By Matt Hage
In February of 2022, CSAR announced its first-ever blog contest, open to both backcountry search and rescue members and non-members. The contest was judged by Matt Lanning of Chaffee County SAR South, Ben Wilson of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Lisa Sparhawk of CSAR. This tragic story by Matt Hage, mission coordinator for the Summit County Rescue Group, won first place in the rescue story category for SAR members.
It was, in my mind, a routine call. I was the on-call mission coordinator for the Summit County Rescue Group and it was a beautiful but very cold Sunday morning in early January. Two snowshoers, a young couple and their dog were reported missing by friends after failing to show up that morning to go skiing.
After eight years as a mission coordinator and 28 years as an active member, I have a talent for jumping to conclusions. I’ve seen it all. I already know what’s happened. This young couple has simply not communicated a change of plans to their friends for whatever reason, and there could be dozens of reasons. My job is to think of all these reasons and eliminate them one by one until the missing couple is found; or, as is often the case, simply shows up never having been missing at all.
It begins with the interview of the reporting party. When it comes to missing people, a good interview is an art form. I’m like Detective Columbo. Every time they think I’ve asked the last question I come back with, “And one last question if you don’t mind.” I’m also, like most mission coordinators, highly skeptical of what I’m being told. I simply don’t trust anyone I’m talking with. Are they leaving some crucial detail out because they don’t think it’s important? Are they really concerned about the missing party, or had their friends changed plans without telling them? I’m always told by the reporting party how reliable the missing party is. How they are never late and are always in touch. Except for right now, this one time. But still, I keep all options on the table. Maybe this couple really is missing. This is the mystery; this is where I get to play Columbo and solve the case. Sometimes the greatest drama occurs while you’re still in your pajamas, on the phone and drinking a cup of coffee.
After about 25 minutes on the phone with the reporting party that cold January morning I had a pretty good picture of what was going on, but I wasn’t any closer to finding the missing couple. The facts were simple. The subjects were from Colorado Springs. A man in his mid-thirties and a woman in her mid-twenties decided the previous day, Saturday, to go snowshoeing with their dog. This was an activity they enjoyed together on a regular basis. They didn’t tell anyone, why would they? It was meant to be just them, time together in the mountains they both loved. The man had made plans to go skiing with friends at Breckenridge Ski Area on Sunday. They were supposed to meet the friends on Sunday morning in Colorado Springs. When he didn’t show, and she missed her exercise class, the friends became concerned.
They checked the couple’s house. No one home, car gone, dog gone as well. They contacted the brother of the man and the sister of the woman. The brother recalled the man telling him he might go snowshoeing near Breckenridge this coming weekend. The sister had the ability to track the woman’s phone. The last location showed it on a trail just off the top of Hoosier Pass, above Breckenridge.
The friends couldn’t explain why the couple would go all the way to Hoosier Pass to snowshoe on Saturday, then turn around and go back home only to wake up early Sunday morning to go back to Breckenridge to ski. It didn’t make sense to them. Frankly, it didn’t make much sense to me either, but I’ve seen a lot crazier things in my 28 years. As for the woman’s phone, well, maybe they did go snowshoeing and she dropped it in the snow and couldn’t find it. Why hadn’t they called about a change of plans? Maybe his phone had died. Maybe they just didn’t want to or think they needed to. Maybe their car had broken down, or they decided to spend the night in Breckenridge and would be calling their friends any minute now. Maybe, maybe, maybe.
The car is almost always the key. Find the car, find the couple. I told the reporting party we would begin looking for the car, starting at the parking lot on top of Hoosier Pass and at other trailheads in the area. They explained they already had another set of friends headed to Breckenridge and would be looking for the car too. It was all well in hand. We were looking for the car, and we had a good idea where to look. No one was really missing yet. Just a group of friends trying to meet up to ski and I was in the middle, playing a game of telephone with them all.
But three major things began to worry me. First, the time of the initial call. Usually, people are reported missing at the end of the day when it starts to get dark, and friends and family become concerned. This call came in the morning, yet the friends were already really concerned.
