The first call came in at 8pm. Two young men were in trouble in the Grand Confusion Gully, a popular ice climb in winter and a scree gully in the warmer months, in Smugglers’ Notch. One of the men had fallen 160 feet and landed on a ledge about 40 feet from the top of the approach to the same gully. The guy, who had basically scalped himself on the way down, had slipped while trying to traverse the top of Grand Confusion.
After two hours, the backcountry rescue team from Stowe Mountain Rescue (SMR) was able to evacuate the fallen subject who was then flown by DART to the hospital.
His friend, however, was still at the top of Grand Confusion, uninjured, but stranded, and unable to navigate his way safely down. So, the rescue crew went back.
It took them several attempts to find a safe route—most were too dangerous with wet, loose, rock—before they were able to find a safe enough ascent to get to the hiker. They ended up traversing into Easy Gully, one of Grand Confusion’s neighbors, climbing 200 feet in elevation above Grand Confusion, and then traversing north. It was only then that they were able to make voice contact with the stranded hiker.
A rappel, then a short scramble facilitated direct contact with the subject. He was provided a harness and helmet and secured to an anchor. A double rope rappel down Grand Confusion was established and the subject was brought down the 200' cliff. He was then hiked out to the staging area without incident. It was 3:30am.
The night should have been over at this point, but it wasn’t.
As the rescue team began packing up to head home, tones went off and they were dispatched to another call. This one for a man who had gotten out of bed to go to the bathroom and had subsequently fallen from the loft in his remote cabin—about 600 feet from any vehicle access. Local EMS crews needed help carrying him out. The ambulance couldn’t drive up and he too, needed a litter-carry. So with no sleep, SMR hauled across town to the cabin in the woods. It was 3:45am when they arrived.
“I remember thinking to myself, ‘Well, how bad can this be compared to the fall we just saw?” said Doug Veliko, Chief of Stowe Mountain Rescue. “Eight to 10 feet versus 170.”
But, the patient’s condition was surprisingly bad when they arrived on scene and they hurried to get him to the ambulance. Turns out, the man had suffered a lacerated spleen and other internal injuries from the loft fall, while the young man from the Notch was sewn up and sent home.
“You never know what you are going to get when you go to a call,” said Veliko. “You may expect one thing and turns out to be something else entirely. You have to be prepared for whatever comes up.”
Veliko, a full-time Reliability Engineer with GlobalFoundries, has served for 25 years on Stowe Mountain Rescue (SMR). The 15-man, all-volunteer team is accredited and certified by the Mountain Rescue Association , and has specialized in technical, high-angle, and swift water rescues in Stowe and the surrounding areas since 1980. “We work closely with the other teams especially Colchester Tech. We know each other well and operate as a single team.”
Members of SMR come with a strong outdoor background—climbers, backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, kayakers—and are comfortable and competent in the backcountry for hours at a time. Veliko, himself is an avid climber of both rock and ice, and a backcountry skier, trail runner, and hiker.
“This is something that you can’t really teach,” said Veliko, who also serves as one of SMR’s training officers. “It’s an eight-month process to even become part of the team and that’s if you already feel comfortable outdoors. Teaching beginners about the outdoors would take too much time.”
It was rock climbing that originally peaked Veliko’s interest in the rescue world. “I started climbing when I was 16 when there was no backcountry rescue infrastructure,” he said. “I realized then that I needed to take first aid.” His interest in the field grew from there, from a first aid class, to ambulance driver, advanced EMT to crew chief, and finally SMR member to chief of backcountry rescue. He is also the team's most accomplished technical climber.
“A climber’s mindset is not very different than an EMT’s mindset. Your focus increases as the stress elevates. We are able to channel that energy positively rather than negatively.”
SMR heads out to an average of 35 calls per year—unless it’s a major snow year, they are surprisingly busier in the summer. Crewmembers oftentimes find themselves being asked to deliver a headlamp to an unprepared hiker in the dark or helping others navigate the sticky situations that can easily be found when hiking around Mount Mansfield and the Notch. Of all these calls, winter or summer, Veliko finds the ones where he can help a competent outdoorsman in trouble the most rewarding.
“Everyone on the team is an outdoor enthusiast. Some day we could be in trouble and we’d want someone to come for us.”
Veliko’s advice when heading into the backcountry?
“Most people need a guide depending on what they want to do and where they want to go. Oftentimes people just don’t know what they are getting into. It’s 60 degrees and beautiful at the base of Mount Mansfield and then you break the tree line, the temp drops, and it’s extremely windy. People aren’t prepared for this and that’s when there are problems. Or, if it’s winter, skiers jump off-trail to follow tracks and just assume that they go back to the resort or the road. But, that’s not necessarily the case.”
And that's when Veliko and the team at SMR get the call.
Mount Mansfield Doug Kerr