Search and Rescue has a long history in the Aspen area. It started with Team Founder, Fred Braun (of the Alfred Braun Huts) organizing the local mountaineers to help rescue fellow climbers and hikers who had gotten in trouble in the backcountry. Although there are written reports of rescues being performed in the mid 50’s, Mountain Rescue Aspen began in the early 1960’s, was incorporated in 1965 and became a member of the national Mountain Rescue Association in 1966. The national MRA had been established in 1959 at Timberline Lodge in Oregon, becoming the first Search and Rescue association in the United States.
In the early years horses were commonly used to haul injured or deceased subjects out of the backcountry. The gear and clothing of the day was much heavier than modern day rescuers use. There are stories of evacuations of climbers from the Maroon Bells taking up to 3 days to lower off the mountain and pack out from the base. TLazy7 often provided not only the horses but the man power as well. Three generations of TLazy7 owners have been members of the team and one family member, as well as a local dentist, have been on the team for over 35 years.
Before pagers were used to alert the team, members used a telephone tree to contact all the other members. Team Leader, Greg Mace fielded the initial call and called a few members who each had a list of other members to call and so down the line. After the team acquired a few pagers in the mid 1980’s, pager partners were used to notify all of the members. Response was often quite slow by today’s standard before answering machines, cell phones and smart phones. Radios were scarce and rarely worked well in the mountainous terrain. The authorities and family members often did not know how the rescue was progressing until the rescue party showed up at the trailhead.
Mace was the only rescue leader during the 70’s and early 80’s. As he tired of the commitment and responsibility, he decided to train several other members to fill the rescue leader role. This training proved to be invaluable as he died during a team training on the Maroon Bells several months later. He slipped on a snowfield in the Grand Couloir and was unable to self-arrest with his ice axe. The team now has a slate of 16 Rescue Leaders each taking a few 2-week shifts per year to be the first response and organize the missions. Duties of the on-call Rescue Leader include: gathering information from the Sheriff’s office and reporting party, alerting members, briefing them on the situation and deploying field teams for the mission. Rescue Leaders making up the command staff work under the Incident Commander, a role filled by a Sheriff Deputy.
In late 80’s and early 90’s, there was an influx of committed individuals that have stayed around to become the core leaders of the team. We now have 10 members more than 25 years of service and several others with more than 20 years on the team. A majority of team members stay on the team for at least 10 years.
Over the years Mountain Rescue Aspen has mostly been funded by donations from the community. The members have always been responsible for purchasing all of their personal and technical gear. Even though the Sheriff’s Office has supported the team over the years, the majority of the funds still come from private donations and grants acquired through a variety of foundations and government agencies. Pitkin County generously maintains our vehicles, both on and off road, and helps with our communication needs.
The team now operates with a variety of new technology, providing real time weather forecasts, intricate mapping and satellite photos and satellite communication devices. We also use helicopters with more frequency, as well as cell phone forensics and infrared goggles to locate missing climbers, hikers, hunters, skiers and other backcountry users.
With better clothing and lighter gear, team members can move faster into the backcountry. Often using helicopters when the need requires, team members are still solving problems with every mission. Every mission is quite different and requires a variety of strategies to accomplish the goal. Even the newest technology can only help so much when all that is needed are some strong backs and willingness to help.
Our new building allows us to operate much more efficiently. With all of our vehicles and gear now stored under one roof we can access anything we need for a rescue much faster. The new command room allows for several members to use the work stations to access all the information needed to complete the mission as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Seeing the changes after 50 years is amazing. The team remains a collection of members with various skills whose main desire is to assist a fellow backcountry traveler in need of help. It makes for a very tight group of people who can trust each other in any situation.