Vail Mountain Rescue Group seeks new members.
By Melanie Wong
It used to be that when a call came in to Vail Mountain Rescue, the police chief would go down to Donovan’s Copper Bar in Vail and see who was sober enough to join him.
According to Vail Mountain Rescue President Dan Smith, that system worked well for years through the 1980s, when the valley was small and the rescue group consisted of a handful of all-round mountaineers.
Today, the group – which aids local law enforcement in mountain incidents ranging from lost hikers on Holy Cross to rafters in trouble on the Eagle River – is much bigger and more diverse. A roll call of its 60-some volunteer members sounds like some kind of mountain super-hero lineup.
There’s Mike Bradley, a professional climber who spends most summers scaling the Patagonia peaks. There’s Doug Schofield and Todd Goulding, the team’s swift-water rescue experts. There’s Mike Duffy, the snowmobile specialist.
Smith himself doesn’t go into the field as often anymore, but brings his military experience to the table as incident commander, running a tight ship during missions. Then there are the many members who may not have a singular specialty, but know their stuff when it comes to the backcountry and have been trained by the group to be thorough and methodical when an emergency arises.
The nonprofit group does weekly training sessions and responds to anywhere from 50 to 100 incidents each year, calling on whichever members are willing and available to respond, Smith says.
The group is looking for new additions to the team and will hold its annual academy beginning May 30. The academy consists of two classroom sessions and a hands-on skills training that allows potential members to check out the group. Those who complete the academy then go through several certifications to become an active group member.
Smith stresses that you don’t have to be a backcountry pro to help out – the group can teach you all the necessary skills.
“We have professional climbers, EMTs, ski patrollers and river guides, and they share their skills,” says Smith, although he admits there are certain prerequisites. “People who want to do this are a little bit crazy, anyway. You have to love the backcountry and be willing to give something back to the community. No one gets lost at noon on a sunny day – my pager usually goes off at 3 a.m. Also, we work as a team, and professionally. We don’t want cowboys and heroes in this business.”
Why they do it
Vail Mountain Rescue draws a variety of people for many different reasons. Some love the backcountry, others see that they have the skills and feel a sense of duty, others come from medical or emergency backgrounds, and some even joined after they were helped themselves by the group.
Smith loves the wilderness and enjoys the organizational aspect of the missions, but his reasons are also much more personal.
“For me, 28 of my guys didn’t make it out of Vietnam, and this is something they would do,” he says.
Jenika Doberstein, an assistant manager at the Edwards Fieldhouse, says she wanted to find a way to use her degree in outdoor education. When she and her husband heard about the academy a few years ago, both jumped at the opportunity.
The work isn’t always glamorous – it can involve hours of fruitless hiking in search of a lost person, or an entire day spent waiting at a trailhead. Not all missions end with the lost parties being found or coming out alive – Smith counts off the number of lost parties the team never found (three) and still considers them “open cases.” But team members say nothing is more thrilling than seeing that hard work pay off by bringing people safely home.
Doberstein says she still remembers her first mission, a search for a lost hiker on Vail Pass.
“I was the one who first heard the guy yelling – a man was hiking and went off the trail and got caught off Vail Pass in a gully,” she says. “In that moment when I heard that, I was so excited.”
Vail resident Dan Wallace says one of his most memorable experiences was being part of the search for eight lost skiers and snowboarders on the Minturn Mile.
“It was one of the most trying missions I’ve been on. It was during a snowstorm, and it was just really hard to find them,” Wallace says. “I remember when we saw the ski tracks and it was a matter of how to get down to them. I had to repel off a cliff to get to one guy. I had such a sense of satisfaction once we got everyone up and everyone was OK.”
Discovering new passions
Members say one of the biggest benefits of joining the team is the opportunity to learn new skills.
Edwards lawyer Katie Van Schaack says she didn’t particularly have any specialized experience when she first heard about the group several years ago.
“I saw a flyer for the academy that said, ‘Strong hikers needed,’ and I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she says.
Since joining the group three years ago, she’s expanded her skills beyond hiking, thanks to the group’s training program.
“When you first join, it can be kind of intimidating. You pick up the equipment and think, ‘Wow, this is kind of heavy.’ But you can train and learn and become very adept at something in a short time that you never gave a thought to before,” Van Schaack says. “For example, ropes. I had never even climbed before, and now I’m really into ropes.”
Vail resident Gregg Orlinsky has been on the team for about two years and was introduced to the organization while chatting with a member on the chairlift. As an avid backcountry skier and former scuba instructor, he saw a way to put his skills to work.
“I was looking for a way to get involved in the community and using the skills they teach you to help others is very rewarding,” says Orlinsky, who has added climbing skills to his repertoire through team trainings. “It’s been so much fun, and I’ve really discovered a new passion in my life. I’m hooked. I love this kind of work.”
The team is diverse, and includes younger people in their 20s and 30s, such as Orlinsky, Doberstein and Wallace, as well as veterans into their 60s, such as Smith.
“There are people from all walks of life,” Orlinsky says. “You have people who work minimum-wage jobs and millionaires. But when we’re working we’re all equal, except for the guys who have more experience. We cooperate as a team when we’re on a mission.”