“9-1-1, what’s your emergency?” the operator said.
Mahir Dalwani lay face-down on a snow-covered rock in excruciating pain. His shoulder had dislocated from a short but violent fall. At the edge of a drop-off, his right arm wouldn’t move and his legs dangled in space. He was stuck.
“At that point I thought I wasn’t going to make it,” Dalwani told me.
He and his roommate, Baba Mukherjee, both 26 years old and from Chicago, were near the top of Kelso Ridge, a popular Class 3 scramble on Torreys Peak (14,267 feet) in Clear Creek County. It was Sept. 25, the last day of a month-long road trip that would include their first Colorado “Fourteener.”
But as darkness fell, Dalwani lay cold and immobile at nearly 14,000 feet. Muhkerjee grabbed his phone; it was their only hope.
He ended up speaking with Paul (“Woody”) Woodward, the mission coordinator for the local Search and Rescue (SAR) organization, the Alpine Rescue Team (ART).
Periodically, over the next six hours, Woody’s voice comforted the shivering pair, giving hope as he relayed the progress of ground teams.
“I had no idea who the Alpine Rescue Team was,” Dalwani said later. “I didn’t even know there was a concept of Search and Rescue.”
Woody has worked with ART for 32 years — more than half his life. He describes his 81 teammates as family.
“We’re mountaineers, you know? I was climbing in the ‘70s and that’s what you did. You helped your fellow mountaineers.”
ART is one of 54 SAR teams who are members of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR). The 75 members of Boulder’s Rocky Mountain Rescue (RMR) are focused on the crags, canyons and peaks above Boulder.
Shane O’Brien is a six-year ART volunteer and team Treasurer.
“We call ourselves ‘unpaid professionals’ because the level of training that we have to have is the height of professionalism,” he said. “But at the end of the day it’s all volunteer.”
CSAR deals with mass casualty avalanches, climbing accidents, lost hikers, BASE jump accidents, lightning strikes, you name it.
“You have to have a really wide range of skills that can cater to all those circumstances,” said O’Brien.
While highly trained and heavily used, SAR teams in Colorado are severely under-funded. Not only does every team member volunteer time, energy and expertise, they actually pay, on average, $5,000 annually, for personal expenses like gas, provisions, gear and classes.
Between Colorado’s 2,600 volunteers, that’s $13 million per year.
And did I mention their time?
Jeff Sparhawk, an RMR volunteer for more than 30 years, is the president of CSAR. He explained that CSAR volunteers donate roughly 500,000 hours annually.
“On top of that, every team needs at least one person on-call, 24-7,” he said. “The on-call time is roughly 475,000 hours. So you’re approaching a million hours of free time.”
A million hours!
“This year, with Covid, the teams are getting hit really hard,” said Sparhawk. “The indoor and urban activities aren’t available to people. Our call volume has doubled since 2018.”
As headlamp beams bobbed closer from above, Dalwani and Mukherjee knew they’d be okay. ART volunteers belayed them to safety and gave them food, water, clothing and a tarp. They staggered to the nearby summit, where more rescuers fitted them with oxygen for the trudge back down.
Despite the crucial role SAR teams play in Colorado’s outdoor economy, they receive little financial support.
“Should volunteers really be paying out of pocket to be able to do this?” asked Sparhawk, rhetorically.
For now, SAR teams barely subsist on fundraisers and donations which help pay for things like rescue vehicles, snowmobiles, facilities and insurance. But with the skyrocketing demand for their services, this model is unsustainable.
“I don’t want pay,” said O’Brien, “but the fact that our team’s budget isn’t supported is kind of crazy.”
Like all rescuees, Dalwani and Mukherjee weren’t charged a dime for their rescue, which involved 21 ART volunteers.
“I’ve never met people this selfless before,” said Dalwani. “It was even more wild to meet people like this in 2020, when there’s so much going on in the world.”
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8