“Help!” a male’s voice called from the top of a mountain near Loveland Pass. “Over here!”
From the road, his figure was just a dark pinpoint in a landscape of white.
One by one, rescue workers showed up on the scene. Calm and collected, they checked in with mission coordinators, clicked into skis or strapped into snowshoes and made their way up the mountain toward the man.
The scenario was part of the Summit County Rescue Group’s accreditation exercise by the Mountain Rescue Association.
Within minutes, the mountainside was filled with rescue workers surveying the landscape, probing, digging and marking the scene with flags. Nearby, men and women in brightly colored vests watched and listened, observing each and every action the rescue workers made.
“The scenario we set up is a simulation of a real incident,” said Bob Feroldi, a lead evaluator for the Mountain Rescue Association.
The Summit County Rescue Group is being evaluated in search, high-angle technical rescue, scree-field evacuation, winter rescue and avalanche operations. Mountain Rescue Association evaluators not only look at whether proper skills and techniques are being used; they also assess volunteers on teamwork, decision making and communication.
“We will evaluate how they respond, how they work as a team and function within the command structure,” Feroldi said. “There is a whole long criteria.”
Rescue volunteers have to keep a clear head under pressure.
“If we have poor leadership and are running around with our heads cut off, that is looked down upon,” said rescue group director Benjamin Butler.
The volunteers take the test very seriously.
“It’s a big deal for us,” Butler said. “It’s a very prestigious thing to be part of the Mountain Rescue Association.”
The Rocky Mountain Region of the Mountain Rescue Association has 18 member teams. The association prides itself on being “the best of the best” and providing “the platform to accredit the best mountain rescue teams in the world.”
The Summit County Rescue Group is made up of about 75 men and women. They are all volunteers, ranging in age from the mid-20s to the 70s, with varying skills and backgrounds. The group includes expert skiers and mountain guides, but also has a real estate agent, a veterinarian and a dispatcher.
Paul Johnson is the longest-serving member of the Summit County Rescue Group. He volunteered when the group began 40 years ago.
Johnson is a rugged yet approachable man with a white handlebar mustache, sunglasses and a black cap. The longtime skier and climber has had his share of action in the field, but tends to stay behind the scenes doing logistical work these days.
No matter what his role on a rescue mission, the premise is the same.
“Helping people who are lost or hurt in the mountains has always been our main goal,” he said.
The seasoned volunteer said he’s always felt strongly about the Summit Rescue Group, and that’s why he’s kept with it for so long.
“It’s been good in that it’s kept me out of other stuff, like town politics or county politics,” he said.
It’s easy enough to go to meetings, he said, but the missions are what really bind the team together. He used an old military phrase to describe the group — “esprit de corps,” or the capacity to maintain belief in an institution or goal, particularly in the face of opposition or hardship.
“We have that here,” he said.
A cooperative effort
Although many of the rescue volunteers are longstanding members of the group, the nonprofit holds a new-member program at least once a year that takes about four months, includes six classes and two field scenarios. After training, volunteers enter a probationary period during which they are evaluated on real-life missions.
“The teams in Colorado tend to be the best mountain rescue teams in the nation,” said rescue leader Jim Koegal.
A lot of it is driven by the fact that the teams in Colorado cooperate so closely, he said. “Anyone of these people could show up anywhere in Colorado and know what to do because we all train to the same level in the same regimen.”
The Mountain Rescue Association’s lead evaluator Feroldi said it’s good to know that if there is a significant mountain emergency, a qualified rescue fleet will always be ready to respond.
“We know we can call people in when we need them, and it’s a great feeling to have that kind of support from people around the state,” he said.
The rescue workers said the fatal avalanche situation on Loveland Pass last month served as an example of a cooperative multi-agency effort. “Summit was right there with Alpine. We had ambulances. We had the sheriff’s departments and fire departments all there working together,” Feroldi said. “It was extraordinary the way we worked together.”
“If any stranger would have walked up they would have thought it was one organization,” Koegel added. “You wouldn’t have known there were six different agencies. And that is because of the training we do together. We know each other and we’ve all worked together.”
The Summit County Rescue Group will wrap up its accreditation exercise today.