The mountains surrounding Vail are one of nature’s most beautiful playgrounds, but accidents happen, and you can get lost. If you find yourself in distress and you call 911; 911 will then contact Vail Mountain Rescue Group (VMRG) who, like superheroes, will save the day! Who are the brave men and women whose motto is “We serve so that others might live”? The VMRG volunteers are from many walks of life and will drop everything to respond when a call goes out that someone is in trouble in the mountains. And why do they do it? Why risk their own lives to save someone they probably don’t even know? Hailee Rustad, a businesswoman in the valley, explains, “When you get hugged by someone who has spent the night lost in the mountains, and you feel their gratitude, it is something that you remember all your life. The satisfaction is enormous.”
Despite their day jobs, the group trains for this responsibility as if it were their profession. Rev. Dr. Scott Beebe, pastor of Mount of the Holy Cross Lutheran Church in Vail, is director of membership for the corps of 45 volunteers. He says that from the moment a VMRG member is deemed prepared to participate in a rescue mission to the point where he or she can actually gain the expertise to command a mission, it usually takes more than five years. Only then will one gain the expertise built through careful mentoring and gradual increased responsibility. Last year the group–giving members of our community–took part in 127 rescue missions, a number which has almost tripled in the past ten years.
The volunteers are deeply committed to each other. “I have been part of many volunteer groups, and Mountain Rescue has a unique sense of community,” says Dylan Heaney, who oversees rescue for Vail Resorts in Beaver Creek. “Our missions range from finding lost hikers to rescuing people who have been badly injured and are in mortal danger, both in summer and winter. We are often risking our own well-being. We can do this because we always have each other’s back.”
As Reverend Beebe says, “There is no place for lone rangers in Mountain Rescue.”
The rescuers’ outdoor passions translate into a multitude of skills. Sarah Hoban, a nuclear medicine technician at the Shaw Cancer Center, is an avid mountain climber. “I think like a climber,” she says, “and I am comfortable with ropes and high altitude.” As Mountain Rescue’s medical branch director, Hoban also organizes the group’s training in wilderness first response.
Other volunteers are accomplished at operating ATVs and UTVs in mountainous terrain, or experienced in white water rafting. And, some are trained in helicopter rescues. As well, VMRG has a close relationship with the High Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site (HAATS) which trains pilots from the U.S. armed services and various foreign militaries in the intricacies of flying helicopters in mountainous regions.
Doug Smith, visiting the valley from Alabama, was on a family backpacking trip when one of his daughters was taken ill. After camping for the night, he realized that the situation was untenable. The young woman had become critically dehydrated. Some three hours after Smith’s call for rescue, a Black Hawk helicopter appeared, and a paramedic immediately began rehydrating his daughter. VMRG got the girl to the hospital and the whole family to safety, including the dog.
“It was incredible how smoothly and professionally they did it,” Smith says. “We had to make the call, but we feared that the rescue would cost us $50,000. We were amazed to learn that it was done for free.”
And, thanks to the Friends of Vail Mountain Rescue, the fundraising arm, every call the group takes is free of charge. Fortunately, the rescuers are free to devote their volunteer time to saving people’s lives. As well, the Friends are building a $2 million endowment to support VMRG’s essential work. Though its trucks are supplied by the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office, the group also buys and maintains its other rescue vehicles and equipment. With the cost of training members, expenses can run up to $100,000 a year. Last year over a hundred community members pitched in to help raise that money. Many visitors who delight in our magnificent mountains are unprepared for the outdoors, unaware of the physiological effects of high altitude, or overestimate their skills in dealing with our terrain. The message from Mountain Rescue is be prepared, be careful, and if you get into trouble, don’t delay: Call 911 before the rescue becomes more complicated.
The VMRG mission includes educating the public. Go to vailmountainrescue.org for information on backcountry safety, including a day hike pack list.