Summit County rescue founder marks 37 years on duty
September 4, 2009
FRISCO – Paul Johnson has been rescuing people in the mountains since 1972, when he co-founded Summit County Rescue Group.
At 70, he’s the only founding member still active with the team.
Johnson, of Frisco, has been involved in rescues from mountain peaks, avalanches, plane crashes and more incidents requiring technical expertise, under pressure, in an array of conditions.
He’s an accomplished climber – having scaled Colorado’s 100 highest mountains – and has had an integral impact on the group’s high-mountain rescue operations and trainings through his tenure.
Recently, Johnson was awarded “distinguished service of an individual” by the National Mountain Rescue Association.
“The award really comes about because the rescue group is doing so well now,” he said. “They never would have given the award to me if the group had problems.”
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Johnson’s colleagues, who nominated him for the award, say his contribution is integral to the group’s success.
“Paul has a more thorough knowledge of Summit County than anyone I know,” Dan Burnett, mission coordinator and member since 1980, said in a press release. “If only three people are going to show up for a mission, you’d better make sure Paul is one of them. On a search, he’ll solve a puzzle that 20 other people missed.”
The roughly 36-member rescue group conducts missions across Summit County and is also called to help in other areas of the state.
Johnson said there have been a number of hotspots for rescues over the years. For a while, calls were more frequent above Cataract Lakes. The Mayflower Gulch area was also popular for a while.
“But the last couple years, (Mount) Quandary has definitely been the hotspot,” he said, adding that people often aren’t experienced enough to understand the dangers of bad weather.
Johnson said that “falling off the mountain’s not what hurts a lot of people.”
Falling rocks and a variety of other hazards can ruin a day trip.
Rescuers wear helmets, but can be injured by grabbing a moving rope and getting a hand stuck in a pulley, or by rope that gets severed on rocky mountain edges.
“So there are many ways even the rescuing people can get hurt,” he said.
Among some of the tougher missions, Johnson recalls an incident about 20 years ago when a man “broke his hip real bad” when climbing with a friend up Mount Royal’s east face overlooking Frisco. The man was about two-thirds up the mountain’s crack when he fell.
The friend rappelled to safety, but it took multiple anchors and assistance from firefighters to get the injured man down.
There was also the incident in 1987 on Peak 7 in Breckenridge, when four men were caught in an avalanche. The recovery took four days and 6,200 hours of work from a variety of organizations including the rescue group.
“It was really big,” Johnson said.
Johnson and others decided to start the rescue group after a man was stranded on East Thorn – a rocky peak overlooking Silverthorne.
He said the people with the U.S. Forest Service were ill-equipped and had limited training. In 1972, the volunteer group was founded and trained its members regularly on high-angle rescues.
Johnson served his first of three terms as group leader in 1977, with a budget of $6,000. That year the group “blew the budget,” spending more than $10,000 but acquiring some state-of-the-art Motorola radios.
The group’s budget these days ranges from $65,000 to $75,000 each year.
In the group’s early days, the radios were a huge help to operations, but assembling the team for a mission was sometimes tricky.
“We didn’t have pagers. We had a phone call-out system,” Johnson said, adding that it was extra tough before voicemail.
He recalls ringing a reluctant colleague for 15 minutes before the man’s wife answered.
Technology of all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles has also made rescue work more efficient.
“It seems like we used to have to hike a lot more,” he said.
The county has also changed, but Johnson said he likes having more nice restaurants and “things to do,” like live classical music.
“I really don’t mind the crowds that much here,” he said.
Johnson graduated from the University of Colorado in 1960 with a degree in geology, and he became a Frisco resident in 1964.
He worked as a systems engineer and programmer at the Climax Mine in Lake County until 1982. He is married with two children who both continue to live in Summit County.
The group’s current leader, Brian Binge, said Johnson remains “an influential and involved” member.
“No major project or direction change of the group is implemented without consulting him, and he not only continues to actively participate in our missions, but he also takes an active role in our technical training and MRA re-certification preparation,” Binge said in a press release. “As long as Paul continues to show up, he will always be an invaluable asset to the team.”
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or firstname.lastname@example.org.