The young man has a little too much liquid celebration and, just fooling around, he steps into the fast-churning springtime waters of the Eagle River near State Bridge.Immediately, the current grabs him. A 68-year old hiker from Denver turns his ankle on the Red and White Mountain trail. A spelunker rappelling down a hundred-foot cave wall in Glenwood Springs bangs his head and is stranded on a ledge in the dark. A young snowboarder is swept away in the sudden roar of a collapsing 1000-foot avalanche on Uneva Peak near Vail Pass.
WHO DO THEY CALL?
They call 911, and then the 911-dispatch operator calls Vail Mountain Rescue (VMR). This heroic all-volunteer local search and rescue group has been responsible for saving literally thousands of lives during the 30-plus years they’ve been working for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department in responding to all kinds of calamities.
VMR was launched back in the wild and wooly early 1970s under the leadership of local Tim Cochrane, who passed away last year. “Tim was a Marine and one of those guys who are a little larger than life,” says his longtime friend and current VMR Operations Director Steve Zuckerman. When a rescue call came in to the sheriff’s office, they would contact the group of people in town known to have the necessary skills. Cochrane decided to organize the casual posse of backcountry rescuers into a more formal group within the Mountain Rescue Association and set up protocols, guidelines and communications.
“In the beginning, you’d walk into Donovan’s Copper Bar and figure out who was in town and round up the ones who could go,” says Zuckerman. “They were just locals who loved to hike and climb and ski in the backcountry, men and women both.” Some were river rafting guides, and many were ski patrol people with medical skills.
Now VMR includes about 30 to 40 active members, about 20 percent of whom are women. Another twenty on the official roster are “resource members” – people who have been active with the group for decades and now pitch in when a search is short-handed or their extreme experience is needed on a command team.
In spring and summer, most missions involve white water accidents, rock climbing mishaps and lost or injured hikers. Fall and winter mean lost and hurt hunters and snowmobilers, plus skier and avalanche rescues. The VMR teams are made up entirely of volunteers, and anyone can join. This is a busy group – last year, they found 122 people and the year before, they rescued 164.
Each spring VMR holds a recruitment academy but there’s no test involved; the only real job requirement is the moxie to rise and shine at 3 in the a.m., struggle into heavy gear and head out cheerfully into the great unknown. Also useful is an irrational addiction to hardship in the form of freezing downpours, howling blizzards, killer avalanches and high whitewater danger. There’s the added attraction that many missions take place in the dark of night. Oh, and you don’t get paid.
If these sound like appealing working conditions, be sure to show up. Says VMR President Dan Smith who served in Vietnam, “There are only two types of folks we don’t want on this team, heroes and cowboys. Both are dangerous. There’s more than enough intrinsic risk in what we do, and we don’t need to add to it with people whose egos get in the way.”
The teamwork culture is taken very seriously here, even when it comes to partying. One hiker called VMR a few weeks after he was rescued and as a thank-you gesture wanted to buy the guys who got him out a drink. Well, he was told, we don’t do that: It’s all of us or none of us. So the lost-and-found hiker took the whole VMR group to the Gore Range Brewery and ordered up a round of beers for everybody.
Over the years, the group has honed a system that allows them to jump on an emergency with maximum speed and efficiency. The call comes in from 911 dispatch or the sheriff’s office to an experienced VMR mission coordinator like Smith. He discusses the situation with the deputy and then tries to contact whoever made the 911 call. Since cell phones can transmit pretty well at 11,000 or 12,000 feet, that’s often the person who’s lost.
“The hiker will tell me he’s got no idea where he is,” says Smith. “So the first thing I’ll do is try to talk him out. I’ll ask where he parked his car, how long he’s been on the trail.” Because Smith and other VMR volunteers are so familiar with the high-country hereabouts, they can often figure out the lost hiker’s location. “I’ll tell him to put the sun at his back, and walk uphill and before he comes to the cliff he’ll hit the trail. See you in the morning.”
