Phil Sheridan had hiked to the summit of Greyrock mountain in Arapaho-Roosevelt National Forest multiple times before. The 3.1 miles to the summit on Greyrock Trail is a challenging one, but views of northern Colorado and Poudre Canyon from atop the rocky peak are worth every step, said Sheridan, a lifetime hiker and volunteer ranger at Rocky Mountain National Park.
Around noon on Jan. 7 — a sunny, crisp winter day — Sheridan and his hiking companion took in the sights of the Colorado winter below from atop Greyrock summit. They enjoyed the majestic view for only a short time, then decided to head back down since another hiking companion was waiting in the meadow, about a mile below.
Sheridan took his time navigating the steep, rocky terrain, about 300 yards below the summit, his left foot hit a patch of ice.
“It was so small I didn’t even see it, but it was enough where I lost traction and my right foot caught behind me on the rock,” he said.
As his left leg slid forward, his backend fell onto his right heel. Immediate pain shot up his right leg. He reached out to brace his fall, jamming his arm against another rock. He then slid down another two feet catching his front leg against a tree to stop his slide.
“I’m hurt,” he shouted to his friend.
Hurt atop of Greyrock mountain
After a few minutes of grueling pain and shock, the reality of the situation began to soak in.
“It’s the weirdest sensation when you tell your body to move but it just won’t,” Sheridan recalled a few weeks later. “I was really in excruciating pain — I’d finally reached that 10 on the pain chart.”
The two hikers knew they needed to get help since there was no way Sheridan could get down the mountain by himself.
As he lay in pain among the boulders, Sheridan and his hiking companion pulled out their cell phones and to their surprise, had service. They called 911 and reached a search and rescue commander, who immediately deployed a search and rescue crew.
As a longtime volunteer ranger, Sheridan knew what getting a rescue crew together entailed. He was three miles from the trailhead and parking lot, which was 30 minutes from Fort Collins off of State Highway 14, and he knew the crew wouldn’t be there anytime soon. His hiking companion left to update their friend in the meadow, saying he’d return, hopefully, with more clothing to keep him warm while they waited.
While Sheridan waited, he again called dispatch to provide more details: He was a 71-year-old male, 6 feet tall and about 180 pounds; he was not able to move his leg at all and his arm mobility was limited.
Deploying search and rescue to Greyrock mountain
Sheridan has a GPS unit, but he doesn’t always hike with it. Fortunately, he had it with him, and the rescue team had his exact coordinates.
“It was still going to be more than two hours before they were going to get to me,” he said. “I knew this could be an issue as the sun was getting lower.”
The search and rescue commander must have had similar concerns as he called UCHealth LifeLine, a medical transport helicopter, to see if they could get to Sheridan first.
A majority of UCHealth LifeLine calls include transferring a patient from one hospital to another that’s better equipped to treat the patient. However, LifeLine does respond to outdoor-related calls for horseback riding injuries, snake-bites, and injuries to people who are recreating in lakes and rivers. In most “search and assist” cases, search and rescue teams have already arrived on the scene and assessed the patient, then requested the medical helicopter for quicker extraction.
When LifeLine got the call, flight paramedic Sam Boyer-Groff, flight nurse Matt Simek and pilot Erin Norton took a quick look at Google Maps to see where they might land atop the summit — a rock-ledge landing was almost certain — and headed to Poudre Canyon trail.
The flight was Boyer-Groff’s first on-scene call, but he didn’t lack experience. Though he’s only been with LifeLine a few months, he has served as a paramedic with UCHealth Emergency Medical Services and its special response team. Simek has been a flight nurse for more than three years, and has helped with many “search and assist” calls, but this too was his first “rescue call.” Simek knows Greyrock well, having hiked to the summit many times himself. And Norton, before becoming a LifeLine pilot in 2015, flew helicopter rescue missions in Wyoming’s Bighorn and Wind River mountain ranges, and the Grand Canyon, making several rock-ledge landings in his career.
A helicopter rescue atop of Greyrock
“I could hear the helicopter coming,” Sheridan said. “They did several circles looking for a place to land and the only place they could find near me was on the edge of a cliff about 100 yards above me.”
The large meadow along Greyrock trail would have been a perfect landing site for the helicopter, had it not been so far down the trail from Sheridan.
As the crew circled, they identified a safe and stable landing site. Norton landed the craft safely on the mountain’s ledge.
“To be honest, everything lined up for Phil,” Norton said. “I wouldn’t have landed there had there been wind. I wouldn’t have landed there had I not done previous landings like that. And I wouldn’t have landed there with all my crew members — I had my two lightest members with me that day.”
Boyer-Groff and Simek exited the helicopter with a stretcher but weren’t able to access a leg brace in the tail compartment due to the positioning of the aircraft on the mountain ledge. Norton had to stay with the helicopter and keep the rotors and engine running, so he could not help extract Sheridan from the rocks below.
“Just because where we were at, I didn’t want to shut it down in case the wind picked up or something like that. I wanted to make sure I maintained control of that helicopter. When you shut it down, you lose that control,” Norton said.
After reaching Sheridan and assessing his condition, the two LifeLine crew members began extracting Sheridan — not an easy task.
“Luckily for Phil he had limited injuries to just his leg and arm. He wasn’t in imminent medical peril,” Simek said. “Our main concern was getting him off the mountain before he became hypothermic. But Phil outweighs us both so we had to improvise a way to get him to the helicopter.”
With a webbing strap under Sheridan’s arms, the two crewmen, with help from Sheridan’s 73-year-old hiking companion, slowly inched Sheridan up the rocky embankment to the stretcher located 100 feet from the helicopter. But with Sheridan’s companion now exhausted from his two treks to the meadow and helping Sheridan up the rocks, the two crewmen realized they wouldn’t be able to get Sheridan to the helicopter without additional help. Sheridan, they thought, would have to wait for a ground team to arrive to extract him from Greyrock mountain.
A rescue day on Greyrock mountain full of miracles
Good fortune smiled upon Sheridan again. Two young hikers happened to arrive at the summit. The hikers helped get Sheridan in the helicopter for a 10-minute ride to UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital.
“I have a list of God’s miracles and there are 19 on it,” Sheridan said. “First, having cell phone range, having my GPS on me, that pilot making that landing, and then these two hikers.”
A few weeks later, he was scheduled for surgery on his leg injury, which turned out to be a ruptured quadriceps tendon.
After four miracles in the course of a few hours, he counts miracle No. 5 as this: The on-call orthopedic surgeon that day at PVH just happened to be his wife’s cousin.
Recovering from his Greyrock hiking injury
Sheridan has a cast that stretches the length of his leg. He’s not allowed to put weight on his leg until it heals more. He spends most days resting in a medical bed in his living room. Once his cast is removed in a few weeks, he’ll start physical therapy. Mid-March, he’ll return to Poudre Valley Hospital for surgery to repair severed and torn tendons in this shoulder and then have physical rehabilitation. All-in-all, he won’t be doing much of anything until perhaps July.
Despite the pain, doctor visits and immobilization, Sheridan knows it could have been much worse. His list of miracles — hanging where he can see it from his medical bed — reminds him of that, and he’s grateful.
“When it’s you, you understand how caring (health care workers) are — they really care about you and your well-being,” Sheridan said. “They kept saying, ‘We are going to help you manage through this; we are going to help you off this mountain.’ And the skill — you can tell these guys are so skilled.
“I’d love to tell them thanks.”