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Rescuers ready to be out all night

Steve Lynn
Vail, CO Colorado
Dan Davis/Special to the DailyBruce Wall of the Vail Mountain Rescue Group trains in Wolcott. "If available, I will use every resource available to get you out," said Tim Cochrane, the group's director of operations.
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EAGLE COUNTY “Tom Howard woke up about 2 a.m. to his pager beeping one October morning.

Three children and a mother were lost in a snowstorm at 12,000 feet near Aspen, he was told on the phone.

Howard’s wife, Verna, woke up.



“I won’t get into the specifics of what my wife had to say, but it was something about taking the batteries out of my pager,” he said. “Before she went back to sleep, she told me she loved me and to be safe.”

For mornings like these, Howard keeps a bag packed so he can sleep and eat in the backcountry for “at least a night or two,” said Howard, a retired vice president of a financial consulting company and now a rescuer for Vail Mountain Rescue Group.



Whether they are sleeping or taking a day off and doing laundry, rescuers like Howard have to be ready when someone is lost in the backcountry.

“You really have to be prepared to commit to being out all night,” said Howard, a rescuer for three years.

The group of 30 active members (and another 30 in reserve) does around 100 rescue missions each year ” and they charge nothing. From kayakers, spelunkers, climbers and hunters to ice fisherman, snowmobilers, hikers and others, the 31-year-old Vail Mountain Rescue Group specializes in finding the lost and helping the injured.



“Year after year that I’ve been involved, the faces change but the attitude never changes,” said Tim Cochrane, director of operations for the group. “And that is, ‘What do you need us to do and we’ll go do it.’ It’s not a, ‘Oh, it’s not in my job description.’ That doesn’t fly on this team.”

Backcountry travelers must be able to take care of themselves, Cochrane said.

That means that if you get lost or injured or both, you should stay put, stay warm and drink plenty of water, because the rescue group doesn’t own a helicopter.

In other words, Cochrane said, if you’re in the wilderness with a broken femur, “stop the bleeding,” because you may be in an area where aircraft and motorized vehicles are prohibited by federal law.

But if they have to, the group will land a helicopter in a wilderness area, he said.

“I have the distinction of having been in front of the forest supervisor more times than anyone else for violating the Wilderness Act of 1964,” Cochrane said. “If available, I will use every resource available to get you out.”

In fall 1993, Cochrane was talking with a helicopter pilot about the group’s performance in a helicopter training exercise that had just ended when his pager went off. A man had broken his leg near St. Charles Lake in the Holy Cross Wilderness.

The group flew to the injured man’s camp site, landed in an open meadow and flew the man to an ambulance.

The woman who reported the injury worked for the U.S. Forest Service and turned Cochrane in to authorities for flying into the Holy Cross area.

“She fully expected the team to hike in, carry her friend two miles outside the wilderness area to the waiting helicopter,” Cochrane said.

The group has to explain every landing, said Dan Smith, a retired lobbyist for Exxon-Mobile turned mission coordinator for the group.

“We don’t justify it because you got an ingrown toenail and your foot’s too sore to hike out,” Smith said.

The price hikers pay to avoid hearing a rumbling engine in the forest is the absence of a quick response during emergencies, Smith said.

So most of the time, rescuers hike into wilderness areas during a rescue.

“If it took you six hours to get there, it may well take us six hours to get there,” Cochrane said.

On one rescue, a man was lost all night and rescuers heard him nearby ” or so they thought, said Leslie Robertson, a rescuer with the group for eight years.

The man was actually six miles up the trail in the Holy Cross Wilderness and it took rescuers another hour and a half to climb a cliff band to get to him.

“When we got to him, he was so excited that we found him because he was just exhausted and he was scared,” Robertson said.

A helicopter couldn’t make a clean landing in the boulder field, so it hovered with one skid resting on a boulder.

The lost hiker was older and had bad knees and he didn’t want to climb in. So the group hiked down ” Robertson had started out at 7 a.m. and didn’t get home until midnight.

Rescuers often have to rescue people unprepared for their hikes, such as the woman and three 9-year-old children who took the wrong trail in Aspen and got stuck in a snowstorm all night at 12,000 feet.

“She had on boots, no socks, a pair of Levi’s and a cotton shirt ” and it was sleeting sideways at about 31 degrees,” Smith said.

The woman did everything wrong at first, but found a rock to hide from the wind and kept the kids dry and wait for rescuers, Smith said.

Most of the time, the missions end well and the rescuers complete their objective, whether it’s finding a missing hiker or rescuing a kayaker stranded in the white water.

Sometimes people die.

“It goes with the territory and you have to learn to cope with that,” Howard said. “It’s never pleasant, but you’ve got to recognize it as reality and get past it.”

Robertson feels good when she finds someone who has been lost all night and when she is able to get someone who’s injured to the hospital, she said.

“It’s kind of one of those things that you feel good doing it, so you keep doing it,” she said.

There is no paycheck at the end of a rescue. Private donations fund the group and there’s not enough money to pay rescuers, Cochrane said.

Robertson works as a marketing and group sales manager at the Lodge at Lionshead, which lets her go to a rescue depending on how busy she is.

“If you’re available, you tend to just say ‘OK,’ whether it’s eight at night or midnight or six in the morning or whatever,” Robertson said.

Robertson has responded to rescues on her days off when she’s doing things like laundry. And if you get lost during the day when the younger rescuers like Leslie are working, retiree rescuers like Howard and Smith may step in.

“We’ve actually rescued people older than we are and they’re shocked,” Smith said. “The only ones coming up the trail have not a lot of hair and it’s all gray.”

Robertson’s parents, R.J. and Cheryl, of Arkansas, think what she does is exciting ” sometimes. (“It’s not exiting all the time,” Robertson said.)

Rescuers look out for themselves and their team first, she said.

“If you get hurt or your team gets hurt that does no good for the person out there that’s really hurt,” Robertson said.

Howard’s wife, Verna, is OK with him being a rescuer, he said.

“I couldn’t do it if she wasn’t,” Howard said.

Staff Writer Steve Lynn can be reached at 748-2931 or slynn@vaildaily.com.


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