The Colorado River is powerful and unforgiving. So says Mike Kuper, vice-president of Garfield County Search and Rescue. “I have never understood why someone would float it in an inner tube without a life jacket.”
Preparation is key to keeping outdoor activities in the mountains fun and safe, even if it’s just a day hike along one of the local trails. Kuper added that the Hanging Lake trail in Glenwood Canyon (with an elevation gain of 1,050 feet in a little over 2 miles) is frequently misjudged despite nearby signs warning hikers of the challenge that lies ahead. “I still see people up there hiking in sandals or folks coming from a lower elevation struggling with the altitude,” he said.
Kuper, 44, has been with Garfield County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) for a little over three years and already has lots of stories about Hanging Lake rescues, river rescues, downed airplane rescues, winter rescues in the backcountry, or helping hikers off 14ers and climbers stranded on the steep cliffs of Glenwood Canyon — name the hazard and Kuper has a story to match.
But, he isn’t in it for the glory, which, he added, is a common misunderstanding among those who want to become a part of the team. “Some people have romantic ideas about SAR, that you’re hanging off a cliff, rescuing a patient,” he explained. “But, it’s a serious business and we take it as such.”
Sometimes members of the all-volunteer GCSAR team are hanging off cliffs while rescuing patients but that usually comes after a lot of training.
Once an applicant is approved for membership, extensive SAR-TECH II training begins, which is necessary for certification. In addition, according to the GCSAR website, the average team member spends over 400 hours a year in training classes and field practices. Kuper added that everyone on the team must have (and be able to carry) a backpack filled with supplies to sustain themselves for 24 hours in winter and summer, and participate in four rescue missions throughout the year. “It’s a commitment of time and money,” he said. Even though the Garfield County Sheriff’s Department provides trucks, boats, and other equipment plus two buildings in Rifle for storage and trainings, members provide their own supplies.
Steve Ochko, a longtime GCSAR member, said the group has come a long way since its loose beginnings 40 years ago. “In 1973, there were groups of volunteers and the [Garfield County] sheriff’s department had a sheriff’s posse, a bunch of horse-outfitted people,” he explained. Basically, if a call came in, he said, people would simply get together and respond. “If there were calls in the backcountry, the posse would go out on horseback.” No rules and regulations. No certification. Just a knowledge of the terrain, some equipment, stamina, and the desire to help.
Ochko got involved at that time to help start winter operations. “We were just a group with snow machines, primarily for winter rescues,” he explained. “But, we eventually got together and [officially] formed GCSAR.”
He remembers airlifting hunters off the Flat Tops, lots of accidents on the river when rafts would get sideways on the bridge pylons, and Hanging Lake rescues. “We’ve had people on their way up the trail, hanging over the rail or climbing up the rocks to take pictures, lose their balance and fall,” he recalled.
Ochko also served on Mountain Rescue Aspen for 10 years and helped out during the aftermath of the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain in 1994.
Both Ochko and Kuper, like most of the team, came to GCSAR with experience in the outdoors. Kuper said the combination of experience and GCSAR training has honed his skills, and that searching for a lost hiker, for example, involves more than just beating the bushes.
When Kuper is out on a mission, he tries to put himself in the head of the person he’s looking for. He asks questions like, “if I got lost out here, where would I go?” Or, if it’s steep terrain, “what’s the best chance of egress?
“If there’s a creek, I think about maybe this person headed down the creek to find help,” he added. He’s also constantly assessing the weather, his personal safety and the safety of his team. “Being out in the Colorado backcounty is not just a hike in the woods,” he said. “There’s a lot of potential for danger.”
Kuper said that even though GCSAR is more organized than it was in 1973, the team continues to face challenges that have nothing to do with weather or terrain. “We could use more volunteers,” he said. GCSAR recruited at least eight new members this year and one person just graduated from the SAR-TECH II class, bringing the total number of team members up to 40. But, not every member is available for each mission, which means GCSAR often calls for mutual aid from other search and rescue teams to help with longer search operations.
Despite the hardships, the challenges, and often dangerous conditions, Kuper said his work with GCSAR is exciting and sometimes fun. But, most of all, he said it’s about giving back to the community, And, he added, GCSAR does not charge for services.