For decades, hundreds of students at Western State Colorado University have harnessed their love of the outdoors and channeled it into a lifesaving pursuit.
The idea of forming a search and rescue team began in 1973, when a group of Western students banded together to search for and rescue a missing physics professor. The passion displayed by this initial group of students developed into the Western Mountain Rescue Team (WMRT).
Today, WMRT remains the only Mountain Rescue Association (MRA)-certified collegiate team in the country. The team consists primarily of students, but also of several alumni and even non-alumni community members, who train and work year-round to help in wilderness rescue emergencies in and around the Gunnison Valley and Crested Butte backcountry.
Wilderness rescue is serious business; many of the missions the team is called out on are life or death situations. Since the team is primarily composed of young adults, skeptics have raised concern over the group’s lack of experience.
Mission coordinator and alumnus Cody Roberts has no trouble refuting the critics.
"We train to such a high standard," Roberts said.
They practice different rescue techniques and scenarios every weekday and are on call 24-7. Rescue missions range in seriousness, with the most technical ones requiring care for patients while being roped off on large cliffs in the dark.
"We like to prove ourselves by examples, by the rescues we are able to pull off," added Roberts.
While all search and rescue teams train hard and are capable of executing physically demanding missions, the WMRT finds their physical abilities to be a distinct advantage.
“We can carry the heaviest things up the tallest things,” said mission coordinator, Amy Allbritton, a 2016 Western graduate.
Part of the high standard the team holds for themselves is maintaining accreditation by the MRA. Every five years, the entire team goes through extensive testing to make sure they are fully dialed and up-to-date with protocol for any situation.
New members of the team must also go through more than a year of comprehensive training on all aspects of search and rescue to reach more advanced leadership positions. From there, they must accumulate hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of field experience and pass a series of tests to advance their rank. Throughout this process, members gain much more than valuable outdoor skills.
“I joined WMRT because I was looking to be a part of something bigger than myself … to be a part of something that would push my comfort zones and teach me new things about myself, my leadership styles and my team building styles,” said sophomore Lindsay Jenson.
As the sole non-alumnus community-member on the team, Erik Neimeyer is particularly aware of the youthfulness and ability of the up-and-coming members.
“The rewarding part is seeing an 18-year-old come onto the team with basically no knowledge or skills in search and rescue and after two years, developing into a person I trust my life with on a mission. It’s a remarkable transformation that consistently amazes me,” he said.
When practice gets mundane and dozens of hours are put into training missions, the WMRT stays motivated for those sacred moments, when they can help someone in dire straits, in a situation where they were convinced their life would be over.
For those who have spent thousands of hours volunteering with WMRT, their accumulated experiences provide an unparalleled foundation for self-confidence in other endeavors.
“In the end, this is the ultimate leadership development program,” said Allbritton.
Story by Peter Noon
Photos provided by Amy Allbritton, WMRT.