The risks of mountain running

In Public by Anna Debattiste

By LaPlata County Search and Rescue, submitted by Coral Smith

On Sunday, July 17th of 2022, 22-year-old Daniel LamThach from Salt Lake City was seen at the Molas Lake area, where he started a trail run. On Monday, July 18th, his cell phone was found by hikers 3.5 miles from the Animas River. Daniel was reported missing by a concerned friend on Thursday, July 21st.

For the next 11 days, San Juan County Sheriff’s Department and San Juan County Search and Rescue worked hand-in-hand with Colorado Search and Rescue Association, Flight for Life, DFPC Multi Mission Fixed Wing Aircraft, Montrose Helitack, Grizzly Peak wildland fire crews, and Silverton Medical Rescue to cover as much ground as possible. Over 871 personnel hours were dedicated to seeking any sign or clue of Daniel’s whereabouts. Eventually, the search was suspended due to severe weather including lighting and flash flood warnings.

Daniel LamThach
David Lunde

On Saturday, Oct 1st, David Lunde, a 29 year-old Durango resident, drove up La Plata Canyon to run the La Plata Enchilada. His girlfriend noticed his absence when he didn’t answer her calls. La Plata County Sheriff’s Department was made aware Lunde was missing early Sunday morning and initiated a search. 

The La Plata County Sheriff’s Department and La Plata County Search and Rescue assembled many of the same resources, with the addition of Montezuma County Search and Rescue, in the hope of finding David. The search efforts were hampered by the same harsh weather conditions that interfered with the search for LamThach several months earlier. This search took over 3,400 hours and was also aided by non-emergency services organizations including the Durango Running Company, the Durango Running Club, and other local groups.

To date, neither LamThach nor Lunde have been located.

Both were healthy, athletic, experienced, and familiar with ultra- and mountain running. It is hard to know what factors contributed to their disappearances.  We do know that any number of things could have gone wrong: challenging terrain, inclement weather, a debilitating injury, or a combination of the above. The Colorado outdoors are beautiful, but conditions can change quickly and dramatically.

Whatever backcountry adventures you embark upon, it helps to know the Three T’s:

  • Trip Planning: Tell a reliable person where you are going, what trailhead or parking lot you are leaving from, what your intended route is, and when you expect to be back.
  • Training: Make sure you have the technical skills and physical training required for the activity you’re doing. Know the varying elevations and what you will do if you are caught helpless in the wilderness for 24 hours because sometimes, that is how long it takes for help to get to you.
  • Take the Essentials: Carry the ten essentials for longer, technical runs. For shorter runs, pare down to extra layers and navigation.
Running essentials

Items pictured: Electrolytes, energy bars, sunglasses, headlamp, emergency bivy, minimalist first-aid kit, folding pocket knife, fire starter, map and compass, Garmin InReach, battery pack with appropriate cables for electronic devices, wool or synthetic gloves, wool skull cap/hat, soft flasks, water filter, phone with offline mapping app. Lightweight waterproof breathable shell (this packs into its own pocket), 12-liter running vest, and a mid-layer micro-puffy jacket.

While a majority of runners relish traveling light with little to no gear, there are too many variables beyond your control to consider this a logical plan for the backcountry. Anyone can twist an ankle or blow out a knee. Do you have what you need to survive for hours if you’re not moving to maintain warmth?

La Plata County Search and Rescue recently partnered with the Durango Running Club and the Durango Running Company to talk about safe mountain running practices; two LPCSAR members who are also experienced mountain runners and members of the Durango Running Club spoke on the subject of carrying essential gear. The talk was followed by a club run to demonstrate that carrying these essentials likely adds much less weight and bulk than the average runner realizes.

As the worlds of trail and mountain running collide, there is no substitute for knowledge, experience, and proper equipment. Train and build your technical skill set, learn how to read a topographic map, carry a satellite communication system, know your limits, and check the weather; all this will help you avoid mishap in the wilderness. If you lack the skills, seek mentorship from those with expertise, which you can usually find at your local running club. Don’t be afraid to inquire before heading out to unfamiliar terrain.

Even when you do everything right, change can happen in an instant and being prepared is your greatest chance of survival. Increase your odds with the Three T’s for any backcountry adventure and carry the ten essentials relevant to your plan. Take extra precautions so when, not if, something happens, we can all contribute to the best possible outcome.