At a moment's notice

Search and Rescue members quick to help in crises

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The first thing you learn when you join the Routt County Search and Rescue team is how to pack.

As you hike along a drainage on your first late-night search for a lost hunter, you make a note to yourself to throw an extra fleece into your pack for next time. When the search stretches into the early-morning hours, you make a note to include extra food for those hunger pains.

The longer you volunteer for Search and Rescue, the better you get at balancing the amount of weight on your back with the needs that arise while in the backcountry.

"You end up having two of everything," Search and Rescue volunteer Christopher Mraz said. "I have my personal outdoor gear, and then I have the pack (for Search and Rescue missions) that I keep in my truck and never unpack."

Search and Rescue volunteers have to respond at a moment's notice, Mraz said. Ten minutes after a search page goes out, the trucks are loaded with people and equipment ready to respond. If you can't react in five minutes, you aren't going on a mission, he said.

All 50 members of Search and Rescue are volunteers, and this is no stuffing envelopes kind of volunteering.

Search and Rescue members routinely head deep into the backcountry, using snowmobiles, all-terrain vehicles or their feet to get them to the scene. They battle the same terrain and elements that disoriented or injured the person they are sent to rescue.

Since January, Routt County Search and Rescue has responded to 52 calls, 35 of them in Routt County.

Kristia Check-Hill moved to Steamboat 5 1/2 years ago and watched as her husband, a retired military man, became heavily involved in Search and Rescue. A year later, she joined and has become one of the team's most active members. Her employer, First Western Mortgage, allows her to respond to calls that come over her pager at any time of day.

The most dramatic moment of a search usually is the moment a lost person or group is found. Often, they've been lost in the woods for days, and their rescuers are heroes.

"I've had people hug me," Check-Hill said. "They're so relieved someone found them. Sometimes they'll well up. It's a really good feeling."

As a member of Search and Rescue, volunteers are required to respond to 25 percent of calls during a given year to remain an active member. It's the kind of organization that weeds out those who are not dedicated.

"This can be a big time commitment if you want it to be," Mraz said.

Many members, such as Mraz and Check-Hill, moved to the area in the past five years, and Search and Rescue gave them a chance to get involved in the community, save lives and gain valuable mountaineering experience.

Each bimonthly meeting includes a training component.

Since joining the organization in 2002, Jo Richards has trained in navigation, vehicle and snowmobile operation, ropes and backcountry survival.

"The trainings are practical, but they're also based around having fun," Richards said.

Routt County Search and Rescue takes applications for new volunteers in September, about the time of its annual fundraiser.

The fundraiser is a chance for the community to meet and thank Search and Rescue members for their efforts and for the organization to collect money for equipment repair and purchase. Search and Rescue has six snowmobiles, eight ATVS, a Snowcat and a rescue truck.

"The equipment takes a beating, because we are going farther into the backcountry because people are going farther," Mraz said.

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