Rescue team demonstrates device that freed hiker from 1,500-pound boulder

GOLDEN, Colo. -- A simple system of air bags was responsible for lifting a boulder that weighed almost a ton off a hiker on North Table Mountain on Wednesday.

The woman was hiking on a marked trail when a 1,500-pound slab of rock broke from the cliff. It crushed her left leg and trapped her underneath.

“She needed to be in a trauma center right away,” Golden firefighter John Priestly said.

A rescue on a mountain is easier said than done, though. All of the first responders said they have never been to an accident like this one.

“I know I’ve never been on a boulder on top of a hiker before,” Priestly said. “So it was quite a unique rescue.”

Emergency crews had to hike 45 minutes up the mountain to reach the victim. They had to carry every piece of rescue equipment to the location on foot.

Once they reached her, they had to figure out how to safely lift such a heavy rock.

“We don’t ever really have hikers under boulders so we had to think outside of the box,” Priestly said.

They ended up using a specialized air bag system that inflates, using the pressure from the oxygen tanks firefighters wear on their backs.

A small rubber air bag about the size of a potholder can lift an object weighing 1.2 tons, like a small car. The largest one can handle up to 70.6 tons, or something that weighs about as much as the Space Shuttle.

They ended up using two medium-size air bags that can handle up to 30,000 pounds each.

“You can put some of these bags together, stack them up and you can lift the back of a bus up,” he said.

Firefighters and other rescue crews typically use the air bags in car crashes to lift vehicles off of people or other vehicles. It was the right tool to free the hiker.

Rescuers said the most challenging part of the operation was the time it took to get the patient to the hospital.

She was pinned for more than two hours before they could lift the boulder off of her. Then, it took 45 minutes for emergency crews to carry her to the top of the mesa where the Flight for Life helicopter was waiting.

“Getting her to the trauma center was probably the biggest challenge just due to the time it took to access the patient. Hiking in, all the gear, the snow, the mud,” Priestly said.

The woman was in critical condition at St. Anthony Hospital on Thursday night.

Emergency crews believe the rock came free because of precipitation that got between the rock layers. It likely expanded in the cold weather earlier in the week and caused a weakness in the cliff.

They urge hikers to use caution when hiking in cold and wet conditions.