By Estee Rivera Murdock, Executive Director at the Rocky Mountain Conservancy
Not all heroes wear capes, as they say—some wear neon yellow jackets with arrowhead patches. Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) hosts more than four million visitors a year, and with that high level of visitation, typically has the third highest number of major search and rescue (SAR) events in the National Park Service (NPS) each year.
The Rocky Mountain Conservancy is proud to support the law enforcement and other rangers and staff on Rocky’s SAR teams. In 2021, the Conservancy purchased a new custom-outfitted AWD SAR van for the park’s east side, and this year purchased a SAR utility vehicle for the park’s west side. The Conservancy also funds some of the extensive recurring training necessary to safely evacuate patients from impossible places as well as to replenish supplies and equipment. To take care of the people who put themselves at risk looking after the rest of us, the Conservancy underwrites the cost of first responder-focused mental health services that are available 24/7.
“Behind every RMNP SAR or emergency response you might read about or follow on the scanner are a lot of people,” says Jay Shields, Rocky’s Chief Ranger for Law Enforcement and Emergency Services. “We put our park rangers and staff in extraordinary circumstances that involve intense physical, emotional, and psychological trauma. With professionalism and compassion, Rocky’s SAR teams and first responders rise to challenges most people can only imagine.”
It’s easy to oversimplify who gets in trouble in the backcountry. It’s not just visitors unfamiliar with “know before you go” principles. Trouble can find anyone. Just ask former two-time Olympian and Mayor of Estes Park Wendy Koenig who required a SAR evacuation for a leg injury. Loose rocks and tree roots on a trail don’t care if you’re a first-time hiker or a world class mountaineer.
In July 2022, an experienced hiker from the Midwest suffered a severe injury in a remote area of the park. Rocky’s SAR team responded, and, working with a flight medic and a Colorado Army National Guard helicopter crew, airlifted the patient off the mountain for transfer by Northern Colorado Med Evac air ambulance to advanced medical care. The hiker was in a coma for more than a month and continues his journey of rehabilitation—but he survived.
This summer, the hiker’s family wrote a heartfelt thank you letter to the SAR team and donated to the Conservancy’s Search & Rescue Fund. They wrote, “How can we ever repay you and the rest of the wonderful folks who played a part in this story? Take heart in knowing that you made a difference in many people’s lives because of what you and others did that day.”
Behind the scenes, people might be surprised at how few professionals are responsible for working these major incidents, especially when a relatively straightforward patient carry-out might take up to 30 people.
“Our bench of rescue personnel is limited,” Shields continues. “SAR qualification requires extensive training and a huge level of commitment. SAR team members are drawn from all divisions in the park, but the majority are our climbing staff as well as our law enforcement rangers. Our professional law enforcement staff also are trained as SAR, Fire, and Emergency Medical Service professionals; no other group in our agency is tasked with this level of emergency service to our public.”
My family and I spend a lot of time exploring Rocky’s backcountry, and knowing the park has a SAR capability with such passionate and capable members gives me a lot of peace of mind.
If so inclined, consider donating to our SAR fund at www.RMConservancy.org/SAR or to any professional or volunteer SAR organizations in your local community. Even more importantly, the next time you encounter a law enforcement ranger or other SAR team member, shower them with gratitude and appreciation for their sacrifices. We owe them more than we can say.