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Dan Aguilar

Caramie Schnell

When Dan Aguilar was a small boy growing up in the projects of west Dallas, he never imagined that one day he would be presented an award that both the Dalai Lama and the Pope would also later receive.”I never considered such a thing,” Dan says. “It’s so far out there.”Even today, five years after winning the prestigious Targa d’ Argento award, which translates to “The Silver Plaque,” it takes some prodding for Dan to talk about his accomplishments. The international award is given for excellence in mountain rescue situations, or for promoting the spiritual nature of the mountains (thus the awards for the Pope and the Dalai Lama).Despite Dan’s tremendous endeavors in mountain climbing and the 25 years he’s spent selflessly helping others during times of dire need, Dan doesn’t broadcast the many people he’s helped, the horrors he’s seen, or the recognition he’s received for both.Dan grew up in the segregated projects of west Dallas.”I grew up in the bad part of town, in the projects,” Dan says. “The Hispanics, blacks and the whites, they were all segregated projects, there were fights and gangs and everything that’s where I grew up.”After finishing high school, Dan joined the United States Army.”There was a war going on,” Dan says, referring to Vietnam. “My buddy at work and I, we both enlisted, he went Navy; I went Army. We made a pact that we’d come to Colorado before we shipped out, we didn’t know if we were going to make it through it.”The two drove out and Dan learned how to ski at Loveland. Soon after, his time with the military commenced. He spent a total of four years in the Army, spending a year in the deep South, and the next three in Turkey and the Far East including Okinawa and Taiwan.Afterwards, Dan returned to Texas. He spent a year there working, trying to readjust. Eventually he decided to come to Vail for a job that was set to last only two years.Soon after arriving in Vail, Dan was lured by the mountains and began climbing, “right across the street,” in the Gore Range. After getting himself into some sticky situations while climbing alone, Dan decided he’d better get some actual training. He met his would-be climbing mentor, Marty Hoey, while climbing Mount Rainier. Hoey endeavored to be the first American woman to climb Everest.”In 1982 there was an accident,” Dan says. “She slipped out of her harness and fell to her death.”For nearly two years after the accident Dan quit climbing. But eventually he was pulled back in.”I started helping with Mountain Rescue,” Dan says. “I wasn’t so much concerned with peaks and summits anymore. I was concerned with helping people. I wasn’t there for Marty and this is how I’ve been paying it back.”Twenty-five years later, Dan has an estimated 500 missions under his belt. During those years, Dan has encountered miracles and stumbled upon inconceivable tragedy. He’s dug not-so-lucky avalanche-victims out from under six-feet of snow and he’s led stunned avalanche survivors off glaciers. He has carried bodies down the highest peaks in the world and he’s found lost backcountry travelers, injured and near death, and seen them survive unscathed.”If you’re stuck out there in the backcountry, Dan Aguilar, without a doubt, is the man you want leading the team that is coming to get you,” says longtime friend and director of operations for Vail Mountain Rescue, Tim Cochrane.In 1993 Dan set out to summit Mount Everest, nearly every mountain climbers ultimate aspiration.”We thought we had a good team, then we got over there. The team split into different factions, I was the climbing leader, I tried to keep it together and I couldn’t.”Despite Dan’s disillusionment, he kept going for the good of the team. They were in position to summit when Dan got the call that his help was needed.Two bodies had been stranded on the perilous mountain for weeks, unrecoverable due to a series of storms that had battered the area. Local Sherpas, in between their expeditions with the Westerners, were attempting to bring the bodies back down the mountain.”They asked me to help get the (woman’s) body further down,” Dan says. “It was pretty emotional. I remember her getting hung up, me reaching over and pulling it and looking over my shoulder and just waiting for something to kill us all.”When word got around that Dan had sacrificed his moment of triumph to help others, people took notice. In 1999 Cochrane nominated Dan for The Silver Plaque. Not long after, Dan was notified to pack his bags and he, along with 12 others from Vail, traveled to Pinzolo, Italy to accept the award.”It was a big deal,” Dan says. “There were dignitaries and such. I was a fish-out-of-water. I had no idea what I was getting into when I went over (to Italy).”Dan has been back every year since, meeting the Dalai Lama, (who was awarded a plaque for exemplifying all that’s good in the mountains) as well as the Vatican’s highest-ranking Cardinal (there to accept an honorary award on behalf of the Pope).In 1995, Dan experienced the moment of glory which he’d abandoned two years prior. It was 9:30 a.m. and 15? Fahrenheit when Dan and two others summited Everest from the Tibetan side, via the northeast ridge.”They started down and I just stood there and looked over the whole world for 15 minutes,” Dan says. “It was pretty spiritual.”For the past 20 years Dan has been leading guiding trips to Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, the highest mountain in the Americas. He teaches Avalanche courses for Colorado Mountain College during the winters, striving to educate others on the dangers of the backcountry. Dan volunteers for Mountain Rescue year-round. And this May Dan will spend a month on Denali, volunteering as a park ranger and helping with any rescues that come up.”Dan didn’t really start climbing until, I want to say, he was 30-years-old,” says Patti Plagens, longtime friend and fellow Mountain Rescue member. “He didn’t grow up doing any of this, he was a flatlander Texas boy. He loves the teaching aspect of what he does; he wants people to be able to experience some of what he has.”Lately, Dan has been asked to speak to various groups about his life and his adventures. On March 25 Dan is set to be the keynote speaker for the Snowshoe Shuffle’s Community Cancer Dinner. Though Dan himself is not a cancer survivor, his grandmother died from the disease and so the benefit is one that is close to his heart.”It’s a good cause, and I’m really happy to do this for them.” VTWhat: Cancer Community Dinner. Silent auction followed by keynote speaker, Dan Aguilar.Where: Vail Marriott Mountain Resort & Spa.When: March 25, 6:30 p.m.Why: To benefit the Shaw Regional Cancer Center educational resource library.Tickets: $40; buy at the door or call (970) 569-7484.Caramie Schnell can be reached at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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