Out from below

A 1,800-foot long-line rescue in Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park

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Courtesy Black Canyon Search & Rescue

Have you ever wondered what would happen to you if you woke up at the bottom of a remote, 2,000-foot-deep canyon with a smashed foot dangling from your ankle like a sack of smithereens?

Mitchell Friedeman and Aaron Hedges found out the hard way. 

It was Mitch’s idea to go to the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park, a dramatic gorge in southwestern Colorado with dizzyingly steep walls that bend into the earth’s crust like an acute parabola. 

Aaron wasn’t even supposed to be there. He’d only moved into Mitch’s spare room in Boulder a few months back and was still easing himself into Colorado’s classic climbs. Years ago, the two were college roommates at the University of Kansas, where they’d met through the rock climbing club. Boulder, of course, was the ultimate dream for both their climbing souls. The Black, however, posed possibilities of nightmares.

The Black has a reputation among Colorado’s climbers. “Proud ascents, death-defying leads [and] narrow escapes” create “a dramatic aura that can quickly shift from surreally beautiful to dark and frightening,” writes Vic Zeilman, a seasoned National Park Service climbing ranger in the Black in the area’s guidebook. “All it takes is a short stroll from the campground [at the rim] to the overlook to feel the energy of the place, fueled by the raging river 2,000 feet below and the magnitude of the sheer walls.”

Unlike the Grand Canyon, the Black is much deeper than it is wide, exposing the tallest vertical wall and the oldest granite found in Colorado. The Gunnison River runs along the canyon’s bottom in rapid spurts and twisty curves between car-sized boulders, loose talus fields and thickets of poison ivy. 

Despite the reputation, Mitch had been planning a trip to the Black for weeks, eyeing a multi-pitch route called Stoned Oven (5.11+). The 1,800-foot route follows a series of corners and cracks up a section of the canyon’s northern wall. All was a-go until his original partner bailed.

Mitch figured Aaron was a fine replacement, and Aaron was more than gung-ho. The two had already climbed another Colorado big-wall test piece — the Diamond in Rocky Mountain National Park — completing the technical, overhanging Ariana (5.12) without much fanfare. All things considered, their odds of success in the Black were relatively high.

So, they loaded up Mitch’s Volkswagen with climbing gear, puffy jackets and lots of snacks. Mitch threw in his first aid kit — a small baggie of tape and painkillers like Valium and Hydrocodone. They’d end up using everything they brought once they got into the belly of the canyon. 

•  •  •  •

Tom Schaefer, one of three climbing rangers at the Black, was alone at his ranger post on the north rim when he got the first call. It was a little after 1:30 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 5. 

On the line was a law enforcement ranger stationed on the south rim. “We’ve been notified of some yelling down in the canyon,” he reported to Tom. “Tourists at the overlook called it in.” 

After hanging up, Tom examined the backcountry permit log — a large whiteboard nailed to the side of the ranger cabin. Who was down there at the moment?

Tom saw Mitch and Aaron’s names scrawled in expo marker next to Stoned Oven — the route in direct sight of the south rim’s tourist overlook. As Zeilman writes in his guidebook, “With sustained pitches of physical climbing, and prolonged sun exposure throughout the day, this route tends to put a spankin’ on folks.”  

Just as Tom hurried over to the north rim with a megaphone and rappelling gear, two climbers pulled themselves over the lip. He approached them, asking if they’d been hurt or heard any yelling. 

They were fine, no injuries. But they, too, had heard some yelling — maybe — it was hard to say for sure with the roaring river down below and the wind sweeping back and forth, muddling everything inside the canyon. 

Tom quickly secured himself to a rope and lowered himself 200 feet down the rim. He scanned the rock below. Nothing. He strained his ears, holding his breath, keeping still. Was that yelling? He couldn’t be sure. He hauled himself back up and radioed the south rim rangers — he could see them across the chasm, barely a quarter mile away. He asked them to zoom in on Stoned Oven through binoculars.

“We’ve got eyes on a party of two,” the officer reported back. “Little less than midway up the wall.” 

Tom requested they use a more powerful spotting scope. “Anything else?” 

“They’re rappelling,” they reported back. “Looks like one is favoriting their right leg.” 

