Vail Mountain Rescue puts some fun into fundraising

Dan Smith, director of Vail Mountain Rescue Group, speaks to a crowd of donors during a fundraiser at Red Sky Ranch on Aug. 15. Vail Mountain Rescue provides backcountry search and rescue, as well as public education on backcountry safety in Eagle County.
Anthony Thornton | |

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EAGLE COUNTY — Like most local non-profits, Vail Mountain Rescue has been hosting silent auctions almost since the invention of silence. They figured there must be a better way to raise money.

There is.

“One of the problems with volunteer organizations is that they’re constantly scrambling for money,” said Dan Smith, president of Vail Mountain Rescue’s board of directors.

The folks attracted to organizations like Vail Mountain Rescue are great at hanging off cliffs all night and wrestling thunderstorms. However, it takes an off-the-scale extrovert to do fundraising.

“The people who join the team do it because they want to help people, not because they want to go door-to-door asking for money. When you have 25-40-year-old people with mountaineering skills asking for $25 gift certificates, that’s not the best use of their time,” Smith said.

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Tom Howard, Bert Solomon and Ed Lukes have been with Vail Mountain Rescue for years, and turned hanging off cliffs over to young members quite some time ago. However, they sort of fit that off-the-scale extrovert mold and had an idea about fundraising.

“They said, ‘Let us do this for you,’” Smith said.

The Vail Mountain Rescue board of director thought about it for less than any measurable expanse of time this side of a theoretical physics experiment, and said, “OK.”

They’d stop doing the Vail Mountain Rescue equivalent of bake sales and start trying to raise some real money by throwing a fundraiser.

They hauled a bunch of rescue equipment up to Red Sky Ranch, did some demonstrations and let people play with it.

Smith and Mike Minor talked about rescuing people. Jim Frein talked about being rescued. Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi, commander of the local National Guard helicopter base, talked about military Blackhawk helicopters as both life saving and labor saving devices.

Let me tell you about …

They had some pretty amazing tales to tell, which happened that day and the day before. Some are successful, some aren’t.

They found a guy at Bubble Lake with a disabled dog and they managed to pull him out.

And the one about the 28-year-old Aspen guy climbing Seven Castles Peak without ropes or gear, who managed to get stuck. He used the last 10 percent on his cell phone charge to call 911. Two Vail Mountain Rescue members rappelled 700 feet down a cliff face in the dark to talk to him and keep him awake all night.

“If he fell asleep, he’d fall off the cliff,” Smith explained patiently when asked why.

In the morning, a Blackhawk helicopter crew found a spot where they could rest one wheel and the rotors would still clear the cliff. One of the VMR crew made it to the helicopter and yanked the rescued climber in after him.

There was a missing hiker in El Jebel, and a woman in a cocktail dress and high heels in a rented SUV that she managed to get airborne and land in the middle of a pond in a place so remote that … well, you wouldn’t go there in anything but a rental car.

Then there’s the woman they helped search for the day before around Crested Butte. She was never found.

About the endowment

The plan is to build an endowment that will fund most of Vail Mountain Rescue’s efforts. It’ll take a few years, Smith said, and they’re off to a flying start.

They launched their efforts earlier this month when they hosted an event at Red Sky Ranch. It drew around 100 people, most with disposable income. By the end of the evening, many had disposed of some of that disposable income in the form of checks to Vail Mountain Rescue.

“This is the community supporting the team, not the team asking the community for support,” Smith said. “This, ideally, is how a nonprofit should go about raising money. If the larger community supports you, then you’re worthwhile. Apparently we have crossed that Rubicon.”

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