the Blackhawk out of Eagle, but we hate to use them in non-emergency situations,” he said, referring the Colorado Air National Guard team from the High Altitude Training Center in Eagle. That team facilitated the rescue of Topp’s three hiking companions two months ago, two of whom were seriously injured, but was not called in on this occasion because it had already been determined that Merrill was deceased.
Ten sheriff’s office personnel and search and rescue volunteers responded to the scene on Monday, making several trips during the recovery operation.
That effort did not go without incident, however, as the helicopter had to perform an emergency landing while removing the remaining volunteers, who had retrieved the dog.
The helicopter “was either hit by a rock falling or clipped the side of the mountain,” said Masters, noting that the landing took place on the Dunton side of the mountain. “It was pretty rough.”
Nevertheless, “There was no severe damage and nobody was injured.
“We lost contact for quite a while,” he said. “That was kind of disconcerting.”
But in the end, he said, of the rescuers: “Everyone is safe, and the dog is safe.”
With its abundance of cliffs and rockslides, Masters advised that people do not attempt to climb the Mt. Wilson and El Diente route with their dogs in tow.
“It’s a mess up there,” he said.
Because Merrill’s wife is returning to Central America, and other family members are unable to care for Oof, it was earlier reported that he would be taken to the Cortez pound. On Tuesday, however, San Miguel County Search and Rescue members Julie Hodson and Todd Rector returned to Cortez to retrieve Oof from the family friend who had picked him up, along with Merrill’s remains, the previous day, in Telluride.
Hodson is currently caring for Oof and is already in touch with three parties in the region who would like to give the dog a new home.