Though this was only Tom’s third season as a Black Canyon climbing ranger, he’d spent the previous 14 years working on ski patrol and search and rescue teams in both Colorado and Alaska. He was no stranger to this sort of situation — all the moving parts, its intricacies, the decision-making process, the deep breaths, the pain. He’d also been on the other side of a rescue; he himself was supported by a combination of metal and reset bones from when he’d severely broken his leg a few years back.

Tom pulled out the megaphone and aimed into the chasm, shouting, trying to alert the two climbers, trying to get more information, trying to let them know help was coming. 

Silence. 

If both climbers were rappelling, he figured, then both were conscious enough to manage ropes and lower themselves back down to the canyon floor — meaning they were most likely not in critical condition. Even still, extracting them would be difficult — if they couldn’t make it out of their own accord, they would need to be hauled out of the vertical maze by search and rescue. 

He radioed back over to the south rim, “Keep eyes on them and let me know if anything changes,” he said, turning back toward the cottage. It was time to put a plan in motion. 

•  •  •  •

Mitch and Aaron had set their alarms for 4 a.m. Saturday morning. They crawled out of their tent to an inky, pre-dawn sky. 

From the campground, it’s a few minutes walk to a well-worn path that cuts through stubby trees toward a shallow dip in the rim of the canyon: the entrance to the Cruise Gully — a tight drainage filled with loose rocks, steep enough to require two rappels, plus the poison ivy. 

Mitch and Aaron descended slowly, carefully. For two and a half hours, their headlamps guided the way down to the river. They briefly traversed the water’s edge to reach the base of their route.

The first few hundred feet of climbing Stoned Oven were relatively straight forward. 

Mitch took the first lead. When he neared the end of the rope, he built an anchor and pulled up their haul bag filled with food, clothes and emergency supplies. He yelled down to Aaron, “You’re on belay!” 

Aaron left the ground, climbed up to Mitch, then kept going. They continued for more than five hours, taking turns leading each pitch. 

About 1,000 feet off the ground, it was Aaron’s turn to lead again. He stood atop a small pillar and looked to his right, scanning the band of pegmatite — a slippery type of crystallized granite — he’d have to traverse to reach the next crack system. 

It was around 11 a.m. The sun was now hitting their backs. 

He placed a piece of gear near his feet and started to pick his way across the relatively blank rock. He saw an old bolt that someone had pounded into the rock decades before, and traversed below it, toward a flake, where he figured the climbing would get significantly easier. He didn’t clip the old bolt, as Zeilman’s book recommends. 

When he reached the flake, he took a deep breath, trying not to overthink his last piece of protection — how far it was, a dozen feet back. 

Then, he fell. 

A hold didn’t break. A rock didn’t shift. A cam didn’t blow. It was a simple, good-old-fashioned fall. He botched a move and slipped. 

Mitch watched from below in slow motion: the rope going slack in his hands, Aaron falling, hitting, falling more, screaming.

There was a small ledge and Aaron’s right foot had found it, immediately shattering on impact. The force flipped him upside down and he kept falling, bashing his back and helmet on the dark granite below. 

Aaron immediately jerked himself upright and grabbed his foot. Throbbing with streaks of hot-white pain, his foot dangled, a sack of broken bones. The base of both tibia and fibula completely destroyed. “I broke my leg!” he screamed. “I broke my leg!”

Mitch yelled up to him, “OK, we have to get you down here!” What about Aaron’s back? His head? 

Aaron kept screaming.

Mitch lowered Aaron as smoothly as possible, reeling him in toward the anchor. Mitch secured Aaron to the anchor and assessed him. Aaron’s back and neck seemed to be fine but it was immediately, painfully clear his foot was broken. 

Aaron kept yelling. “I’m so sorry!” he repeated. “I can’t believe this!”

“Stop apologizing,” Mitch tried calming him down. Thinking over his screams neared impossible. 

What do you do half-way up a canyon wall? They were 1,000 feet above the river, yet 800 feet below the rim. Should they go back down and hike up to get help, or try to climb out? 

He shoved 500 milligrams of Tylenol into Aaron’s hand. “Take these.” 

Mitch spotted two tiny people at the overlook across the canyon, on the south rim. “Help!” he yelled, waving his arms. “Help!” Could his voice even reach them? 

