High Altitude Heroics

Celebrating the Ruby Anniversary of Eagle County’s Search and Rescue Team

Vail Mountain Rescue Group marks 40 years of keeping our backcountry safe.

By Devon O'Neil Photography by Ryan Dearth June 12, 2017 Published in the Summer/Fall 2017 issue of Vail-Beaver Creek Magazine

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An April team training at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum.

Image: Ryan Dearth

Editor’s Note: Vail Mountain Rescue Group’s fundraising arm, Friends of Mountain Rescue, is within $800,000 of creating a $2 million endowment that will fund the operation of the valley’s all-volunteer mountain rescue team in perpetuity. Interested in helping out? Bid on dozens of items in an online auction that opens on July 6, and/or purchase tickets to the team’s summer benefit at the Westin in Avon on July 20.

In the early 1970s, formal search and rescue did not exist in Eagle County. Instead, a group of local skiers and mountaineers volunteered as part of the “Sheriff’s Office Posse” under Eagle County sheriff Jim Seabry. The Posse was mostly run by ranchers who owned snowmobiles and horses, and after 10 months, in 1973, the alpine cognoscenti split to form their own ad-hoc squadron, with a focus on foot travel and nascent high-angle techniques that they honed during training exercises on the cliffs at Camp Hale.

“We only wanted to do mountain rescue,” recalls Jim Olsen, the group’s first leader.

After a few years of organizing bake sales to fund their resource needs, the dozen or so core members realized they needed to evolve if they wanted to maximize their effectiveness in all seasons. So they became an official nonprofit organization with an official name: the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, or VMRG. This year, VMRG celebrates its 40th anniversary as one of the most accomplished and respected search-and-rescue outfits in America, tackling everything from lost-hiker calls to avalanche response to complex extractions from the side of sheer rock walls.

The group still operates under the auspices of the Sheriff’s Office and counts 45 active local members—including high-altitude mountaineers, raft and snowmobile guides, ski patrollers, canine handlers, and paramedics—and in keeping with longstanding tradition never charges for its services. Since the seventies, resources have grown from a handful of walkie-talkies and other gear members cached in their garages to include four vehicles, five snowmobiles, two rafts, three ATVs, one UTV, and a $1.5 million, 5,000-square-foot headquarters (complete with indoor climbing wall) at the Edwards ambulance station, which was dedicated in 2012 and is leased for a dollar a year. 

Given that it costs up to $100,000 a year to maintain the team’s round-the-clock, field-ready status (replacing a single handheld radio used to communicate in the backcountry costs up to $2,000), Friends of Mountain Rescue, VMRG’s fundraising arm (vailmountainrescue.org/donate), is within $800,000 of meeting a long-term campaign to create a self-sustaining, $2 million endowment that will fund the team’s operations in perpetuity.

VMRG averages more than 80 missions per year, each presenting a unique set of circumstances and challenges. Last year, the group responded to 107 calls, including a memorable early winter odyssey on Mount of the Holy Cross. Two teens from Colorado Springs had set out to summit the 14,011-foot peak just before Thanksgiving. After topping out at 7 p.m. via the Cross Couloir, they found themselves caught in the maw of a blizzard.

When the boys failed to check in the next morning, their parents called 911, and a massive search ensued. On the second afternoon, with hope fading, a VMRG ground team found a pair of tracks in the snow above the peak’s north ridge, where the ill-equipped boys had hunkered down and spent the night shivering at 13,800 feet.

Orbiting overhead, a fixed-wing airplane designed to monitor wildfires used remote-sensing equipment to follow the footprints to coordinates that were relayed to a helicopter crew based at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site in Gypsum, which hoisted the teens to safety. “They were literally 15 minutes from death, because I was pulling everybody out of the field,” recalls Scott Sutton, a 24-year team veteran who coordinated the mission and has trained rescue groups in China and South Korea.

“It went from being a potential tragedy to the guys being able to celebrate with their families,” says Eagle County sheriff James Van Beek. “And it all comes down to what our rescuers are willing to do, 24 hours a day, every day of the year.”

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