Mountain Rescue Aspen honoring its roots this year

Scott Condon
The Aspen Times

Mountain Rescue Aspen will celebrate the 50th anniversary of its incorporation this summer, though the organization’s track record of saving lives and recovering bodies from backcountry accident sites reaches much further back.

Mountain Rescue incorporated in 1965 and started earning accreditation in various training disciplines from a national association the following year, according to David Swersky, a 35-year member and unofficial historian. Mountain Rescue Aspen will hold a private party in August for past and present members, affiliates and major donors to mark the occasion.

The ethic of helping neighbors and visitors who get in trouble in the mountains dates back to Aspen’s roots as a mining camp in 1879. Old newspapers are sprinkled with accounts about townsfolk scrambling to dig out miners caught in avalanches while going to or leaving work.

When Aspen evolved into a tourist destination after World War II, the need for rescues soared when climbers crawling around the famed Maroon Bells and other high peaks ran into trouble. Fred Braun is widely recognized for organizing what became Mountain Rescue in the early 1950s. He was a climber and hotelier who later became well-known as the caretaker of a backcountry hut system.

Braun would get word of someone in trouble and get the telephone chain rolling, Swersky said. Jack dePagter, another Aspen hotelier and early member of the rescue group, said everyone offered a helping hand. Climbers would organize teams for a rescue. Those who didn’t climb would provide support. Others would bring meals and supplies to staging areas.

“It was not as complicated as people make it out,” dePagter said with a chuckle.

He recalled that news of a weekend climbing accident would take awhile to reach Aspen in those pre-cellphone days. That meant they launched a lot of rescues on Sunday afternoons, when climbers didn’t return or someone seeking help made it out of the high country.

The rescue “that started it all”

The Mountain Rescue file at the Aspen Historical Society includes some old clips of Denver and Aspen newspapers. A handwritten note by an unknown writer on a Sept. 6, 1952, Rocky Mountain News article says, “Accident that really started it all.” It’s about an accident on Maroon Peak.

The article, datelined Aspen, starts: “The broken bodies of two boys lost since Wednesday while climbing towering mountains west of here were found today.

“One of the boys was dead. The other, seriously injured, was lying several feet from him. Both apparently had slipped and fallen on treacherous ice fields.”

Gordon Schindel, 19, was killed. Larry Hackstaff, 20, was badly injured. Photos of the rescue of Hackstaff and the recovery of Schindel were included in various reports. The photo captions and newspaper copy read like a who’s who in Aspen at the time. Those helping with the rescue were identified as dePagter, Hugh Strong, William “Shady” Lane, Fritz Benedict, Elli Iselin, Jim Snobble, Steve Knowlton, Gay Spence, Sandy Sabatini, Dick Wright, Jack Dollinger, Bill Golesten, Toni Wonderle and ski-patrol leader Earl Eaton.

The article doesn’t refer to the assembly as Mountain Rescue Aspen, simply as “the search party.” Wonderle and Sabatini, ski instructors and certified mountain guides, found the two men, the article said. The survivor was brought lower on the mountain, where the rescuers built a fire, and Dr. Robert Lewis of Aspen administered aid. T-Lazy 7 Ranch sent horses and mules to the camp, and the body of Schindel was packed out. Hackstaff was carried 9 miles by stretcher the next day to an ambulance, the article said.

Giving and receiving

Ralph Melville, another Aspen hotelier making his start in the post-war boom, was on both the receiving and giving ends of Mountain Rescue’s generosity in the 1950s. He got involved in the rescue group after he said Braun and dePagter got it started.

“Maybe about eight of us were quite active at first,” Melville said. “A lot of the community helped out.”

When asked why people were willing to put their necks on the line, neither Melville nor dePagter needed time to think about the answer.

“I think it was because there was a need for it,” Melville said. “There were more and more people that were getting into trouble.”

DePagter was even more blunt.

“It was human,” he said.

