Pitco to the rescue – at what cost?

Joel StoningtonAspen, CO Colorado

PITKIN COUNTY Whether you head into the backcountry from a ski area or get caught in an avalanche 10 miles from a rural road, the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office won’t charge a cent to find you. “We rescue the smart, we rescue the stupid, we rescue the rich, we rescue the poor,” said Sheriff Bob Braudis, whose office is responsible for backcountry searches. “This is a tax-funded search-and-rescue operation. If you pay taxes in any form … [rescue] is a tax- supported activity that you have basically prepaid for.” On Saturday, four skiers – including celebrities Rob Morrow, Chad Lowe and Fisher Stevens – went out of bounds on Aspen Mountain and needed rescue. Aspen ski patrol also was involved; Aspen Skiing Co. spokesman Jeff Hanle said the Skico has yet to determine whether to charge them for the incident. “If you have two patrollers and it takes them an hour to go out the bottom of Walsh’s, there’s really not a lot of cost involved there,” Hanle said. Morrow’s group got lost below Walsh’s and the Lud’s Lane catwalk. “It’s sort of a judgment call between the patrollers and sheriff’s office.”But in Colorado, rescue is not always free. Plus, it is against state law to duck a rope into a closed area. Heading into the backcountry is legal, however, because it is a matter of accessing public land. In other counties, ski areas often create a buffer zone. The buffer zone is part of the U.S. Forest Service permit area, but anyone ducking a rope to get into that backcountry – instead of using a marked gate – is breaking the law. “If you duck a rope that says ‘area closed,’ we’ll charge you,” said Summit County Sheriff John Minor. “Last year we increased fines up to $1,000. Our judge has not taken an extreme stance, but if we have to rescue you, it’ll be the max, $1,000.”Braudis, on the other hand, said the Skico and his office have made a conscious decision to keep public lands as accessible as possible. So someone who ducks a rope to get into the Pitkin County backcountry isn’t breaking the law. Many times, the Skico and the sheriff’s office will work together on a rescue, and the bill generally gets passed on to taxpayers.Braudis said patrollers have a significant advantage in response time when someone is lost after leaving one of the ski areas. The all-volunteer Mountain Rescue Aspen may take more time to mobilize, so Braudis is happy to pay when the ski patrol helps with a rescue.”They know the terrain very well,” Braudis said. “They’re there, they’re ready to go. We will reimburse the ski company for what they bill us, but we do not pass that on to the victim.”The sheriff’s office can be reimbursed for some rescue costs, however, through the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund. Braudis said his office applies to the fund at the end of every year. In 2006, Pitkin County requested $22,600 from the fund and received $11,900.The fund reported 2006 revenue of $434,956.01 from the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, boat and snowmobile registrations and the sale of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue cards. The fund helps defray the costs of up to 1,400 searches in any given year.The fund is tiered such that it first reimburses any given sheriff’s office for missions to rescue people holding one of the above licenses or cards. Second tier is for spouses of cardholders, and the third tier is for everyone else. “If I have hard costs at the end of the year I can apply to that fund for reimbursement,” Braudis said. “We never make our decisions as to whether or not the victim is in possession of one of those documents.”Joel Stonington’s e-mail address is