Recounting a rescue
In late July, 26-year-old Mitchell Stubbs crashed while paragliding in a remote section of Flat Tops and spent a night out in the elements.
Thanks to the efforts of numerous local volunteers and professionals — including members of the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, Garfield County Search and Rescue, Classic Air Medical and Valley View Hospital, among others — Stubbs is expected to make a full recovery. For Stubbs, the incident is a lesson in how easily things can go wrong in the outdoors and how people can come together to help in times of need.
“The community should be proud of them,” his father, Randall Stubbs, said. “I sure am.”
A Colorado native, the younger Stubbs got his mechanical engineering degree at the University of Colorado at Boulder. A roommate taught him to fly at North Boulder Park, and Mitch continued the sport during a stint as a guide in Moab. Not long after his return to the Front Range, his flying mentor died in a speed flying accident in the Alps.
“I didn’t really learn my lesson from that,” Mitch observed. “Flying is a dangerous sport. You have to know what you’re getting yourself into.”
Mitch’s parents shared his love of the outdoors and sympathized with his desire for adventure, but couldn’t help but worry.
“His mother and I were not thrilled,” Randall said. “It’s his decision and his life, but we always thought it was kind of risky.”
It helped some when, last year, Mitch brought his wing along on their annual camping trip near the end of Coffee Pot Road on the edge of the Flat Tops Wilderness Area.
“We know every hole in the river, and the place holds special meaning for us,” Randall said. “I watched him do fly from a mile away, and he actually came down and landed at my feet.”
This year, he brought a former coworker from Moab along. When the friend had to head out, Mitch took the opportunity to hitch a ride closer to a prospective launch site, leaving his father to fish.
By 11 a.m., he had hiked up to 11,00 feet and was assessing the conditions.
“The wind was blowing 5 to 10 miles an hour, which is at the upper limit of safety, but it was pretty consistent and seemed like a good day to fly,” he recalled.
This time, though, things didn’t go precisely as planned.
“Pretty soon I realized I wasn’t making any headway. I didn’t want to land somewhere random, so I started making my way down,” he recalled. “The wing started to flap on me, which is a sign that you’re in unstable conditions. When I was about 75 or 100 feet off the ground, I looked up and more than half of my wing just nosedived above me. I had time to say “oh, shit” and the next thing I knew I was on the ground.”
He immediately realized that his right leg wouldn’t support his weight and he was fairly injured elsewhere. What he didn’t know at the time is that he had broken his hip, several vertebrae and had a contusion in his lung.
“It was at that point I remembered that I had a water bottle with me and that was it,” he said. “I knew that no one would come for me until tomorrow at the best scenario, and I didn’t have a first aid kit or jacket or way to start a fire.”
Nothing he could do
He had a cell phone but no service, no food, and only a little water. With the help of a stick, he was able to hobble, with plenty of breaks, toward the creek about 100 yards away, but found the bank too steep and fell on his way back up. Huddled among tall grass and wildflowers that provided a little protection from the wind, he settled down for the night.
Meanwhile, Randall was packing up camp and trying to figure out what to do next.
At dark, he dismissed the idea of trying to look for his son alone and decided to drive to cell service.
“I just hated like heck to leave, but I figured if he could make it this far he could get some help,” he said. “I didn’t know what help meant, I just knew there wasn’t anything I could do for him right there.”
His 911 call got him a face to face conversation with an Eagle police officer and a chat with the Eagle County sheriff. Since the area in question was over the line into Garfield County, it was Garfield County Search and Rescue president Tom Ice who got the phone call in the middle of the night.
“Based on a lot of different questions we asked ourselves, we decided to go out in the morning,” Ice said. “We wanted to get out there as soon as we can, but our membership availability is better first thing in the morning.”
Randall spent the night in his car, and called Mitch’s mother — who was traveling at the time — as the crew began to assemble in the morning. Southwest had her on the next plane back as Randall, Ice and the volunteer crew began their search.
“It was just amazing to watch these professional search and rescue people in operation,” he observed.
Budges Lodge contributed some horses and other paragliders — some of whom had chosen not to fly that day — helped speculate as to where he might have landed. Someone back in town was working on tracking down the friend who dropped Mitch off. Despite having only a first name and a former workplace, they were able to get in touch with him. Better still, it turned out he had exact GPS coordinates for where he’d left Mitch.
“That narrowed the search from 20 square miles to 3 square miles, which in the end made all the difference,” Randall said.
Even so, it might have been a long search had Ice not decided to call in a helicopter crew.
