Mountain Rescue Aspen teams have seen it all |

Mountain Rescue Aspen teams have seen it all

Will Grandbois
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Rescuers and several good Samaritans help an injured hiker down the Hanging Lake Trail last November.
Christopher Mullen / Post Independent |

10 Essentials:



Water and a Way to Purify It

Extra Food

Rain Gear and Extra Clothing

Firestarter and Matches

First Aid Kit

Knife or Multi-Purpose Tool

Flashlight and extra batteries

Sun screen and sun glasses


Several high-profile backcountry rescues over the summer and fall are a reminder to locals and visitors alike that the mountains are dangerous.

Mountain Rescue Aspen, a nonprofit that serves Pitkin County, handled 71 incidents so far this year, including several hairy operations on the dangerously unstable rock of the Maroon Bells.

“We’ve seen a steady increase in the number of missions that we’ve run,” said Jeff Edelson, Mountain Rescue Aspen team president. “We’re extremely busy during the summer hiking and climbing season.”

Edelson suspects that’s partially due to the proliferation of mountaineering information on the Internet. He’s seeing more people attempting summits or trails with minimal preparation and partners they’ve met online.

“It’s giving people this false sense of security,” Edelson said. “When in doubt, underestimate your ability.”

He encouraged hikers to practice their skills on easier summits before tackling the Elk Range’s difficult array of peaks.

“One of your first fourteeners should not be the Maroon Bells,” Edelson said. The same goes for Pyramid, Capitol, Snowmass and Castle peaks.

“The best thing to do is prevention,” he said. “Know where you’re going, be prepared, and have the skills and knowledge.”

While most Pitkin County rescues take place in the deep backcountry, most of Garfield County Search and Rescue’s incidents are closer to home. The organization actually has seen a decrease in incidents in the past year, with fewer than 50 rescues this season. A hiker twists their ankle attempting Hanging Lake in flip-flops, a hunter on the Flat Tops gets caught in a storm, or someone tubing without a life jacket gets stuck in the river.

“It’s pretty broad what we do,” said Garfield County Search and Rescue president Tom Ice. “The majority of cases we deal with are just people that were not prepared.”

“People who live here get complacent,” agreed Mike Kuper, vice president of the organization. “I don’t think they realize the danger.”

The biggest mistake, Kuper said, is underestimating what they’re up against in terms of terrain, weather and the effects of elevation. Many people go into the woods woefully unprepared.

In the winter, having more than just a lighter for getting a fire started is particularly important, as are extra batteries and warm, non-cotton clothing.

“If you’ve got room in your pack, throw some extra layers in there,” Ice said. “You can never have enough warm clothes.”

It’s always a good idea to adventure with a buddy, but whether you’re going in a group or heading out alone, make sure to tell someone.

“Notify whoever’s at home how long you’re going to be gone and where you’re going,” Kuper said.

Search-and-rescue teams get a lot of their tips from family and friends of overdue outdoorsmen. Other times, someone manages to hike to high ground and get a call out. Cellphones, along with GPS and emergency beacons, are excellent survival tools, provided they’re used properly.

Not all GPS systems are created equal. Ice recommends the smartphone app Backcountry Navigator, but nothing’s a replacement for a good, up-to-date topographic map.

Emergency beacons, while extremely useful, also have their downsides.

“We’re now finding out about accidents at the time of the accident instead of six hours later,” Edelson said. “Beacons are great safety devices, but people shouldn’t take additional risk because they have them.”

If you get lost, try not to panic. Leave clues as to where you’ve been, and make use of the signal whistle you probably have built into your backpack.

“It’s not hard to get lost. It’s hard to stay calm and not get yourself more lost,” Kuper said. “You can turn a lost-hiker search into a full-blown technical rescue by people trying to take that shortcut.”

Instead, you’re better off holing up.

“If you think you may have to spend a night out, get that shelter up first,” Ice said. “Get 10 times as much firewood as you think you might need, because you’re going to need every bit of it.”

In the end, rescuers around the state would rather you called them sooner instead of waiting for things to get worse. Garfield County Search and Rescue and Mountain Rescue Aspen are both nonprofits that draw from fundraising and sales of fishing and hunting licenses and Colorado Search and Rescue cards.

Unless you need a medical helicopter, it shouldn’t cost you anything to get carried out of the wilderness.

“We don’t want people sitting in the backcountry going, ‘Should I call? Should I not call?’” Kuper said.

“We encourage people to get into the backcountry just to do it safely,” Ice said.

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