Volunteer rescue group sees record number of requests for emergency assistance, including many in Boulder
Imagine you're at the top of the Second Flatiron on a beautiful Monday morning. After taking in the sunrise, you start to head back down. But you slip, fall to the ground and feel a blinding pain in your ankle. You try to stand, but you can't take another step. No one is around to help. Your mind races with questions.
"What do I do? How am I going to get down? Will I need to pay for help?"
For Drew Hildner, a long-time volunteer with Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, the questions all have one simple answer.
Just call 911.
"We're there for you if you need us," said Hildner, who, same as other long-timers, has helped to rescue dozens of lost and injured hikers in Boulder County. "Don't hesitate to call (911) for fear of any charge. We don't charge for rescue."
As visitation to public land and open systems along Colorado's Front Range continues to grow, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group has fast become one of the busiest volunteer rescue groups in the United States. Last year, the Boulder-based volunteer rescue group, which partners with Boulder County Sheriff's Office to conduct rescue operations, conducted 235 rescues on public lands across Boulder County in 2019 – a record number for the group. More remarkably, it was also a record number for any volunteer rescue organization in the entire United States.
Because Rocky Mountain Rescue Group conducts many rescues on open space managed by the City of Boulder - particularly the Flatirons area - the city has a special appreciation for its volunteers and their service to the community.
"As a group collective, their ability to show up time after time after time and accomplish missions is pretty impressive," said Rick Hatfield, a ranger operations supervisor with the City of Boulder's Open Space and Mountain Parks Department, which manages more than 46,100 acres of open space across Boulder County.
Angela Tomczik joined the group when she was a student at the University of Colorado Boulder a few years ago. Now, she is an RMR field team leader and responds to 60 to 80 calls a year on top of handling many of the group's business decisions as the group's business manager on the executive board.
"I think the most rewarding part of being in the group is the sense of community," Tomczik said. "We spend a lot of time together, and we spend time together in very intense, sometimes life or death situations, so we become very close. We're like family."
Getting the call
Rocky Mountain Rescue Group operates under the sheriff's office. When someone calls 911 on the trail, the dispatcher determines if the group's mountain search and rescue services are needed. If they are, the pagers start buzzing and any available members hop in their cars, grab the equipment they need and join the rescue efforts.
"When the pager goes off, you have to go," said Hildner, who joined Rocky Mountain Rescue Group more than 15 years ago.
"We're not that much fun at parties," Tomczik said. "We either leave when the pager goes off, or we stick around and all we can talk about is rescue!"
The amount of members that respond to a call often surprises the rescue patients.
"None of the rescues could be done without a team involved," Hildner said. "Our average rescue is about 10 to 12 people, and for more serious, more technical rescues, it can take up to 40 people."
The challenges of serving our community
Rocky Mountain Rescue Group spends about 6,000 hours every year on active rescues alone, from the page to clearing the trailhead after the rescue. Those hours are more than doubled with the time it takes to manage maintenance, trainings, administrative tasks and more.
"They don't get a lot of days in between calls," Hatfield said. "They also practice on Sundays and have meetings on Wednesdays, so they're a busy group. We can't forget that they are volunteers."
With so many people needed for rescue and with rescues happening hundreds of times a year, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group members are always on call. This can mean breaking commitments and staying up all night among other difficulties - notably, the psychological first aid component that all emergency services personnel face.
"Everyone wants to hear the war stories," Tomczik said. "Some of the missions that were the most intense or life-threatening - those are sometimes the hardest to talk about and we don't want to relive those moments."
"One minute you could be doing yard work or at a barbecue and the next minute you could be on scene of a serious injury that may end up in a fatality," Hildner said. "That can really wear on people, and that goes back to that team component: we really look out for each other. That was something that I found was interesting to learn. After my first fatality, I was getting phone calls from six different people asking if I was alright. It's the best way to process some of those issues."
Staying safe on the trails
While Rocky Mountain Rescue Group and its volunteers are here to help, community members need to take steps to help ensure safe and responsible recreation while they are out on the trail.
"A little bit of planning will go a long way," Hatfield said. "Bring those little things that you don't think you'll need."
This includes at least a small backpack, headlamp, plenty of water, layers and preparations for cold or wet weather. It is also important to look at the weather forecasts and to research trails before visiting them. Knowing your route well will help rescuers find you, as calls always start with a search.
"It doesn't matter whether they're lost or injured - we have to find them first," Tomczik said. "(Preparation ahead of time) helps expedite the process so that we can get to you faster."
But accidents can happen.
"Even the most well-planned outing can have a mistake or accident," Hatfield said. "People shouldn't be hesitant to call 911 for an actual emergency. A lot of times people are worried about the cost, or they feel some natural embarrassment, or a sense of, 'I failed on this hike.'"
However, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group's services are free. In its 70 years of operation, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group has kept its services free while continuing to respond to each and every call with equal determination, skill and humility.
"It's probably the best thing about them," Hatfield said. "They do it without reward and they do it without complaint."
As a no-charge, all-volunteer agency, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group appreciates the support of the community. Visit www.rockymountainrescue.org to learn more, get involved and donate.