Astronaut Rescued from La Plata Peak
Twin Lakes Resident Recovers from Fall
Originally Published July 20, 2019
Former NASA Astronaut and Twin Lakes resident Jeff Ashby was rescued from La Plata Peak on July 15 after a life-threatening fall left the 65-year-old recovering from multiple serious injuries. Yesterday, Ashby spoke by phone with Journalist Kathy Bedell about his harrowing ordeal and his deep, abiding gratitude for the men and women from the mountain rescue teams who saved his life. So on the 50th Anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission – an event that inspired Ashby’s astronaut dream – Leadville Today (LT) brings you this #happyending story about a rocketman and the #goodpeople who saved him from the mountain top.
By Kathy Bedell © Leadville Today
At 9:15 a.m. on July 15 Jeff Ashby texted his fiancée Mary Bochain that he had successfully summited La Plata Peak, Colorado’s 5th tallest mountain. Ashby is no stranger to lofty challenges being an avid outdoorsman, he is either out enjoying nature or watching what he calls “Twin Lakes TV” from the big bay window of the couple’s home located 15 miles south of Leadville Today. But for most Americans, this relatively new Lake County neighbor is best known for his accomplishments in outer space. Ashby is a former NASA Astronaut and a veteran of three Space Shuttle missions. In fact, it was just this past June in Leadville that this rocketman shared his experiences, observations and photos taken from space looking back at planet earth and the moon, the same one that would watch over him last Monday night. The presentation inspired attendees to reflect on how each contributes to society.
But for inspiration on this earthly orb, Ashby looks to the Rocky Mountains, specifically the numerous 14ers which surround his mountain home. La Plata Peak sits at 14,336′ and is Colorado’s 5th highest peak. While the mountain is officially located in Chaffee County, many hikers access the trails from the Lake County side with trailhead access off Highway 82, just west of Twin Lakes, Colorado. Most hiking guides consider the climb to be on the difficult end of the spectrum. The up and back trail is about 10 miles round trip and includes some of the most stunning views of the Rocky Mountains once you reach the summit. Coming down can be a bit more of a challenge as noted by many hikers weighing in on the blogs: Staying on course in the boulder field is tough on the descent.
That Monday morning, as the astronaut considered his return to lower earth, he broke off the trail about 600 feet to a snowfield situated below. He was looking for a place to glissade, a descent technique where a climber sits on his butt and leans back a little bit with feet out in front and legs slightly bent. It’s usually a good ride and can save on the knees during steep descents. However, after assessing the snow conditions and the big boulders that lay in wait at the bottom of the slope, Ashby decided against it and turned to head back towards the trail. Two steps in and things changed, dramatically.
“He was sent hurtling down the side of the mountain,” said Bochain describing her finance’s harrowing 500-foot tumble down La Plata less than a month before the couple’s August 10 wedding date. Ashby’s fall was eventually broken by the very dangerous boulders La Plata hikers often speak about, leaving him about one mile from the trail in a pile of broken bones, and in a heap of trouble.
“I told my fiancé Mary that I would be down off the mountain by 3 p.m. She knows I always pad it just in case I run into someone I want to fish with or something,” Ashby said by phone yesterday from his hospital bed. In fact, the couple’s standing agreement was that if he didn’t show up one hour after his projected return time, then she should start to get worried. That day, Mary didn’t get back home to Twin Lakes until 7 p.m.
Jeff Ashby’s initial assessment of his injuries concluded one very badly broken leg with an oozing blood wound which would later be declared a compound fracture, one broken arm, and his other leg which he initially thought might have been a bad sprain also was determined to be broken. But during this critical moment, he was able to put weight on it, so he started to develop a plan. The fall was fierce enough to lose his cell phone and watch in the process, but he had some spring hiking gear with him, his backpack, some food, canteen and what would prove to be a life-saving device: his flashlight, a gift from his fiancé.
