By Kira Córdova

Every year, to celebrate homecoming, the Mountain Rescue team lights the outline of Western’s characteristic mountain monogram on fire, a display visible from anywhere in town. But how does it work? Kira Córdova, a member of Western’s Mountain Rescue Team, walks you through it.

The iconic Western W

It starts with diesel… a lot of it. 

Those who’ve seen the lighting of the W from town might have noticed two things: the flaming outline of the W is actually made up of many smaller fires, and it takes quite a long time to light. Those things are related. 

The process starts with prep. Members of Western’s Mountain Rescue Team (WMRT), the only Mountain Rescue Association accredited collegiate search and rescue team in the nation, start by filling barrels full of diesel and cotton thread and letting the mixture marinade. 

WMRT members divide into teams to cover each leg of the W and use handmade torches, being prepped here, to light each individual pile of cotton, relying on radios to stay in sync

Once the cotton is soaked, they haul buckets of the diesel-soaked cotton from the road at the top of the W to the mountain monogram and leave a basketball-sized splat every few yards on both sides of the giant letter. 

Then, they wait for the sun to set. In the meantime, tradition dictates that all the first-year members of the team race up the mountain from the bottom of the W to the road at the top. There’s also pizza and spectacular views of the sunset over Gunnison. 

Where’s Waldo? The piles of cotton are, ironically, much easier to see once the sun has set

Once it’s dark, the team subdivides into groups, each charged with lighting one side of a leg of the W. This year, each group consisted of 2-3 people. Each member wields a handmade torch topped with a hunk of diesel-soaked cotton and operates under the watch of a team leader with a lighter and a radio to keep the teams in sync as they work their way up the W, lighting each pile of cotton individually once the team gets the word to start from Gary Pierson, Western’s Dean of Students (and stoke), down on campus.

To avoid ruining their everyday clothes (the preparation process usually involves getting soaked in diesel), WMRT members wear costumes to light the W

It can be a long process. The size of the piles keeps the W burning long enough to make it worth it, though; with the fire under the watchful eye of the fire department, members of the rescue team can head back down into town and appreciate the site for themselves. 

The final product in fall 2021

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