Extreme rescues: La Plata County Search and Rescue takes on the difficult task of saving wayward daredevils, finding the lost

by Amanda Push

The first rescue Search and Rescue veteran Ron Corkish ever went on was when a young man whose overeagerness to rappel, despite his lack of experience, got him stuck on the side of a cliff.

The college-aged man had visited a climbing area near Turtle Lake to practice rappelling, since he was new to the sport.

“All’s good, everything’s going great, except his rope is twenty-one-feet short of the bottom, and because it was just a rappel and because he’s new, he has no way to ascend,” said Corkish, who now has 28 seasons of search and rescue under his belt. “So he’s hanging in his harness for almost six hours. Dead weight on his harness.”

Eventually, a Good Samaritan noticed him swinging in his harness, unable to get down, and called for help.

“Fortunately, he had a knot in the end of his rope, which sometimes that’s a major failure. You get the wrong rope, it’s shorter than you think, and you rappel right off of it and you fall to serious injury or death,” Corkish said.

Corkish and his team made their way up to rescue the man who, at that point, was completely numb from the waist down from hanging there for so long.

“We brought him down and he was thankful and crying, you know, by then. … And I remember as we were putting him in the gurney, you know, young college kid, he says, “Am I going to be able to have kids?” That was his question. We laughed and that kind of brought the edge off of everything but that’s what was on his mind as he had no feeling from the waist down.”

Though in retrospect the story might be amusing from the tomfoolery of it all and horrifying from the idea of hanging in a harness for six hours,calls like these take just as much precedence as any other emergency. Corkish has built an entire response philosophy around the idea that the team takes on every mission as though that’s their loved one on the other end of the line.

“We’re out there in the middle of the night (for) a silly thing. But it doesn’t matter. … When the phone rings, the who’s, the what’s they’ve done, the ‘Wow, they really did that?’ – every call is my mom on the end of the phone saying, ‘Son, will you come help me?’ And everybody on the team would go and help their mom, regardless of whether it’s raining or snowing or darkness of night. You’re going to go take care of your mom,” Corkish said.

Today, Corkish is the president of La Plata County Search and Rescue, and his team of volunteers let us tag along in the snow during a ski lift evacuation training exercise at Purgatory Resort, where we swapped stories.

A day in the life in search and rescueAs their name suggests, La Plata County Search and Rescue covers La Plata County, but they will also sometimes assist in San Juan County, too. The group, which works alongside the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, is called to assist in everything from people lost in the wilderness to wildfires to avalanche rescues, and their training exercises take them anywhere from X Rock to Ouray’s Box Canyon.

Like firefighters and policemen, LPCSAR often has the gritty front row seat to the misfortune that can take place when one is exploring the outdoors, particularly in areas that are difficult to get in and out of.

The team assisted in rescuing a Durango man in May 2018 after he fell while climbing Animas City Mountain. Phillip Clark, 31, and a friend were hiking and had stopped to take photos. The ledge Clark was holding onto gave way and he tumbled 20 to 25 feet.

LPCSAR got the call for the injured hiker, but it took time for the team to reach Clark, and rescuers ended up having to hike up to him and carry rope gear up with them as well. Clark was extracted and then flown to Mercy Regional Medical Center, where he died the next day from his injuries.

In July 2016, LPCSAR was paged to assist San Juan County in a rescue that turned into a body recovery at Cascade Creek. Two people were rescued but another young woman died while jumping waterfalls.

Those days are rough, Corkish said.

Though tragedy seeps its way into many of the team’s missions, there are plenty of happy endings as well.

Corkish recalled an instance where an 11-year-old girl got separated from her camping group when she stepped away to use the bathroom and missed the trail on the way back.

“She was gone all night. … She was a special girl because she had this crazy clown wig on and her jammies,” Corkish said. “But at night, it doesn’t matter what you’re wearing. It was the last trip of the night. It was ‘I’m just going to go over here.’ And I think so many people just do that. They’re just going to go over here. They’re just going out for the three-hour tour and then it turns into an ordeal.”

After the girl was found, watching the 11-year-old reunite with her parents was almost like watching a scene out of a movie.

“Gosh, it doesn’t get any better than that,” Corkish said. “And gosh, the stories just go on and on because we get called into so many different things. Kids always have a special place.”

In another instance, two 12-year-old girls were out playing in a field, Corkish said, but didn’t return back to their families. Their bicycles were found alongside a road, prompting questions about where the two had gone and whether someone had picked them up. Were they now in a criminal investigation?

To the relief of their families and searchers, the girls had just gotten carried away and lost track of time, starting down at Turtle Lake and ending up in the Overlook area. It’s easy to lose yourself when you’re out in the wilderness, Corkish explained. Adults do the same thing.

Man hours build camaraderieIn 2018, the team put in more than 8,800 man hours, many of which came from the 416 Fire, which covered 54,129 acres and lead to a shutdown of the San Juan National Forest. The group participated in 123 training exercises totaling 533 hours, and they were called to 62 incidents throughout the year, which totaled 351 hours. It’s a position that demands a lot from its volunteers, but creates a unique kinship among the members.

The camaraderie between the volunteers is instantaneously notable. As they stood on the slopes of Purgatory Resort, the easy back and forth banter of the conversation made the chilly afternoon fly by. But while the friendly atmosphere and sense of teamwork seem like a given, especially considering the group relies heavily on one another in intense situations, multiple team members said they were lucky to be in a group that gets along so well. Many times, that’s not the case.

“And that’s a big thing. Not every county has that,” Corkish said. “I’m on the Colorado Search and Rescue Board so we have oversight for 54 counties, and they continue to be amazed at how we get along and play in the sandbox with everyone that comes onto the scene. Because it’s not turf. It’s, ‘How do we solve this issue? How can we get it done safely and get everyone out safely, quickly, and efficiently?’ And I think we play in that sandbox really well.”

“We’re really lucky because in a lot of places, the search and rescue team and the fire department team don’t play well together, and here we train all the time,” said Jonathan Wilson, a member of the LPCSAR team and an EMT firefighter from Durango. “We do these joint trainings often. At least once a month.”

The team relies on one another when going into high-stakes situations. It requires honesty with the team and themselves.

When the body of Dawson W. Radau, 27, was found near the Durango Dog Park, LPCSAR assisted in moving his body. Radau, who died by suicide, had hung himself. When the call went out, dispatchers warned that anyone involved needed to be mentally prepared for the scene, said Cory Roman, a member of LPCSAR.

“It’s a volunteer (position),” Roman said. “You have the ability to say, ‘I can’t handle. I can’t go to that.’”

In the midst of so much intensity – some missions ending in tragedy, others ending with sighs of relief – one begins to wonder how rescuers compartmentalize the stress of, at times, literally holding someone else’ life in their hands. However, if you’re not at least a little nervous going into a situation, you’re not taking into account all the different scenarios that could take place, Roman said.

“Training, training, training,” Roman said. “They have to know that when I show up, I’m going to be able to perform and do what needs to be done. … So GAR is a risk management protocol. So basically every time the situation changes or before we go into the field onto mission we have to make sure everyone is comfortable with what we’re doing. Is everyone on the same page? Are we ready to go? Does anyone have any problems? And that comes in with the rapport … where everyone is buddy-buddy together. We give each other a hard time, but when it comes down to it and someone is like, ‘This doesn’t sound good,’ everyone is going to listen because we have that rapport built.”


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