Peak(s):  La Plata Peak  -  14,336 feet
Date Posted:  10/02/2020
Date Climbed:   08/15/2020
Author:  MSchott
 La Plata Peak Ellingwood Ridge   

HEADLINE: Doing Everything Right After Everything Goes Wrong

On Aug. 16, 2020, Grand County residents Mandi Schott and her husband Barry found themselves in a situation all too familiar to Colorado search-and-rescue teams. Mandi had been badly injured in a fall on a seldom-used trail at nearly 14,000 feet. They needed to get down off a high ridge near La Plata Peak and into an area where they could find help to arrange a rescue.

Their planned day hike turned into an overnight ordeal, after which Barry had to bushwhack through rough terrain as Mandi waited hours on the mountainside. He eventually found help, but that was just the beginning.

“Every time we asked Barry a question that would help us, he had the answer right there,” recalls Brian Erickson, the trailhead incident commander that day for Chaffee County Search and Rescue-North. “He was prepared, thought things out, and made good decisions. It made the outcome of this mission a lot better than it could have turned out.”

The couple did so many things right that Erickson asked them to tell their story for the benefit of others who may find themselves in the same situation. He stressed that, even for a day hike, good preparation and some simple gear can make a big difference in the outcome of an accident. What follows is Schott’s account.

By Mandi Schott (as told to Martin J. Smith)

The Accident

The ledge looked like an easy target, about five feet below me with a landing area about eight feet wide. Barry and I were making our way along Ellingwood Ridge, heading toward La Plata Peak on our first day of an August vacation. We’d been hiking since 4:30 a.m., hoping to summit about 1 p.m. and be back at the trailhead by 4. Barry had stepped away to check out another possible route, concluded it was more difficult, and was on his way to join me when I jumped onto what looked like a safe ledge.

It wasn’t.

What seemed as flat as a countertop from above was actually pitched like a roof, surfaced with fine gravel, and angled toward open air. The drop off the edge would have been a life-ender, and I was hopping awkwardly toward it while trying to gain some footing. Somewhere in the process, a bone in my lower right leg broke apart. One of my legs went over the edge, but I found two improbable hand holds before the other leg fell, and I hung on. Barry arrived just in time to pull me back.

What followed was an ordeal involving a desperate, painful butt-scoot down 2,000 vertical feet of scree, a long cold night trying to survive with the supplies we packed for our anticipated day hike, and a lot of smart decisions and choices by Barry that enables me to be here telling you this story.

“So often we reflect on the preparation that should have happened when things go wrong,” a team member posted on the Chaffee SAR team’s Facebook page later that day. “Today we're grateful to celebrate the preparation that did happen, allowing for a happy outcome after an awful accident.”

The Smart Choices

The injury happened at 11 a.m. One of the first, best choices Barry made was to get me off Ellingwood Ridge to a place where rescue might be possible. He surveyed the options, and decided our best choice was to move down a steep, open scree field toward a distant spruce grove below. There was an open boulder field nearby where a helicopter might be able to land.

Still, it involved hours of slow descent, using my arms to scoot across boulders while trying to protect my throbbing right leg. (Shoutout to the makers of Prana climbing tights, which survived the ordeal with only a small pinhole in the butt.) By the time we reached the spruce grove, it was about 5 p.m. We knew then we’d be spending the night, because we were exhausted and it was too late for Barry to hike out for help.

Because we started the hike in the early-morning chill, we had brought layers of warm clothes, including hats and gloves, and two old Mylar blankets that had been untouched in our packs for years. The overnight temperature was going to dip into the low 30s. We’d brought plenty of food (including granola bars and pre-cooked bacon) and water (Barry started with 90 ounces, and I started with 64) for a day hike. But now we had to make it last for who-knew-how-long?

We settled in. Barry made me a soft bed out of cut spruce boughs, and I bundled up for the coming chill and to fend off mosquitoes. He even found a half-buried can, rinsed it out in a nearby creek, and boiled some water for spruce tea. That tea was a game-changer, offering warm comfort and a bit of hope before trying to sleep until dawn. Barry also filled one of our bottles with boiling water, and I used it as a hot-water bottle to keep myself warm. Still, it was a rough night. And no one had any idea where we were.

The Search

We rose at first light, both dreading what was to come. Barry planned to hike out to find a cell signal and help. That meant he’d have to leave me alone and in pain for many hours while he hiked alone through a descent that was mostly untracked. But that was our best option.

Before he left, he took the scissors from our first aid kit and cut one of the Mylar blankets into three long streamers. Using a roll of electrical tape he had in his pack (he’s an electrician), he taped those streamers to a rough pole he made from a downed tree. Then he carried that makeshift flag into a clearing and anchored it upright with rocks, hoping a search helicopter could use it as a guide to my location.

