NewsCovering Colorado


'It saved my life': Man, rescued after 6.5 hours on RMNP ledge, stresses importance of SOS beacons

Between weather and terrain, conditions can change right before your eyes in the Colorado backcountry — something that countless people, including Andreas Stabno, had to learn the hard way.
ledge_Andreas Stabno
Posted at 7:05 AM, Jun 19, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-20 11:34:37-04

ESTES PARK, Colo. — Between weather and terrain, conditions can change right before your eyes in the Colorado backcountry — something that countless people, including Andreas Stabno, had to learn the hard way.

That's not to say Stabno, 50, isn't experienced. He's climbed almost all of the state's fourteeners — mountains above 14,000 feet — and plans exactly which essentials to bring into the wilderness. But a day in Rocky Mountain National Park last summer shook him to the core.

Essentials can vary on what you're planning to see and do, and what you really need, explained Matt Smith, a fishing guide and outfitter at Scot's Sporting Goods in Estes Park. Hydration and footwear are the primary concerns. There's also maps, food, flashlights, an emergency blanket and whistle, and bear spray, among others.

And then there are the satellite communicators, which are typically about the size of a palm and can allow both regular communication and emergency SOS use.

On an August morning in 2022, Stabno was forced to use the latter.

He spent his childhood in Europe but when his family moved to the United States, he developed a deeply ingrained love for the outdoors. Nowadays, his workweeks as an actuary are filled with calls and sorting through spreadsheets. So when he can escape from his flat home in Lee's Summit, Missouri — "I'm still looking for the summit," he joked — and head west to Colorado's Rocky Mountains, he takes full advantage of the opportunity.

His family vacations around Estes Park every other year or so, and that's what brought him to the area last summer.

Early in the morning on Aug. 11, 2022, the father of three gathered his hiking equipment, which included spare socks, a helmet, his emergency communication device, matches and more, and headed out the door. The forecast called for a beautiful day in the mountains.

And Stabno was in for a long one — much longer than he would have estimated that morning.

before resceAndreas Stabno

Around 2:20 a.m., he left his car set on doing part of an unofficial, little-known high-alpine loop in the park. Little research was available online, but he felt confident. He was familiar with fourth- and fifth-class climbing, and just one section of his route on a mountain called McHenrys Peak was described as "very easy fifth class."

After a few hours of climbing above Glacier Gorge, he slowly descended off the rocky Powell Peak and headed toward his final summit of the day — McHenrys Peak.

Powell_Andreas Stabno
This was Andreas Stabno's view as he descended off Powell Peak.

Stabno stood for a second on the traverse between the mountains, in awe of the landscape, before moving on.

McHenry's Peak_Andreas Stabno
McHenry's Peak

Below McHenrys' summit, he saw three gullies. He recalled that the easy fifth-class climbing was in the central one, so he pushed on. The beginning was just a fun scramble for him. Everything looked fine until he was about 100 feet up.

The rock wall, which just minutes before seemed riddled with handholds, seemed much more empty of those grab-able imperfections.

"And at that point, I really should have turned around," Stabno said. "I should have said, 'This is it, you know, you can't do it.' But in my mind, I said, 'This is supposed to be easy. You can do it.' And so I kept climbing through harder and harder moves, actually being proud at one point."

Andreas Stabno
About 30 feet below the ledge, before Stabno become stuck

He reached a ledge and became puzzled. He looked around for an option before resorting to the idea that he may have to backtrack. But when he looked down, he couldn't determine how he had climbed up.

"It was not safe to retrace those steps and so I was stuck," Stabno said.

It was 11 a.m.

"Without hesitation — it was maybe 10 minutes after I got there — I pushed the SOS button on my satellite device," he said. "I really didn't think about it and just did it. And then, you know, the waiting game began."

Pressing the button on his Garmin Mini InReach created a flurry of activity for search and rescuers, many miles away. But up on the ledge, it came with silence.

The InReach is one of many satellite communicators that in addition to calling a SOS, allows a user to send and receive messages via satellite, navigate terrain and track GPS.

Stabno grabbed his phone. He had intermittent cell service and sent a brief text message to his wife of 28 years, saying he was stuck, had called SOS, but didn't want her to worry.

He carefully moved to put his phone away. The ledge, which was sloped, was only about eight inches deep and three feet wide, so his feet didn't quite fit. Every move was calculated.

ledge_Andreas Stabno

Around 1 p.m., park rangers contacted Stabno through his Garmin InReach, confirming that help was on the way but it would take six hours for them to reach him.

"And I actually, you know, I kind of broke down a little bit at that time because I felt OK then, but I knew the mountains can be very unforgiving," he said. "Things change very quickly."

He was thankful that he had packed plenty of food and water in his bag, and had a battery backup for his phone and an emergency blanket to stay warm.

But that didn't change the ledge's constraints. It was difficult to stand comfortably in such a small space and he shifted back and forth on his feet. Over the hours, he had formulated a possible backup plan, but it wasn't necessarily a great one — a semi-controlled 20- to 30-foot fall that likely wouldn't have been fatal, but would have resulted in broken bones.

Hiking camping stock photo

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His wife, who he said is much more social and outgoing than him, texted him to say she had rallied friends and family to flood him with their prayers. With the unstable cell service, Stabno received the text three times.

"And I think I really needed it at that time just to hear that, that reassurance in a way," he said.

Around hour three on the ledge, he heard thunder. And then pea-sized hail came.

"I tried to make myself as big as I could on my little ledge — my, you know, three-feet-by-eight-inch territory," he said. "I made myself big to protect that area... I could tell that my windbreaker was clinging to my arms. The outside of my legs were wet, my shoes were wet, and then that whole ledge was glistening with moisture as well... I was wet, I was cold, I was tired, my leg muscles were tightening up. And I didn't know what the future would hold or how much more of that future I even had left at that point."

By hour four, he stopped moving his feet completely, not trusting he wouldn't slip.

Half an hour later, he heard a new sound: a whirling, mechanical noise. A helicopter.

It flew up from behind, so he couldn't exactly see it. To his dismay, it then flew away and the gully was silent. And then it returned. Stabno waved.

location of ledge_Andreas Stabno

The helicopter flew directly over him and lowered down close enough that the wind threatened to peel Stabno off the rock. He smelled the gasoline and lowered his head, closing his eyes. And then it flew away.

As he questioned what was happening, he heard somebody call his name from above. A rescuer rappeled down to him and attached him to a harness.

After six and a half hours, he was able to leave the ledge and climb two pitches of ropes with the rescuer. At the top, the search and rescue folks called the helicopter back and they all loaded in.

"And on the helicopter, part of me wanted to enjoy the experience of flying above the mountains that I climbed so many times," he said. "But I was not a tourist that day. I didn't take a picture. I didn't take any video. I tried to express my gratitude."

Back at the park headquarters, Stabno spoke with rangers about the experience and reunited with his family.

Even though he had spotty cell service, many places in the backcountry do not. Having an emergency communication device like his Garmin InReach was almost his only option to call for help.

"Having that ability to contact somebody immediately and say, 'I need help' — I think (that) was critical," he said. "And again, I don't know what I would have done otherwise."

Stabno said his wife is the one who suggested he buy the beacon.

"She’s the voice of reason between the two of us," he said. "She’s the one who convinced me to purchase the Garmin Mini InReach a few years earlier when I was doing all these solo adventures. I don’t want to say I ridiculed her, but I didn’t not understand why I needed this silly little device, just a few extra ounces of weight to carry and never use. But it saved my life."

Andreas Stabno family

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