HomeNews West Maroon Pass scene of huge search and rescue operation
West Maroon Pass scene of huge search and rescue operation
Written by Mark Reaman
Wednesday, 02 October 2013
“It was gruesome out there on Friday...”
Squeezing in the last hike of the year over West Maroon Pass between Crested Butte and Aspen is always a tricky situation in the autumn. Such a hike last week ended with a lost hiker and a major search and rescue operation. The lost woman ended up fine but not before a lot of people spent a day looking for her.
The weather can be gorgeous up West Maroon in the fall, with clear blue skies and wonderful colors or it can look more like a mid-winter’s day with snow and wind and freezing temperatures. Friday, September 27 resembled the latter but that didn’t stop a group of three hikers from attempting the trek from Aspen to Crested Butte. A trip that culminated with a dozen search and rescue personnel along with a civil air patrol fixed-wing aircraft and an Air National Guard helicopter combing the area on that Saturday looking for one of the hikers, Miriam Dani. Dani, along with two male friends, started the hike in Aspen on Friday morning. The weather forecast called for snow and rain but they hiked anyway. From the Aspen side, the 12-mile journey finishes after seven miles at the summit of West Maroon pass before dropping into Schofield Park above Gothic. According to Crested Butte Search and Rescue incident commander Jeff Isaac, the two males in the hiking party were a bit behind the woman. She was at the pass while they were 20 or so yards below her. She said something to them as they walked toward the pass and continued on her way down. But the wind and snow at that point resulted in a whiteout so they stopped for a few minutes at the saddle. They didn’t see Dani for the rest of the trip. Apparently thinking Dani had quickly hiked to the trailhead to meet an Alpine Express shuttle, the two men continued down. When they didn’t see her, they called the local dispatch, which alerted local search and rescue teams. “A couple of us went up to the trailhead that evening and it was gruesome,” reported Isaac. “There were whiteouts and washouts and the road was really slippery. The woman’s friends had left a note and cache of food for her at the trailhead but when we got there it was untouched.” Isaac and eight other members of the Crested Butte S-and-R team, along with four members of the Western State Colorado University S-and-R team, hit the ground from the Crested Butte trailhead about 8:30 Saturday morning. After talking to the friends of Dani, it was decided that an aggressive search should be conducted. Searchers determined that she might have had some altitude sickness and she was the type of hiker who would have kept hiking until she found her way out. The fact that Dani hadn’t walked out by Saturday morning was a red flag for the S-and-R team. She didn’t know the area and wasn’t carrying a map or GPS. “Her friends said she tended to get grumpy at altitude and she appeared to have done that at the pass so we figured she had some altitude sickness as well,” said Isaac. “There appeared a good chance of injury or hypothermia coming into play and it was determined she was a high-risk lost hiker. Soon you have enough red flags to make a bouquet of red flags, so we were more aggressive than usual.” A helicopter and Civil Air Patrol helicopter were called into high-altitude action, along with a dozen people on the ground. “It was an interesting case. We had a team head up to West Maroon pass right away Saturday morning but they didn’t see any sign of her,” explained Isaac. “That’s where she was last physically seen about 4 o’clock Friday. But as it turned out, instead of going down, she headed back up. She had apparently gotten lost in the whiteout while walking down. She took the trail up to Frigid Air Pass and realized that couldn’t be right. So she backtracked down and found a small tree. As it got dark, she used a poncho to make a little tent and got under the tree. She stayed there until the sun came up about 6:15 Saturday morning. She then hiked back up West Maroon Pass in knee-deep snow and headed back to Aspen. “She said she saw the helicopter when she got in the Crater Lake area and tried to signal them that she was okay but they didn’t see her,” Isaac continued. “Her water was frozen and she only had a bag of nuts.” Meanwhile, the searchers found footprints that would have been Dani’s size, along with prints made from a hiking pole that she had been using. That led them up to Frigid Air. “That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment for us, finding those prints in the snow,” said Isaac. Isaac gave Dani credit for surviving the cold night and getting out on her own Saturday. “It all ended up well,” he said. “I talked to her as she was on the bus Saturday afternoon. Dani went to the hospital in Aspen and was checked out and released.” Overall, Isaac said, the local S-and-R teams don’t have a ton of lost hikers in the West Maroon area. “We get called if someone gets injured up there but usually there are enough people on the trail that if someone gets turned around, they can ask and find their way back,” he said. “This time of year we get some calls for overdue hunters but those guys are usually prepared enough to spend the night and don’t need us. This was indeed a bit of an unusual case.” For those on the ground searching, Saturday was a beautiful day to spend in the basin. “It was chilly but gorgeous,” Isaac admitted. “We were up there from about 8:30 in the morning until we got word about 4 o’clock that Dani came out at the Aspen trailhead. Saturday was a good day to be out. It was certainly a lot better than Friday.”