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Across the nation, search and rescue teams are mostly made up of a patchwork of volunteers often overseen by local sheriff’s departments. But many of these teams are now struggling to keep up as more Americans than ever are hitting the outdoors. Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports from Colorado.
Across the nation, search-and-rescue teams are mostly made up of a patchwork of volunteers, often overseen by local sheriff's departments. But many of these teams are now struggling to keep up, as more American than ever are hitting the outdoors.
Special correspondent Christopher Booker reports from Colorado.
High atop Colorado's Rocky Mountains is where 46-year old Jennifer Staufer finds peace.
Jennifer Staufer, Climber:
being outside is just such a mental clarifying relief for me. Like, it's just a place where I go to kind of reconnect with what fundamentally matters to me.
Raised in Colorado, Staufer began climbing more than two decades ago, and, by July of 2015, she had made it to the summit of more than 40 of the states' mountains with elevation above 14,000 feet. They're collectively known as the 14ers.
I was 10 weeks pregnant at the time. My doctor had cleared me to hike until I was 20 weeks pregnant. And I was on a mission to check off some more 14ers before I had a kid in my life.
That mission brought her and her climbing partner, Adam, to the summit of Crestone Peak in Southern Colorado.
But shortly after this photo was taken, as Staufer was making her descent, she slipped on a patch of ice, and fell headfirst down the mountain, tumbling 250 feet before coming to a stop on these rocks.
What was going through your mind?
The first thing is going through my mind is, I'm 10 weeks pregnant. I'm probably not pregnant anymore. At one point in time, I even started preparing Adam with what to tell my family if I don't make it home.
They were able to get out a call to 911, dispatching Custer County search-and-rescue. About seven hours later, this team of 14 volunteers arrived by helicopter, with some having to climb more than 1,500 feet to reach Staufer.
I did have a collapsed right lung. I had three broken ribs. I had pelvic fractures. This kneecap was completely shattered in half. And then I had broken my foot in a couple of different places.
But, unbelievably, you were still pregnant.
I was still pregnant, yes.
While Staufer's story is harrowing, it was just one rescue in a state that receives 3,000 calls every year for search-and-rescue, a number that's been steadily increasing in recent years, as more and more people are being drawn to the wilderness of Colorado.
Jeff Sparhawk, Colorado Search and Rescue: We have to be everywhere all at once.
Jeff Sparhawk Runs Colorado Search and Rescue, a nonprofit organization that represents the roughly 50 search-and-rescue teams across the state. He says, over the last few years, some of these teams have experienced a record number of calls.
We got a huge increase in calls over the pandemic. Our trailheads were packed from sunup to sundown. People were parked all over the place just to get out in the woods.
And now there are so many more people who have moved to Colorado and don't have experience in our mountains, don't have experience in our rivers, don't have experience in our backcountry.
By far, the majority of our missions get back to some kind of unpreparedness.
After retiring in 2015, 62 year-old Jim McCoy began working for a search-and-rescue team in Park County, Colorado. This sprawling rural community southwest of Denver is about the size of Delaware.
Jim McCoy, Park County Search and Rescue: Park County, which is pretty large, 2,200 square miles, has about 80 percent public land. We do, as a team, about 60 rescues a year.
Did everybody sign in?
On a recent Saturday morning, much of McCoy's 38-person team was here on one of seven field trainings members must complete every year.
The purpose of today's exercise was for us to practice a high-angle rescue. So we had a climber who was stranded on a vertical face and injured.
It's probably about the most difficult rescue we do, the most technical thing we do, probably requires about the most gear of anything that we do.
What do you think people don't understand about what you do?
One of the biggest misconceptions about us is that we get paid. Everyone on the team is a volunteer, the entire team. Each individual has to provide their own gear, their own gas.
One study found that the average search-and-rescue volunteer in Colorado spends more than $1,500 a year. And this is how it is throughout much of the country.
Christopher Boyer, Executive Director, National Association for Search and Rescue: Almost 99.9 percent of all search-and-rescue in the United States is done by volunteers, local stewards of their communities. They pay for their own equipment. They pay for their own training.
Chris Boyer is the executive director of the national association for search-and-rescue. He says that even national parks rely on volunteers in some cases.
