by Madeleine Ahlborn |

WITH summer activities in full bloom, spending time in the mountains is better than ever here in the San Luis Valley. And it’s time to be prepared for mishaps.

So late last month (June 23-26) Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue (AVSAR) and two members from Saguache Search and Rescue (SAGSAR) had their annual rope rigging training at Lake Como. 

Because AVSAR mainly responds to incidents within the Blanca Massif (Ellingwood Peak, Blanca Peak, and Little Bear) base camp was set at Lake Como to train in the terrain where rescuers are commonly called to assist hikers in distress. 

At 9 a.m. Friday AVSAR and SAGSAR loaded up modified jeeps/vehicles with personal and technical gear to make it to the Lake by the early afternoon. These modified vehicles belong to AVSAR team members on what they call the 4×4 team/committee. The vehicles are not owned by Alamosa County, but by these team volunteers. 

AVSAR is incredibly grateful for their skill and knowledge of Blanca Road, one of the most  treacherous roads in the United States.

AFTER a couple hours of bumpy riding and watching these crawlers maneuver over the series of “Jaws” obstacles (named for two distinct obstacles that are barely wide enough for a Jeep and stick up like shark’s teeth from the ground) the team arrived safely at Lake Como where members unloaded gear, ate lunch, and talked about the goals for the next three days in the mountains. 

Friday afternoon

THE team began with a review of the knots that would be used in multiple rescue scenarios they would be practicing. The group broke off into teams of two to work on anchor building using nearby trees to have a safe area with low to no risk of injury. Teams walked around to see and discuss what each group had built – not only what made a good anchor but also how the builds could be modified to be better or just another iteration. With each exercise the team shared an incredible amount of knowledge and experience. 

“It was great to learn all of this but it was also great to learn the ‘why’ behind it”-Francisco (SAGSAR)

The weekend had its challenges – not only in the terrain but the weather. The forecast called for rain the entire weekend. Though rain was not a reason to cancel the workshop, it was something to be mindful of so no one would fall or slip over the slick rocks. The only thing that would postpone/cancel would be lightning, a heavy downpour, or constant rain.

Friday evening 

Team members gathered around an unlit fire pit and made meals over personal stoves. They shared stories of past missions, current goals, and got to know one another. As with any team, building camaraderie and friendship will make you that much stronger in the field. 

Saturday Morning 

At 9 a.m. the team gathered at the gear tent where they discussed the goals of the day and what gear would be needed to achieve those goals. 

Each team member carried what’s called a “24 hour pack.” This is exactly how it sounds: a pack that includes the necessary equipment to survive 24 hours without re-supply. On top of personal gear, each member helped carry team gear needed for the day. Walking around the lake to a steep scree field, packs were set down and Curt Howell reviewed how to choose where to build an anchor. “Is this material (rock) part of the Earth, or is it sitting on top of the Earth?” That is a basic question that helps a rescuer choose where to build a safe anchor. 

Again, the group broke off into teams to choose suitable material (rock) to practice.

THE training workshops were a gradual process of starting simple and building to more complex scenarios: knot tying, low- to no-risk anchor building, then moving into more difficult terrain for anchor building workshops and rescue scenarios.  

It is important to know that the safety of the rescuer comes first, then the safety of the second rescuer (teammate), then any bystanders’ safety. Then comes the safety of the person being rescued. Seems strange that the person who needs rescuing is the lower priority, but one of the main goals is to NOT CREATE A SECOND RESCUE SITUATION. 

Saturday afternoon

Even with storms passing through, the team was able to work in the higher terrain until 2 p.m., when  the rock became too slick to move through safely. The team decided to call an end to the day, regroup and return to basecamp until the storms passed. Individuals retreated to their personal or shared tents/shelters to change into dry clothes before returning for a debrief and mealtime around the unlit fire pit. Plan A and plan B were developed for the next training day if the rain continued before breaking off for the evening.

Sunday morning

An earlier start at 7:30 a.m. to try to beat the rain allowed the team to be on higher angle slopes to practice more technical rescue scenarios. With the cumulative knowledge of the preceding workshops the scenarios became more complex with the main attention still on moving through the terrain in a safe way. Each team member was able to participate in multiple roles of the more complex system to have a better understanding of each role in the rescue system. 

Sunday afternoon

The 4×4 team drove Lake Como Road again to extract AVSAR and SAGSAR with personal and team gear. The rain was coming down in a drizzly mist, which made the road and rocks extremely slick. Many times the volunteer drivers asked team members to step out of the vehicles because the “Jaws” obstacles become even more dangerous in these conditions. Everyone returned safely to the main parking area and the team debriefed. Some thoughts from team members who participated in the weekend’s training: 


LATE that Sunday night into early Monday morning AVSAR leadership received a call out for two hikers in distress on lake como road, with complaints of being wet and very cold – too cold to move, actually. The team learned that these were the same two hikers the AVSAR 4×4 team passed on its way to pick up team members from the weekend training. The 4×4 team had offered the hikers a ride up to the lake then again on the way down; both times the hikers refused any assistance. Here’s more about this mission from AVSAR’s Facebook page as a reminder to all visitors who may not be familiar with the terrain in this area that plans can and will go sideways very quickly if you are not prepared for the unexpected. 

AVSAR Post via FB: 

“Ignorance kills.

On Monday June 27th, AVSAR Leadership was contacted at 0235 by the State Patrol Dispatch about two hypothermic hikers camped near lake como in the Sangre de Cristo range. The subjects had hiked up Lake Como Rd on Sunday in the afternoon with the intention to camp at Lake Como overnight. The hikers never made it to Lake Como and set up camp approximately 1/4mi from the lake.

AVSAR sent in two Truck teams to drive Lake Como Rd in highly modified vehicles, with each team having a medical team member on board. Lake Como Rd was exceptionally dangerous this trip due to heavy rain, high chance for rockfall and extremely slippery rock. On the descent down, there was a river running down the entire road. The subjects were complaining of being so cold that they couldn’t move and the male subject was vomiting, severely dehydrated and had a headache. AVSAR team members brought hot water bottles and sugary drinks for the subjects to rehydrate/rewarm and bring them down to the Lake Como Rd Trailhead to be checked out by EMS. All AVSAR team members and the subjects were back down to Incident Command at 0822.

These hikers were highly unprepared. They had no extra clothing and no way to stay dry in their tent, with no rain fly. These hikers said they did not understand why it was so cold and rainy in Colorado, because it has been “so hot in Texas” where they hike all the time. They never checked any weather forecasts and did not have any extra food, water or layers for the intense hike in or the night to camp. This is an extreme example of how ignorance can kill people suddenly in these mountains. These two subjects spoke to AVSAR team members twice on their hike up, as we had team members training above Lake Como all weekend and were on their way out when they encountered the highly fatigued hikers.  The hikers denied any assistance to and from Lake Como by our truck teams.

There are a lot of lessons to learn from this specific mission:

  • Know before you go- always check weather and if applicable Avalanche forecasts before beginning your hike. Know your desired route.
  • $30 tents without rainflys are not adequate protection from the rain and wind
  • ALWAYS carry the ten essentials. –

Thank you to the San Luis Valley Victim Response Unit for bringing our teams food and drinks for when they arrived at IC. Also a big thank you to the Alamosa County Sheriff’s Office for their unending support and assistance.”

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