Peter A. Topp, a 1972 West Point graduate and retired Army colonel who had climbed more than half of Colorado’s fourteeners, died from blunt force trauma to his head and body, according to a statement released by San Miguel County Coroner Bob Dempsey.
San Miguel County Sheriff Bill Masters said that Topp did not regain consciousness after being caught in the slide and succumbed to his injuries about one hour later.
Charlie Zimmerman, 60, of Montrose, sustained a head injury and internal injuries in the accident. With much support from responders, however, he was eventually able to make his way down a steep decline from the scene at 14,000 feet to a landing zone some 700 feet below, Masters said.
There, at an altitude of about 13,300 feet, a Soloy helicopter from Olathe Spray Service delivered first responders Emil Sante and Brian Beckham into the vicinity of the accident before weather delayed the rescue effort and the eventual arrival of nine more responders who were also shuttled in by helicopter.
The San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office first received a call reporting the accident shortly before noon, whereupon it began staging rescue operation on behalf of the Dolores County Sheriff’s Office at the Telluride Regional Airport.
Once at the scene Sante and Beckham had to climb up what Masters described as “a very nasty peak” to reach the victims, stabilizing them before other responders arrived there an hour or more later.
“We have had a number of deaths there from rockfall,” Masters said. “The whole peak is just kind of crumbling away.
“It was a nasty rescue,” he continued.
The third slide victim, Kathy Donnely, 31, of Broomfield, had to be transported to the landing zone in a litter after dislocating and fracturing her hip in the accident.
Topp, Zimmerman and Donnely were members of larger party of seven that apparently coordinated plans to climb the route over the Internet, Martin said.
While Topp and Zimmerman were lifelong friends, “the rest of the relationships were fairly recent,” Martin said. Topp and Zimmerman were apparently traveling with Kathy Donnelly and her husband, identified by Martin as Shawn Donnely, from Mt. Wilson, on their way to meet up with three other unidentified climbers on the traverse.
Those three climbers, who had reached the summit of El Diente, were heading down toward the other four when they heard the sound of the rocks falling and cries for help, Martin said.
Shawn Donnely was the only one of the four climbers in his party to escape the slide without injury.
The delay in the rescue operations caused by weather provided enough time for a Colorado Air National Guard team from the High Altitude Training Center in Eagle to make its way to the scene in a U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter that performs well at high altitude and is capable of carrying six crew and six passengers, Masters said.
“That really helped us,” he said.
“We could have not accomplished that mission if not for that Blackhawk,” said Martin.
Both the Olathe Spray Service and Blackhawk helicopters continued to fly as breaks in the weather allowed, but violent hail and lightning storms frequently grounded the aircraft.
The last of the operations (which involved removing the victims, the uninjured climbers and the responders) wrapped up just before dark, by which time, Masters said, the remaining rescuers had begun pitching tents in anticipation of a night on the mountain.
“It was a staff-intensive operation up there,” he said, describing a technical scene of fixed lines and roped rescuers lowering the injured to the landing zone.
“Considering what difficult circumstances they were in, it worked out really well,” he said.
After being rescued and brought to the Telluride Medical Center for evaluation, Zimmerman and Kathy Donnely were both airlifted to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction late Monday night. On Tuesday a spokesperson there confirmed that both were listed in fair condition.
Topp is survived by his wife, Regina, and daughter Kristina, both of Colorado Springs; a married son, Erik of California; and eight sisters and one brother.
POSTED ON July 26, UPDATED 11 a.m. ON July 27: Rockfall Was Triggered by the Hikers on the Northern Route TELLURIDE – Peter A. Topp, 59, of Colorado Springs was killed and two others in his party were injured while traversing the ridge between Mt. Wilson and El Diente after a rockslide took place there just before noon on Monday.
The condition of the two individuals who were injured had not been released as of Tuesday morning.
The three hikers were part of a group of seven traversing between the two peaks when they reportedly triggered the rockfall, sending two men and one woman down the mountainside.
San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office and Search and Rescue personnel staged a rescue operation at the Telluride Regional Airport, although the incident took place in Dolores County and was under the jurisdiction of Dolores County Sheriff Jerry Martin.
While inclement weather is not believed to have been a factor in the slide, it did hamper rescue efforts, said Martin.