Mountain Rescue Aspen building plan advances |

Mountain Rescue Aspen building plan advances

Janet Urquhart
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO, Colorado
Courtesy of Charles Cunniffe ArchitectsThis rendering depicts the proposed new headquarters for Mountain Rescue Aspen, to be located on the outskirts of town along Highway 82. The tower is to the right of the building.

ASPEN – A 45-foot tower where Mountain Rescue Aspen members can hone their climbing skills and test equipment won a unanimous nod from Pitkin County commissioners Wednesday as they gave the group’s proposed new headquarters initial approval.

The height of the tower was among the few concerns commissioners voiced during their first review of the plans a month ago. Mountain Rescue offered to cut it back to 43 feet in response, but members spoke passionately Wednesday about their desire for the extra 2 feet, and commissioners were amenable.

“We can get away with 43 feet,” said Jeff Edelson, a member of Mountain Rescue’s board of directors. “It decreases our safety margins down to the bare minimum.”

The tower will be on a front corner of Mountain Rescue’s planned new headquarters on Highway 82, at the former Planted Earth Garden Center site near the Aspen Business Center.

The height of the 13,900-square-foot building also received some scrutiny, and it was redesigned to carve a few inches off what had been a 34-foot roof line, but commissioners decided anything up to 34 feet would be acceptable.

The new building will replace Mountain Rescue’s cramped cabin on Main Street in Aspen, which has been home to the organization since its founding in 1965. It will accommodate equipment and vehicle storage and hold a caretaker apartment, bunk rooms, a boardroom, a training room, a kitchen, a command center and the tower, where Mountain Rescue members can practice rope skills and test their equipment.

Ropes and other items, for example, are slowly loaded with weight to determine their breaking point or weighted and dropped to test for failure. Equipment from prominent gear makers has, at times, failed at less than half the manufacturer’s specifications, according to Hugh Zuker, Mountain Rescue president.

“For us, that was a real eye-opener and a shock,” he said.

Currently, training generally takes place in the field, not in a controlled environment, said Keith Bosscher, director of operations.

“We don’t have the ability to go over a ledge without getting out into the real world,” he said.

Once, years ago, the organization lost a member in a training exercise, member Cavanaugh O’Leary noted.

“It’s not an abstract thing, our safety in training,” he said.

The tower won’t be a solid structure, and Deer Hill to the rear of the property will be visible through its framework.

There is no plan to light it at night, though it will have emergency lighting, Edelson said.

The Mountain Rescue proposal in general has not been a source of controversy during its review before commissioners, and there was relatively easy acceptance of the tower’s height and location at the close of Wednesday’s discussion.

Commissioner George Newman, however, suggested the tower may be a source of consternation for some in the community. He compared it to the expansion of Aspen Valley Hospital, which has made that building highly visible from the highway.

“When you go from blueprint to brick, often there is a visual shock,” he said.

“It’s going to stand out,” Newman added. “It’s going to have to be something the community’s going to need to accept.”

“This is where the community puts its values,” Commissioner Michael Owsley said, referring to the role of Mountain Rescue. It’s those values, embodied by the building, that are important – not roof and tower heights, he said.

Final approval by commissioners is expected March 27.

The Highway 82 property was purchased for $1.6 million by the Mountain Rescue Aspen Charitable Trust, and construction of the new facility will cost an estimated $2.5 million. The organization announced its intention to purchase the parcel after receiving a $1.5 million gift from a donor who was among a party rescued from a plane-crash site in 1977.

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