Mountain Rescue Aspen to the rescue |

Mountain Rescue Aspen to the rescue

Mountain Rescue Aspen is currently raising funds to purchase a new rescue vehicle with life support, similar to the one pictured. (Contributed photo)

ASPEN ” For more than four decades, a group of dedicated volunteers have collectively saved the lives of hundreds of people in the backcountry.

Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) was founded in 1965, making it one of the oldest search and rescue teams in Colorado. Today, MRA has 49 volunteers who donate an estimated 12,000 man hours per yera to serving the community through training, education and search and rescue missions, said Hugh Zuker, president of the nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation.

“We are the only first responders in the valley that don’t have a tax base,” he said.

Those saved in the backcountry don’t pay a dime for their rescues as the expenses are borne by local agencies, which absorb thousands of dollars in costs annually.

MRA is an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which is the lead agency responsible for search and rescues. MRA is the first responder in the backcountry, rescuing lost or injured people, and conducting avalanche searches and plane crashes.

MRA also is a back-up responder for community disasters in Pitkin County and serves as mutual aid for disasters in neighboring counties. And in unfortunate instances, MRA also has the responsibility of body recovery, with the most recent being Carbondale resident Lathrop Strang, who died on Mount Sopris last month.

“For fatalities we know how important it is to be reunited with the family to get closure,” Zuker said. “It’s important to us because it’s important to the family.”

While the MRA receives money from grants and government donations, the majority of its revenue comes from individual contributions.

“About 80 percent comes from donations,” Zuker said, adding many of the donors are friends and family of those who were rescued or recovered. “We’re very grateful that the community supports us.”

MRA received $9,841 from the sheriff’s office last year, although that was a pass through contribution from the Department of Local Affairs. MRA each year applies for a grant in an effort to receive money from a separate account funded by people who purchase hunting and fishing licenses, as well as recreational fees.

The sheriff’s office will be 100 percent reimbursed if they rescue a license holder, but it’s not a prerequisite to getting pulled out of the backcountry. And sometimes victims will pay for rescues voluntarily.

Zuker said local agencies have a moral and legal responsibility to conduct and bear the cost of search and rescue efforts for everyone in need of their assistance.

“We are 100 percent against charging anyone,” Zuker told the Times earlier this year. “We don’t want anyone to hesitate to call for help.”

MRA is currently fundraising to purchase a 2008 Ford F550 4×4 truck to serve as its primary rescue vehicle, as well as new equipment. Zuker said the organization has raised about 20 percent of its $200,000 goal.

The rescue vehicle will replace MRA’s 1988 Chevrolet extended cab, which has reached a point where it’s no longer dependable. MRA also plans to buy new hand-held radios and two snowmobiles to replace aging equipment. Also included in the equipment purchase is a GPS tracking system, two computers and a printer to use in the field at staging areas.

According to its 2006 tax return, MRA received $111,801 in contributions and made $20,647 on dividends, bringing the total revenue to $132,448.

MRA’s expenses were $69,770, which included $55,385 in program services; $12,740 in management costs and $1,645 in fundraising.

The organization ended 2006 with $606,422 in net assets and fund balances. Much of that is an endowment fund that MRA plans to use for a future facility. MRA owns a small cabin on Main Street and leases the land from the city of Aspen for $1 a year. But the organization has grown out of the space and needs more. Zuker said the organization would like to either rebuild the current facility or build a new one somewhere else.

“We put a little [money] away each year,” he said. “Luckily we have support from the valley so we’ve been able to tuck some money away.”

Major contributors in 2006 included a city of Aspen of grant of $5,767; the Fred and Elli Iselin Foundation, $5,000; Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, $5,000; the Catto Charitable Foundation, $10,000 and Ernesto and Zoe Cruz, $5,000.

Education activities for the MRA include annual avalanche workshops that teach participants the basic concepts of snow pack, avalanche triggers, route finding, beacon use and avalanche searches.

MRA also teaches children ages 5 through 12 in the valley what to do if they get lost in the woods and to increase their chance of being rescued using the national Hug-A-Tree and Survive program.

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