The WildeBeat

The audio journal about getting into the wilderness.


The WildeBeat edition 32: Mountain Rescuers

This is a supplementary transcript of our audio program. CLICK HERE to listen to the original program, and see the associated show notes.

Suppose you're lost or hurt in the wilderness -- it's probably a volunteer who's going to help you out. This week on The WildeBeat; Mountain Rescuers.

[Intro Music & SFX; 0:07.6 and under]

News from the Wildebeat, the audio journal about getting into the wilderness.

This is program number thirty two.

I'm Steve Sergeant.

[Intro Music: 0:04.5 ends]

STEVE: Getting into the wilderness for most people is about self-reliance, and being responsible for your own safety. But sometimes, people do need help. When someone's lost or hurt and needs to be rescued, chances are their rescuer is an unpaid, but highly-trained volunteer.

[Location background]

We're near Carson Pass in California, at a snow camp site less than a quarter mile from highway eighty eight. It's the hub of a training exercise for the Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit. John Chang is their unit leader.

JOHN CHANG: We work for the San Mateo County Sheriff's office. Our organization is a non-profit independent organization, and we provide this volunteer resource to that search and rescue need. And it is an organization that's geared toward mountain search and rescue. So search and rescue in the mountainous terrain. That includes, basically, three key areas: The area of technical rock, vertical search and rescue techniques. Alpine search and rescue techniques, snow conditions, high-altitude. And finally the third component is search and rescue management.

STEVE: About a quarter mile from their snow camp site, one of their members is playing hide-and-seek. She's talking to the team over a two-way radio. She gives them deliberately cryptic descriptions of her location and her simulated emergency scenario.

JOHN CHANG: From that information we look-up on the map to try to see if we can place that individual to the closest proximity of where we are. And determine which is the best way to reach that person as fast as we can.

STEVE: John speaks very seriously. He's taking the entire exercise very seriously. But in his face, you can see that he's having a great time just being out in the snow-covered mountains.

JOHN CHANG: We have various pre-plans that have been set up. Pre-plans are designed so that for different scenarios, or different incidences, we can respond in a coordinated fashion. We want to reach the individual as fast as we can, by sending out our fast responders. And the fast responders are basically, in this environment, would go in snowshoes or skis, and is very expert in navigation and in terms of the skills necessary to traverse over these types of terrains. The next series of teams behind them will be the medical team. Sometimes they would all overlap, but in terms of if we have enough personnel the medical team would bring up the more extensive medical kits for stabilizing the patient. And finally the last crew that would come upon the scene would be the rescue team. The rescue team brings up all the heavy gear; the heavy equipment to be able to extricate the individual.

STEVE: The three teams charge off in the direction of a vague point on a topographic map.

JOHN CHANG: Based upon the information we did get we found the main trail, that was supposed to be where the individual was skiing off of. And we basically had to make a judgement call, a strategy in terms of which direction, which area to search. On the first pass, the person furthest away from the trail, was able to locate the individual.

EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIAN: can you just wiggle your foot inside your boot?

STEVE: When I arrived, the emergency medical technician was examining Jane, the victim. Jane, was halfway down a steep, snowy slope, about sixty feet high, sitting in the snow against a tree.

EMERGENCY MEDICAL TECHNICIAN: Now the knee, you said already, hurts...

STEVE: Next, two members of the fast search team dig out a platform in the snow below her. The four members of the rescue team install anchors into the snow above the tree, and rig ropes to them. With all of these preparations ready, they move Jane onto the sled, put a sleeping bag over her, and strap her in. The rescue team attaches ropes to the sled.

Throughout all of this, we're buffeted repeatedly by gusts of cold wind.

JOHN CHANG: OK, lower at will!

STEVE: With the medical team leader guiding the sled, the rescue team belays the sled thirty feet down the slope.


STEVE: With Jane at the bottom of the hill, they untie the ropes. They attach harnesses to the sled, and six people drag the sled out to the highway.

[Snowshoe steps]

STEVE: So Jane, can I get you to describe the scenario?

JANE: The scenario... My partner and I came out from Carson Pass. And we knew that there were some wonderful cornices that would have beautiful blow-over by this wind, and possibly nice snow to ski down. And we decided to go up and check it out. And a cornice fell and started an avalanche. I got hit by the piece of cornice. I was able to ski out sideways, but my partner skied down below. And I guess I was in a tree well, he couldn't hear me.

STEVE: So does this change your feeling about the victims now that you're a rescuer?

JANE: It's a real interesting process to be a subject of a rescue. All the things that go into it and the trust that you have to develop with the team that's rescuing you.

JOHN CHANG: I got started doing this because I, as a kid have always been fascinated by the wilderness, going out into the backcountry. As I became more and more involved into just building my own personal skills, I realized that when you're in the backcountry, you often do come across people that are in need. And to be able to lend a hand is -- turns out to be very rewarding to me. And so I also realized that without further training or exposure to this environment I could only do so much. So with my desire to learn more, and to be a little bit more competent in the backcountry, I decided to volunteer for search and rescue.

STEVE: Is there a thrill in what you're doing, that you're doing something dangerous?

JOHN CHANG: Personally, I think it is sometimes a conundrum that it's in fact the other. The circumstance we're working with is certainly dangerous. There's no question. However, basically, when we're out in the field, someone is already hurt. So the last thing any of us want to do is to contribute to more injuries. And so there is great effort to try to mitigate that, through training, through building systems, through awareness of the environment, and awareness of self-limitations. And so, it's certainly exhilarating to hang off of a cliff in a storm, it's certainly exhilarating to ride in a helicopter, and it's certainly exhilarating to be able to help someone. But I think it's a different kind of thrill than the thrill seekers.

STEVE: The Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit is an all volunteer organization. But they're just one of a hundred similar organizations around the U.S. Tim Kovacks is the public affairs officer of a national organization, the Mountain Rescue Association.

TIM KOVACKS: What you get, whether you get a volunteer or a paid person, you're going to get pretty darn high quality. The volunteers may just not be dressed in as nice a uniform. It doesn't matter what happens, or how bad you screw up, we will come and get you. And, by and large, we aren't charging for this, and you aren't going to get a bill for this. Some of that is kind of changing, and we on the volunteer unpaid side, ninety-nine percent of the country, live on donations and bake sales. So we're always going to take donations whenever we can, but money's never going to stop us from responding. We're always going to come to those in need.

STEVE: You can find pictures of the rescue operation, and a high fidelity stereo version of this show, on our web site.

[Closing Music: 0:10 and under]

Next time -- how to become a mountain rescuer.

The Wildebeat is produced by Steve Sergeant for Effable Communications. Our official website is WWW dot WILDEBEAT (that's W-I-L-D-E-B-E-A-T) dot NET. Please see our website for ways to support future editions of The WildeBeat. Contribute your comments to webmaster at wildebeat dot net, or call our comment line at 866-590-7373.

This has been The WildeBeat, program number thirty two. Thank you for listening.

[Closing Music: ends.]

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs2.5 License.