Second, the weather. It had been way below freezing last night, making surviving the night out extremely difficult.
Third, the avalanche danger had been reported as considerable by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC).
No mission coordinator operates in a vacuum. This isn’t a solo command. There are nine other very experienced mission coordinators on my team, some of whom have been in the search and rescue business for thirty or forty years. They all receive the coordinator page from dispatch and immediately begin to critique just how well the on-call coordinator is handling the situation. They can’t help themselves. A mission coordinator, after years of experience, has developed a sixth sense; an ability to stand on the sidelines and feel just how well or poorly any given mission is going.
Dan, a member of the group since the early eighties, and a mission coordinator for over 30 years, had also received the initial page that morning and his spidey sense was tingling. Like all good armchair quarterbacks, he waited to call me. He knew I had to do an interview with the reporting party. He knew I had to talk with Summit County Sheriff Office’s Sergeant Mark and go over everything I learned from talking with the reporting party – where I thought we were, where I thought we were going – and get Mark’s take on it all. Dan had a good idea how long all that would take, and as usual, his timing was spot on. He called within two minutes of me getting off the phone with Mark.
Dan got straight to the point. I informed him we hadn’t found them yet, which concerned him. We went over everything I had learned from my interview with the reporting party. Now it was my turn to be interviewed, and Dan grilled me on every detail. I explained that at this point we were looking for the car. We both agreed the most likely place to find the car was the parking lot on top of Hoosier Pass, near the location of the missing woman’s phone. I was still in my pajamas, drinking coffee, just another lazy Sunday search and rescue. Dan wanted to interview the reporting party as well, which is standard practice with the Summit County Rescue Group. Two mission coordinators will conduct two separate interviews of the reporting party any time we are dealing with a missing party. He might get details that I didn’t; he might ask new questions and confirm previous answers. I gave him the contact info and as he hung up, Dan said, “Get dressed Matt, this is going to be bigger than either of us realize. Let’s hope we don’t find that car on the top of Hoosier Pass.”
I got dressed. The initial page had come in around 10 a.m. and it was now half past 11. An hour and a half just talking on the phone. I was still calling people while getting dressed – Mark again, another coordinator to ask him to go to our rescue barn and start getting our Rescue 1 response vehicle ready, another set of friends of the missing couple. Talk, talk, talk. So much of search and rescue is simply conversations on a phone. By now, I really knew the missing couple. They were my friends too. She didn’t like to be cold. He skied but she didn’t. They both liked to exercise. They both enjoyed snowshoeing and she liked wearing black. So many little details of two lives who had now crossed paths with mine.
I had just finished getting dressed when Dan called me back. He had interviewed the reporting party again and found out new information, but mostly confirmed what was already known. While he was on the phone, however, the friends checking trailheads had called the reporting party back again – they had found the couple’s car in the parking lot on top of Hoosier Pass. It looked like it had been there all night.
My heart sank. This was the outcome I had dreaded. If the car had simply not been where it was found, the couple was still out there. They could have been driving around, perfectly OK, just not in touch. But now I knew exactly where they were. Worst of all, I knew deep in my soul that all three, the couple and their dog, were no longer alive.
Sure, there are miracles. They could have been holed up in some makeshift shelter. Maybe they’d been able to start a fire and miraculously survive a night out in the high Colorado Rockies in conditions that had dipped into the negative temperatures. I have witnessed such miracles in the past, incredible stories of survival. But with years of experience comes harsh realities. So, now I began the hardest part of being a mission coordinator – to act with hope, to blaze forward with all the resources available to me, to attack the reality that I now knew existed. The Summit County Rescue Group was going to war.
I was in Rescue 2, the on-call coordinator truck, within minutes of talking with Dan. I radioed dispatch for an all-call to the 65 Summit County Rescue Group members, asking them to respond to the top of Hoosier Pass for two missing snowshoers. I talked with Mark on our SAR OPS channel. He was already halfway to the pass and would meet me there. I asked dispatch to launch Lifeguard 2, the Flight For Life Colorado helicopter based at the hospital in Frisco, to fly over the pass and surrounding area looking for signs of the missing couple and their dog. I called the leader of our avalanche dog teams, who happened to be conducting a training that morning with two dogs, their handlers, and two avalanche techs. They all headed to Lifeguard 2’s pad in Frisco to be flown in.
