Center Park Excessive College’s Junior Search and Rescue Membership prepares a brand new era for the outside

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In 2021, Middle Park High School teacher CarrieAnn Mathis started a course designed to give kids the skills to save their own lives.

Called Outdoor Survival Skills, it met once a week and included members of the Grand County community as guest speakers. From Mathis’ point of view, Grand County is full of people who are deeply involved with the outdoors, but there haven’t been many opportunities for youngsters to train for their own adventures. Mathis teaches students in all grades of high school, and most of her grades are in the careers and technical education area. She also has experience in the US Army that qualified her for a CTE Outdoor Recreation Leadership Instructor License in the State of Colorado, under which she began her survival courses.

Outdoor Survival Skills is taught in the fourth quarter, which begins after Spring Break. Mathis chose the end of the school year because the weather is nicer and the gear needed for outdoor survival is cheaper than in winter. At the high school, she and others are currently working to develop a leadership path for outdoor vocational and technical education in conjunction with the school’s current adventure education program. Courses for this trail would potentially include a leadership course, wilderness survival course, bike technique course and whitewater rafting training.

Mathis knows that outdoor adventures of any kind come with risks that can have serious consequences. It was not until early December that a hiker triggered an avalanche on the Berthoud Pass. No one was hurt, but under different circumstances someone could have been hurt. She sees proper outdoor exercise as potentially life-saving in Grand County.

“We can live in an extreme environment with people who are out there, both local and non-local,” Mathis said. “There may come a point when these students are in a high-risk area and may need to save their friends or themselves. Proper training can prevent accidents and prepare students to have the right equipment and get out of a situation alive.”

bring in experts

Mathis knew that Grand County had another incredible resource for outdoor skills training right behind the school’s doors – the all-volunteer Grand County Search and Rescue Team. She approached them in hopes that they would add value to their survival students. The team began going to school and tutoring their students shortly after beginning survival training classes.

Classes began with an introduction to sap carrying – carrying an injured patient down from the mountains in a basically horizontal cage with wheels. From there they learned how to use an avalanche beacon to find people buried in snow and how to tie and use knots and rope on backcountry adventures. This year there was a call for a search and rescue club at Middle Park High School: the Junior Search and Rescue Team.

“The club starts in the fall and we meet every first Wednesday of the month after school. Teachers, staff and some middle school students even come to participate,” Mathis said.

Grand County Search and Rescue doesn’t have a youth program, so she said starting a high school search and rescue club allows students to develop lifesaving skills and provides an entry point for those with less outdoor experience.

“There are junior ski patrols in the valley, but unless the students are expert skiers, they can’t participate in these programs. Junior SAR is open to students of all abilities and skills. It’s an inclusive program where (Grand County Search and Rescue) makes sure the students are engaged and feel included,” Mathis said.

happy to give

Mike Blevins has been a member of Grand County Search and Rescue for seven years and currently serves as the supporting members’ representative on the organization’s Board of Directors. He said the organization’s role in Mathis’ class was supplementary, sort of a precursor to its own search and rescue academy. Grand County Search and Rescue offers these in-depth academies twice a year, and there’s a waiting list for the next one. Blevins said the children who took Mathis’ classes and attended Grand County Search and Rescue’s training “would have an advantage.”

The four-hour training sessions they completed with search and rescue services included advanced knot and rope systems, backcountry medical exams, avalanche transceiver training, and a session in which members learned everything from a Grand County Search and Rescue ambulance and backpack emptied to show the children the different tools they use in search and rescue operations, which in turn helped them understand what search and rescue teams do.

Blevins said the Grand County Search and Rescue meetings are held after school and that between eight and 12 children attended. The trainings benefit the children, but they also benefit local search and rescue members.

“It’s convenient for us because the (club training sessions) preceded our normal weekly training sessions,” Blevins said. Grand County Search and Rescue members train once a weekend every six weeks. It has around 60 members, half of whom are men and half women. They have held two academies in the last seven years, and each welcomed several new members.

“But life in Grand County is a transient population, so we’re losing quite a few who just can’t afford to live up here or the job situation changes,” Blevins said. “So we’re constantly recruiting and training and preparing for another academy soon.”

According to Blevins, the children in Mathi’s class have benefited twofold from working with search and rescue.

“One was to give us that potential entry level (search and rescue member in the future), but second, the skills that they learn up here are life-saving skills that they can put in their pocket,” he said. “They know how not to go into the hinterland without a beacon, shovel and probe. They know they need to keep the 10 essentials in their backpacks and they acquire knowledge not only for themselves but also for the benefit of their friends.”

Creating the next generation of search and rescue members in Grand County

This winter, Blevins and his team are teaching Mathis’ students avalanche basics, winter survival and “pack contents”.

None of the students have gone on a rescue mission yet, “and they probably won’t until they have more training,” he said. “The minimum age for a (search and rescue) member is 18 years. So if they continue, some of the kids in Mathi’s classes could have years of entry-level experience before they join.”

The number of new hires could be significant.

Mathis said she runs an average of two outdoor survival courses a year, with 22 students in each course, and that there’s always a waiting list.

“The moment the schedule changes and one student leaves, another immediately takes their place,” she added.