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57-year-old Vaughn Fetzer, of Durango, Colorado, perished September 18 after an off-route fall while descending from Blanca Peak, a 14,000-foot peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range.
Blanca is the fourth highest summit in Colorado and the tallest in the Sangre de Cristos. It’s surrounded by the eponymous Blanca group, home to the fourteeners Ellingwood Point (14,042 ft), Little Bear Peak (14,037 ft), and Mt. Lindsey (14,042 ft). While Blanca’s standard Northwest Ridge route is rated Class II, there are more difficult ways of tackling the mountain.
According to the Alamosa Volunteer Search and Rescue (ASVAR), Fetzer had begun at the Lily Lake Trailhead to the northeast side of the massif, before summiting the 13,855-foot California Peak which lies directly to Blanca’s north. He continued traversing south to Ellingwood Point and on to Blanca.
Fetzer was last heard from at 7:12 pm, on Blanca’s summit. He reportedly planned to descend the Gash Ridge, a technical ridge route that runs down from Blanca’s east side. The SummitPost page for this route notes that it “has been rated anywhere from Class 4 to 5.5,” but that the general consensus is around 5.0. The line is often free soloed, but many parties chose to carry rope and rack to protect some of the more difficult sections.
“It appears that Vaughn descended the wrong ridgeline to go back to his camp, and may have been attempting to traverse back to Gash Ridge, and ultimately fell to his death,” Crystal Wilson, ASVAR President and the Incident Command leader for Fetzer’s recovery, told Gym Climber.
Fetzer was reported missing on September 20, but “AVSAR was unable to locate Vaughn in the first two operational days because he was in a very precarious spot that made finding him very difficult,” Wilson said. “There was no information on what clothing Vaughn may have had on and what colors his gear he may have had on available.”
Like many summits in the Rockies, Blanca’s ramparts are rife with loose rock, making rescue operations dangerous. “After a large rock dislodged and injured a team member’s leg descending the Gash Ridge, AVSAR made the very difficult decision to suspend search efforts until more credible information came forward,” said Wilson. “In the pause time, we were still utilizing air assets in an attempt to locate him.”
Alamosa County Sheriff Robert Jackson reported that he spoke with Fetzer’s sister at the time, and she agreed with the decision to suspend operations. According to The Durango Herald, Fetzer’s sister said he “died doing what he loved” and she didn’t “want anyone else’s life jeopardized by trying to rescue [his] body.”
Fetzer’s body was finally located on Sunday, September 26, by two friends who had begun search efforts of their own. The body was obscured by a large boulder, apparently blocking sight from almost all angles. It was recovered by ASVAR the following day, with all rescue team members off the mountain by 1:30 pm.
Fetzer was reportedly a nurse at Mercy Hospital in Durango, working on the medical-surgical floor. “Vaughn is a loving, happy, energetic man with lots of love for the outdoors along with his passion [for] nursing,” work colleague Tawny Borkowski told The Durango Herald before his body was found.
It’s far from the first time rescue operations on peaks in the Rockies have resulted in injury. In early August, several rescuers were seriously injured by rockfall on Capitol Peak (14,130 ft) in the Elk Range, while attempting to recover the body of 32-year-old Kelly McDermott. Capitol is a popular climb but considered one of the state’s most dangerous fourteeners by its standard route, the Northeast Ridge, which necessitates crossing an exposed section known as the “Knife Edge,” where McDermott fell.
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