A call from the mountains: Family of missing hiker launches search and rescue campaign

Family of Dave Cook who disappeared from the Maroon Bells area in 2016 wants to bring awareness to volunteer search and rescue teams

As Sunday marks the beginning of Search and Rescue Week established by the United States Senate over a decade ago, the family of a man who’s been missing for nearly five years after presumably falling from the Maroon Bells is launching an awareness and fundraising campaign that highlights the work of rescue organizations and their importance in locating those injured, lost and deceased in the backcountry.

Maureen Cook, whose husband and father of their three children went missing in September of 2016, has launched the “Dave Gives Back” search and rescue campaign.

It’s been a long four and a half years for Maureen and her children, Kate, Ryan and Sara, to grieve the loss of Dave, but they are now in a place to honor his memory and the countless volunteers who put in thousands of hours searching for him.

“I needed time and growth to learn how to parent on my own,” Maureen reflected last week. “Even though we haven’t found him, the efforts of Mountain Rescue Aspen and the (Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office) have been amazing.”

Dave Cook, then 49, was an accomplished mountaineer, summiting over 50 peaks in Colorado. On Sept. 19, 2016, he was going for his 47th summit of a 14er by doing a solo climb of either Pyramid Peak, Maroon Peak or North Maroon Peak, or possibly all three. Maps of all three routes were found in his car.

MRA, an all-volunteer organization, and the sheriff’s office, which works in tandem with the nonprofit, conducted three different searches for Dave, spanning over the course of a year.

Sheriff’s deputy Grant Jahnke said in those first days of searching, there were varying reports coming from hikers and climbers that they thought they saw Dave at the base of Pyramid, and others said the Maroon Bells.

From the air and ground, two separate searches were conducted for several days, until the weather turned and snow impeded the efforts.

The search resumed the following summer, with volunteers taking dogs trained to detect human remains into the field.

The third search had the most experienced high alpine mountaineers climbing all three mountains looking for any sign of Dave.

They enlisted volunteers from all over the state, as well as MRA and the sheriff’s office, along with private helicopters and those from the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training site in Eagle.

“We used every resource we could get,” Jahnke said.

The decision to suspend the search indefinitely was not an easy one, he noted.

“It’s hard to get to that point,” he said.

But those in the climbing community and the MRA volunteers who were part of the search remain vigilant when they are in the area.

“Anyone who searched for Dave Cook hasn’t forgotten about him and in the back of their minds, they are always looking for him,” Jahnke said. “I hope he’s out there and someone is going to stumble upon him and then we can find out what happened.”

Bringing volunteerism, dedication to the mountaintop

The Cook family would love nothing more, and in the meantime are transforming the tragic event into a beautiful effort in Dave’s honor, Maureen said.

The mission of the Dave Gives Back campaign is to raise funds and awareness for search and rescue efforts in Colorado and New Mexico, where the Cook family lives outside of Albuquerque.

Maureen noted that last year there were 4,000 search and rescue missions led by 46 SAR teams and 10 specialty teams in Colorado.

Of those, 45% of them were hikers.

Also in 2020, SAR volunteers in Colorado donated 330,000 hours helping people.

Maureen said proceeds of the initial two weeks of the campaign, which launches on Sunday at and across social media platforms, will be dedicated to MRA.

Fundraising will occur through direct donations, merchandise sales and a family friendly run scheduled for Sept. 19 in the Cook family’s hometown of Corrales, New Mexico.

That date is the five-year mark of Dave going missing.

The fundraising campaign to is to honor his legacy and philanthropic spirit, Maureen said.

“That’s always been part of our family,” she said. “There is something about a passion project that feels so good, to give back and talk about Dave because I love talking about Dave and I want to let people know who he was.”

She captured that on the campaign website by writing, “After time, and the support of too many people to name, we wish to honor the gifts and talents that Dave entrusted us as a husband, father, son, brother-in-law, friend, businessman and outdoor enthusiast. We are motivated by Dave’s 8 Missions that he had posted on a notecard above his desk: Have a positive attitude. (Physical training) and live healthy. Motivate yourself and others. Earn respect. Set goals. Live with integrity. Mentoring. Have fun.”

Lost but not forgotten

Maureen joins many families whose loved ones have never been found, despite countless man hours searching for them.

There are two other open cases in Pitkin County of missing persons, including Carbondale resident Willy Worley who disappeared in the summer of 2010.

He was reported missing July 30 and a seven-day search ensued after his car was found at the East Creek trailhead near Redstone.

Pitkin County Undersheriff Alex Burchetta said there has been searches for Worley conducted nearly every year since.

Search teams also continue to look for a Nebraska man, Ali Lazem Kenani, whose car was found in 2019 in Old Snowmass.

SAR efforts expensive but covered

While volunteers conduct search, rescue and recovery efforts, the costs of missions are often in the thousands of dollars.

In Colorado, those costs are covered through proceeds of the CORSAR card, which contributes to a statewide Search and Rescue Fund that reimburses teams all over the state.

MRA is a 100% volunteer and donation based organization, which raises money each year through solicitation and local and state grants.

Jordan White, MRA president, said it doesn’t matter what the conditions or the costs are, the organization’s dedicated volunteers are committed to rescuing people 24/7, 365 days a year.

“There is no charge for a rescue, you’ll never see a charge from us,” he said. “Our worry is that people are afraid to call and it ends up in a death.”

White said he recalls a rescue at Snowmass Lake in which he and his team arrived via helicopter to transport a man with a broken arm.

But they were met with resistance, due to financial concerns.

“He was so intent on not getting on that chopper,” White said. “I told him, ‘don’t worry, it’s paid for.’ I saw a grown man start to cry and then get in that helicopter.”

He noted there are two important legislative bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly that, if passed, would provide more funding and resources for search and rescue in the state.

The bills acknowledge that while limited state funding is currently generated from hunters, anglers, motorized boaters, off-highway vehicle users and snowmobilers through surcharges, it’s not enough as rescues and their costs increase due to more people recreating in the backcountry.

SB21-249 seeks to create the Keep Colorado Wild Annual Pass, which would be a nominal fee for motorists to enter a state park and other participating public lands.

The revenue generated would in part support search and rescue efforts throughout the state.

“This is a big deal for SAR,” White said, adding that MRA has to cover costs associated with operations and maintaining its vehicle fleet.

That’s where MRA relies on the generosity of private donations, and efforts made by people like the Cook family.

“I think it’s really amazing that Maureen is putting her energy toward this and bringing awareness to search and rescue and it honors Dave’s legacy,” he said.

Maureen said she has felt such support from MRA and the sheriff’s office over the years, and with her family’s tragedy, it has made them realize how important SAR is for outdoor enthusiasts and the saving of lives.

“We are now in the space of raising awareness for search and rescue,” she said. “The Aspen community was so welcoming and supportive of us.”