Story by Dan Burnett, Anna DeBattiste & Elaine Grosso; photos by Aaron Parmet
On February 7, 2009, the Summit County Rescue Group responded to a call for a missing female snowmobiler on Vail Pass. This is the story of what they found that night, and the amazing survival of a courageous woman.
Dan Burnett, Summit County Rescue Group Mission Coordinator, 5:00 pm
It really speeds things up when you know the reporting party, because part of a mission coordinator’s job is to evaluate the credibility of the person who called 911. So I was glad when I arrived on Vail Pass and had Scott Wilson to talk to. Scott’s been running his snowmobile rental operation for a long time, and he knows the difference between a missing person who probably went to a bar, and a missing person who is probably in real trouble. Because I was dealing with Scott I had been able to put out a page for the team right away, before I even arrived on scene.
“They were going to Red Cliff,” Scott told me. “She was following her husband, and at one point he looked back and she was gone. He went up and down Turkey Creek Road looking for her, but there was no sign.”
“What’s the timeline?” I asked.
“She disappeared at about 1:00 pm. Husband looked until about 3:00, then I joined in with a couple of my staff members. Then Vail Mountain Rescue Group was called at 4:00, and they have two rescuers out with the husband on the Red Cliff side.”
I got on the radio and called the Vail team. “I need you guys back down here on the pass, with the husband,” I told them. “We’re going to organize search areas from here.”
Members of the Summit County Rescue Group had begun to arrive by then, and I started sending them out by snowmobile in teams of two. “I want everyone to stop every five minutes, turn off your sleds, and yell,” I told them. “If she was visible from the trail she’d have been found already. She’s obviously off the trail somewhere.”
I held a medical team back, ready to go into the field when we found her. Mark Svenson, another mission coordinator who showed up to help me run the mission, put the Flight For Life helicopter on an airborne standby so we’d be ready for anything when we found her. Lifeguard 2, the helicopter based in our county, was past its service hours so he got Lifeguard 1 from Denver. Lynn Schlough, my efficient scribe, organized teams to go into the field while I mapped out the search areas.
The husband seemed calm, although worried, so I invited him to sit in the command post vehicle with us. “What’s your plan?” he asked me.
“We’re going to find her in the next hour,” I said confidently, hoping I was right.
And I was. A radio call came in from the Vail team a few minutes later and they had found her, badly injured, lying in Turkey Creek ravine. We sent the Summit teams toward her and launched the medical team that had been waiting by the command post. Radio reception was poor from her location, so we posted a radio relay about halfway up the trail. With perfect timing, the Flight For Life chopper landed on the pass and waited for my instructions. Within five minutes, we had gotten coordinates to the pilot and the chopper launched again.
Anna DeBattiste, Summit County Rescue Group rescuer, 7:30 pm
I stood in the deep, untracked snow between the edge of the snowmobile road and Turkey Creek ravine because from there I could see everything: the crew on the road, preparing a landing zone for the helicopter, and the crew in the ravine, working quickly to package our patient.
“Get an ETA on the patient reaching the road,” Glen Kraatz called over to me. “The Flight For Life chopper is at the Vail Pass parking area, and they don’t want to launch until we have a time estimate.”
I called down to the medical crew and was told it would be about 10 minutes. I relayed the estimate to Cale Osborn, our sheriff’s office liaison, and heard it repeated by our radio relay person.
Our patient was screaming again. “I can’t breath!” she shrieked.
“Hang in there,” Scott Young said, as he and the other four rescuers tried to shift her position. I felt bad for Scott. He’d been one of the first arrivals, but his paramedic training wasn’t much use without any medical equipment. We hadn’t even had oxygen until another team arrived from command, many minutes later.
The medical team must have found a better position for our patient because she was quiet for a few minutes. I resumed tramping a path between the ravine and the road with my snowshoes while the rest of the road crew readied a rope to haul her up. We didn’t have a litter, so she would be on a backboard with the rope attached and haulers on every side.
I tried to figure out how the accident had happened as I tramped back and forth. The snowmobile road was groomed, straight, wide and flat. It had still been daylight at the time of her crash, nearly six hours ago. Her tracks went at a gradual angle off the road, across twenty feet of flat ground in untracked snow, and then down another forty feet into the ravine. Her sled lay mangled in the creek, and she had been found lying on the bank. We didn’t know the extent of her injuries yet, but we knew they were severe, perhaps even critical. I’d heard one of our more experienced snowmobilers speculating that something must have happened to make her panic and hit the throttle as she dropped into the ravine.
There was commotion from the ravine as the patient began to scream in pain again. There were no words this time; just deep, guttural expressions of agony.
