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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
team–I’ll put my life on the line for them. It’s a bond with people that I’ve never had in my life. Your first really tough rescue, or your first body recovery, you just look into the other person’s eyes and you know they’re there for you.”
–John Zell, rescue team member

“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
or anything. It stopped so suddenly, and he had a little momentum, that his hands slid down the shaft of the ax. His hands started at the top of the ax, and his [wrist] leash and his hands all slid down together. When the leash hit the stop, the shape of his hands on the ax was such that the profile of the hand was probably at its narrowest, and the leash–although it wasn’t
snug tight it wasn’t floppy loose, either–it went right over his hand, just slick as a whistle, and that was it. It just took a moment, and he didn’t have an ice-ax to use as a tool at perhaps the very steepest part of that pitch. It took him very little time to gain quite a bit of speed. He probably slid on his stomach for twenty yards. He was trying to slow himself down,
and then he started to tumble. I don’t know whether his crampon caught. I suspect that’s what happened, his toe dropped and he started to flip. Once the tumbling began there was no recovery.”
–Tom McCabe
Rescue Leader

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?”

“Pearl Pass.”

“Oh, man.”

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.
A page to search for an overdue hunter won’t generate as much response as a call about a fallen climber on the Maroon Bells.

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
weather and climbing gloves, pile pullover, water purification tablets, sunscreen, balaclava, baseball cap, whistle, orange marking tape, notepad, freeze-dried food, emergency stove, and fuel. Depending on the mission, I will wear one of four pairs of boots and may also grab crampons and an ice axe, avalanche shovel and transceiver, skis, poles, radio, binoculars, or sleeping

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
deal more interest.

“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
down. That’s the way it is.”

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
cease to use the team. It will have no raison d’être.

“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.