He pivoted back to Aaron, who was growing nauseous with pain. “I think we have to rap down and get you on the ground.” 

Aaron grimaced, nodding. Mitch dug out the roll of tape and held Aaron still while trying to wrap his limp foot. At the hint of any pressure, Aaron reeled. “I just need to lie down,” he kept saying. “I just need to lie down.” 

Mitch double-checked their anchor, thinking to himself: “This is when bad shit actually happens. Aaron breaking his ankle is bad, but this is when people die. They make dumb decisions and move too fast and mess it up.” He lowered himself down to a large ledge some 200 feet below. He yelled up, “OK, you can lie down here!” 

He surveyed the rock for places to build another anchor, but realized he didn’t have enough gear to build anything. Everything was on Aaron’s harness. So, he placed one protective piece into a crack but couldn’t quite clip it. As Aaron arranged the rope to lower himself down, Mitch felt it pull taught on his harness and instinctually unclipped himself. For a second he stood free, not clipped into anything. 

“Shit,” he scrambled to secure himself. “Alright,” he muttered, resolute. “We’ve got to do this right.” 

Aaron slowly lowered himself down, grating his left side along the wall or hopping on his left foot, trying to figure out what could dampen any swinging in his shattered foot. 

When Aaron finally laid down on the ledge, the worst of the pain descended. Mitch retaped Aaron’s ankle and went over their game plan: they’d rappel the length of the wall in short sections, one at a time, Mitch first, then Aaron. Mitch would scout out places to build anchors with their dwindling supply of gear — once they rappelled off their pieces, there’d be no way to get them back. 

With the ropes situated, Mitch lowered another 200 feet or so and spotted figures down below. Rangers! They carried long, flat objects, probably stretchers. 

Now alone on the ledge, Aaron felt like he was going to pass out. What would happen next? It was a pain unlike anything he’d ever experienced. They’d get to the bottom of the canyon, and then what? Mitch would hike back up for help? Would it be dark by then? How long would he have to be alone?

When Aaron lowered himself again, Mitch pointed down, “Look! They must’ve heard us!” 

Aaron’s chest swelled with hope as he craned his neck toward the canyon floor, only to realize they were kayakers, with kayaks. He deflated.

More than six hours later, they reached the canyon floor. Mitch had left their entire rack of gear up there. All he could think about, though, as he watched Aaron lower the final hundred feet, was how long this day was going to be. Darkness was already beginning to fall.

•  •  •  •

Nick Wasser was about to go on a bike ride in Montrose, where he works as a nurse at the Memorial Hospital, when he saw Tom’s number light up his phone. 

“Can you come now?” Tom asked.

On the rim, Tom was weighing options. There’s only one helicopter in Colorado that’s capable of performing the Black’s long-line rescues, but it wasn’t available. The next-closest rescue helicopter was in the Grand Canyon, so he called over, and was told it could be ready the next morning. Though it wasn’t even 3 p.m., Tom knew Aaron wouldn’t be getting out of the canyon that night, chopper or no chopper. He’d have to send folks in to spend the night below. 

When Nick arrived, he met Naomi, another volunteer and registered nurse on the Black Canyon Search and Rescue team. Tom handed them both overnight packs — stuffed with sleeping bags, food, a stove and a bundle of first aid supplies including an IV drip and splints. The plan was to make contact with the climbers, then assess whether or not to call the chopper for the morning.

The trio headed down down the Cruise Gully, picking their way around poison ivy and loose talus, until they reached the base of Stoned Oven. 

Nick couldn’t help but think about the last major rescue he’d helped with in this section of the canyon, a few years back when another climber fell on Stoned Oven, fracturing his skull. That was a nightmare situation, hauling him out by hand in the dark, unsure if the climber would make it out alive. 

When they arrived at the base of Stoned Oven early Saturday evening, however, they found Mitch already on the ground and Aaron, his foot wrapped in white tape, just about to touch down. He lowered himself awkwardly as Nick, Naomi and Tom rushed over. 

Mitch explained what happened as Nick and Naomi assessed Aaron’s wounds. They splinted his leg and took his vitals. Mitch fished out the Valium and Hydrocodone he kept in his first aid kit. With a nod from Nick and Naomi, Aaron took both. 