A few national parks have specialty teams. Like, in Yosemite, parks that have specialty environments usually have a half-dozen or so specialty rangers. But they still all rely on volunteers to do the heavy lifting.
I think, overall, at a nationwide level, we have a system that is broke.
And, in Colorado, a state where outdoor recreation is a multibillion-dollar industry, it's especially glaring.
We need to figure out a way that the outdoor recreation industry, the tourism industry, all of those who are benefiting from this are, to some degree, supporting it right?
In some weird way, you can look at us as this safety net or maybe kind of an insurance policy for this entire industry. And we see this is a non-sustainable situation.
Is that the way that you frame it, that this is not sustainable?
Long term, it's definitely not, right? Here in Boulder County, we have somewhere north of 200 calls, maybe 300 calls a year. And so that's — that's really tough for volunteers, right? How do you hold down a job? How do you maintain a family life?
Page Weil, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group:
Did not get a second nap today.
I have two young kids. I have a 3.5-year old and a 10-month-old. So unless they're in day care for the day, I'm almost guaranteed to get a call while I'm trying to do something with them.
Thirty-nine-year-old Page Weil has spent a decade with Colorado's Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder, one of the state's busiest teams. He also works as a full-time consulting engineer.
Yes, so have I my…
On a recent Sunday, Weil got a call.
So let's just hear what comes out. But, yes, someone — someone is hurt right now.
Within a few minutes, he and his wife, Jess, and their two kids all were racing toward a hiking a trail just outside of downtown Boulder.
All units responding.
We're responding to an 80s female who fell and hit her head. It sounds like she's injured and can't walk. So we will probably have to carry her out.
I sort of have made it a priority of my life. Once I make that decision to respond, it's — everything is out the window.
I'm going to get my gear and get it going. I text my wife. I let her know I her know. I will cancel meetings if I have them scheduled for work, or I'll let my supervisor know. And then, immediately, my mind is sort of in rescue mode.
Jessica Weil, Colorado:
I realized like a few years into it how much of a commitment it was for me as a partner, as a spouse, as a mom. Like, it is a sacrifice.
Like many search-and-rescue teams across the nation, the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group relies heavily upon donations to do this work. They also receive some state and local funding.
We're a team of approximately 80 volunteers. Our annual operating budget for our group is around $80,000 for the whole team for the entire year.
Help protect our state with a $29 Keep Colorado Wild Pass.
Starting in 2023, Colorado residents will be asked to voluntarily buy a parks pass when they register their cars. Officials here say the legislation, which passed last year, could generate about $2.5 million in additional funding for search-and-rescue teams.
Other states like New Hampshire are trying a more controversial approach, billing individuals who are rescued.
LT. James Kneeland, New Hampshire Fish and Game: We do bill when there is negligence. We average about only 13 or 14 billed missions a year.
Lieutenant James Kneeland is a conservation officer with New Hampshire Fish and Game, which runs search-and-rescue operations in the state.
LT. James Kneeland:
Well, one thing I think it has helped with is, people are trying to get themselves better prepared. If they know they have the potential for getting billed, I think they're doing a little bit of research on their hike, whether it's getting the right equipment or studying, can I do this in a day?
But, back in Colorado, Jeff Sparhawk says the state shouldn't start charging for rescues.
If people think they are going to be charged, they're going to delay. They're going to make it more difficult for us, more dangerous for us.
But, in general, I think Colorado looks at this as, we take care of the folks who come here.
For that, Jennifer Staufer remains forever grateful. Her son, Morgan, is now 7 years old and shares his mom's love of the mountains.
Morgan, my son, just climbed his first 13er, and he was really blessed to be able to do so with Jeff, who was one of the guys who was on he my rescue and helped get me out.
Staufer says she's still climbing and hopes to one day return to the same mountain where she almost lost her life.
I would love to go back and finish that climb, because I feel like its important to me to get it done under my own power and to kind of put it behind me.
For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Christopher Booker in Colorado.
Watch the Full Episode
Christopher Booker is a correspondent and producer for PBS NewsHour Weekend covering music, culture, our changing economy and news of the cool and weird. He also teaches at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, following his work with Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism in Chicago and Doha, Qatar.
Mike Fritz is a video journalist and producer for the PBS NewsHour.
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