“She’s going red!” Scott yelled, letting us know that our patient was indeed critical and every second would count. “What’s the chopper’s ETA?”
“It’s in the air!” I shouted back. “Are you ready to move her?”
Someone handed me the end of the rope, and I tossed it down into the ravine. We lined up and got ready to haul. My five teammates in the ravine clearly had a tough task ahead of them; despite our efforts to stomp out a trail leading up the embankment, the snow was deep and there wasn’t much room to maneuver. They started by trying to carry the backboard, but the two rescuers on the outside kept falling off the trail and back into the ravine. Then they began to heave our patient up the trail, one throw at a time, breathing heavily. She screamed with every heave. We hauled on the rope as hard as we could, but it didn’t seem like we were helping much. When she reached the top, we were able to carry her the rest of the way to the snowmobile road.
Glen had arranged a couple of snowmobiles facing each other to light up a landing zone on the snowmobile road ahead of us, and he stood in the middle, waiting to land the chopper. While we waited, I took a good look at our patient. Packaged in a full body splint and propped on her left side, little of her was visible but I could see that she had broken bones in her face. Her eyes were closed, and she appeared to have lost consciousness. I hoped that meant she wasn’t still in pain, at least for the moment.
Red and green lights appeared in the sky from around the corner of a high ridge. The chopper made a wide circle above us, and then disappeared behind the same ridge. We waited in tense silence. After a few seconds, someone said, “He didn’t like the landing zone. He’s not coming back.”
We were silent again, absorbing this tragic possibility. I knew she would not live through the eight-mile trip behind a snowmobile.
After another few seconds the red and green lights reappeared. The relief was palpable. I think a few of us even smiled. As the chopper landed, we started up the snowmobile and towed the patient very slowly up the road. The flight nurse jumped out and greeted us, briskly sizing up the patient as she approached.
“We’ll have to take her to Summit Medical for assessment,” she said. “We can’t do anything here with her packaged so tightly.” I didn’t care where she went; I was just relieved to have her headed for a trauma center. As the chopper took off with our patient, I crouched in the blowing snow, head between my hands, wondering if she would make it.
Elaine Grosso, patient, Turkey Creek ravine, 9:00 pm
As I went over the ravine all I could think was, “How am I going to get out of this alive?” I blacked out sometime during the fall and woke up just as my head hit the rocks in the running creek. I tried to breath and realized the chin strap from the helmet was forced into my throat. It took three tries to finally start breathing again. I was bound and determined that I was not going to die, not by myself, not like this.
I was lying in the freezing cold water; I knew I had to get out of the creek. The impact to my head had been so severe I’d heard a snap in my neck, so my next step was to make sure my legs moved, and they did. The snowmobile had landed suspended over the creek with part of my legs under it, and I knew if it fell, I’d never be able to move. My right arm was embedded up to my shoulder in the snow with my forearm down in the water. I dug my arm out and realized it was badly damaged; I had to use my other arm to move it. Then I started scooting myself out of the creek and onto the snow. Once I started moving I knew I was injured pretty badly, but I had no clue just how badly.
I tried my best to crawl up the ravine, but every time I tried, I fell right back to where I was. The snow was so deep that I just didn’t have the strength I needed to continue the climb. As night fell, I decided to pack down the snow as best I could so I could lie down, and then I tried to make a wall around me to keep my body as warm as possible. By this point I was completely exhausted and dozed off.
I awoke to the sound of snowmobiles in the distance, and as soon as they stopped, I heard the rescue worker call out my name. He sounded just like my husband, so I called out–“Jack, Jack, I’m down here.” It seemed like a matter of seconds before the rescue worker reached me, and the first and only thing I could say to him was, “Thank you for saving my life.”
The Summit County Rescue Group: Elaine Grosso eventually made an almost-full recovery. The final medical report from that night was so incredible that it has since been used by our medical director for case studies. Her injuries included fractured eye sockets, a fractured nose, fractured spinal processes from T-7 thru T-12 with a compression fracture of T-9, a broken scapula in two places, 10 broken ribs, a lacerated liver, a punctured lung, a concussion, hypothermia and mild frostbite to her hands and feet. What does it take to keep fighting for survival with injuries like that?
We continue to keep in touch with Elaine and ask for reports on her recovery. A year after her rescue she told us in a letter, “I know I would not be here today if it weren’t for the valiant efforts of all the rescue workers. I will forever be bonded to this wonderful group of men and women.” And we, in turn, feel inspired by the courage of a woman who survived one of the worst ordeals we’ve ever seen.