All these parts were moving within ten minutes of finding the vehicle. Rescue 1 went enroute with our big, enclosed trailer carrying snowmobiles. Rescue 5, towing a trailer with two powder snowmobiles, went enroute a few minutes later. Team leaders and other coordinators called me on SAR OPS to let me know they were responding and to ask if I needed any more equipment. I was on the phone between radio calls, talking with the friends who had found the car.
“Stay where you are, please don’t go looking for your friends on the trail. We are coming, help is on the way!” I told them. I live 30 minutes from Hoosier Pass, so the moment I put out the all-call and put these resources in motion I was already behind. Now, I had to not only drive, but talk on the phone, answer the radio, make decisions, and keep a mental track of all the moving parts. By the time I was ten minutes out from the pass, Lifeguard 2 was searching the area from the air.
What they reported made my heart sink even lower. An avalanche. Looks recent. Debris field was at the exact coordinates of the missing woman’s phone. Lifeguard 2 was told to immediately go back to its pad in Frisco and pick up the first avalanche dog team. Continue the fight, press the attack, hold out hope when there was nothing left to hope for.
I arrived at the top of Hoosier Pass at around half past noon, two and half hours after the initial page. Now it was time to control the chaos. Not surprisingly, I already had group members on scene gearing up to go into the field. I checked in with Mark who had been talking with Lifeguard 2 over the radio. We both agreed to get a team of snowmobilers into the field headed for the avalanche debris as quickly as possible. I found the friends standing around the missing couple’s vehicle, looking worried, watching all the action taking place around them.
It was time to smile, look them in the eye, say that we are doing everything we can to find their friends. That it’s only going to get busier around here so the best place for them to be is in their car. That way, I knew where they were, and they could stay warm. Any developments, I would immediately let them know. I didn’t tell them not to worry. I didn’t tell them everything was going to be ok. I didn’t tell them I already knew what the outcome most likely would be. I just kept looking cool, calm, and collected. Everything was under control.
I began to assign jobs to members. You – start taking notes, keep a roster of everyone here and a log of radio traffic. You – start moving the public out of the parking lot. It was a beautiful Sunday, and the parking area was full of backcountry skiers, snowshoers, and families taking their kids sledding. You and you – Rescue 5 just showed up, unload the snowmobiles on the trailer behind it.
I also began evaluating members for their abilities and the roles I needed to fill. Here are three expert snowmobile riders, one of who even brought his own snowmobile to the mission. That was my Team 1. Brief them, show them the coordinates, give them their task. Head to the avalanche site along the summer road on which the missing couple must have been snowshoeing. Find a path and pack it down so I can send more resources in behind you. GO!
Now, Lifeguard 2 was back on scene, flying overhead, this time with an avalanche dog, dog handler and an avalanche tech. The tech was giving updates over the radio – aspect of the slope the avalanche was on, how big it was, how long it ran. Approach from the south, he said. We need a guard on the ridge above to make sure another avalanche doesn’t come down on the search area. And finally, two snowshoe tracks, very faint, coming out of the woods following the summer road, cutting across the bottom of the slope and disappearing into the bottom of the avalanche debris field.
The first avalanche dog team was on the debris field and searching. Team 1, made up of three snowmobilers, went in the field 15 minutes earlier. Members continued to arrive, including Dan and three other mission coordinators. A meeting of the minds was held amongst all the coordinators and Mark. I now had a tremendous amount of support. Dan took over radio communication, Glenn began organizing members into more field teams. Becky and Charles went to brief the friends about what was happening, and to ask more questions. I kept talking with Mark, whose role with the sheriff’s office was to provide oversight and support. No other team in the state of Colorado operates as autonomously from its respective sheriff’s office as the Summit County Rescue Group does, so the responsibility of operating a safe and effective rescue operation falls squarely on the shoulders of the on-call mission coordinator. I was beginning to feel that weight, to feel the pressure of command. Was I making the right decisions? Were the members in the field and in the air safe? Was I missing something? Was I doing everything I could in this situation? Was I doing too much?
