Skip to content

Breaking News

The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group rescues someone between the First and Second Flatirons in May. (Courtesy Photo)
The Rocky Mountain Rescue Group rescues someone between the First and Second Flatirons in May. (Courtesy Photo)

On an early fall morning, Michele Dillon and a friend headed out for a morning trail run — an exercise they do together regularly.

They decided to go west of Boulder to Bear Peak West Ridge Trail and were running on the west side of the peak when Dillion stepped off a rock. She immediately knew something was wrong.

“I landed completely wrong,” she said.

Boulder County crews rescued an injured runner on Bear Peak West Ridge Trail on Oct. 3, 2021. (Boulder County Sheriff’s Office)

The pain from her left ankle seared through her, and she tried to limp through it. But it was 4 miles back to the car.

Dillon’s friend recommended they call for a rescue, but Dillion still tried to push forward.

“I tried to limp my way out of there, but every step I took was just excruciating,” she said. “The idea (of a rescue) was super-embarrassing to me. I tried to walk a little more, and it just became unbearable.”

After Dillion called police she was connected to Boulder County rangers who asked her to describe her location.

“They were so fast,” she said. “Within 45 minutes the first ranger was to me and following was the rest of the crew.”

She said the crew was composed of about 20 people, who were mostly volunteers with Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.

The group put Dillion in a beanbag splint, which is similar to an actual round beanbag but is long, rectangular and firm. They also used a litter to carry her off the trail.

“I couldn’t see a whole lot, but from hearing what they were doing, they were belaying me,” she said. “They were taking turns going from the front to the back and stopping when they went over technical turns.”

Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, rescues for outdoor recreators have increased as more people have discovered a newfound love for the outdoors. With the increase in demand, some states have decided to start billing recreators for what it costs for the hour- or sometimes days-long rescues.

Boulder County officials said they don’t plan to make any changes to its free rescues. Instead, the sheriff’s office has staggered employees’ schedules to cut back on overtime, while other organizations hope to maintain their volunteer base in order to keep offering the same services.

From 2019 to 2020, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office saw a 29% increase in calls for rescues from lost or injured recreators as well as a handful of calls for hazardous materials. In 2019, the county received 198 calls for rescue. The following year, there were 256 calls.

To help cut back on the overtime brought on by the spike in rescues, the sheriff’s office has changed its work schedule, said Kelly Lucy, Boulder County Sheriff’s Office emergency services unit supervisor.

Instead of working Monday through Friday, employees with the emergency services unit now work Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday through Thursday, Lucy said.

Lucy said the county has several spending accounts for the emergency services unit, which are made up of property tax dollars and other funds that the Boulder County Board of Commissioners allocates to the department.

One of its accounts contains $26,000, which is its annual operating budget. The money helps fund expenses including personal protective equipment, clothing and services needed during a rescue in a hard-to-reach area.

“It’s used in a bunch of ways to support rescue, but not all of it is spent,” Lucy said. “I would think maybe on average we are spending $15,000 (a year).”

The sheriff’s office also has an account for the rescue organizations it contracts with, including Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Front Range Rescue Dogs and Boulder Emergency Squad.

“We have a set amount we are given to help fund those agencies,” Lucy said.

Lucy said who responds to a rescue depends on what the situation is. If there is a call for a medical emergency, the first priority is to call in an ambulance, along with the rescue team that has jurisdiction over that area as well as the fire department.

Each agency plays a different role in each rescue and is often needed, but if the sheriff’s office finds out an abundance of resources is not needed, some agencies are cleared before arriving.

Regardless of whether a department responds or not, they all get credit.

“These are the agencies that support rescue on our calls,” he said. “In some of the calls everyone responds and other calls everyone might be canceled. All of the agencies were set up to go on a rescue.”

When Dillion needed help after spraining her ankle in October, she called for her first and hopefully her last rescue, she said.

Fortunately the friend she had been running with knew how rescues worked and informed Dillion it would not cost anything. Unlike other states that have begun billing recreators for their lift off the trailhead, Boulder County has no plans to implement a fee.

“There is a philosophy around when you are charging someone, they are going to be slower to call you,” said Ranger Rick Hatfield, with Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. “(The rescue) might get more complex because it has taken so long for them to call.”

Although the number of rescues has increased in Boulder County, the area is well-known as a hub for outdoor recreation. It had the resources to meet the demand for more hikers during the pandemic while other cities that are just now seeing the spike did not, Hatfield said.

“I think other places are scrambling more than we are locally,” he said. “We haven’t really seen that kind of COVID impact here.”

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group is composed of about 70 volunteers, who also have full-time jobs, but have decided to dedicate 10, 15 or more hours per week to helping others.

“(New volunteers) have to go through several weekends in a row on training on the basics,” he said.

Drew Hildner, a spokesman for the group, said the sheriff’s office delegates which groups respond to a rescue. When members of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group get called in, volunteers who have already signed up for certain days or times will be the ones paged to go.

The most common rescue call is an injury. That response usually requires about 15 people, Hildner said.

In recent years, it’s become common for two or three rescues — each with 15 people responding — to happen at once.

“We have generally been breaking records on number of missions and also number of days with four or more missions,” he said. “That trend accelerated last year.”

While the interest in recreating has increased, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group sometimes finds itself struggling to recruit enough members to meet that demand.

“By this time of year, we are having to pull teeth to get people to come out,” Hildner said. “We have to start shaking the tree and calling around.”

Prior to the pandemic, volunteers with the group would get together after rescues for drinks or dinner. Now, due to COVID-19 restrictions or worry of spreading the virus, those hangouts aren’t happening as frequently, Hildner said.

“We have lost a few members, and we have had others mention that they have lost interest in rescue because it has lost the close-knit aspect of rescue,” he said. “Sometimes that can psychologically be helpful for us to be able to spend time together.”

The bulk of the work may be carrying a really heavy rescue device for a really long time, Hildner said. But the drive to keep going comes from the reward of helping others.

“The person (who does this) is willing to do the unsexy stuff and is willing to work in a team,” he said. “(It’s) people that are motivated by helping others.”