Randy Wyrick
Vail Daily
Search and rescue crews from around Colorado were trained in backcountry helicopter rescue techniques, at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site.
Randy Wyricki| |

EAGLE — Ironically, there are lots of ways to die when a helicopter flies a rescue crew into the backcountry to save your life.

That’s why hundreds of search-and-rescue volunteers from around Colorado gathered at the High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site, with both military and civilian helicopter pilots to learn to hoist people safely out of harm’s way and into a helicopter.

Litter spin

Pilots and crews rely on rescue teams on the ground to get the injured person safely onto the helicopter, explained Lt. Col. Tony Somogyi, High-Altitude Army National Guard Aviation Training Site commander.

“We’re happy to provide this training if it improves safety in the backcountry,” Jeff Edelson, Mountain Rescue Aspen

There are lots and lots of ways to do it unsafely, and they’ve seen many of them, Somogyi said.

The steel cable stretching from the helicopter to the litter (the long basket into which the injured are strapped), builds up static electricity and can zap you and the person you’re trying to rescue.

Then there’s that spinning sensation. Left to its own physics, the litter will spin continuously faster as it’s being hoisted. It’s not the sort of thrill ride most people are interested in taking.

So the crews reviewed how to strap the patient into the litter so they could be turned upside down and not budge.

They also learned to run a rope from the litter to the ground crew to keep the litter from spinning.

There also are lots of ways to keep static electricity from zapping people. The search-and-rescue crews learned them all.

Aspen and Vail presents …

Jeff Edelson with Mountain Rescue Aspen and Steve Zuckerman with Vail Mountain Rescue helped HAATS develop the training program.

It started small with crews from just Aspen and Vail. Now it includes almost any group with “search and rescue” in its name.

“We’re happy to provide this training if it improves safety in the backcountry,” Edelson said, who has been with Mountain Rescue Aspen for 10 years.

It’s always in early April, because that’s when they have the time. The winter season is winding down, and search-and-rescue crews’ busy summer season cranks up between Memorial Day and Labor Day, when people tend to get stuck, lost or injured in the mountains.

“If we need to get to the top, they set us right on the top,” Zuckerman said.

Rescue records

Two years ago, HAATS flew a record 28 rescue missions.

This year, they flew another record 29 rescue missions, saving 29 lives with 39 line hoists, because some people managed to get themselves stranded in groups.

Take the four women who got stuck on 14,000-foot Quandary Peak near Breckenridge.

On Quandary Peak there’s the hiking equivalent of a conga line up and down. Stick with it and you’ll be able to brag to your friends back home that you climbed one of the world’s tallest mountains — and at 14,000 feet you’d be telling some version of the truth.

This particular quartet of women wandered off the beaten path and onto a ledge where they got stuck. They spent the night on that ledge in 28-degree weather and were rescued at daybreak the next morning when a helicopter lifted them, white-knuckled, off the ledge.

“It seems like almost no one gets lost in the middle of a warm, sunny day,” laughed Dan Smith with Vail Mountain Rescue.

No charge, no pay

No one is ever charged when they’re rescued.

“No one is ever sent a bill,” Smith said. “The generosity of the community makes all this possible.”

Rescuers are all volunteers all the time, which is why it’s funny to listen to them encourage each other with, “That’s good work! We need to add another zero to your pay rate.”

They even pay for their own gear.

During training and during most rescue operations, the Vail Valley Salvation Army is gracious enough to feed them all two meals a day for two days. Occasionally, professional chefs prepare the meals.

Flight for Life

Before HAATS, Flight for Life’s pilot paramedics flew rescue missions beginning in the 1970s, and still do.

“Flight for Life has been a big supporter,” Edelson said.

Chris Carr is one of those Flight for Life paramedic pilots. Flight for Life has been doing rescues almost since helicopters have been flying in this region, and haven’t charged anyone for decades.

They generally fly more than 50 missions a year, Carr said. Some are rescues, sometimes they shuttle rescuers to the site.

That decreases the amount of time it takes to get victims the lifesaving help they need. It also increases the rescue team’s safety.

“Daytime operations are safer for rescuers, but your patient may not live long enough to see that sunrise,” Smith said.

Flight for Life is a private company, so they can be in the air five minutes after the call comes in, Carr said.

“We can walk to everything, but it may take eight or 10 hours. An accident victim may not have eight to 10 hours left to live,” Smith said.