Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Certified Life Savers: Western State Mountain Rescue

Matt Willis pointed to the massive scar on his head as the reason he is involved with the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team (MRT).

Willis, a 10-year veteran of MRT, was once a victim himself, the result of a nasty rock climbing accident near Washington, D.C. He said he is simply returning a favor by making his time available for those who may need help in the outdoors.

He is one of 20-plus volunteers who make up the local team, which was recertified by the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) earlier this month. The certification lasts for five years.

Western remains the only college-based MRA certified team in the country, though community members play an important role. Ron Edwards, a Western graduate, is one of those key players. “You get as much of out this experience as you want to put in it,” he reflected.

Edwards attends weekly meetings and trainings, though as the team prepared for the rigors of recertification they stepped it up with additional training sessions starting last fall.

The areas in which the team was tested reflect the dramatic surroundings of the Gunnison Valley. In two days they were challenged in a series of mock scenarios, including searching for a lost hiker (and evacuating that individual off of a scree field), rescuing two climbers stuck on a sheer wall in the Black Canyon and performing an avalanche rescue on Monarch Pass.

“It was a great feeling of accomplishment for us to get this done,” Willis said. “There is a lot of stress involved in the recertification process, emotionally, mentally and physically.”

Adding to that stress were more than 30 evaluators analyzing Western team members’ every move. The evaluators represented rescue teams from throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

Willis noted that the normal rescue situation — whether it is a search for a lost hunter in freezing winter conditions or dangling off of a rock cliff — is something that the team deals with in their usual operations. Once they got used to people looking over their shoulder during the testing, the team performed well, he said.

Sara Lamar, another Western graduate, has been involved with the team for more than four years. She described the team as being like a family. “We all get along great and work extremely well with each other,” she said.

Bethany Marvin, the team’s president and senior at Western, echoed that sentiment. “This is an amazing group of selfless people,” she said.

Edwards noted that he is especially impressed with some of the younger members of the rescue team, which operates directly under the auspices of the Gunnison County Sheriff’s Office. “It’s really wild that 19- and 20-year-olds are involved in this, in college and with the level of seriousness,” he said.

The certification will last through 2014, and the team is proud that they are offering a service that is so valuable to outdoor enthusiasts.

“We put in a lot of hard work and it paid off,” Marvin said. “We also could not have done this without our newer members.”

“Never before have I trusted a group of people so completely,” Lamar added. “I know that we are a top-of-the-line rescue team.”

To learn more about the Western State College Mountain Rescue Team, visit their Wiki page at



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