Climbers rescued off Quandary Peak recall feeling near brink of death
SUMMIT COUNTY — Running on fumes from a demanding climb and dealing with the physical effects of altitude mixed with having exhausted their stock of water, two California men believed death could be imminent when they called for an emergency rescue off Quandary Peak Sunday night.
Longtime friends and hiking partners Thomas Ferrara, 30, and Eric Hall, 28, both of Bakersfield, met in Colorado for the holiday weekend in the hopes of a successful trek up the popular Summit County 14er’s West Ridge. The class-three (of five) route traverses more than 2,600 feet of elevation gain over a 2-mile ascent and requires nimble scrambling while overcoming considerable exposure.
The two described themselves as “moderately experienced” after a number of past climbs at Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks and the surrounding areas. The Rockies might pose a bigger challenge, but they did their research and departed with their usual cold-weather gear — layers, mountaineer boots, crampons, ice axes and rope. But following a harrowing rescue, they acknowledged that unexpected conditions and perhaps a hastily planned trip got the best of them.
“We weren’t expecting what we ran into,” said Ferrara, who works in sales. “We knew from the conditions I suppose that avalanche was a possibility, and that’s, I think, mostly why we made the call. But we were assessing our situation and we thought an incident could be very likely here. We didn’t want to die.”
The pair parked their car at the gate off Blue Lakes Road outside of Breckenridge and started into their climb at about 10:45 a.m. on Sunday. They took a leisurely pace with plenty of breaks. The heat proved a surprise given the recent dumpings of snow they’d read about, and they nearly left their heavy jackets behind in the car.
“We thought we’d go fast and light,” said Hall, a high school teacher, before opting to set out overpacked even as the sun beat down upon them, which also softened the snow. “Conditions were not ideal, and the route was a lot harder than it was reported. It drained us really early on, it was such technical terrain that it was like we were already kind of beat.”
By the time they reached a point roughly 300 feet from the summit, they were staring at 60-foot rock faces and felt ill prepared for the final pitch. They were cliffed out as dusk settled in and their energy levels were low with no liquid outside of the occasional icicle. They felt getting back down from the direction they came could mean their demise, so with a dying phone battery but luckily with cell coverage in a notorious dead zone, they dialed 911.
“(We were) totally past the point of exhaustion by the time we got to where we were,” said Ferrara. “Physically I had lost my pinch grip completely. We were to that point, so even if we were to try and repel down or whatever — normally not a problem — but when you can’t open a carabiner, how do you control your descent?”
The first wave of Summit County Rescue Group volunteers headed out at about 10 p.m. and reached Quandary’s crest via the traditional — and easier — East Ridge around 1:30 in the morning. Hall and Ferrara dug a small trench to escape the wind and the two parties yelled back and forth only able to catch glimpses of headlamps in the pitch black to determine the other’s location. With the assistance of a Flight For Life helicopter, the crew of rescuers judged the situation too risky and told the climbers by phone they’d have to hunker down and try their best to keep moving to stay warm until first light.
“I said, ‘I don’t know if we’re going to make it,’” Ferrara recalled telling a rescuer. “(Eric) had collapsed already though he hadn’t passed out yet, and I was dealing with severe nausea and the altitude was really getting to us without water. He said, ‘Listen, you can make it. Hang in there, you keep dancing, we’ve seen people go through immense scenarios like this before and you don’t know what you’re capable of until you get on the other side of it. But keep going.’
“You couldn’t let the despair set in, hope is what got us through and (he) was a big part of that,” he added. “We are just so appreciative of that rescue crew. We can’t say enough praise for them.”
At dawn, rescuers decided it was still too treacherous to get the two men out via the summit, and sending a team up the West Ridge to reach them also came with its own set of challenges. If it could be organized, an air rescue by military helicopter was the preferred option. A Blackhawk based out of a U.S. Army National Guard site in Eagle arrived to Ferrara and Hall at about 8 a.m. — 21 hours after they’d first left the car. A mountain rescuer out of Aspen was lowered to them and individually hoisted them up to the helicopter to bring the overnight mission to a close.
Each climber suffered between first- and second-degree wind and sunburns after mistakenly forgetting the sunscreen as well as minor frostbite to their feet. Able to walk and feeling only cold, they declined an ambulance ride to the St. Anthony Summit Medical Center and stayed the night at a Frisco motel. By morning, Ferrara’s lips sealed shut, though, and 24 hours later he still couldn’t feel his toes, so they headed to the hospital for a full evaluation. The next afternoon before making the 15-hour drive back to Bakersfield, the two men were introspective bordering on philosophical in their gratitude simply to be alive.
“It was an unforgettable experience,” said Hall. “Many lessons learned. Climbing’s not worth dying for. We were very fortunate that all these things came into place. It could have been game over.”
“Life is precious and you only realize it when you’re confronted with death, truly,” said Ferrara. “Because we really didn’t know if we were going to survive the night. Ultimately it’s not about just being out there and doing something great — all those things that draw us to the mountains. All I wanted to do was get off the mountain and talk to my wife again, and talk to my friends.
“You try to limit exposure and mitigate risk as much as possible,” he added, “but there’s always that unknown. The mountain itself has a way about it to kill you.”
For downvalley humans, it’s pretty cool when elk decide to hunker down around Eagle for the winter. For the elk, it’s more of a lesser-of-two-evils situation.