AVSAR team: Always willing and able

ALAMOSA — The Alamosa Volunteer Search & Rescue (AVSAR) team is a dedicated group of local volunteers you hope you never have to meet — at least in an emergency.

Having responded to three calls already this year, the AVSAR team is always ready to assist in searching for those who get lost in mountainous terrain, which can be dangerous, fickle and unforgiving, even for seasoned hikers. The team also assists in the recovery of those whose lives the mountains have claimed.

“People are not charged,” said AVSAR team member Stephen Cline. “This is all done through state funds and our own time.”

Support comes from the Department of Local Affairs and the local community.

Cline said he wanted to join the S&R group before he even moved here because he wanted to give back to the outdoor community he enjoyed so much.

The benefits have sometimes come in unexpected ways, he added, like the gratitude from the family of a man who fell to his death on Mount Blanca and the team brought his body out so the family could bury him.

“That was pretty impactful for me,” he said.

“I did not know about S&R when I joined, but I was willing to learn,” said team member Julia Veseth. “I wanted to give back. I love being outside. I wanted to do something that was meaningful for me. I spend a lot of time in the outdoors. I want to be proactive, give back.”

Cline said the Alamosa S&R group’s main area of operation is around Mount Blanca and the Zapata Lake area. The group also provides mutual aid for the park service at the Great Sand Dunes National Park when needed, and the local S&R group and other S&R teams provide mutual aid for each other.

Colorado Search and Rescue Board also provides coordination, and AVSAR President Merida Zerbi serves on that board.

The local team wants to provide more education and awareness to prevent emergency situations in the mountains. However, if someone is stranded, lost or injured, the team is ready and able to respond to the call.

Those in distress can call 9-1-1, and dispatch will notify Zerbi who will call out her team.

People who are in distress in mountainous country need to realize help may not be immediate. Volunteers may have to hike in to get to them. Cline said if someone was stranded above Lake Como, for example, the quickest that search teams could get there would be 2.5-3 hours.

Sometimes Flight for Life provides assistance, “which is amazing,” Cline said. “They give their time, and that’s huge.”

S&R also has a modified 4x4 truck that can go up the Lake Como road, because even a regular Jeep cannot navigate that road. Even with that assistance, it takes time to get in.

“It’s pretty nasty terrain,” Cline said. “It’s important for people to know that.”

Cline and Veseth said theirs is a small team, and they always welcome more team members. The team members are all volunteers with other jobs. Cline said his boss was a police chief before, so he is very supportive if Cline needs to go help with a search. He is also fortunate that his girlfriend is on the team, so she understands what is required.

In addition to their voluntary time spent on searches, the team spends time at regular meetings and trainings. The group will participate in a three-day training later this summer on Mount Blanca, for example.

The Alamosa S&R group has about 22 active members but could use more.

Volunteers do not have to be part of the search team. “There’s a ton of different jobs,” Cline said. “We have people who will never go out into the mountains.”

He said there are tasks ranging from those on the active search to those serving at the incident command center or helping with the web site.

Cline said the team is diverse with a diverse skill set and includes a former Navy corpsman as well as others with medical skills.

“It’s an awesome opportunity,” Veseth said. “More people should do it.”

Although the volunteers donate their time, the costs of S&R efforts are not free, and fund-raisers are important to the group.

Fund-raisers help the group obtain top quality equipment and gear so they can assist people in the most efficient manner. They also help pay for trainings.

The AVSAR’s main fundraiser of the year is the “Suds for SAR” event at the SLV Brewing Company, which is hosting the event on August 18. There will be live music and brews.

“It’s a nice way to get the community together,” Veseth said.

This year the event will be expanded for family-friendly activities in the afternoon and an auction. Donations for the auction are always appreciated.

Also, a portion of the profits from this Friday’s Rails & Ales Blockparty at the San Luis Valley Brewing Company will be donated to AVSAR.

Cline said many local businesses have been very supportive of the team, such as Kristi Mountain Sports and Square Peg Brewerks.

“There’s so much community support. We are grateful,” Veseth said.

To volunteer or see how to help, contact AVSAR at [email protected]

In addition to assisting the public during emergencies, the AVSAR team is involved in public outreach and education.

The group plans to work with area teachers to promote “Hug a Tree,” encouraging children who might be lost to stop and “hug a tree” and wait for help.

“When you are lost and you keep moving, you make it harder for people to find you,” Cline said.

This advice is good for both children and adults, Veseth added.

In addition to education in the schools, the search and rescue organization is updating its web site to provide important information, such as basic rules about what to bring when going out in the mountains, even if it is for a day hike.

The mountains can be unpredictable and unforgiving for those who make an error in judgment, Cline said.

Veseth added, “Things can change really quickly.”

She said it is important to take a map, do research beforehand about the area you plan to hike in and know if it is something you are up to or not. That is especially true in the “fourteeners” in Colorado. She said in Colorado people want to get outside. They just need to be safe doing it.

Try not to go out alone, but whether alone or with someone, make sure someone who is not with you knows where you are going and when you should be home, so if you do not get back in time, someone will know to call for help to find you.

“Minimize the risks. That’s the bottom line,” Veseth said.

She and Cline encouraged anyone going into the mountains to be prepared for changes in the weather or emergencies.

Things to take with you when going out include the following:

1) Extra insulation, more than one layer, a jacket for example in case the weather changes

2) Something to start a fire with

3) Water

4) Food

5) Shelter, doesn’t have to be a tent but something that would provide shelter

6) Navigation device such as GPS, cell phone, compass, map, but do not count on cell service

7) Headlamp

8) Knife, not a hunting knife but a small pocket knife

9) First aid items

10) Sunscreen

11) Whistle

Captions: Alamosa Volunteer Search & Rescue team members participate in regular trainings, such as this rope training in 2017. The team will participate in a three-day training later this summer./Courtesy photos


Don Thompson, center, as treasurer for Alamosa Volunteer Search & Rescue (AVSAR) is shown receiving the title for a donated vehicle from Scott Anderson president, left, and vice-president Josh Schwenzfeier, right, of Chaffee County Search & Rescue. The vehicle will be used by AVSAR in meeting their obligation to Sheriff Robert Jackson primarily in the back country of Alamosa County. Like most volunteer organizations, AVSAR is always looking for new members.

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