Athletics & Recreation / Magazine Feature / People

DU’s Off-Road Club turns routine recreation in to real-life rescue

“It’s a Jeep thing,” quips University of Denver junior Peter Belsky. “(Helping people) is just something you do.”

When the Dec. 28 blizzard hit Colorado, the Denver Office of Emergency Management called on Belsky to take his specially equipped Jeep Sahara out into the storm and drive a family-crisis worker to his job.

The snow came on the heels of the Dec. 18 storm that had tied up the city; the worker was stuck. Without Belsky, who volunteers for the Four-Wheel Emergency Assistance Team, a police officer or firefighter would have to be dispatched.

Belsky’s 4.0 liter, all-wheel drive Jeep TJ was equipped with chains, shovels, flairs, 14 lights, emergency gear and a powerful winch — everything he’d need in the event of trouble.

This time there was none. Just the snow and a follow-up call for Belsky to pick up another worker the same night and take him to his job at a care facility for disabled children. No problem there either. About 6 inches of snow was on the highway with more on the way, but for the president of DU’s Off-Road Club, both missions were trips on easy street.

“It was a lot of fun,” said the 21-year-old hotel, restaurant and tourism major. 

Usually, the 70 or so students and alumni who comprise the Off-Road Club are out enjoying themselves — stepping their off-road vehicles gently over boulders; splashing through streams; negotiating steep, hairpin switchbacks on rutted, rough-hewn backcountry trails.

But not always. A club outing in late August 2006 turned into a rescue that was too much to handle for both the Eagle County ambulance and Vail Mountain Rescue Group.

The Aug. 27 rescue started as just another jaunt over McCallister Gulch Loop, a rutted forest road accessible by Ptarmagain Pass near Vail. Four Jeeps were in Belsky’s convoy when they reached a steep spur at about 10,000 feet that leads to the peak of Resolution Mountain. 

It was there that the DU group encountered a group of rescuers scrambling to reach an injured ATV rider. The man had been driving across a rut in the road when his four-wheel vehicle flipped back onto him and his passenger.

“He was able to throw his girlfriend off, but his arm got trapped underneath it and his head got whacked,” Belsky recalled. “They weren’t wearing helmets.”

Others in their party called Vail rescuers, who had to leave their ambulance below and scurry to the injury location by ATV or on foot, Belsky said.

“We were facing an extrication that would have taken hours,” wrote Lauren Egan, an Eagle County EMT, in a letter of commendation to the DU group in September. It was late in the day, raining and “the temperature had significantly dropped.”

Bob Armour of the Vail Mountain Rescue Group, who later thanked the Off-Road Club in a letter, said the plan was to strap the victim to a wheeled litter and walk him down the mountain.

“It would have been essentially rappelling,” Belsky says. “Some points are steep enough where you can’t see the road immediately in front of you over the hood.”

The victim, a Colorado State Patrol trooper, was found to be injured worse than expected. 

“Their assistance may have saved his arm as the break was found to be dangerously close to a vital nerve,” wrote Major Kris Meredith, communications director for the Colorado Department of Public Safety. 

Rescuers put the victim in the front seat of Belsky’s Jeep and hopped in the rear. A paramedic held an IV bag and an EMT steadied the victim’s head as they drove.

“The patient was in pain and we needed to limit movement as much as possible,” Egan wrote. “Peter (Belsky) drove us down the steep, rutted, potholed dirt road with precision and grace.”

It was slow, wet and slippery.

“I put it in the lowest gear,” Belsky says. “Some of the other rescuers were hiking down faster than I was driving.” After about 40 minutes, they reached the ambulance.

Belsky and his group collected themselves and finished their outing. The rescue had taken about two hours.

Belsky is philosophical about the rescue.

“It really reinforces that stuff happens,” says Belsky, whose parents Al and Tory Belsky met on a blind date while attending DU in the early 1970s. They own the New York Deli News restaurant and are not off-roaders.

“It’s really cool to be able to help people,” Belsky says. “I figure if I help people, maybe someday somebody will help me.”

For information about the DU Off-Road Club, see the student organizations Web site or e-mail

This article originally appeared in The Source, March 2007.

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