“It was a tough one because it was out there in a real remote region. It could have taken us days to find him up there,” he explained. “They can just search so much more area so much faster.”
Jack Montou was the pilot on call for Classic Air Medical, a Utah-based company that offers the first two hours of search time free. A former Grand Canyon tour pilot, Montou never wanted a desk job, and although he’s afraid of heights outside an aircraft, he considers search and rescue his dream job.
Also on board were flight nurse Stacy Lawson and paramedic Kraig Schlueter.
“We did shift change on the helipad,” Lawson said. “That’s a sign you’re going to be busy.”
Arriving on scene, they were brought up to speed by ground crews.
“It was still warm during the day but it was getting cool at night and that was something they were kind of worried about,” Lawson observed.
“The biggest concerns were the weather conditions at night,” Schlueter agreed. “Obviously, there’s a good chance for some traumatic injuries, combined with hypothermia.”
They set off up a likely drainage looking for the wing as much as Stubbs himself. Unfortunately, with a white chute and numerous snow and ice patches in the high country, there were a lot of false positives.
“Mitch’s choice of parachute color could have been better,” he observed. “Finding people from the air is not quite as easy as you might think. My personal feeling was starting to slide downhill that we were going to be able to find him, because we had spent a fair amount of time searching.”
Mitch, meanwhile, could see and hear the helicopter. The cavalry was here, he thought. He watched as they finally spotted the wing and set down nearby. Schlueter got out to investigate.
“I was a little apprehensive about pulling the shoot up,” he said. “I knew there was a good chance I was going to find a body.”
He was relieved to discover no body and no blood. Back in the air five minutes later, they spotted him on the ground.
According to Schlueter, the first thing he said was “man, I sure am glad to see you guys.”
Initially relieved to find him standing up, the crew quickly discovered that he was in pretty poor shape and at real risk of paralysis.
“We had a lot of decisions to make about what kind of care to provide and where to transport him,” Schlueter said. “In order to get him to another facility, we could have had to stop and fuel, so we elected to get him stabilized at Valley View.”
‘An amazing group’
Mitch’s father made it down in time to meet him while he was stabilized by Dr. Travis Martin. His mother joined them after he was flown the University of Colorado Hospital.
“That was the most incredible joy after a night of slowly coming to the conclusion that he’s probably gone,” Randall said. “Losing a child is something you would never get over. I came so close to it, and it’s not something I’d like to repeat.”
As a fundraiser for the CU medical school, Randall had interacted closely with the healthcare industry and nonprofits, but was particularly impressed by the local search and rescue and medical crews and hopes to volunteer with them in the future.
“Clearly the rescue team saved his life,” he said. “It was an amazing group which was available to me the whole time and I never knew it. They’re always there, but you don’t think about them much until you need them, and ultimately everybody does sooner or later. It’s a fantastic public resource that deserves everyone’s awareness and support.”
Mitch is the first to admit that he was lucky. In addition to choosing a brighter colored wing, he noted several things he could have done to improve his chances, which Ice echoed.
“Make sure somebody knows where you are or where you’re going,” Ice said. “If you can’t, leave a note on your vehicle. If you’re flying, a flight plan is nice.”
Better still, carry a beacon. One of the half dozen paragliding rescues Ice’s team has tackled in recent years ended quickly thanks to such a device.
“Once he crashed, he could have hit a help button and we would have known exactly where he was,” Ice said. “We may even have gone out that night with a precise location.”
As Mitch himself observed, a first aid kit, food, water and warm clothing would have gone a long way.
“If the worst does happen, have enough equipment to spend a night or two out in the elements,” Ice said. “If you do have supplies, never leave that behind. Stay put. It’s easier to find someone in one place than try to chase them around the woods.”
Most of all, Ice emphasized, whether it’s you or a loved one in danger, don’t be afraid to call.
“Garfield County Search and Rescue is never gonna send a bill, so if you need help, don’t hesitate,” he said.
As for Mitch, he doesn’t plan to get himself in the same predicament anytime soon.
“I’ll probably never fly again,” he said. “It’s inherently dangerous, and that’s not fair to the people I love. To be a good pilot, you have to know when not to fly. I’m more of a ‘go for it’ kind of guy, and that will get you killed.”
That doesn’t mean he won’t be taking a few calculated risks once he’s well enough.
“Flying was fun, but climbing is my passion,” he said. “It’s a sport that you use your muscles to progress, but you use your mind to keep you safe.”
“When you’re doing sports like that, you have to consider the consequences,” he added.
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