“Was it the right decision to come down?” Mitch peppered Tom with questions. 

Tom nodded — if they’d stayed up on the wall, SAR might’ve been able to lower lines and haul them out from the rim that afternoon, but since the climbers had no way of knowing whether help was on the way, the safer bet was to lower. Glancing up at the rim, Tom said, “You can pull rope with us tomorrow.” 

Courtesy Black Canyon Search & Rescue

Because Aaron was stable, Tom forwent calling in the helicopter and directed Nick and Naomi to stay overnight with him where they were. In the morning, they’d implement a manual long-line rescue. 

Tom and Mitch hiked back up, reversing the dirty gully, pulling themselves up the fixed lines. By 8 p.m. they reached the rim. Mitch, exhausted, crawled into his sleeping bag. 

Tom finalized the plans for the morning. He savored a tinge of pleasant coincidence. The next day was the SAR team’s final training session of the season, thus most SAR members were already on the canyon’s rim.  This was the moment they’d all been practicing for; it was the first time in many years they’d have to execute a rescue like this. Some of them, including Nick, have been working together for 15 years. He sent out a call for a 6 a.m. meeting.

By 10:30 p.m. Tom was asleep. 

•  •  •  •

At the bottom of the canyon, Nick and Naomi woke up every hour all night to monitor Aaron’s vitals. Doped up on Valium and Hydrocodone, in and out of sleep, Aaron gazed at the stars, a highway of twinkling lights bound by the canyon’s dark walls. 

Then, light broke the day. 

At 6 a.m. Nick radioed up to Tom. 

Everyone had gathered at the north rim. A handful of extra personnel from Ouray’s SAR team and Crested Butte Mountain Rescue also drove in to lend a hand. Tom reviewed the plan: They would use pulleys and ropes (two 1,200-foot ropes each tied to 600-foot ropes) to manually pull Aaron out of the canyon — two ropes in case one snapped or shredded under pressure. 

They split into teams. One group prepared the litter — a metal stretcher that Seth, another SAR volunteer, would sit in as it was lowered down, and which Aaron would lie in while being hauled back up. Another group worked as “edge attendants” protecting the ropes from sharp rock edges. Two people rappelled just below the rim, laying down pieces of canvas and metal rollers for the rope to slide on.

Within 45 minutes, they began lowering the litter. Tom radioed down to Nick, “Seth’s mitigating rockfall hazards.” 

As Seth had been instructed — “Anything that has the potential to fly, fly it” — he started yarding on loose rocks, chucking them into the canyon. 

Nick and Naomi heard the whizzing first, then watched explosions from the safety of an alcove at the base of the wall. The deadly rock storm continued for nearly two hours. Then Seth, the litter, plus all of Mitch and Aaron’s gear (which Seth retrieved), finally hit the floor. 

Nick would ride up with Aaron. Naomi and Seth helped him position and secure Aaron in the stretcher. With everything cinched tight and systems double-checked, they radioed a green light.

Up on the rim, Tom directed the rest of the SAR team on the operation of a three-to-one pulley system they’d built — a manual hauling system giving them a mechanical advantage. Fifteen people pulled on the rope with their hands, walking backward until they reached the pulley, then jogging back to get in line again, pulling some more. Mitch hopped right in line, pulling, walking, pulling, walking. Like clockwork.

Inch by inch, Nick and Aaron rose. 

Nick used his legs and palms to keep the litter from scraping the wall, minimizing any jarring for Aaron’s sake. The Valium and Hydrocodone had long worn off. 

Two hours later, the team maneuvered Nick and Aaron over the edge. It was just past 2 p.m. and everyone cheered. 

Mitch got the car ready, and rescuers eased Aaron into the back seat. It’d be a long drive and a few more days until he got surgery — pins and plates and screws — but for now, he was safe, back on high ground.

“It’ll come back,” Tom said to Aaron, patting his own leg, the one with metal holding it together. “Don’t worry. It comes back.”

By 4 p.m., the rim was cleared of ropes and pulleys. Twenty-eight hours after the accident, folks kicked back to drink a beer. As Tom would later say, “All in a day’s work.”