It gets more complicated when the 911 information source is the lost person’s employer, wife or mother. The mission coordinator tries to gather clues to aid in the search by questioning whoever called 911: Where did the lost person leave his car, or what trailhead did he leave from? “We need a point last seen, and direction of travel,” says Smith. “If we have those two, we do a hasty search, which may be 12 hours or so using two teams of two to four people each.” Smith will page the active duty members and assemble his teams from those who call in their availability. Because an individual’s response is always voluntary, everyone needs to be good at most kinds of rescues from whitewater to rock climbing to avalanche.
If the person isn’t located during the initial hasty search, the mission moves into Sherlock Holmes territory. The mission coordinator goes through the steps of solving a mystery, using his wilderness-savvy imagination and his rational brain.
“You try to put yourself into the guy’s head,” explains Smith. “Sometimes it’s maddening: where the hell is this guy?” The relative or 911 caller may have mentioned that the lost person liked to fish, and that information may lead the team to a lake near the hiker’s suspected travel route. The team also calls in help from the three VMR volunteers who bring their trained search dogs to pick up the scent from the driver’s seat in the car left at the trailhead.
Anne-Marie Cooper, one of the team’s dog handlers, started training her 11-year-old Labrador retriever Mallie as a scent dog when she was only 10 weeks old. Now Mallie’s an expert tracker with an impressive resume of people she’s hunted and found in the mountains. She’s also been trained to dig people out of avalanches, although avalanche rescue is more likely to end with a recovered body than a live survivor because of the short viability window involved.
Lost person searches usually have happier endings, like that of the hiker who missed a turn on the trail coming down from the Mount of the Holy Cross a few summers ago. Mallie, her owner and another VMR volunteer had slogged though the dark night and slashing rain about eight miles up the mountain. Suddenly, the dog dashed off into the forest and vanished. In moments she ran back to the searchers, and with urgent barks she led them into the woods. It wasn’t long before they came upon the lost hiker, so cold and soaked to the skin that he was suffering from hypothermic shock and didn’t know his own name or where he was. The rescuers bundled him up and got him safely down the mountain.
Those moments after a successful rescue are full of quiet elation for the ones who save. “Let’s just say the first time you find somebody who’s been out in the woods for four days and doesn’t think they’re ever coming back, and then they see you coming down the trail, the look on their face is all the satisfaction we ever need,” says Zuckerman.
Last winter, a VMR team strapped on backcountry skis and labored up Uneva Peak, just opposite Vail Pass, to rescue a very lucky snowboarder. She’d ridden a roaring 1000 x 1000 foot avalanche, been briefly buried, and somehow swam to the top before the collapsing waterfall of snow finally stopped. Though she was covered to the waist, her friends quickly dug her out. VMR was contacted and sent in a hasty team, followed by another group, about 15 in all. “She had two sprained ankles, so we wrapped her up like a burrito and put her into a sled and skied her down in the dark,” recalls Zuckerman.
The members of VMR train several times a month, practicing the latest techniques for different kinds of searches and rescues. At conferences conducted by the Mountain Rescue Association, professionals train VMR personnel in whitewater and avalanche rescue, rope handling, rock climbing and other scenarios. Members earn certification in these skills and then come back and teach the rest of the VMR team.
It’s all much more sophisticated than when John Milligan joined up in 1984. “Back then it was just a bunch of guys going out and doing what we could,” says Milligan, who’s now a resource member. “Today we learn much stricter safety protocols and our people get certifications that are standardized across the country.”
Technically, things have changed a great deal as well. While VMR searchers once relied on their compasses and dead reckoning to find the lost, now they use a grid and map system and send each team out with a GPS. When they return to the command post, their information is downloaded into the system so the mission leaders can analyze which areas have been searched.
Help also comes from the sky. Back in the day, Milligan says it could take a search team an eight- to ten-hour walk up a mountain to reach an injured hiker, and about the same amount of time to hike out. The group was suffering from burnout halfway through the summer. Now they can call on the Colorado National Guard High Altitude Aviation Training Center (HAATS), which trains military helicopter pilots out of the nearby Eagle County Regional Airport.
