Accidents of all kinds are usually caused by a series of decisions or events rather than one catastrophe.
This is certainly true for climbing and outdoor-related incidents, where several questionable choices throughout the day can quickly lead to an unplanned night out, or worse.
So what happens in Boulder when a climber falls, a hiker is benighted or a skier is lost? Our emergency services call Rocky Mountain Rescue crews for the kind of help only they can provide.
Founded in 1947, RMR is Boulder County's search and rescue organization whose members are trained specifically for mountainous terrain and high-angle rescues. It's one of the oldest and most experienced mountain rescue teams in the country, with a repertoire to prove it. Its members have rescued thousands of people, from injured or stranded athletes to avalanche victims, lost hunters, plane crashes and even suicide attempts.
Remarkably, RMR is an all-volunteer organization whose services are free of charge.
About 50 RMR members now participate regularly in training and rescues. After the initial training, which lasts about a year, a volunteer becomes a supporting team member. Some support members graduate to become technical field leaders. The highest level of membership is the mission leader, who can lead all the fieldwork and also manage entire rescues and communication from the trailhead.
Dan Lack is one of about a dozen active mission leaders volunteering for RMR.
Originally from Australia, Lack moved to the U.S. for a research job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the beginning of 2004. He immediately started training with RMR and became an active member in early 2005.
RMR volunteers tend to be multifaceted outdoor athletes, he told me last week.
"I love climbing on a Friday afternoon, kayaking on a Saturday morning and riding my mountain bike over lunch," Lack said. "Participating in mountain rescue allows you to use some of those skills and put them into a community-service setting. It takes all types to pull off what we do."
Members train year-round, completing a minimum of 60 hours of classroom lectures, mock missions, skills seminars and first-aid certification. All that training pays off during the summer, when RMR goes out on rescues an average of once every day, making RMR "one of the busiest teams in North America," said Lack, who has personally been involved in about 450 rescues over the last eight years. Some RMR members have thousands under their belt.
Climbers make up about 20 percent of the people needing a rescue, yet surprisingly nearly half of them are uninjured. They're either stranded on a climb or lost on the descent -- a fact that makes many of these incidents preventable. On the other hand, Lack said a good percentage of the accidents could happen to anyone.
"That's one of the humbling things about doing rescue," he said.
I asked him to share a particularly interesting or meaningful rescue, and with zero hesitation he told me about two that, for him, embody the emotional extremes and deep personal meaning of rescue work.
During his first year on the team, a climber fell unroped from the top of a cliff in Boulder Canyon while trying to make an anchor.
"His injuries were substantial and his girlfriend and sister were there," Lack said. "That was a really rough mission for the team. You see the traumatic injury, the emotions of the family and the reactions of your teammates when someone doesn't make it."
Months later, an 8-year-old boy had been missing in the wilderness for four days. The situation was all but hopeless.
"I was one of a hundred rescuers helping with the search that day, and I happened to be standing next to the mother of that child when she was told that her son had been found alive," Lack said. "I felt so privileged to be the first person she grabbed hold of and hugged.
"It's not about one person," Lack said. "It's about the team."
To learn more about RMR, visit its website at rockymountainrescue.org.
Contact Chris Weidner at firstname.lastname@example.org.