Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 16, 2014

$5 million endowment would be first in the 49-year history of local nonprofit

Mountain Rescue Aspen (MRA) launched a campaign to raise a $5 million endowment this week in an effort to secure the organization’s financial future.

MRA is made up of about 50 volunteer members, who are trained to perform technical rescues in the backcountry. The organization is an arm of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, and is called on in search, rescue and recovery situations.

Since the all-volunteer organization officially started in 1965, it hasn’t had an endowment, said Doug Paley, vice president of MRA. An endowment would provide funding for four items essential to the organization, he said.

First, it would pay for insurance if members get injured during a rescue and it would provide a member’s family with benefits in the case of a death.

There’s an inherent risk associated in performing backcountry rescues, and that’s why it’s important that MRA members have financial backing in the worst case scenario, Paley said.

“The most important thing for us is to protect our members,” Paley said. “And we just haven’t had the funds to take care of them in the past.”

The point is particularly timely this summer, Paley noted. On Aug. 6, two MRA members were hospitalized after a climber triggered a rock slide that sent trash-can-sized boulders down on them while they were recovering a body near Capitol Peak.

“It would provide [members] with protection that mirrors the risk they take,” he said of the endowment’s insurance fund.

Funding also would go toward enhancing training. In order to perform rescues, members have to be trained in a variety of disciplines, including areas like emergency medicine, trigonometry and advanced rock climbing techniques, Paley said.

“What we deal with is incredibly sophisticated,” he said. “It’s not cookie cutter — we’re solving problems based on what the environment offers us.”

After taking the logo off the exterior, Mountain Rescue Aspen  members this week pack up the contents of the cabin on Main Street that has been their headquarters since 1965. The volunteer search and rescue organization is moving to a new headquarters on Highway 82 near the airport, and is launching a campaign to raise a $5 million endowment.

Those training courses take a lot of time, effort and expertise. An endowment would not only help pay for those courses, but it also would help pay for new gear that members use during rescues.

The endowment would help fund public education efforts on how best to prepare for traveling in the backcountry. MRA offers avalanche awareness courses in the winter and distributes pamphlets with tips on traveling in the backcountry.

“We really believe that through public awareness and education, we can prevent a lot of problems,” Paley said.

Finally, it would pay the utility bills at the new MRA headquarters along Highway 82 near the airport. MRA has operated out of a 3,500-square-foot cabin off of Main Street since 1965, and in recent years the organization raised $5 million to pay for the land and construction of the new facility, which includes a 45-foot-tall training tower. The new 13,000-square-foot headquarters also will serve as a functional dispatch center, incident command post and emergency management location as a back-up for the sheriff’s office.

“We are very much dependent on this to support our operation, which is minimal” in terms of its expenses, Paley said.

He noted that the nonprofit’s bylaws explicitly state that the organization cannot have any salaried employees. That rule is unlikely to change, he added.

The organization will hold its first fundraiser on Sept. 1 during the opening of the nonprofit’s new headquarters.

MRA leases its current space on Main Street from the city. The lease will end in October. The organization held its last meeting there last Monday. After the lease ends, city officials are considering temporarily moving municipal offices to the old MRA headquarters, but the issue will go before Aspen City Council before a final decision is made, according to Barry Crook, assistant city manager.

People interested in making a donation to MRA can email support@mountainrescueaspen.org or contact Paley directly at (970) 710-1044.

Originally published in The Aspen Daily News on August 7, 2014

Two Mountain Rescue Aspen members were injured during climber’s recovery mission

Two Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers were hospitalized after being injured in the field while they were recovering the body of Jim Nelson from Salt Lake City near Capitol Peak on Wednesday.

A team of two MRA members went into the field via helicopter above Moon Lake at an elevation of about 11,000 feet. As they were attempting to reach the body, a climber above them set off a rockslide and triggered several rocks the size of trash cans to tumble down onto the MRA members, according to Pitkin County sheriff’s deputy Alex Burchetta.

The civilian also sustained lower leg injuries, and along with one MRA member who had a shoulder injury, was transported to the hospital via helicopter. The other MRA team member who had minor injuries retrieved the body, and then flew back to the Aspen airport where an ambulance was waiting to take the volunteer to the hospital. All three sustained orthopedic injuries that are not serious, Burchetta said.

At 11:30 p.m. on Tuesday, a family member of the deceased contacted the sheriff’s office to report that a 53-year-old man from Salt Lake City had not returned home as scheduled and he didn’t show up to work on Tuesday. Nelson’s car was located late Tuesday night at the trailhead to Capitol Peak.

On Wednesday morning, a search team from MRA and the Colorado National Guard’s High Altitude Aviation Training Site (HAATS) searched the area surrounding Capitol Peak. At 11:30 a.m., the team located what they believed to be the body of a man located in the Mount Daly basin. The search team was able to land nearby and identified the body as that of Nelson’s.

Jeff Edelson, president of MRA, said it was the first time this year that MRA volunteers have been injured during a rescue. The nature of the work is dangerous, so volunteers can get hurt on the job, he said. Edelson added that it’s important people are prepared when venturing into the backcountry.

“Make sure if you’re climbing in the backcountry that somebody knows the route you’re going to take,” he said. “Climb with a partner and stay on the established routes.”

The recovery couldn’t have happened without the help of HAATS, Edelson added.

Nelson was described as an experienced climber and outdoor enthusiast. Details about what caused his death or where exactly he was found have not been released.

Capitol Peak is 14,131 feet high and the 32nd highest mountain in the United States. It’s located in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness area. It’s the first death on a 14,000-foot mountain recorded in Pitkin County this year and at least the fifth in the state.

(Carolyn Sackariason contributed to this report).