Early one fall morning, Michele Dillon and a friend set out for a morning trail run, an exercise they regularly do together.
They decided to go west of Boulder to Bear Peak West Ridge Trail and were running on the west side of the summit when Dillion came down from a rock. She immediately knew something was wrong.
“I landed completely badly,” she said.
The pain in her left ankle went through her, and she tried to limp through it. But it was 4 miles from the car.
Dillon’s friend recommended that they call for help, but Dillion tried to move on anyway.
“I tried to limp 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 became unbearable.
After Dillion called the police, she was connected to Boulder County rangers who asked her to describe her location.
“They were so fast,” she said. “In 45 minutes the first ranger was mine and the rest of the crew followed.”
She said the crew consisted of around 20 people, most of whom were volunteers from the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group.
The group put Dillion in an ottoman splint, which is similar to a real round ottoman but is long, rectangular, and firm. They also used a litter box to haul her off the trail.
“I didn’t see much, but hearing what they were doing they reassured me,” she said. “They would take turns going front to back and stopping when going through technical corners.”
Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, rescues for outdoor enthusiasts have increased as more people have discovered a new love for the outdoors. With the increase in demand, some states have decided to start charging recreationists for what it costs for rescues lasting an hour or sometimes several days.
Boulder County officials said they did not plan to make any changes to his free rescues. Instead, the sheriff’s office has staggered employee schedules to reduce overtime, while other organizations hope to maintain their volunteer base in order to continue providing the same services.
From 2019 to 2020, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office recorded a 29% increase in calls for the rescue of lost or injured recreationists, as well as a handful of calls for hazardous materials. In 2019, the county received 198 rescue calls. The following year there were 256 calls.
To help reduce overtime caused by the peak in rescues, the sheriff’s office has changed her work schedule, said Kelly Lucy, supervisor of the emergency services unit at the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office.
Instead of working Monday through Friday, employees in the emergency services unit now work Tuesday through Saturday and Sunday through Thursday, Lucy said.
Lucy said the county has several expense accounts for the emergency services unit, which are made up of property taxes and other funds that the Boulder County Board of Commissioners allocate to the department.
One of his accounts contains $ 26,000, which is his 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 many ways to support rescue, but not all is spent,” said Lucy. “I think we spend maybe an average of $ 15,000 (per 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 given to us to help fund these agencies,” said Lucy.
Lucy said who responds to a rescue depends on the situation. If there is a call for a medical emergency, the first priority is to call an ambulance, as well as 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 necessary, but if the sheriff’s office finds that an abundance of resources is not needed, some agencies are cleared before arriving.
Whether or not a department responds, they all get credit.
“These are the agencies that support the relief during our calls,” he said. “In some of the calls, everyone answers and other calls may be canceled. All agencies have been set up to carry out a rescue.
When Dillion needed help after spraining her ankle in October, she called for her first and hopefully last rescue, she said.
Luckily, the friend she had run with knew how rescues worked and informed Dillion that it would cost nothing. Unlike other states that have started charging recreationalists for their take off from the trail, Boulder County has no plans to implement a fee.
“There’s a philosophy that when you charge someone up, they’ll be slower to call you,” said Ranger Rick Hatfield, of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks. “(The rescue) could get more complex because it took them so long 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, unlike other cities that have just seen the peak, Hatfield said.
“I think other places are jostling each other more than we are locally,” he said. “We haven’t really seen that kind of COVID impact here. “
Rocky Mountain Rescue Group is made up of approximately 70 volunteers, who also have full-time jobs, but have decided to devote 10, 15 or more hours a week helping others.
“(The new volunteers) have to spend several weekends in a row training on the bases,” he said.
Drew Hildner, a spokesperson for the group, told delegates from the sheriff’s office which groups were responding to a rescue. When Rocky Mountain Rescue Group members are called, volunteers who have already registered for certain days or times will be the ones called to leave.
The most common call for help is an injury. This response typically requires around 15 people, Hildner said.
In recent years, it has become common for two or three rescues – each with 15 people responding – to occur at the same time.
“We have generally broken records on the number of missions and also the number of days with four or more missions,” he said. “This trend accelerated last year.”
As interest in recreation has grown, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group sometimes struggles to recruit enough members to meet this demand.
“At this time of year we have to pull our teeth out to get people out,” Hildner said. “We have to start shaking the tree and calling around.”
Before the pandemic, group volunteers would meet after rescues for drinks or dinner. Now, due to COVID-19 restrictions or fear of spreading the virus, these hangouts don’t happen as frequently, Hildner said.
“We lost a few members and others mentioned that they lost interest in the rescue because it lost the tight-knit aspect of the rescue,” he said. “Sometimes it can be psychologically helpful for us to be able to spend time together.”
Most of the job can be carrying a very heavy rescue device for a very long time, Hildner said. But the motivation to keep going comes from the reward of helping others.
“The person (who does that) is ready to do a little sexy stuff and is ready to work as a team,” he said. “(These are) people who are motivated by helping others. “