The initial hours were moment by moment for the rocketman, the pain was fierce and mobility severely limited. He describes using his backpack as a splint for his dangling, broken leg as he scooted across snow and dirt, making his way slowly down the mountain, attempting to position himself for the best vantage point once the rescue teams got called out. It took him four hours to scoot 100 feet.
“I started thinking about what would happen next and how could I prepare for it? I kept stopping and thinking through all of my options, and laying them out. What was I going to do first? Second? Third?” he recalls his thought process throughout the ordeal. It was clear that this Navy officer and astronaut has been through intense training to mentally endure difficult situations, yet still, his advice in its simplest terms can apply to anyone who finds themselves in trouble in the backcountry.
Unfortunately, it’s here that the story takes another hard left turn. Just as Ashby reaches what he considers to be a safe haven, he crashes through the snow and into a mountain stream four feet below.
“I think, oh no, this is it. I’m never going to get out of here.” Ashby’s tumble into the stream, fortunately, did not compound his medical situation, but he was clearly in a tough spot. “I kept thinking: Don’t think you’re screwed. Other people have done this,” he recalls, mentioning such stories as adventurer Aron Ralston surviving a canyoneering accident by cutting off his own arm.
But by now, the afternoon shadows have started to come in; nightfall is not far behind. Ashby re-strategizes, filling his canteen from the stream, then he slowly begins – one by one – placing rocks underneath his broken body to raise himself about 18 inches out of the icy cold spring runoff.
“I was really worried about hypothermia,” Ashby says, recalling that his body began shaking immediately after the initial fall and did not subside throughout the day. He somehow managed to get himself up out of the water hole and onto the ledge of an out-cropping, where rescuers would be able to see him when morning’s light finally came. At this point, he was resigned to spending the night.
But Ashby knew that the helicopters would come in at night. After all, this was a former Naval officer and retired NASA Astronaut. These are the missions when the military shines brightest when they are looking after one of their own. In this case, it would be an assist from the Colorado Army National Guard High-Altitude ARNG Aviation Training Site (HAATS).
“I didn’t think they would allow anyone up to my position at night, but I also realized that they still didn’t know where I was,” said Ashby. Once situated from his new perch, he retrieved his flashlight and waited for the helicopter, thinking, I’ve got to survive until then because once they see me, there’s a chance they’ll come and get me.”
“Sorry, I get emotional at this point, when I think about what they did,” the rocketman pauses and clears his throat. “Because I am quite certain that I would not be here, if they decided not to climb down to me at night.”
According to a press release distributed by the Chaffee County Sheriff’s office, “the initial call came into the Chaffee County Communications Center by hikers on La Plata Peak stating that they hear a person yelling for help. Chaffee County Search and Rescue North and South responded to the area where the screams were last heard and began searching. Searchers scoured the area until just before nightfall when they noticed a light flashing below the summit. Searchers responded closer however they were unable to get into a better position due to the extreme steep and technical terrain.”
Meanwhile, Mary Bochain, arrives home at 7 p.m., sees her fiance’s note and begins to panic as she realizes Jeff has not returned home. Fortunately, their neighbor is Anita Mason, a veteran volunteer with the Lake County Search and Rescue (LCSAR) and the women put a rescue plan into motion by alerting authorities and then mobilizing their own resources.
In all, the event was a multi-county mission with Chaffee County Search and Rescue (North and South) taking the protocol lead and getting invaluable assist from LCSAR, HAATS, REACH and a host of other agencies that provide assistance to rescue missions. It was exactly the kind of alphabet soup Ashby would need to survive the accident. At this point, each minute, each fading ray of daylight mattered. Ashby describes several hours of extreme highs and lows, as rescuers from the air and land were communicating with the victim through light signals, but ebbing and flowing from his position due to its remote location and dangerous terrain. At least by nightfall, they knew where he was, they just had to get to him. And Ashby had enough mountaineering experience to know just how risky their mission would be.