They were called upon for a lot of climbing accidents, plane crashes and lost children. Melville said the rescues and retrievals required a lot of climbing.

“We would find the victim and pray they were still alive,” he said.

Then as now, a fair share of rescue operations were to North Maroon and Maroon peaks.

“I remember one summer every weekend we got called to the Maroon Bells,” Melville said.

Climbers of his day had a saying for North Maroon Peak: “If you don’t have a good handhold, throw it away and get another one.”

Melville fell on North Maroon Peak in 1956 and was fortunate not to be killed.

“My knee was partway up to my hip,” said Melville, now 89 years old.

Longtime Aspenite Sepp Kessler was the first in the rescue party to reach him. Many of the men he knew and climbed with helped haul him down.

Melville stayed involved in Mountain Rescue until the early 1990s.

“One of the big changes was when we were able to use helicopters to get in,” he said. “It probably saved lives.”

Changing of the guard

The rescue group attracted free-spirit adventure junkies who flocked to Aspen in the 1960s. Richard Arnold, now of Telluride, remembers getting interested in Mountain Rescue after he moved to Aspen in 1967.

He didn’t have money to donate, but he had time, so he talked to Braun about helping with his mountaineering skills.

“He said, ‘OK, if you know we have a rescue, you come out, and we’ll see if we have something for you to do,’” Arnold said. “He was very, very low-key.”

A short time later, Arnold answered the call with other rescuers for a climbing accident.

“I joined the group by proving myself in a real situation,” Arnold said. “Fred said, ‘Everybody said you did good, so welcome to the team.’”

Braun retired as director in 1980. Greg Mace was elected president, and Arnold was elected vice president. Mace downplayed the transition in an Aspen Times article marking the passing of the torch. He likened it to keeping a business in the family.

Swersky credits Mace with organizing and training rescue leaders — group members who could step in to run a rescue mission. Mace joked that he needed help pulling off all the duties that Braun performed. The training of additional leaders quickly and tragically paid off a short time later when Mace was killed in a climbing accident southwest of Aspen.

Swersky got inspired to join Mountain Rescue in 1980 after meeting Arnold in a mountaineering course. He served as president from 1988 to ’90 and is in a unique position as part of a bridge generation between some of the founders and a younger generation growing in numbers now.

In the 1990s, Mountain Rescue was relying on many of the same stable of responders, according to Swersky.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve got a waiting list of dedicated, strong, young people,” he said.

One common thread

He noted that two rescues played important roles in the evolution of Mountain Rescue Aspen. A boy participating in an outdoor camp disappeared while on a hike at the Maroon Bells in the summer of 1965. Rescue-group members found and recovered the body of 14-year-old Robert Rossiter. The boy’s grateful family offered to help the rescue group in some way. A contribution from the family allowed the group to buy the cabin where Mountain Rescue Aspen operated for nearly five decades. The Robert Rossiter Cabin was dedicated on March 6, 1966.

A dramatic rescue of four people from the wreckage of an airplane crash and two other survivors who left the site on foot in November 1977 led to another key donation decades later. Lynda Cameron, who was rescued from the plane crash as a young girl, made a donation that allowed construction of Mountain Rescue Aspen’s headquarters at the Aspen Business Center. It is named the C.B. Cameron Rescue Center in memory of Cameron’s father, who died in the crash. Mountain Rescue Aspen moved into the facility last summer.

Over his 35 years, Swersky said the number of calls has “probably doubled.” The growth didn’t spike in recent years despite the explosion in the number of people visiting the backcountry. There’s been no real pattern to the increase.

Some years, there are few calls.

“Then the next year, you just get hit,” Swersky said. “One day last year, we had three rescues on the same day.”

Despite drastic changes in training, equipment and facilities, there’s been one constant characteristic during Swersky’s 35 years of service.

“The basic heart of Mountain Rescue is the same as it was,” Swersky said. “People are willing to drop what they’re doing to help others. That hasn’t changed.”