Over the past four decades, David Swersky and Rick Deane have, on countless occasions, abruptly dashed from their families’ dinner tables, gotten up in the middle of the night or taken off time from their day jobs to help people in need.
They weren’t looking for recognition as volunteers with Mountain Rescue Aspen but they will get their due Saturday. They will be inducted into the Aspen Hall of Fame along with Peter and Barbara Guy and Sue Smedstad in the Class of 2020.
To say Deane and Swersky, both 75, are humble would be an understatement.
“It caught me very much by surprise,” Swersky said this week of his nomination to the hall. “I’ve always thought I had been under the radar.”
He said he isn’t being falsely modest when saying the induction is a great and unexpected honor.
Deane is regarded as the “quiet cowboy” even among the people he is most comfortable with, so getting inducted at a ceremony that will be attended by hundreds of people has left him “terrified,” he acknowledged.
“It’s a huge, huge honor,” he said.
Deane has volunteered with Mountain Rescue Aspen formally since 1978, but his family served as the de facto first line of help for decades before that because of the location of their T-Lazy-7 Ranch. His parents bought the property 5 miles up Maroon Creek Road in 1938 and soon started operating a guest ranch. Prior to cellphones and sophisticated methods of communication, whenever someone got in trouble climbing the Maroon Bells or hiking the backcountry, reporting parties would stop at the ranch to seek help. The Deanes would crank up the phone tree, calling folks such as Fred Braun, Jack de Pagter and Ralph Melville, who would launch rescue or body retrieval operations.
Rick’s father, Had Deane, often would provide horses and pack animals to haul in the supplies and equipment the rescue parties required. Rescues in those days, prior to helicopter use, were often two- or three-day ordeals. Rick recalled helping with preparations when he was just a kid.
In a video recorded for the induction, he said logistics turned into his forte.
“Mainly my expertise was transportation,” Deane said. “Between snowmobiles, motorcycles, horses, the fixed-wing airplane, whatever it took to get the team there transportation-wise, get their gear there, find somebody, get there quick and then help get people out.”
Deane’s familiarity with the valleys, woods, nooks and crannies of what is now the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness also provided an invaluable service for Mountain Rescue. He has roamed the backcountry for 65 years.
Deane told The Aspen Times in an interview Thursday he would lead horses hauling ranch guests and pack trains with supplies to permanent camps in places such as Snowmass, Willow and Copper Lakes when he was as young as 10. His job was to get people situated for weekslong stays and he would resupply them.
Since he had so much time in the saddle and on foot in the backcountry, Deane had the ability as a member of MRA to take limited information about locations and make educated guesses about where people ran into trouble. But his colleagues on Mountain Rescue and members of the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office have credited Deane with a sixth sense that goes beyond familiarity of terrain. They have said over the years that he often intuitively knows how to proceed with an operation even when a rescue occurs in terrain he isn’t familiar with.
Deane said he hasn’t discussed it much, but he learned a lot from participating in a workshop at Tom Brown Jr.’s Tracker School. Brown is a renowned tracker of people and animals as well as a wilderness survival expert. Deane said Brown’s workshop teaches, among other things, how to survive in any type of wilderness when getting dropped off without even a shirt on your back. Brown also teaches expanding and interpreting a person’s vision.
Deane believes Brown’s instruction enhanced the skills he has used at MRA and in his business. He has reached national recognition for his efforts with MRA. In 1990, he was given the Valor Award by the National Association for Search and Rescue.
Swersky’s path to MRA was significantly different from Deane’s backcountry upbringing. After getting his degree in biology from Lehigh University and a degree in dental medicine from the University of Pennsylvania, Swersky served in the U.S. Navy aboard the USS Enterprise. His duties required training in mass casualty care and triage.
Swersky was released from service earlier than he anticipated and decided to visit a friend in Aspen for one winter of skiing in 1970. It was the old familiar story, he said. He was hooked on Aspen’s small-town charm that first winter. He became a volunteer science teacher at the Aspen Community School and got involved in numerous volunteer efforts. He served on a transportation committee that helped create what is now the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and taught a class as a silversmith at Colorado Mountain College. Instructors didn’t get paid at that time but they were able to enroll in other CMC courses. He took a winter mountaineering class led by Richard Arnold, a key figure in MRA at the time, and was encouraged by Arnold to join Mountain Rescue in 1980.
“What inspired me to (volunteer in various organizations)? I wish I had a good answer to that. It was just something that I wanted to do,” Swersky said. “For me, volunteering for anything, I feel like I got more than I gave.”
After volunteering and ski bumming for three years, he opened his dental practice in Aspen in 1973.
“I used to say I retired first and worked later,” he quipped.
Swersky and Deane identified the late Greg Mace as an influential figure in their work with MRA. Mace, director and president of MRA, organized many of the rescue operations before his death in a climbing accident in 1986. Before he died, Mace started training other leaders, such as Deane and Swersky. Sharing leadership skills benefited the organization after Mace’s untimely death.
“Pretty much I learned all my mountaineering skills from being on Mountain Rescue,” Swersky said. His accomplishments include helping found and instructing at MRA’s annual Avalanche Workshop, entering its 35th year.
Deane and Swersky continue to volunteer at MRA, though they have reduced their time in the field. They were essential figures who bridged the generations between early rescue leaders and the current generation. The younger volunteers have phenomenal skills, dedication and determination, Swersky said.
It is a safe bet that’s what old-timers in Mountain Rescue said about Deane and Swersky when they joined the organization 40-plus years ago.