“I know that those rescue teams would normally stand down until morning light. I think a couple of them who knew me, they knew what I had with me and they knew some of the details of the situation. They knew that I was probably not going to make it until morning. And that if they had volunteers, they would allow them to go.” It’s here that Asby’s next step is implemented, as the astronaut turns his flashlight beam to red and laying it next to his body, chooses to signal no movement during the next helo pass. His situation was now urgent and he was quite sure he would not make it through the night.
As Ashby lay clinging to life, REACH Air Medical Services pilot Matt Jansson along with his team, Chaffee County Search and Rescue Medic Brent Newton and volunteer Donny Smith, as well as Nurse TJ Salazar began to implement their own plan and lifted off from REACH 29 in Salida, CO where that RAM helicopter is based, adjacent to Heart of the Rockies Hospital. According to Jansson, “We dropped Donny off at around 0200 at over 14,000 feet.” Although a humble take from the rescue team, “having to pick out a landing zone on a most interesting, unlit and unpaved piece of real estate, used night-vision goggles, and flying into the glare of a setting moon dropped his valuable cargo off at around 3 a.m.,” is a feat worthy of recognition as initially reported by the pilot’s father Mark Jansson who contacted LT directly. Little did the pilot know that the victim lying in pieces below was a former military officer, the one that demo-ed the first pair of night-vision goggles in flight. But REACH pilots don’t know, they just go!
The skill of the pilot’s drop was only heightened by the prowess of the mountaineer as he navigated dangerous terrain to reach his patient. At this point, Ashby regained consciousness only to realize that his body was going into shock. Then he hears a loud, clear voice. It was different from the ones he had been hearing and seeing through the day’s pain-driven hallucinations. From about 300 feet above him, through the beacon of a headlight, he heard:
“Are you injured?”
“Yes, badly,” Ashby replied.
“I’m coming.” Thirty minutes later Donny Smith with Chaffee County Search and Rescue appeared from the deep, dark night of the mountain, and helped the broken hiker. “I’m going to stay here with you. We’re not going to be rescued until dawn.”
At this point in the interview, Ashby stops to collect himself again. There are conversations between men that should remain sacred, private. So after the warmth, and the medicine, and the water were administered, the rocketman and the rescuer spent several pre-dawn hours getting to know each other, and talking about the things that matter in this world.
At the top of that list, especially for Jeff Ashby are people like Donny Smith. These are the neighbors and friends who make up Colorado’s mountain rescue teams. They are the men and women, the mothers and fathers who choose to leave their warm beds in the middle of the night to be dropped off on a cold, dark mountain to risk their own life and safety for someone they don’t even know.
“Without them, I would have died!”
Jeff & Mary hope that you think that’s important too and are asking all well-wishers to consider making a donation of money – or time – to the following rescue groups: Chaffee County Search and Rescue, Lake County Search and Rescue, HAATS – Military Transport, and REACH, or to one in your neighborhood/community.
The Extraction & Recovery
At dawn’s early light on Tuesday, July 16, the HAATS team arrived with an Army Blackhawk helicopter and lowered two guys down for the rescue extraction. Ashby was loaded into the litter with Smith in tow. The rocketman was eventually transported via Flight for Life to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Frisco, where he remains today.
There are likely more surgeries on the horizon, as things that became compressed become un-compressed. Ashby figures he’ll be back home in Twin Lakes in a couple of weeks, if all goes well.
“I look like that guy in the insurance commercial with all the casts,” he jokes, “but I’m damn well gonna make it!”
Your friends and neighbors are counting on it, especially to help inspire the next generation of astronauts. Or perhaps, an even loftier goal: inspiring the next generation of volunteers for Colorado’s search and rescue teams!
God Speed in your recovery, Rocketman from all your friends and neighbors in Twin Lakes and Leadville Today!
Colorado Journalist Kathy Bedell owns The Great Pumpkin, a media company located in Leadville, Colorado which publishes LeadvilleToday.com and Saguache Today.com. She may be reached at email@example.com