The all-volunteer squad at Mountain Rescue Aspen has been busy this summer, participating in 37 missions from June through August. According to MRA President Justin Hood, that figure is about what he would expect in a summer season.
That means the volume of calls is getting back on track after the summer of 2018, which represented an anomaly because of the Lake Christine Fire. The smoky conditions and poor air quality decreased the number of people recreating in the backcountry, and Hood said the total activity was down 25 to 30 rescues, compared to years past.
Generally speaking, around 60-70 “boots on the ground” rescues are performed annually, though MRA responds in some fashion to up to 130 calls in total, Hood said.
From a numbers perspective, generally, 60 percent of people rescued come from the greater Front Range area and span all age demographics. The largest age group represented this year were individuals in their 60s and 70s, Hood said.
“I’ve seen folks be rescued who were prepared and experienced, so it’s really hard to fit them into any one box,” he said. “All types of people are getting into trouble — both skilled and unskilled.”
Voluntary separation is the most common circumstance leading to a rescue, according to Hood. Often, a group will separate to make a summit push, especially if one member isn’t feeling up to snuff or is moving too slowly.
A second, very common reason for a rescue call involves parties ignoring obvious hazards, changing weather or other signs pointing to turn around and descend.
“Some folks feel pressure to finish the hike or reach the summit, because it’s their only day off,” Hood said. “Non-emotional and rational decision-making is crucial in backcountry situations.”
In years past, around 80 percent of rescues occurred in July and August, but the timing is now becoming more of a moving target. With the growing popularity of backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, MRA is seeing more rescues in the winter months, especially in a big snow year.
The Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office deploys MRA, an independent nonprofit organization, in response to emergency calls coming in via 911 and, increasingly, from emergency transmitter beacons that people can activate from the backcountry. MRA works closely with the sheriff’s office and other first responder agencies to assess each situation and determine a coordinated response plan.
The nature of each rescue varies, but Hood’s team is well equipped and trained to respond to any type of emergency that could happen. The 50-member team is comprised of individuals of varying ages, skill sets and experience. MRA has 20 EMTs, two paramedics and a doctor on staff, as well as a number of technical-skills professionals and organizational whizzes. Incorporated in 1965, MRA is one of the oldest search and rescue teams in the state. Eleven individuals have been full members for more than 25 years.
“In this town, we are lucky to attract a lot of talent, so we get to pick who we want on our team,” Hood said. “We recognize how fortunate we are for the caliber of volunteer that turns up. We’re really grateful.”
Hood said he views his role at MRA as an opportunity for civil service, as well as a way to give back to the community of people who love the outdoors. He’s served as a full member for seven years and as president for two years.
“The mountains aren’t going anywhere,” Hood said, “If things aren’t going as planned, I encourage groups to make the best decision for that moment and turn around.”