Middle Park High School’s Junior Search and Rescue Club prepares a new generation for the outdoors | SkyHiNews.com

Middle Park High School’s Junior Search and Rescue Club prepares a new generation for the outdoors

Tracy Ross
For the Sky-Hi News

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct frequency of the Outdoor Survival Skills class.

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

Called Outdoor Survival Skills, the class met every day during the school week and included Grand County community members as guest speakers. As Mathis saw it, Grand County is full of people who are highly involved in the outdoors, yet there weren’t a lot of opportunities for youth to train for their own adventures. Mathis teaches students in all grades of high school, and most of her classes fall under the career and technical education business track. She also has experience in the U.S. Army, which qualified her for a CTE Outdoor Recreation Leadership teaching license in the state of Colorado, under which she started her survival classes.

Outdoor Survival Skills is taught during the fourth quarter, which starts after spring break. Mathis picked the end of the school year because the weather is nicer and the equipment needed to survive outdoors is cheaper than what’s required in winter. At the high school, she and others are currently working on developing a career and technical education outdoor recreation leadership pathway in conjunction with the school’s current adventure education program. Classes for this pathway would potentially include a leadership course, wilderness survival course, bike tech class and whitewater rafting training.

Mathis knows that with outdoor adventuring of any kind comes risks that can have serious consequences. Just at the beginning of December, a hiker triggered an avalanche on Berthoud Pass. No one was hurt, but given a different set of circumstances someone could have been. She sees adequate outdoor training as potentially life saving in Grand County.

“We can live in an extreme environment with individuals who are in the outdoors both locals and those not from the area,” said Mathis. “There may be a point that these students are in a high-risk area and may need to rescue their friends or themselves. Having proper training can prevent accidents and prepare students to have the proper gear and get out of a situation alive.”

Calling in the experts

Mathis knew Grand County has another incredible resource in outdoor skills education just beyond the school’s doors — the all-volunteer Grand County Search and Rescue team. She reached out to them, hoping they’d give her survival skills students some added value. The team started going to the school and teaching her students shortly after survival skills class started.

The classes began with an introduction into litter carrying — hauling an injured patient out of the mountains in, essentially, a horizontal wheeled cage. From there they learned about find people buried in snow with an avalanche beacon and how to tie and use knots and ropes in backcountry adventures. This year the call was made to make search and rescue a club at Middle Park High School: the Junior Search and Rescue team.

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

Grand County Search and Rescue doesn’t have a youth program, so she said forming a high school search and rescue club allows the students to develop life saving skills, as well as providing an entry point for those with less outdoor experience.

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

Happy to give

Mike Blevins has been a Grand County Search and Rescue member for seven years and currently serves as the support member representative on the organization’s board of directors. He said the organization’s role in Mathis’ class is supplementary, a sort of 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 kids who’ve participated in Mathis’ classes and taken part in Grand County Search and Rescue’s trainings “would come in with an advantage.”

The four hours of trainings they’ve had with search and rescue have covered advanced knots and ropes systems, medical assessment in the backcountry, avalanche transceiver training and a session in which members emptied everything out of a Grand County Search and Rescue rescue truck and pack to show the kids the various tools they use during searches and rescues, which in turn helped them understand what search and rescue teams do.

Blevins said the Grand County Search and Rescue meetings happen after school and that anywhere from eight to 12 kids have attended. The trainings benefit the kids, but they also benefit local search and rescue members.

“It’s convenient for us, because the (club trainings) have preceded our normal weekly trainings,” said Blevins. Grand County Search and Rescue members train once a weekend every six weeks. It has roughly 60 members, divided roughly in half by men and women. They’ve held two academies in the last seven years and have added several new members in each one.

“But living in Grand County is a transient population, so we lose a fair number that just can’t afford to live up here or job situation changes,” said Blevins. “So we’re constantly recruiting and training and we’re getting ready for another academy soon.”

According to Blevins, the kids in Mathis’ class have benefited two-fold from working with search and rescue.

“One was to give us that potential entry-level (search and rescue member in the future), but secondly, the skills they’re learning up here are lifesaving skills they can put in their pocket,” he said. “They know how to not go in backcountry without a beacon, shovel and probe. They know to keep the 10 essentials in their backpacks, and they’re gaining knowledge not only for themselves but for the benefit of their friends.”

Creating Grand County’s next generation of search and rescue members

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

None of the students have gone on a rescue yet, “and they likely will not until they have more training,” he said. “The minimum age of a (search and rescue) member is 18. Which means if they continue, some of the kids in Mathis’ classes could have years of entry-level experience before they join.”

The number of new recruits could be substantial.

Mathis said she averages two outdoor survival classes a year with 22 students in each class and that there’s always a waitlist.

“The minute there is a schedule change and a student leaves, another ones takes their place immediately,” she added.

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