Vail Mountain Rescue’s ‘quiet heroes’ have run 92 missions already this year
EDWARDS — A phone rings and a small group of people sprint away from their lives and toward danger. The Vail Mountain Rescue group has done it so often this year — 92 times — that heroism is second nature.
They don’t charge one thin dime. Not one. Neither does the Colorado National Guard’s High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site crew when they pluck you out of harm’s way.
“Calls are coming later and later in an event because, apparently, people seem to think we charge to come rescue them. We do not charge. The National Guard does not charge,” said Dan Smith, with Vail Mountain Rescue.
‘Proud to be associated’
Last winter, Vail Mountain Rescue teamed with HAATS and spent hundreds of man hours over two days to pluck two shivering kids off Mount of the Holy Cross.
“These are people putting aside their own lives to help other people and spend hundreds of hours doing it,” said James van Beek, Eagle County Sheriff. “That’s just missions. That does not include the thousands of hours they spend training.
“They’re the quiet heroes.”
Dead bodies beget headlines, van Beek said. In Aspen, search and rescue crews and the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office have pulled five dead hikers off of Capitol Peak over the past several days.
“It’s easy to get caught up in the tragedies, but look at the good things these people are doing. It makes you proud to be associated with them,” van Beek said.
Both Vail Mountain Rescue and HAATS are nominated for Meritorious Service Awards.
“They’re some of the best in the world,” van Beek said.
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Smith said Vail Mountain Rescue is effective because of three major relationships.
2. Eagle County Sheriff’s Office
3. Eagle County ambulance district
HAATS is a schoolhouse whose primary mission is to train helicopter pilots to fly in all sorts of inhospitable mountain conditions. Second on HAATS’ mission list is search and rescue. Because HAATS does not have a ground crew, Vail and Aspen’s search and rescue crews fill that role.
“We’ve developed a great partnership over the last few years, building on a great relationship we’ve had for decades,” said HAATS commander Col. Tony Somogyi. “They are truly warriors in their field, operating as an all-volunteer force and knowing that we may not be able bring them out because of weather or fuel when we drop them off. Yet they never complain.”
“We trust them to fly the bird, and they trust us on the ground. And we trust each other not to get into missions we shouldn’t get into,” Smith said.
Around the Central Rockies, some sheriff’s offices and search and rescue crews work together better than others, but Smith said probably none better than Vail Mountain Rescue and the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office.
Most mountain sheriffs let search and rescue crews handle search and rescue missions. Technology and training are most of the reason. The rest is respect, Smith said.
Vail Mountain Rescue started with Tim Cochrane and former Eagle County Sheriff A.J. Johnson. They worked together because they trusted each other, Smith said.
“That’s 40 years of trust. They have never let us down, and so far, we have never let them down,” Smith said.
Until two years ago, the agreement between Vail Mountain Rescue and the ambulance district was informal. They inked the Search and Rescue Paramedic Plan to make it official.
Besides medical skills, those paramedics bring along ambulance gear and medications, things Vail Mountain Rescue crew members cannot. So far this year, of those 92 missions, they needed a paramedic on a dozen, Smith said.
“Those partnerships work because all the people are committed,” Smith said.
Sometimes, missions are life threatening and life saving. Sometimes, not so much.
“We’ve been interfering with Darwin for 40 years. But then most of the rules in society interfere with Darwin,” Smith said.
For example, you can spend $20 in a sporting goods store to get everything you need to make it through a night alone in the forest.
Then there’s common sense.
“Tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back,” Smith said.
So far this year, they’ve rescued 28 hikers, 12 snowmobilers, 11 skiers/snowsnoers, 10 climbers … the list is long.
Last week alone, Vail Mountain Rescue went after four hikers, three climbers and a family of vomiting campers.
Also last week, a guy got lost and spent the night by a tree.
There were those four people who were in a raft that got hung up on a rock — one personal floatation device among the four of them. Vail Mountain Rescue roped three of them out of the river. The fourth guy was sitting in the back of the raft and keeping it stuck on the rock. Vail Mountain Rescue crew members convinced him to move to the front of the boat, which freed itself from the rock, floated down river, and they’re all living happily ever after.
Not always unprepared
A skilled climber was on the Crestone Needle. He was geared up and prepared, but still slid feet-first down a steep cliff face. He would have been fine, except his left foot hit a rock and snapped his ankle off so completely that the bone was sticking out the bottom, above his boot. He strapped on a tourniquet but was leaking from the wound. He would have bled out by the middle of the night. Vail Mountain Rescue and HAATS pulled him out.
“They had to wash out the helicopter when they were done, there was so much blood,” Smith said.
A guy hiked Mount of the Holy Cross and his boots came apart on the way down. He didn’t have any way to make on-the-trail repairs — usually duct tape. He was barefoot when the Vail Mountain Rescue crew found him.
At East Cross Creek, a hiker came across a couple of guys who had enhanced their wilderness experience with psychedelic mushrooms. The two were flouncing around the forest, dancing with trees, singing and screaming and tripping over tents … or maybe just tripping. No one was hurt. In fact, they had never felt better. It takes about four hours to come down from a mushroom cloud, and the Vail Mountain Rescue crew was there to watch them land their astral plane.
“Can we give you some help?” the Vail Mountain Rescue crew asked.
“No thanks. We’ll just hike up to our car and drive home,” the mushroom men replied.
That might not be their most prudent course of action, the rescue crew explained, since a sheriff’s deputy was at the trailhead with a picture of their car and license plates. The rescue crew suggested they hunker down for the night in their tent and leave in the morning. They did.
“On some of these missions, you save a life. That’s what we do. Most of the time, we try to get to people before we have to save their life,” Smith said. “It seems simple, but if there’s not someone knowledgeable to respond, those people are in a hurt locker.”
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Grace Wesseling is an animal lover, a cheerleader of seven years and another soon-to-be graduate of Bridges High School, class of 2021.