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History of the Summit County, CO Rescue Group

In the fall of 1972 an ad appeared in the Summit County Journal asking for all interested parties to contact the Summit County sheriff if interested in joining a search and rescue organization. Even in the very sleepy days of the early 1970’s - before Eisenhower Tunnel and Interstate 70, before industrial skiing, before stop lights in Breckenridge, before Gore-tex - some of Summit County’s finest had the clarity to see a need for a team of skilled rescuers. Before the snow started to fly, Paul Anderson, with the Breckenridge Ski Patrol, accepted the responsibility of heading up the initial team of cross country skiers who would perform backcountry winter rescues. This was just the first step that the rescue group was to take. It would be necessary to create an organized group with a wide range of talent before the history of the Summit County Rescue Group could be written.

In December 1972 a group of Summit County residents met at Ben Stanley Revett’s old house, Swan’s Nest, which at the time was owned by Glenn Campbell, owner of Tiger Run Tours. The goal of the evening was to discuss the steps needed to form a full-fledged, accredited group of organized search and rescuers in Summit County. Similar teams, like Yosemite Search and Rescue in California and Rocky Mountain Rescue out of Boulder, CO had formed back in the 1960’s. So there was a blue print on how to get it done, it was just the bodies, the money, the storage and finding enough people with the necessary skills needed for such a demanding job. Sheriff Bob Holt, Gene Dayton from the Nordic skiing community, Glenn Campbell, Pat Lynch and Larry Foster with the US Forest Service, along with Dick Clark, Dusty Luce, Louis Linley, Ray Coch, Bob Kluge, and Jon Gunson were a few of the original brains and brawn responsible for making it all happen. At least the first few baby steps. No easy task, given the recreation opportunities available. Summit County sported a large mountain lake and many mountainous paved and unpaved bike trails. Skiers, hikers, campers, and climbers were wandering the mountains like the first gold miners back in the 1860’s.

For at least a couple years prior to 1972, members of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office, the US Forest Service (managers of most of the land in Summit County), and local ski areas (specifically A-Basin and Breckenridge) had been in discussions about who was responsible for performing any search and rescue. It was a complicated mine field of complexity. Who would pay for the expenses of longer and more complicated rescues? Who needed to get the phone calls? Who would manage the volunteers and equipment? How would volunteers be trained? What about liability?

Colorado state statute says that the local sheriff’s office is responsible for any search or rescue mission under their jurisdiction. However, the Sheriff’s office had no funding or trained group for anything of this nature. Training alone would eat up vast amounts of cash. Equipment costs like radios, climbing ropes, medical supplies, and vehicles would mount as well. There was no way a rescue group could be anything but volunteer. By 2019 the group has a much improved budget and a well supplied rescue cache in Frisco. Old timers would be quite impressed with what is available for rescue missions today!

Just 70 miles west of Denver, Summit County was a sleepy backwater berg with primarily weekend skiers and summer vacationers in the 1960’s and early 70’s. As Denver’s population grew, visitors to Summit County began to climb. Activities were even more diverse in the summer. It was really no surprise (at least for some) that a percentage of these forest visitors were going to get lost or hurt. The groups first official mission ran in January 1973. A skier with an injured leg near Loveland Pass brought ambulance service, A-Basin ski patrol, sheriffs’ deputies, the rescue team, and Colorado Department of Transportation staff together. This showed that the ground work done to coordinate a wide variety of people through an efficient communication program was possible.

Not all missions are life and death. Sometimes the team went on missions to find people who turned out not to be lost at all. Bob Kluge, one of the original members, remembered how he and Tom Randolph, author of Summit County Rescue Group 25 Years, went out on one of their last missions together sometime in the 1980’s. A concerned grandmother had called the sheriff reporting her grand kids had not returned from a camping trip up South Willow Creek in the Gore Range. Bob and Tom did the long hike and ski in to the head of the Willow Lakes Basin on an Easter Sunday. After some looking around they found the kids camped at the bottom of an avalanche path, without a concern in the world. Bob convinced the kids to move their camp to a safer spot and to call the sheriff when they got out from their trip.

