Vail Mountain Rescue Group logs 98 field missions in 2021 |

Vail Mountain Rescue Group logs 98 field missions in 2021

The all-volunteer search and rescue group is preparing physically and mentally for increased calls this year

In 2021, members of the Vail Mountain Rescue Group logged 8,221 hours of volunteer service, performing 98 field missions and hundreds of additional training and meeting events.
Vail Daily archive

Members of the Vail Mountain Rescue Group presented their annual update to the Board of County Commissioners last week, recapping the operations of the past year and sharing how they are preparing for the year ahead.

The Vail Mountain Rescue Group is a fully volunteer-based, nonprofit organization that provides free backcountry search and rescue services in Eagle County, in collaboration with the Eagle County Sheriff’s Office. In 2021, the team logged 8,221 hours of volunteer service, performing 98 field missions and hundreds of additional training and meeting events.

The group added 14 new volunteers in the fall of 2021, bringing the team to 71 people total. Raquel Spencer-Schifani is the president of the organization’s board of directors, and was involved in the interview process for each of the new additions to the team.

“All 14 of them are absolutely phenomenal, lots of nurses and ER techs and people who are really going to help the team out,” Spencer-Schifani said.

It requires a unique skill set and mindset to be a part of the rescue team, and Spencer-Schifani said that every one of the new additions embodies the ethos of the organization.

“The common theme is everybody just wants to help the community,” Spencer-Schifani said. “You have to have the mentality of wanting to spend eight hours hiking up Holy Cross to go help somebody, not only for the fact that you’re on Holy Cross, and it’s beautiful, but that you want to be somebody that lends a helping hand when somebody is having a really bad day, possibly the worst day of their life.”

Repeat rescues

During the presentation, Spencer-Schifani highlighted areas in the valley where repeat missions were required, and identified some ways to mitigate the recurring safety issues.

She noted that her team has performed numerous rescues in the trees in West Vail over the past two years, including three missions in 2021. Spencer-Schifani ran the toboggan down herself for two of the rescues, and said that they were the “sketchiest” runs that she has done in her 11 seasons as a ski patroller.

“This is just something that we’ve been seeing a frequency of, and I know the team and Vail Resorts are trying to work on a sign, similar to that at the Minturn Mile in East Vail, that says ‘no help from here from Vail patrol’,” Spencer-Schifani said. “Obviously, if it’s operating hours and we can spare some people, the patrol will send people.”

Another pattern that volunteers have noticed is an increase in missions for body recoveries from suicides. Out of six total body recovery missions in 2021, two were avalanche related, one was in the Eagle River, and three were from suicides.

Two out of the three suicides took place at the Red Cliff bridge, where Spencer-Schifani said Vail Mountain Rescue Group is working with Colorado Department of Transportation to come up with ways to address this pattern and get help to the people who need it.

“We have a few members that live there, and they said it happens more often that somebody is up there and needs help, and they don’t actually go through with it,” Spencer-Schifani said. “One of them brought up the idea of getting something where, if you need help, you can call this number, on that bridge. Because if the person isn’t on the concrete, we’re going, but if they’re on the concrete, fire goes, and they don’t need us.”

Colorado Search and Rescue members across different groups practice during the avalanche media event March 11, 2021, on Vail Pass.
Hugh Carey/Special to The Colorado Sun

Overall, Spencer-Schifani said that 2021 was slower than previous years for the outfit, and that members expect missions to pick up in this upcoming year. Thus far, there have been 21 fielded missions since Jan. 1, with over 2,000 hours of volunteer service logged.

Preparing for all scenarios

The Vail Mountain Rescue Group holds training events throughout the year to ensure that the team is ready for whatever situations may arise.

In 2021, the group practiced doing an avalanche response scenario in collaboration with the Eagle County Paramedic Services, to prepare for the demands of a large avalanche event.

“In order to go into a massive event, we’re going to need all hands on deck, and we need to be able to work together,” Spencer-Schifani said. “I thought this was a really great idea by both organizations to get our hands dirty together.”

In preparation for the summer, members of the team received training in swiftwater rescue with Mark Mather of Mather Rescue. Mather, who has nearly three decades of experience in swiftwater rescue, runs safety for the GoPro Mountain Games each year and was able to provide training for the team following the event last summer.

The group also received training with Rigging for Rescue, where members practiced the ropework and rigging techniques necessary for retrieving someone from a rock face or other elevated surface. Spencer-Schifani said that in addition to sharpening the techniques, the training also gave volunteers a firsthand understanding of the experience of being rescued, as they were each required to be in the toboggan as it was lowered off of the rock face.

“You know what that person is going through, you can talk through it, you can relate to them,” Spencer-Schifani said.

Lastly, Spencer-Schifani highlighted that the Vail Mountain Rescue Group is one of only four teams in the state that is a hoist team, now with eight certified hoist technicians that can facilitate long-line helicopter rescues.

“We get to work hand in hand with the national guard, and we are on call throughout the summer,” Spencer-Schifani said. “This is a really, really cool program that is something that has been super important for everybody in the state, and we’re honored to be one of those teams.”

Looking ahead, the group is putting everything in place to receive recertification from the Mountain Rescue Association in April 2023. This certification ensures that the Vail Mountain Rescue Group is trained to the same standard as surrounding rescue groups, which helps to facilitate cooperation with responders outside of the Eagle County area.

Monitoring mental health

While physical training is crucial for the team’s success, mental health is becoming an increasing priority to ensure that rescuers don’t get burned out from the mental and emotional tolls of their work.

Spencer-Schifani said that the state of Colorado paid for every search and rescue volunteer to go through Responder Alliance Training, a program designed specifically for first responders that screens for mental health levels and identifies when someone is in the “red” and requires further support.

The woman who runs the training was a former ski patroller at Copper Mountain, which Spencer-Schifani said is helpful in getting responders to open up about their experiences.

“I do feel like a lot of first responders feel more comfortable talking to a colleague, somebody who’s been through it, rather than a professional, initially, because you can relate a little bit more,” Spencer-Schifani said.

The group is also putting a greater emphasis on post-mission debriefs, which are held in collaboration with Your Hope Center in the days after a difficult mission to work through the experience and facilitate healing and support.

“I was on a really rough one — one of the avalanche fatalities was a friend — and I was definitely not okay,” Spencer-Schifani said. “A few days later, we had a debrief with the Hope Center, and it really just kind of brought me back to center. The Hope Center has been great for us, and they’re only just a short phone call away.”

The Vail Mountain Rescue Group is a nonprofit organization that relies on grants and community donations to support its services. To learn more about the organization, and to donate to support rescue operations, visit

Support Local Journalism