Rescue missions not breaking the bank

A group of Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers gather at the Aspen airport for a helicopter training session June 22. The training, which was moved by Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo from the MRA building next to Highway 82 to the airport because of safety concerns, was a factor in the sheriff's decision to curtail MRA President Jeff Edelson's duties, sources said.

The large number of search-and-rescue missions this summer has not translated into a major expense for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, officials said this week.

That’s because Mountain Rescue Aspen — whose members head out into the backcountry to search for or retrieve missing, injured or dead hikers and climbers — is made up of volunteers, said Alex Burchetta, director of operations for the Sheriff’s Office.

In addition, CareFlight Colorado and Flight for Life Colorado — the two medical helicopter services most often used in connection with search-and-rescue operations in the Aspen area — do not charge sheriff’s departments for search and rescue missions, he said.

Finally, the Colorado National Guard’s helicopters associated with the High Altitude Aviation Training Site in Gypsum also do not charge, Burchetta said.

That leaves food for Mountain Rescue volunteers and any equipment they might break or lose as the main expense for the department’s search-and-rescue operations, he said. Depending on the length of the mission, that bill can come to $500 to $700 per operation, Burchetta said.

“We are unbelievably fortunate that (the helicopters) provide these services to the community,” he said.

Pitkin County Undersheriff Ron Ryan agreed.

“Citizens get a great deal for all that expertise,” he said.

If the person rescued or recovered had a Colorado search-and-rescue card or state hunting or fishing license, the Sheriff’s Office can be reimbursed for the food or equipment expenses through a state fund that receives a portion of the sales from those licenses, Burchetta said. For those who do not have the cards, the Sheriff’s Office can ask to be reimbursed at the end of the year if the fund has extra money, he said.

Taxpayers, of course, foot the bill for the National Guard helicopter’s operations. A call to a National Guard official in Gypsum on Friday seeking information about how much those helicopters cost to operate was not returned.

Burchetta said the National Guard generally will only help with searching for and rescuing people, but not body recovery.

The only search operations this summer that incurred expenses for the Sheriff’s Office were three missions looking for Dave Cook of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who disappeared last fall on a climbing trip to the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak, Burchetta said. In that case, the medical helicopter services did charge the Sheriff’s Office, he said, though he didn’t know exactly how much the searches, which found no sign of Cook, cost.

The Sheriff’s Office will either pay for those operations out of its budget or apply to receive the money from the state reimbursement fund at the end of the year, Burchetta said.

Kathleen Mayer, program director for Flight for Life, said the not-for-profit company used to charge for search and rescues, but she asked for the policy to change four or five years ago and company officials agreed.

“We have a very strong commitment to search and rescue in Colorado,” she said. “It’s just an important part of being part of Colorado’s emergency system.”

Flight for Life will charge a person rescued during a mission if they require a flight to a hospital for treatment, Mayer said. But the company does not charge for body recovery, she said.

Between June and August, the company performed many hours of search-and-rescue missions statewide, which cost $11,327, Mayer said. That money is absorbed by Centura Health, which runs Flight for Life and several hospitals in the state, she said.

CareFlight, the other medical transport helicopter available in the Aspen area, also is a nonprofit company. A call Friday to a representative of that company seeking comment was not returned.

As of last weekend, Mountain Rescue Aspen had performed 48 search-and-rescue missions in 2017. That compared with the same number by the same time last year, which ended up with a total of 66 missions.

Seven people have died in the backcountry this summer, including five people on Capitol Peak, one on North Maroon Peak and another hiker on her way to Conundrum Hot Springs.