Jon Gunson had been involved in the Summit search and rescue scene since well before its inception. He designed the group’s long standing logo, climbed many of Summit County’s more difficult crags, and mapped known cross-county ski trails for use by the rescue group. Jon recalls being one of the four to six climbers Sheriff Bob Holt would call out to help with more complicated rock rescues like those often found on Mt Royal in Frisco or Quandary Peak south of Breckenridge. Usually Sheriff Holt could find one of the men, like Paul Johnson from Frisco, at a job site or one of the local climbing crags. There were no cell phones or even pagers in 1972, so rounding up help was a lot more complicated in those early years.

Jon, originally from Iowa, moved to Denver in 1968 after graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Oklahoma. The firm he worked for in Denver scored a couple projects in Breckenridge and, after a few trips over Loveland Pass, Jon convinced a friend that if they moved to Breckenridge they could ski every day. Rental units were in scarce supply even back then, which forced a bigger commitment for Jon, he bought an old house on Harris Street.

After one long and complicated rescue, the group of local climbers found themselves debriefing over cold beers when Jon remembers someone saying “Hey, we can do better than this. We need to start a real rescue team.” Initially, Jon and several Summit County locals started attending training sessions with Alpine Rescue Team based in Evergreen, CO, and Rocky Mountain Rescue to up their skills and learn the path to creating a professional, accredited volunteer search and rescue group. Volunteer professionals? Yup, hours of training, money out of your own wallet, and some long days. Not only would members need to be physically fit, they needed administrative skills, budgeting knowledge, specialized medical training, and the ability to work with other people under stress and often times in foul weather.

By 1975 the rescue group became affiliated with the National Association of Search and Rescue Coordinators via the Colorado Search and Rescue Board. The rescue group passed their first Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) certification when they successfully performed a mock technical high angle rock evacuation. In 1976 the group passed their full accreditation with the MRA. Only four other rescue groups in Colorado had attained that status; San Juan Rescue, Alpine Rescue, El Paso Rescue, and Rocky Mountain Rescue. The certification meant the group had achieved a very high level standard recognized by their peers. This was the same year that the 911 emergency phone system came into Summit County. Avenues of communication were becoming more of an important factor. Any rescue would require much communication and coordination between different entities.

Membership in any rescue group requires dedication, time, and sacrifice. There comes a time when all volunteers find it no longer possible to commit to the demands. Jon and his wife Judy had twins and Jon found it more and more difficult to contribute the time and effort needed to continue as a member of the rescue group so he stepped away sometime in the 1980’s. One positive outcome of Jon’s retirement was that he found time to pursue another passion, hut to hut skiing in the European Alps. Using the many connections and friends he made during his time with the Summit County Rescue Group he found a strong and skilled group to wander through the Alps.

Dan Burnett, one of the group’s longest serving members, caught the rescue bug after a couple of bizarre events. While attending Colorado State University, Dan was ice boating on a reservoir just south of Ft Collins and fell into the frigid water. A nearby witness was able to get to Dan, pull him out of the water, and performed rescue breathing to which Dan responded favorably. Sometime later, Dan was sailing through the Bermuda Triangle when everyone on board jumped off for a swim. Well, the boat kept sailing, and Dan, who did not consider himself a very good swimmer, managed to swim to the boat and turn it around to rescue his friends. Dan said it just felt like there was something pulling him to join a rescue group, which he did here in Summit County in 1980. Dan’s wife Patti, a ski patroller at Copper Mountain, had one of the early avalanche rescue dogs, Hasty, with the group. Hasty’s first avalanche search was the Peak 7 tragedy in February 1987.

From the roughly 45 original members of the rescue group, the team has grown and holds steady at 65 members. Annual call outs for the team are around 181 missions. Approximately 100 people a year apply for the rare openings. Maybe five or six new members join the team. Applicants are some of the most accomplished climbers, navigators, and boaters in the county. As such, the rescue group is one of the most talented and welcomed groups in our county.

For a far more detailed and entertaining look at the first 25 years of the Summit County Rescue group readers can seek out Summit County Rescue Group, 25 Years by Tom Randolph, the group’s first Administrative leader. You can also learn more about the Summit County Rescue Group and maybe consider a donation to this inspiring organization!

BHA docent and avalanche expert, Scott

written by Scott Toepfer

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