Q&A with author Hal Clifford

Mountain rescue: life and death on a rescue team

Q&A with author Hal Clifford

Do young rescuers get too enthusastic?
Are team members all volunteers?
How can I get involved?
A team member responds to the book
Aspen's only one of many excellent rescue teams
I want to climb--where can I learn how?
What are the qualifications for volunteering on a rescue team?
Did I really say that?
Is this book just for mountain rescue volunteers?
How dangerous is rescue work? How did you get involved in it?
How can I get rescue training?
What about the fatal Mt. Rainier rescue this summer?
Should people pay for their own rescues?

How dangerous is rescue work? How did you get involved in it?
What do you consider to be your most daring rescue and what were the circumstances of that event? Do you often endanger your own life in your efforts to rescue someone else? How did you become involved with the mountain rescue team?
Mary Sloat
Seattle, WA

Hal responds: Mary, I got involved in Mountain Rescue-Aspen because I wanted to write a book about the team. When I approached them their collective response was, 'If you want to understand what we do, you have to do what we do.' As a result, I found myself in the position of being part of the story--not something most journalists seek out, but a situation that I believe enabled me to give a much more honest account of the team, its work, the personalities, and their tribulations. At times I had to suck my own emotions up, knowing I was writing hard things about people I had come to consider my friends. But if I was going to sugarcoat it, what was the point of the book?

My most dangerous rescue? Hmmmm. . . Rescue work is this marvelous mix of full-flush adrenaline and a lot of standing around waiting to be told what to do. Frankly, most rescue volunteers I know are pretty cautious people; rescue shows you what's on the other side if you mess up. I explored this a bit in The Falling Season. People think Mountain Rescue volunteers are the sorts you see in really preposterous shows like Cliffhanger and Sierra High Mountain Rescue. On the Aspen team, risk-takers tend not to make it through the membership process, which can take a couple of years. Team players who can modulate the adrenaline are the types who succeed.

Having said that, I've seen--and done--some moderately hairy stuff. Rescue is a balance between trying to help someone else while not endangering your own skin (too much). In the book I tell the story of Bob Zook, a big-wall climber who dangled on a cable under a helicopter during a really tough body recovery on Pyramid Peak (a recovery which haunted him for a long time). For my own part, helicopters have been involved in the situations in which I felt most at risk. We use helicopters a lot here; they're a very useful, although controversial, tool. They're also a 12,000-horsepower Cuisinart, and when things go wrong they go wrong way too fast.

This summer I was flying in a Bell-47 Soloy (one of those little bubble helicopters) as a spotter on a search for Danielle DeKeyser, a woman who fell from Mt. Sopris. The pilot and I saw the victim on a snowfield, apparently dead. It turned out this was the first time the pilot, Kathy, had ever seen a body, and it really rattled her. All of a sudden we were circling, trying to get the radios to work, bucking the winds, looking for a place to land, and I realized the pilot wasn't focused on what she was doing. I'm a pilot myself, and I know aircraft accidents happen when you get behind the curve. You stop paying attention to details, one little thing goes wrong, then another, then another, and then it's too late. It was just the two of us in the bird, and I realized I needed to talk her into calming down and focusing. She stopped worrying, started paying attention to her flying again, and in a few moments we found a place to land.

It didn't bother me then, but I had a lot of time to think about it later, when I was sitting by myself with Danielle's body, waiting for more team members to arrive to help package her and fly her out. I didn't like what had happened. At the end of the day, we were offered a helicopter ride back to the trailhead. I chose to walk.

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