What do you know about Search and Rescue?
As for me, very little — until the past few weeks as I conducted research and interviews for my column. It’s especially embarrassing, considering how many climbing partners and acquaintances have needed their assistance on the Front Range. And that 25 years ago, a friend and I were the subjects of a multi-day SAR mission on Mt. Rainier in Washington.
So it’s no surprise that when Jeff Sparhawk, president of Colorado Search and Rescue, sat down with a state representative last year and asked her that same question, she said, “Well, I know if I go out on a hike and I fall down and break my leg, I call 911. And then I have no idea what happens.”
Sparhawk told me, “People don’t know about Search and Rescue because that’s the ethos of Search and Rescue. We don’t want heroes. We don’t want Type A personalities who want to be on the front page of the newspaper. We want people who are going to wander out of the woods, help out, and then wander back into the woods.”
It’s an honorable, yet potentially self-destructive ethos that, for better or worse, may need to change.
Sparhawk sat with that representative to explain what CSAR is. It was one conversation among many, with the hope of eventually securing some kind of consistent, long-term funding from the state, and elsewhere.
“SAR is a public good with essentially no public funding,” said Sparhawk. “It’s like having a police department, but it’s a police department that’s not supported by tax dollars.”
Remember: SAR teams do not charge for rescues.
“The ethic has been forever, and this is a worldwide ethic, that Search and Rescue is free,” he said.
Boulder County’s SAR team, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMR), is partially funded by the Boulder County Commissioners and the City of Boulder. Primarily, they’re funded by donations.
“A lot of those, unfortunately, come from remembrance funds for body recoveries,” explained Drew Hildner, an RMR team member of 17 years. “Oftentimes we’ll get donations from the families of the deceased.”
But this year has thrown a triad of challenges at SAR teams in Colorado, with a greater demand for services, various issues associated with COVID-19 and less available funding.
“We’ve seen a yearly increase in our rescues,” said Hildner, of RMR in Boulder County. “We’re at over 200 rescues this year already, which is the second time for us. That comes down to one every day and a half, or something like that.”
And with Covid, more people are heading outdoors to recreate.
“We saw last spring when the ski areas closed, all these people who had never been in the backcountry were just flocking there,” said Sparhawk. “The concern this year is we’re going to have the same thing, or it’s going to be even worse.”
As backcountry popularity exploded in the spring, so did the calls to Search and Rescue teams. The good news is, CSAR gained overwhelming support in the state legislature, due in no small part to conversations like the one Sparhawk had with the state representative.
Earlier this year, a two-part bill for state funding passed easily through the state Senate, and was sent to the House where it was expected to pass. With two Republican sponsors and two Democratic sponsors, they were on track for funding … And then the bad news:
And like many bills this spring, it was shelved indefinitely. The truth is, once you understand what CSAR is, what they do, and that they work unpaid — and on top of that, every single one of the 2,600 team members in Colorado shells out an average of $5,000 dollars per year out of pocket just to volunteer — you realize how amazing these people are, and how appalling the lack of funding is.
“All we want is a sustainable system so that we can continue to provide the services,” said Sparhawk.
Ultimately, SAR teams in Colorado aren’t asking for much.
“To maintain volunteers at this stage is the goal,” he said. “Can we pay for people’s gas? Can we make it so they’re just giving their time? Is that enough?”
Contact Chris Weidner at email@example.com. Follow him on Instagram @christopherweidner and Twitter @cweidner8.