Knowing when to make the call
Recently, I was waiting for a call from one of our guides that he had made it back from a trip up Capitol Peak. All guides call in as soon as they have cell phone reception to let us know they have returned to the frontcountry and everyone is safe. While I was waiting, I began thinking about our plan of action had that all-important call never come. When do you call Mountain Rescue Aspen to help find your overdue relatives or friends from their backcountry adventure? This question has been posed to me numerous times, and its a question Ive pondered from time to time myself. First off, you never call Mountain Rescue Aspen directly. All people engaged in recreational activities in the backcountry should have a contact person in the frontcountry whom they contact when they return, and that contact person should, in turn, contact the Pitkin County Sheriffs Office if their friends dont show up at the designated time. The deputy assigned to your call will make the decision whether to contact the Mountain Rescue leader. If so, the rescue leader and the sheriffs deputy will then decide whether to send out a page to the volunteer members of Mountain Rescue to mount a search party. Most of the time, the overdue party will show up before a search is mounted. Sometimes a couple of members of Mountain Rescue will walk up the trail a short ways to meet the party coming out. Now, hypothetically, in our case, if we hadnt received the final call from the group coming back from Capitol, and it gets to be around 8 p.m., another guide or I would have driven to the trailhead to see if the vehicle is still there. If the guides vehicle were at the trailhead, I would have walked partway up the trail just to see if the party were coming out. Id do this with a full first-aid kit, extra clothing, food and water. If I didnt see the overdue parties within about 60 minutes, Id turn back around and head down. When its well after dark, Im going to start assuming the worst, so Id head back down to Aspen and make the call to the Pitkin County Sheriffs Office and inform the deputy that there might be a possible problem in the backcountry, which could require assistance. The sheriffs deputy will in turn make the call to the Mountain Rescue leader and report the situation. All backcountry travelers should be prepared for self-rescue, but depending on the backcountry emergency, that might not always be possible. The local guide services put a lot of time in preparing for backcountry emergencies, and even with these plans, outside assistance may be necessary. What influences the decision to call in additional help depends on the type of backcountry trip the missing party is on, the experience and fitness level of the participants, and the weather conditions and forecast. We would let groups on backpacking and hut trips go overdue one night and until noon the next day before making the call to mount a search. On peak ascents, we will make the call around 10 p.m. the same day to have help in place for the next morning. The reason we let backpackers and hut users go longer is because they have the resources to take care of themselves longer. As you can see, there is no set rule for calling Mountain Rescue, and many times calling and asking a few questions and having a lot of questions asked back is better then not calling at all. The rescue leader will ask the reporting party questions concerning the intended route of the group, names and ages, health problems, fitness levels, return times and many more things you might never have thought of. These questions will be asked with great skill, empathy and in a noninvasive manner. The more information the rescue team has, the better its chances of being able to help the lost party. No one should ever be embarrassed to call the sheriffs office to inquire about an overdue party, and no one should never feel sheriffs or Mountain Rescue personnel are going to be openly critical of persons for calling for backcountry assistance. Mountain Rescue will not tolerate members who publicly make judgmental statements about the actions of those who need backcountry rescue. Ron is a local mountain guide who can provide further information concerning Mountain Rescue and methods for handling backcountry emergencies. Contact him at email@example.com.
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