A Colorado Fourteener’s Hike Becomes a Fight for Survival After Catastrophic Fall

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Leon Sparks, a 44-year-old sales rep in Mississippi, spends a week every summer hiking Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks. On Sunday, July 31, 2022, Sparks attempted to climb three peaks in one day in the San Juan Range: El Diente Peak, Mount Wilson, and Wilson Peak. Unfortunately for Sparks, he fell, broke his ankle and had to be rescued from the side of El Diente Peak.

My plan was to camp at Navajo Lake Saturday night which would give me access to Mount Wilson, Wilson Peak and El Diente Peak. If everything had gone perfectly, I could have gotten all three in one day, returned to the lake and camped one more night.

I did a rainy five mile hike in the lake, and the only thing I had packed was my hiking clothes. Everything was soaked and I almost froze, but I set up camp around 10 p.m. On Sunday morning, I wanted to start at 4:30, but I didn’t start until 6:00. was rushing.

The route to El Diente involves class three or four jamming. I could tell the rocks were a little loose in places so I was very careful with my grips. I reached an altitude of 14,100 feet around 9:30. And that’s when I chose to turn left instead of going right. Looking back on 14ers.com, where I get my routes, I can see I’ve been on the right path up to this point. I took a left because the course seemed easier, but it was a mistake.

I started up the side of the mountain, probably on easy class five terrain. I had to get over a bulging rock, which meant pushing on my legs and pulling with my arms, then grabbing another rock with my left hand. When I pushed, my left foot slipped out of its grip, then the stone shattered under my left hand. I started to slip. I thought, “Oh my god. Did this really just happen?

I grabbed everything I could, clinging to the mountain the whole way, but nothing took. Suddenly there was a rock under me sticking out of the mountain. It stopped my legs and I was able to grab onto it just when I felt like I was about to tip over, which would have been deadly. Then I stood next to this rock.

After the fall, I started evaluating my body. My adrenaline was rising. And I was like, “OK, I have cuts on my arm. I have a pretty big gash just below the knee – nothing I can’t fix to continue. Then I tried to turn around to take off my bag, and when I turned around, my right foot stayed where it was. That’s when I knew I had really screwed up.

I took off my bag and put it on the rock that had saved me. I removed my Garmin InReach from my belt. When I grabbed the Garmin, my bag dropped – and I reached out to grab the bag, but I also dropped the Garmin. I watched it descend and land in a ravine about 30 or 40 feet down. I thought, “I have to get my Garmin,” not realizing I had cell service.

The view from the top of El Diente peak. (: nick1803/Getty Images)

I raced down the side of the mountain, trying to brace my broken ankle. I reached the ravine, and it was full of sand. I sped right over the Garmin and grabbed it. My next step was going to be to retrieve my bag, but as I looked around the curve of the ravine, I knew there was no way to get it. I didn’t want to press the SOS button on my Garmin. It’s the last thing I thought I had to do in these mountains. But I knew I had to. Before pressing the button, I looked at my phone and saw that I had service. I immediately called my wife, Jennifer. “I just want you to know I’m fine,” I told her. “I have a broken ankle or a broken leg, and I’m about to hit that SOS button on the Garmin.” I warned her because she and my dad are emergency contacts, so pressing InReach was about to notify them.

You never think you’ll need a GPS tracker like the Garmin InReach, until you do. I’m so glad I got it.

When I pressed the SOS button, Garmin immediately texted me on my cell phone. They followed up with a phone call, and we talked, and then the responder called Dolores County Search and Rescue, and they spoke to team captain Keith Keesling. He called me to tell me his team was coming up with a rescue plan. He was calm. Later, I found out later that every time Keesling hung up on me, he called my wife to let her know. It took a lot of anxiety and stress away from him.

After a few phone calls, Keith told me that he had obtained state approval to send in a helicopter, which was At 45 minutes. In the meantime, they sent in a local helicopter, San Miguel County Search and Rescue. This helicopter passed, saw my position and relayed this information to the rescue team. Then the other helicopter, the Mesa Verde Helitack, arrived 30 minutes later.

Meanwhile, the sun hides behind the clouds. I was shaking like crazy every time the sun went down. All I had on was a lightweight long-sleeve fishing shirt, running shorts, knee-length compression socks, and my trail shoes. I was frozen. And every time I was shaking, my leg felt like it was on fire. I watched the weather up close, because I knew if it started raining, they were going to have to call off the rescue mission, and I would be stuck on the mountain with no extra clothes.

When the Mesa Verde Helitack arrived, the rescue began. A rescuer by the name of Pepé flew up to me hanging from a rope that was probably about 300 feet long, hanging from the helicopter. They dropped him right next to me, and he was carrying a giant green bag full of gear. He gave me his personal jacket to wear. Pepé put me in a scarf that hung under the helicopter. But then he decided he wanted to stabilize my leg better, so he placed me on what appeared to be an inflatable mattress that hooks onto the rope that hangs from the helicopter. Then he called the helicopter to come back, he hooked me to him and he took off with me hanging below. Pepé stayed behind; the helicopter was going to go back to get him after shooting me down.

Getting transported from the mountain by a helicopter was amazing. I felt the wind from the blades and looked up at the bottom of the helicopter. We flew five and a half miles, which only lasted a few minutes, to get me down to the trailhead, where they dropped me. Search and rescue teams were waiting for me there with an ambulance. Everyone had a smile on their face. They seemed happy to be there and not like I had ruined their day.

As soon as I landed it started to rain and Pepé was still on the mountain. The helicopter came back up there and picked it up in a torrential downpour. And when they put me in the ambulance, the storm was more like a flood.

As we drove down the dirt road in the ambulance, we ran into a mudslide. The ambulance driver, Pat, said she could handle it – she just knocked him down and ushered us through. About two miles later, we encountered another slide, and Pat knocked it down again. But a little further down the road, we encountered an even larger landslide. She said “there’s no way I’m getting out of this.” So we waited for the arrival of a tractor to help us cross it and get to the hospital.

The storm ended up washing the whole road. Later Keith told me that the helitack operation would have been canceled if I had called 15 minutes later. It was also the last day the helitack and its crew would be in Colorado – it was due to leave for California the next day.. I was lucky.

In the ER, the doctors cleaned me up and took x-rays. My ankle was broken and my tibia was broken. I had surgery the next day.

When I was on this mountain, I had a lot of time to think. As challenge-oriented as I am, I realized that I had to keep my family in mind when pursuing those challenges. I have two sons: 15 and ten years old. Another lesson for me was to just enjoy being outdoors. Prior to the crash, my goal was to check off Colorado’s 58 fourteen on my list. I allowed that focus to eclipse just being in the moment. This experience also underlined how much I need to be prepared for any situation. If I hadn’t had this Garmin or my cell phone, what would I have done?