Updated: March 18, 2014 at 7:19 pm
During the past 40 years, Istvan "Skee " Hipszky, has saved dozens, if not hundreds, of lives as an El Paso County Search and Rescue volunteer, but he doesn't keep count.
The Colorado Springs native who joined the search and rescue team when he was 18 is the longest serving member of the roughly 70-person crew. From cardiac arrests, to broken legs, altitude sickness, twisted ankles, avalanches and falls, Hipszky, who averages about a 100 missions a year, has seen a lot of things go wrong on top of a mountain or trail.
"It's just the nature of the beast. There's lots of folks enjoying things, and unfortunately, they have bad days sometimes," he said. "People get lost ... take a wrong turn. Weather goes bad. It's not always a rescue, a lot of times it's a search. Sometime searches turn into rescues," Hipszky said.
He's responded to off-road traffic accidents, including cars that have driven off the side of Pikes Peak in suicide attempts. He's also worked with Colorado Springs police in search efforts for missing people with special needs or Alzheimer's.
He made his first mountain rescue when he was about 16, on a hiking trip to the Sunlight, Windom and Eolus mountains in the Four Corners area.
A fellow climber fell 200 feet from Windom, sustaining serious head injuries, Hipszky said. He and the other climbers brought him down into a meadow, and called a helicopter to fly him out.
Since then, Hipszky has devoted countless hours to saving lives, at times even risking his own.
He recalls the time a blizzard stranded him on Pikes Peak during an avalanche rescue in April of 1995. Four backcountry skiers had triggered the snow slide on the eastern face of Pikes Peak. One of the skiers made his way down Barr Trail to call for help, two were seriously injured, and one died, Hipszky recalled.
Hipszky, was the first one on scene, and was flown up to the summit by a Flight for Life helicopter to rescue the two survivors.
But then a blizzard moved in, and the helicopter had to leave without Hipszky, two other rescuers and the patients, he said.
"We were abandoned," he said. "You know, you're out there, you've just got your survival gear, you've got critically injured patients, you're dealing with cold, hypothermia, as well as their injuries, and a blizzard," he said.
Hipszky said the rescue team dug trenches in the snow to survive 70-mph plus winds and a windchill of 50 below zero. The white out conditions and heavy snow prevented air and ground crews from getting to them the next day, he said.
That year, the Associated Press reported that snow plow operators worked through the night to clear Pikes Peak Highway, the only route leading to the avalanche.
"The avalanche hazard was extreme. If anybody else would have walked out on that snow, they could've potentially triggered another avalanche on top of us," Hipszky said.
It was only in his last 30 minutes of flight time, that a Fort Carson helicopter pilot was able to swoop down after the clouds moved out to airlift the group from the mountain, Hipszky said.
Rescue crews usually have to find their own way out of any canyons or mountains they traipse into during rescue efforts, he said, something that requires a special survival skill set that encompasses more than just life-saving medical knowledge.
"There's a risk anytime you go out there. We train very hard on the team to minimize that risk," Hipszky said. He's been on the team for four decades, but still goes through more than 100 hours of training each year.
His full-time time job is training others, though.
He's a life support instructor for Memorial Hospital, where he teaches CPR classes and advanced cardiac and pediatric life support. He also runs mock emergency programs in hospitals to test readiness of nursing staff.
"One of the things we do in search and rescue, besides the rescue part, is outdoor education ... trying to prevent people from getting lost or getting hurt. And sometimes I think we do too good of a job, because there's an appalling lack of carelessness in the county at times," Hipszky joked.
He also participates in local Hug-A-Tree presentations, which teach kids what to do if they get lost.
For his commitment to saving lives in the community, Hipszky will be honored with the Pikes Peak Red Cross's Hometown Hero's first responder individual award, which will be presented to him at the Antler's Hilton hotel on April 1.
The person that nominated Hipszky for the reward asked to remain anonymous, but said Hipszky deserved the honor because of his long term dedication to helping others.
"I can't think of any year where Skee hasn't been directly responsible for saving someone's life," she said.
Hipszky says his job as a volunteer is a perfect combination of "doing what you like doing and being able to help people at the same time."