Author Hal Clifford, on why this story needed to be told

May 5, 2004
Outside Magazine
Mountain rescue: life and death on a rescue team

Author Hal Clifford, on why this story needed to be told

"The summer of 1995 will be remembered as one of the most gruesome and difficult seasons in the group's 30 years. Mountain Rescue-Aspen members handled five body recoveries: two climbers who fell from a 14,014-foot North Maroon Peak; a woman who drowned crossing a creek; and a climber who fell from 12,953-foot Mount Sopris. The most frustrating event was a massive, six-week search for a doctor who simply disappeared. His body was ultimately found in the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.

"I discovered the Sopris victim and was the first to reach both her and one of the Maroon Peak climbers. After a summer like that, it's fair to say everyone here is looking forward to a quiet winter--if we can get it.

"My motivation for writing this book was to get under the skins of the people who do this extraordinary work. I wanted to understand what makes this group a team. What I've tried to do in The Falling Season is get beyond the 'Rescue 9-1-1' elements of rescue work--although there's plenty of that in here--and into the rescuers' heads. Rescue work is very stressful; it's a place where all pretense is stripped away, and you get very, very raw human interaction. What few people realize is these aren't a bunch of hardbody Lone Rangers; these are ordinary people struggling with egos and feelings, fighting for respect and autonomy, wickedly critical of each other--yet willing to put their life on the line for a fellow team member.

"Mountain Rescue-Aspen has two primary missions:
backcountry search and rescue, and mountain-safety education. The Aspen team is composed of 45 volunteers who carry pagers 24 hours a day and respond to 40-60 calls annually. Drowned kayakers, lost children, climbing accidents and plane wrecks--all merit a call to the Mountain Rescue volunteers. Requirements for membership are pretty lenient: minimum first aid training, backcountry competency, the ability to drop everything at a page, and willingness to spend a lot of time and money doing something for which you will receive no personal thanks (but we do drink a lot of beer after missions!).

"The most unexpected element of writing this book--a process that took three years--was finding myself in the position of writing critical things about my friends. As a reporter, I've always tried to operate at arm's-length from my subject. In this project, I had moments where it was very difficult to write the truth as I saw it. To the team's great credit, they let me write this book knowing they wouldn't read--or get to comment on--a word of it until it was published. Their reactions have been interesting. What remains to be seen is who is still my friend--and who isn't."

Hal Clifford writes regularly for Outside, Newsweek, Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. The former executive editor of the Aspen Daily News, he has lived in Aspen, Colorado for 12 years.

The Falling Season: Inside The Life And Death Drama of Aspen's Mountain Rescue Team, is available at bookstores nationwide. (HarperCollins West, 1995. Hardcover, 265 pages. $20 ($28 Canadian). ISBN No. 0-06-258565-7)

To purchase this book online, place your order at the HarperCollins Publisher Express Order site on the Web.

©2000, Mariah Media Inc.

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