SAN MIGUEL AND DOLORES COUNTIES – A climber with a badly injured leg was rescued from the south face of El Diente Peak by helicopter Sunday, July 17, thanks to a personal emergency locator beacon activated by one of two other climbers who came to the victim’s aid.
According to San Miguel Sheriff’s Office Commander/Paramedic Eric Berg, the couple who found the victim, Joe Yearm, 28, of Mesa, Ariz., undoubtedly saved his life by activating their beacon, a relatively new device for backcountry users that sends a signal to the International Emergency Response Coordination Center with the beacon’s GPS coordinates. There was no cell phone service at that location on El Diente in Dolores County.
Yearm, who was climbing alone and had fallen while descending the peak in the dark on Saturday night, was flown to the Telluride Airport, where he was transferred to an ambulance, which took him to St. Mary’s hospital in Grand Junction with an open lower leg fracture.
At about 7:40 a.m., Sunday, San Miguel dispatch received a call from the International Emergency Response Coordination Center. This company receives signals from personal emergency locator beacons. The signal indicated a location about 1/2 mile southwest of El Diente's 14,159 ft. summit, at the 12,200 ft. elevation.
In coordination with Dolores County Sheriff's Office, in whose jurisdiction El Diente lies, a search and rescue mission was organized. The San Miguel SAR team was activated, and a helicopter owned by Heli-Dunn, of Medford, Ore., and piloted by P.J. Hunt of Talkeetna, Alaska, was arranged. (This company is in the area on a construction contract and agreed to suspend their operations to assist in the rescue.)
At about 9:00 a.m., SMSO Cmdr. Eric Berg went up in the helicopter to conduct a recon flight. Radio communication in the rescue area is very erratic, and at 9:40 a.m., Cmdr. Berg radioed they had spotted the victim, alive, along with two other people. No other communication was received until about 10:12 a.m., when he radioed they were enroute to the Telluride Airport with Yearm on board, and that an ambulance should meet them there.
Cmdr. Berg said Yearm had fallen off a 20-foot cliff and lain on a snowfield through the night. In the morning he crawled down to a scree field, where two other climbers discovered him.
One of the climbers, Kenneth Nolan from Buena Vista, Colo., activated his personal locator beacon. They assisted with bandaging and first aid on the victim's leg.
Helicopter pilot Hunt spotted the group, and was able to make a "toe-in landing" on a very steep slope, a hazardous maneuver in which the helicopter skid just barely touches the ground, and the rotors are very close to the mountainside, allowing Cmdr. Berg to exit and traverse the scree slope to the parties. Using the rescuing couple's hiking poles and duct tape, he splinted the badly broken leg.
Together they dug a short ledge in the scree so the helicopter could come in for a slightly safer second landing. According to the SMSO report, “As they loaded Yearm in the back seat for the flight to Telluride Airport, storm clouds were descending, obscuring the mountaintops, and the weather was very close to stopping flight operations.”
Cmdr. Berg said the couple who found Yearm undoubtedly saved his life. He also had great praise for pilot P.J. Hunt's skill in extremely difficult flying conditions.
Personal locator beacons are relatively new, and this is the first activation SMSO has received. They have the potential to be lifesavers, the SMSO report stated, “unless users begin activating them for non life-threatening situations. Backcountry users are also urged to obtain a fishing license or a hiking certificate to assist in defraying very expensive rescue costs, such as $1200/hour helicopter bills.”