“They can pick up our team and fly us to 12,000 feet, land, and we can evacuate the people out of there and to the hospital in a very short time,” says Milligan. “They really give us the upper hand in these remote areas.” The helicopters are even more invaluable on dangerous winter missions because they can fly in close to an avalanche scene with the VMR team and rescue dogs. The helicopters not only cut the rescue time dramatically, their quick response has saved many lives, too.
Milligan won’t soon forget his team rescuing a young Air Force cadet who had gone caving with some friends at the grimly-named Fixin to Die Cave near Glenwood Springs. The cadet had fallen halfway down inside the cave and suffered broken bones and a concussion.
“The National Guard flew us in and we used the pilots as rope handlers while we went down 100 feet to haul him up off this ledge. He flat-lined in the helicopter but the medic got an IV into him and it turned out okay. On our way out, it was getting dark and we hung glow sticks in the trees. It looked like a garden party with this strange green glow; it was pretty epic.”
But the ones that get away are the ones that linger in the mind. Smith estimates there have only been about three of those in the 10 years he’s been with VMR. James Nelson was the most recent, and mostmysterious.
The 31-year-old Chicagoan left his car at the Tigiwon trailhead out of Minturn in the fall of 2010 to hike the Mount of the Holy Cross. In early October, the weather can turn tricky on Colorado 14ers such as the Holy Cross, surprising even experienced and well-equipped outdoorsmen like this one who had hiked with a Chicago backpackers group since 2006. Starting his trek with an unusually warm few days, Nelson may have been unprepared when the temperature plunged and the skies clouded up, dropping several inches of snow above 10,000 feet. His plan was an ambitious one: to spend five days hiking all the way around Holy Cross, summit the peak and then descend into the Bowl of Tears, altogether a 25-mile trip. After he failed to show up when expected, his fiancé called 911, and they called Vail Mountain Rescue.
“Something went very wrong,” says Dan Smith. “We put 2100 man hours into that search and nearly 30 people. It took 27 Blackhawk Helicopter missions from HAATS to drop our teams in and comb the area, but we never found a trace of him. Not even a piece of his backpacking gear. We may never find him.”
Smith thinks it very unlikely that a bear or a cougar attacked Nelson. “That just doesn’t happen around here. Cougars eat nice safe deer, not ugly humans. Of course if a person dies out in the wilderness, a wild animal will eat the carcass.” Nelson didn’t have a cell phone, and that fact alone may have spelled his doom.
“It was very frustrating,” recalls Zuckerman. “There are thick woods and scree fields, cliffs, lots of abandoned mines, offshoot trails. You’re at 9,000 to 14,000 feet so you’ve got weather issues. Some of us camped up there and did that 25-mile perimeter with backpacking gear.”
After nearly a week of scouring the area, the search was suspended. The decision to call off a search is always a tough one, and it’s made by the sheriff’s team as well as Vail Mountain Rescue command staff, according to Leslie Robertson of VMR.
“Some of the deciding factors in suspending a search are when we’ve run out of areas to look and we’ve exhausted our resources,” she notes. “The search could continue, but we wouldn’t necessarily be making any new progress. Our members never want to quit and certainly want to bring closure to the family if we can.” Zuckerman thinks that Nelson went off the trail to camp and somehow never found his way back.
But such disappointing searches are few and far between for VMR: over 90 percent of the missions end in the person found alive. The funds required to buy equipment, such as the expensive scientific mapping system, radios, snowmobiles or other gear, are all raised through grants and donations. Every year fundraisers sponsored by the Beaver Creek Club, the Alpine Club and other organizations help support the effort of these local heroes.
Grateful rescued people often send checks, too, and sometimes socks. “Another member and I pulled this guy off a trail, and he had cold soaking wet socks and shoes,” recalls Dan Smith with a laugh. “Later he sent me two pairs of socks and a nice check for the group.”