Barry’s map skills are good, so he plotted the shortest route to Highway 82, where he hoped to find help. But the shortest route meant bushwhacking over two miles of boulders and through dense trees. Even animal trails were scarce. He stayed oriented by keeping the sun on his right side. The two-mile hike took him 2 1/2 hours, and around 9:15 a.m. he found Floyd Strader and his a CDOT crew, who were stationed along the highway because of a fire on Independence Pass. They had what we needed: friendly faces, a willingness to help, and radios.

After describing the situation to their dispatcher, the CDOT crew offered Barry a ride back to our car at the trailhead about three miles away, and gave him water and granola bars. Chaffee County Search and Rescue-North was notified, as was REACH Air Medical Services in Salida. Barry briefed both teams on the situation, and they used Barry’s detailed descriptions of my location to get to work. The chopper lifted off about 11, and the SAR ground team started climbing about noon.

Because Barry was able to point out on the topo map the general location where he had left me, the search-and-rescue hiking team was able to determine my general coordinates and chart a path to bushwhack back up to me. They carried a wheeled litter and first aid supplies into the field, expecting they may need to hike me out of the valley on the stretcher if the helicopter was unable to land.

Communication with the helicopter was difficult as the aircraft dipped into and out of canyons and disappeared behind peaks during the search. They eventually spotted Barry’s silvery flagpole and knew they were close, but the crew was out of touch for 90 minutes as they searched for landing spots and developed a rescue strategy. That made the wait especially tense for everyone.

The Rescue

Our mylar blankets didn’t breathe, so we had both woken up wet. I scooted myself out into a sunny spot to dry out after Barry left. From there I could see Barry’s silvery flags waving in the distance below. I had a strange sense of calm as I waited, believing that everything would be OK.

I eventually heard the helicopter. They’d spotted the flags and were searching the area for both me and a landing spot, but it took them another hour to find a place to put it down. When they did find a spot, it meant they had to transport me there, which took another two hours. The time passed more quickly than I thought because everyone involved stayed so positive.

All the while Barry waited at the trailhead, listening to the radio traffic. He finally relaxed a little when he heard the words “Patient is airborne.” I waved down to the search-and-rescue ground team as we flew overhead. It had been nearly seven hours since Barry left our makeshift camp.

They stabilized me at Heart of the Rockies Regional Medical Center in Salida, and scheduled surgery to repair my leg at Vail-Summit Orthopaedics. Now, a month later, I’m adjusting to crutches and healing, and still grateful to everyone who helped us through this. And I’m moving ahead with a better sense of what’s important in life, and how easy it would be to lose it all.

The Aftermath

In addition to extra food and water, here are the seven things we’re really, really glad we had in our daypacks.

1) Two Mylar blankets.

2) Extra clothing to layer up and layer down during the hike. We needed all of it.

3) Cigarette lighter. “I don’t trust matches,” Barry says.

4) First aid kit that included an elastic bandage and Tylenol for swelling and pain.

5) Roll of electrical tape.

6) Headlamps.

7) Topo map of the area.

Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):
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Comments or Questions

10/02/2020 15:17
Its amazing how a fun day hike can go to a survival situation in a second. Glad you brought some gear for emergencies, so many people don't.

Route Description
10/04/2020 22:10
I think this route should be bumped up to a class 4, to warn climbers that this ridge is challenging. You can keep it class three but you have to down climb the whole ridge to avoid the towers. I stayed close to the ridge the whole way and it seemed a hard 4. I passed another climber on on the way and he was also having problems route finding. Down climbing the towers was the hardest part of the climb for sure.The possibility of getting cliffed out is high.


Glad you are recovering
10/07/2020 16:26
Thanks for sharing your story. Hopefully it will help others to think about carrying a few extra survival items.

Just wow!
11/25/2020 16:16
So glad you're ok! Thank you for sharing your story and glad you had those essentials in your day pack. Many don't.


SOS Support
02/10/2021 13:33
I carry a Garmin InReach Explorer+ pretty much everywhere I go. For sure, when climbing. The device can locate me anywhere in the world and it has an SOS function that contacts State and Local Search and Rescue.
I subscribe to the air vac option which includes search and rescue and medical helicopter insurance (not included with your fishing license). Without this you could be on the hook for $50k+ if you require Med Vac.
The Explorer+ the most expensive item on my gear list ($450), but worth every penny. Of course, it also provides routes, way points, messaging, social media... There are other devices that serve the same purpose at lower price-points. Get one!
I wish I was there with you. Would have gotten you off the mountain much sooner. Great story, though. Glad you're OK!

RachelBeisel, I couldn't agree with you more! I've seen topsiders and flipflops on knuckleheads climbing these. They ask, "how far is it to the top, dude?" And, then for a Band Aid for the cuts on their feet, !

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