Clarification came with a radio call from the first dog team. The dog had a hit, they were digging. Stand by! The dog was continuing to search, another hit, more digging. Second dog team was on scene and searching. And then…first missing party found, deceased. A few minutes later, second missing party found, along with the couple’s dog. Both deceased.
It was over. The battle had been lost, but it had never really been winnable. Still, the outcome was crushing. It was time to slow things down. No more need to rush more teams into the field; they could take their time getting ready. This was now a recovery. Mark and I informed the friends. We watched as their hearts broke and their lives changed forever. They were grateful for our efforts, devastated by the outcome. I’ve done this before, the telling of tragic news. It never gets easier, and this time was the hardest of all.
Over thirty members went into the field for the recovery, organized into eight teams. It was cold and backbreaking work, but it was done with dignity toward the deceased.
At a little before 6 pm, in the cold and the dark, the recovery was finished. The bodies were handed over to the coroner and everyone began to pack up gear. Once gear had been put away and members had eaten a slice of cold pizza, we gathered for a debrief. We formed a circle, illuminated by the scene lights of Rescue 2. I looked at the shadow of faces surrounding me. I saw fatigue, I saw shock, I saw sadness, I saw pride, I saw a team. A team of individuals who gathered on a beautiful Sunday to look for lost snowshoers and found tragedy instead. I told them how proud I was, of all of them. How they had performed above and beyond all expectations. How they had done the most honorable thing any member of a rescue group can do. They had found and brought the missing couple and their dog home to family and friends and provided them with the closure they so desperately needed. They should all feel proud of the work they had done.
Then it was over, and I found myself alone in an empty and dark parking lot on top of Hoosier Pass. This is the unique nature of being a mission coordinator. You are there from the very beginning to the very end. I went from being in my pajamas investigating, to the pure adrenaline of leading the search, to the calm of managing the recovery, to now, the last to leave the field of battle.
As I sat in Rescue 2, staring out the window into the dark, I questioned, not for the first time in my years of doing search and rescue, why did I do it? Why did I, or any volunteer member of a search and rescue team, do it? But there are no answers in the darkness.
This couple had just wanted to go for a walk in the woods, to spend some time together. The avalanche had come out of nowhere. It likely wasn’t even in the realm of possibility for them. It must have been like getting hit by a drunk driver while out walking. It was so completely unfair. They weren’t the normal backcountry users we usually deal with. They hadn’t skied a dangerous slope, or purposely ignored the warning signs of avalanche danger. They were truly innocent victims. But mother nature takes no prisoners, and fate had brought us all together. And as surely as the sun will rise, fate will bring me together with someone else; someone who just now is walking and talking, living their lives, not knowing what fate has in store for them. But I know their fate because I will be there when it is decided.
My teammates and I, along with the volunteers on teams just like ours across the state of Colorado and this country, decide every day to stand on the tracks of fate. More often than not, we intervene in someone’s fate and a life is saved. But on occasion, someone’s ultimate fate comes barreling towards us and there is nothing we can do. And still we stand there, despite the consequences to our physical and sometimes mental health. We pick up the pieces of the life that was lost, then go home and pick up our own lives right where we left them. You do this enough and your life is forever changed. Your perspective is different. You view the world in a different way. It’s a world of service to others. Those that are lost, we will find. Those that are injured, we will save. Those whose ultimate fate is decided, we will recover and return home. It’s also a world of service to each other. Where my teammates go, I go. What we do, we do together. We support each other, through the heroic rescues, and the devasting tragedies. It’s an incredibly special bond; without it we can’t survive. It’s what allows us to keep standing on the tracks of fate. We are standing on those tracks together. And together we can face and overcome whatever is coming.
A new resource for dealing with the stress injuries that occur to rescuers is Responder Alliance. Responder Alliance’s mission is to advance the conversation and provide resources to responders of all types to better deal with stress injuries that occur. Please visit: www.responderalliance.com for more information.