Who you gonna call?

When a 911 call comes from the woods, it’s Rocky Mountain Rescue group that responds

photo courtesy of Dave Christenson

At the end of a rescue, the vote that carries the most weight on whether it was successful should be from the person who came out on the stretcher, right?

Chris Klinga’s response, after coming down hundreds of feet of vertical rock face and scree field, crossing a river and riding an ambulance to an air-evac flight, and arriving at the hospital five hours after a 250-pound boulder landed on top of him while rock climbing in Eldorado Canyon, is that the rescue team, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, did everything right.

“They were super-quick to the scene. It was probably one of the most technical rescues they’ve ever done and it was unbelievable how many people turned out for it,” he says.

Rocky Mountain Rescue took Klinga’s call along with some 143 other calls, or an average of three per week, in 2008. The all-volunteer group is on the sheriff ’s list of organizations to call when someone dials 911 for help in the woods. If you get lost hiking down Mt. Sanitas (like two hikers who went off trail in December) and you call for help, it’ll be RMRG that answers. Same goes if you fall while climbing (as another climber did in December), or twist an ankle or break a leg.

“We are actually one of the busiest rescue teams in the country,” says Jonathan Horne, assistant group leader of the Rocky Mountain Rescue. “And certainly I think it’s probably fair to say the busiest all-volunteer team, outstripped maybe by some of the parks like Yosemite.”

The organization, which fielded 146 calls in 2011, runs off a budget from the county, the city, grants and donations, and doesn’t pass on a bill for the alpine rescue.

“Our services are entirely free,” Horne says. “You hear lots of stories about people hesitating to call because they’re afraid of being charged, I don’t have insurance, I’m afraid of whatever, and there’s zero cost.”

Someone is on call at RMRG 24/7. The summer months are their busiest, which can see six or seven calls in a single weekend, almost half of which come from hikers and another quarter from climbers like Klinga.

“I can’t thank them enough for what they did, because if they weren’t there, I can guarantee I wouldn’t be here today,” Klinga says.

Klinga and his partner, Chris Lee, were just starting up Doub-Griffith (5.11c) on the Redgarden Wall, Klinga belaying from a four-foot ledge, when a loose block the size of a coffee table fell, catching Lee on the way down and lacerating his liver before landing on Klinga, pinning him on the ledge and breaking his pelvis, both legs and his left foot. Climbers in the area were the first to his side, helping get the rock off Klinga before rescue arrived. The first from RMRG was Drew Hildner, who got Klinga stabilized, then a paramedic, Julie Nelson, arrived — meeting Klinga hundreds of feet in the air.

“My accident was so complex that going in [to the rescue] I was like, wow, this is a really big deal. I don’t know how anyone is going to pull this off, and they pulled through,” Klinga says.

He was rock climbing again three months later, and RMR invited him to a panel discussion on the effectiveness and efficiency of their rescues.

“[The panel] really solidified a lot of thoughts I had about them as a group, that they’re always striving to improve,” Klinga says.

Maybe it helps that there’s a disproportionate number of engineers on the 80-person team of the Rocky Mountain Rescue. And that applying to join the team as a supporting member, the lowest of three tiers, takes a year of attending meetings and trainings every other week before the group votes on if the applicant has demonstrated the competency and quality of contributions to merit joining the team. Some people come and go, Horne says, and some have stayed 40 years.

In his 30 years with RMRG, Dave Christenson says, he has gone out on calls to help college students who’ve fallen while scrambling in the Flatirons, and he’s photographed human remains after an airplane crash. The mission he spent the most time on, he says, was the search for former Marine Lance Hering, who faked a climbing accident and disappearance in Eldorado Canyon.

Christenson led a team of 35 military veterans to help with the search. The sheriff ’s office determined it was a hoax after the exhaustive search — which had turned up a cache of carcasses from a predator and a wood stove, and spotted mountain lions and bears — found no trace of Hering, and the story started to unravel.

“There’s some relief that we did all we could,” Christenson says. “It’s just kind of relief that we know that the problem is resolved, that whatever his family is expecting, they’re not expecting people to search any more. They know he’s not lost in the woods any more.”

It’s a different kind of story that really stands out, though.

“The most rewarding rescues are helping with the severely injured and seeing them pull through what look like potentially fatal injuries and knowing that we helped save someone’s life,” he says.

“For me, the one that was most influential, it was the only time I’d been scared on a rescue,” Horne says. In the blizzard of March 2003 a call came late in the day to respond to an avalanche on the road to Eldora Mountain Resort.

“Apparently, there was a car coming down and there was a slide above them and it caught the car, so we were going to go up there and dig the car out and be on our merry way, and I had no idea, at that time, the scope of what we were in for,” Horne says. “I think Nederland got over 8 feet of snow in that storm, and so the road closed entirely ’cause it was just covered in avalanches. Tons of cars got trapped on the road, and so some people ended up getting stuck and getting sent back up to the lodge. Others got evacuated down the slope, but all their cars had to be left on the road. It was a crazy, crazy night. They ended up being trapped up at Eldora for two or three days, so we were skiing in with supplies. The weather was too bad, they couldn’t fly helicopters in.

“That night when it was all unfolding, the snow was just dumping, and the slides kept coming down onto the road and we had people out there and we had to get them out, so it was a question of do we go up with them? Do we go down with them? And here we are in the middle of it. Normally you avoid avalanche terrain and here it was one of those rare instances where you really didn’t have a choice. So, if you can imagine, we were just sending people across this avalanche field one at a time, strapping a beacon to them and having rescuers wait on either side with shovels and probes. And it truly was terrifying. In the rest of my 15 years, it’s never been scary like that.”

Earlier rather than later is always better for a call, Horne says. “We’re here for that moment that can make a difference.”

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