GSHS principal recounts mountain rescue |

GSHS principal recounts mountain rescue

Glenwood Springs High School principal Paul Freeman survived a tense backcountry ski accident during the Dynafit Heathen Challenge at Sunlight Mountain.
Colleen O’Neil/Post Independent |

Paul Freeman knew his limits.

When the 14-year valley resident and current principal of Glenwood Springs High School decided to participate in The Colorado Ski Mountaineering Cup’s Heathen Challenge at Sunlight, he joined the recreational division.

Somewhere along the line, however, he took a wrong turn, and found himself near the top of Williams Peak looking back at Sunlight in the distance. With lighter skis than usual and limited supplies, he was out of his depth.

“I was already tired, but I started trying to ski down,” Freeman recalled. “I had a fairly minor fall, but I felt my hamstring go.”

He tried to stand up but couldn’t.

With his cell phone and emergency beacon left behind to conserve weight, it could have been a fatal mistake.

“It reminded me that whatever it is you’re doing in the mountains, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What if,’” he said.

Luckily, Freeman had only strayed off of the main route, not off course altogether.

Ski racer Cecily Runge abandoned the race to help, placing a call and staying with Freeman. An unidentified ski patroller split off from a nearby avalanche training to bring extra clothes and food.

Meanwhile, Sunlight Ski Patrol tried to figure out how to access an area well outside their usual patrol. Ultimately they built a makeshift sled out of his skis and poles. It took seven people — Todd, Keith Henderson, Garret Jolley, Chris Pepe, Tom Bruner and Shane Wright from Sunlight Ski Patrol and Tom Ice from Garfield County Search and Rescue — five hours to drag him to safety.

“They couldn’t get any momentum,” Freeman said. “It was just a case of ‘one, two, three, pull’ all the way down the mountain.”

He credited everyone who helped him out of a bad situation which could have been much worse.

“They could have had a normal Saturday, and instead they suddenly found themselves putting in this enormous backbreaking effort,” he said.

Freeman is recovering well, already walking around the school and hoping to return to running in March. He doesn’t blame anyone but himself for the incident.

“It’s ski mountaineering,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Let’s go for a walk around the field.’ You’ve got to take some responsibility. Don’t let your familiarity and the fact that most days nothing goes wrong lead you to believe that nothing can go wrong.”

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