Monday, April 1, 2013

Happy April Fool’s Day to my fellow mountain rescuers!

We all know that mountain rescue is serious business. As rescuers, we work very hard to project the image of ourselves as dedicated, non-paid professionals. And while we always tackle the mission at hand with complete seriousness, I feel that we desperately need to avoid taking OURSELVES too seriously.

I am a member of Colorado’s Alpine Rescue Team. We like to think of ourselves as highly skilled, well-trained non-paid professional rescuers. But if you look closely at the walls of our headquarters (AKA The Shack), tucked in between the official proclamations of thanks from politicians, yellowed newspaper clippings tacked to the wall, and next to photos of our ice-rimed members waving summit flags atop the world’s high peaks- you’ll find a framed photo from the 80s of eight of our members (male and female) mooning the camera at the base of an ice climb. Can you imagine the look on your boss’ face in Corporate America USA, Inc. if you put a photo of eight pairs of (blindingly white) cheeks on the wall of your cubicle for all the world to see?

Probably not.

And look! Next to all the fancy brass and glass plaques from the local Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club and the Red Cross – it’s a gnarled bristlecone pine tree trunk adorned with various trinkets and artifacts including, but not limited to: a chunk of melted aluminum (from a torched snowmobile), broken toy helicopters, busted toy snowmobiles, a cracked aircraft altimeter, a sticker that reads “emergency helicopter exit only” and the tag cut from one of our mission leaders’ Fruit of the Loom white bikini brief underwear. This is our team’s inglorious monument to our failures and embarrassing moments as mountain rescuers. It is lovingly known to Alpine members as the Windy Peak “Aw Shit!” Award, and the trinkets hanging from it are the contributions of past recipients.

This award symbolizes so many things that I truly love about mountain rescue. First and foremost, it is a recognition of our humanity. Our fallibility. It also symbolizes that cherished spirit of true irreverence that runs crookedly through the heart of mountain rescue. I feel that the “Aw Shit!” Award, bestowed each year upon the team member who had the year’s biggest goof-up, is our most important award. (And yes, I am a previous winner – DON’T ask). It serves as our yearly reminder to both honor that irreverent spirit of mountain rescue’s independent nature, and to lighten the hell up. For in mountain rescue, sometimes our sense of humor is the only weapon we have at our disposal when we are faced with tragedy in the backcountry. The temptation to take things too seriously is sometimes a strong one, and one that we must avoid if we hope to remain happy and sane while doing our important work in the place I like to call RescueWorld.

Ernest Hemingway is famous for saying, “There are only three sports: bullfighting, motor racing, and mountaineering; all the rest are merely games.” And though mountaineering could be thought of as a sport, it is most certainly not a TEAM sport. It’s a solo endeavor performed by individuals. And so it goes that mountain rescue teams can be thought of as extensions of these free-spirited mountaineering individuals.
Hell, given the fiercely independent nature of most mountain rescue teams in the U.S., it’s a wonder to me that a national organization like the MRA exists at all sometimes.  

For just as the mountains attract many hikers, climbers and mountaineers who march to the beat of a different drummer, so it goes for many of the men and women who sign on to help those having a bad day while enjoying the freedom of the hills.

The very dynamic and eclectic nature of non-paid professional mountain rescue itself often cries out for an eccentric and unconventional approach. It follows that those who are drawn to this type of service for lost or injured hikers, climbers and skiers in the mountains might be a little … off as well.

In fact, the more time you spend around almost any volunteer mountain rescue team in the world, you’ll find that most of us possess (and sometimes flaunt) a strong sense of independent irreverence that you won’t likely find in EMS organizations that are dependent on mill levies or those that are forced to march to the PC beat of a Human Resource (HR) Department.

And God help mountain rescue the day that we have an HR Department.

(Hold on for a moment here while I step up onto my soapbox.) The way I see it, if you can’t go to the mountains or the backcountry and let your hair down once in a while (whether to recreate or to rescue), where else is left? In our politically correct society’s quest to never offend ANYONE, we’ve taken a lot of fun away from EVERYONE. (OK, sorry about that, I’m stepping back down now.)

In non-paid professional mountain rescue, this kind of financial and institutional independence is essential to the survival of each and every volunteer organization. As the Langdale-Ambleside Mountain Rescue Team (from the Lake District in Britain) says on their website, “Self-funding means freedom - to experiment, to acquire the best equipment for the job, freedom from bureaucratic interference and cost-cutting to which so many public services have fallen victim, and freedom to enjoy the team spirit which rewards and respects initiative and competence in a way which binds and disciplines a team to the ultimate benefit of all.”

So just who are these people who dedicate and donate so much of their time and effort “that other might live”? And what motivates them?

I’ve noticed two distinct personality traits that seem to be present in the folks who dedicate years of their life in service to mountain rescue. 

First of all, those who give that much of their lives to mountain rescue simply love helping people.Though a love of the backcountry and a deep respect for the awesome might of nature are important traits found in the mountain rescuer, it is their obsessive desire to help their fellow human beings that keeps the career mountain rescuer going year after year after year. After all, it is not unusual for most mountain rescue teams to go a couple of months with absolutely no calls, and if you joined mountain rescue strictly for the thrills, this is when you are likely to discover that you’d rather be climbing or skiing than sitting through yet another classroom presentation on line search techniques. From what I’ve seen, this is why adrenaline junkies make for terrible rescuers. These folks eventually discover that there’s a lot of standing around going on in mountain rescue, and that they’d rather be out recreating than being stuck back at Operations shuffling around in a parking lot inhaling diesel fumes from the rescue truck while waiting for a field assignment.

Secondly, career mountain rescuers have a screw loose-and I say that with the utmost respect. Professional mountain rescue has come a long way since its humble beginnings across the pond. But even with all the modernization of mountain rescue techniques and tools – and the equally modern concept of risk management – it is still a dangerous undertaking at times. It follows that those willing put themselves at risk for total strangers, year after year, with no financial reward or loaded gun to their head, are cut from a different cloth.

Like the bumper sticker says, “You don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.”

Or, as Joseph Conrad once said, “There is nothing more enticing, disenchanting, and enslaving than the life at sea.” 

And so it goes for the life in the mountains, dedicated to mountain rescue. 

In closing, I urge my mountain rescue comrades to savor the one day of the year that you are not only permitted-but encouraged- to play the fool. To let your freak flag fly.
So I say to my fellow mountain rescuers, remember to lighten the hell up-and may you always be a little…off.

Tom Wood is a 15-year veteran of the Alpine Rescue Team in Evergreen, CO and works as the Training Manager for Vertical Rescue Solutions by PMI. The preceding post contains material from his upcoming memoir: “Trading Steel for Stone: Tales of a Rustbelt Refugee Turned Rocky Mountain Rescuer”. This post does not reflect the opinions of the ART, the MRA, PMI or-quite possibly- anyone else, for that matter.

And fellow mountain rescuers-feel free to comment below and share your own rescue team’s odd or unique characters, traditions or awards.