Outside Online Guests
Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Mountain rescue: life and death on a rescue team
Excerpts from The Falling Season
“The fact that I’m so close with the people on the team–you may have friends for fifteen years, but you never know whether those people are going to put their life on the line for you. On the team, people that I may not be close to, that I may not associate with except on the
“I didn’t see him stumble, I just saw him in the process of falling. At that point he rolled over and executed a standard self-arrest, but he did it with a great deal of vigor. He planted the ax very deeply. It sank in very well. It stopped right now. It didn’t slide or rip out
I awake on a late winter morning to the sound of rain. Not really rain but a snow smurr running off the roof and splattering on the metal sill by my window. It turns to wet snow during breakfast, more of the same in a week that has been generally gray.
I am working at my desk upstairs when the pager goes off. At first I think I have only leaned on it, which triggers it sometimes.
“Mountain Rescue members who are strong skiers. Mountain Rescue members who are strong skiers only, call 920-5106.”
I get Tom McCabe–this week’s 501–on the second try. Tom has a tired, almost weary, sound in his voice. He is quiet, nearly glum, when he answers the phone. His tone is flat: he has learned, after fifteen years in the game, to wring all of the emotion out of it. He’ll deal with the emotion later.
“We’ve got a helicopter down. If we can find out where it is, and they’re alive, I need six people ready to be dropped in. Gear on, packs in their cars.”
“I can be ready in ten minutes.”
“I’ll put you on standby.”
“Where are they?”
“We don’t know.”
“Do you have an area?”
Life on Aspen’s rescue team involves a conscious choice to embrace disruption. A movie, a concert, dinner, business–all these may go by the wayside at any time. Sometimes, as I clip the pager on, I wonder if I’ll spend my day as I plan to. Not every member responds to every page. Some are more gung ho than others, who pick and choose, weighing the severity of the incident.
I keep my gear in the back of the Subaru or in a locker at the cabin. My summer pack weighs thirty pounds, my winter pack fifty. Inside is a medical kit, climbing harness, carabiners, rappel devices, webbing, prusiks, bivouac sack, insulated sleeping pad, Gore-Tex pants, gaiters, and parka. There’s polypropylene long underwear, climbing helmet, goggles, extra socks, cold
On this morning, at one moment I’m working on a magazine story and thinking about whether to rent a video tonight. A minute later I’m putting on a flameproof Nomex shirt (required for a helicopter flight), checking my Ortovox avalanche transceiver and strapping it around my chest. I change cotton socks to polypropylene and look out the window at the weather with a great
“I’m going to retire at some point,” David [Swersky] says on a rainy afternoon, sitting in his office after a day of battling tooth decay and gum disease. “It’s got too complicated. The bureaucracy has gotten oppressive–the amount of trainings, the amount of meetings. There were four or five trainings a year. Now it seems there are four or five trainings a month.
“I could go up the [Maroon] Bells. I’ve climbed the Bells. I’ve climbed them all. But you don’t want me banging around up there anymore. I’m almost fifty years old. There are young, strong people.
“Hopefully, the new people will be able to accept the new bureaucracy more,” he continues. “We know we know our stuff. We have a great track record, and the implication is — this was verbalized directly by [Steve] Crockett–‘We don’t trust you anymore.’ They don’t, and the reasons they don’t trust us are so bogus, they have no bearing on reality. But that’s what’s come
Insisting on safer behavior by rescuers, the sheriff seems to have caught himself and Mountain Rescue in an irrreconcilable set of demands. [Sheriff] Bob Braudis maintains that he and Steve have clamped down because they believe the team was operating unsafely. But he warns that if a rescue leader scrubs a mission, calls it off because it’s too dangerous, then Bob will
“It will be the last time Mountain Rescue’s called,” Bob says. “If Mountain Rescue is mutinous I will–I have to–find a non-mutinous resource in the rescue arena.”
All excerpts from The Falling Season: Inside The Life And Death Drama of Aspen’s Mountain Rescue Team, 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.