Another angle of mountain rescue

In Public by Anna Debattiste

By Sage Miller, Summit County Rescue Group

There’s nothing quite like a perfect summer afternoon in Summit County. If you’re lucky enough, you might just find yourself having a stroll in the crisp mountain air. Aspens and pines wave gently in a special kind of breeze that blows just right. These are the afternoons I want to cherish and remember, that I want my children to remember, and these are the days when impromptu adventures happen in our family. We might head to the nearest neighborhood trailhead and wander around a piney forest, or maybe make our way to some water where we can gather stones for a splashing spectacle. No matter where we go, these golden afternoons never disappoint.

Alternatively, there’s nothing quite like getting a rescue page either. The startling tone of a radio will wake you up from whatever leisurely activity you can imagine. Often, it’s my iPhone’s “beacon” text tone with S.O.S. vibration that cuts the silence. That is the only time I get that specific notification sound, so when it goes off, I can feel my whole body perk up. It snaps me back to the reality that even in such blissful moments as this, someone needs help. And beyond that, I’m someone who can do something about it. Suddenly, I’m in logistics mode. Where is the call? Where is my kit? How long will it take me to rally to the trailhead? And how disappointed will my partner be for bailing on our afternoon plans? It’s seldom I’m available to respond these days as I’m often participating in my favorite activity of “daddy day-care” on my off days. But still, I always try to finagle a way to show up.

When the tones dropped on the perfect afternoon of July 7th, 2022, my heart raced. The series of beeps and vibrations coming from my phone got my immediate attention. A quick grab to my hip and I could read the text: “UNK INJ FEMALE SCREAMING HELP ME HELP, RP CANNOT SEE HER…CALLER SAID RESPONDERS CAN COME THROUGH HIS YARD.” Dispatch notes can’t always be trusted. I’ve learned that almost every time, the location, the story, or both are wrong. However, when someone is screaming “HELP ME” from the backcountry, you can usually expect a mission. The cogs in my head started turning. “Okay, my rescue bag is in the other vehicle, but the mission is in Frisco. If I could swing by the office, then I could snag my bag and head to the scene. I know that address, I’m probably only a few minutes away. Water? Check. Snacks? Check. Mt. Royal? Probably a tech rescue. Did I put my climbing gear back in the car? I think so… Thoughts start to trail off and next thing I know I’m driving to the scene. But then, I hear another voice. It’s small, but loud…“trash-truck!” The exclamation from my two-year-old rings clear. My kid knows a good trash-truck when he sees one. “Oh!” I reply, “Did you find a trash-truck?” Reality sets in and I’m reminded that I probably won’t be on the high-angle rescue team, not today. I’m bummed for a moment, but then I remember how much the kiddo loves rescue trucks. It doesn’t take much persuasion to get him on board to check out the scene, and at the least get him in a big red vehicle.

Upon arrival, I’m surprised to find I’m not the only one who had the afternoon off. There’s already a large response with most of our equipment on scene. Rescue 1, our main rescue truck, is parked in the dirt cul-de-sac with some of its equipment bays open. A couple of sheriff’s vehicles are at the end of the road and the drive is lined with folks parked in the ditches. Each car has two things in common. They are all dirty. and they all have a Summit County Rescue Group sticker slapped on somewhere.

“Ah, the frenzy,” I think to myself. People are calmly scrambling as they forage through their trucks to gather their personal equipment. Everyone could probably slow down, take a breath, and walk to the mission coordinator to clear up the situation. But instead, every movement carries haste to ensure they don’t miss out on getting sent into the field. Usually, I’m amid the scramble. However, today’s family afternoon stroll pace is more appropriate for me. I’m now in slow-motion, walking down the road in my flip-flops, only going as fast as the little feet next to me will allow, which is roughly half-speed.

As it turns out, the call isn’t a fluke. There happens to be a twenty-something female cliffed-out within earshot. The little guy and I give the trucks some gentle pat-pats as we walk by. People funnel into the forest and the search and rescue saga begins. This is when I would normally step up to the mission coordinator with my whole rescue kit and start taking notes for an assignment. Today, I decide not to bother the mission coordinator, as she already has enough going on. Instead, I see my father-in-law’s car parked in the ditch and start scanning for “Papa.” He’s not in the parking lot, but someone suggests he is up the trail a bit with family members of the party in distress. I don’t want to bother him, but after telling the kiddo, “Papa is here,” my hand is forced. Walking up the trail with a two-year-old is slow, but fun. Each rock is a jump and each stick a discovery. We meander through some golden aspen groves until we finally hear his voice.

Papa is quick to see us in the distance; he’s gathered around five or six random people looking up at the cliffs above. Parents and friends watch the rescue commence from a distance, looking through binoculars in an attempt to figure out what the different colored ant-sized rescuers are doing from afar. With a proud exclamation, grandpa greets us and eagerly makes introductions to his new friends. “Three generations of search and rescue!” he says. The toddler doesn’t have a red mountain rescue jacket on, but the idea is novel, and we start playing along. The strangers brighten up with our little crew and we start talking about all the random toddler things that people small talk about. Dan (Pappa) beams.

Nothing makes Dan happier than a good search and rescue mission. His enthusiasm for helping others in the absurd world of mountain rescue is admirable. These days, I don’t see him in the field much. Not because he isn’t capable, but instead he often gets assigned, or is self-assigned, to one of the more difficult aspects of the mission such as comforting and helping those close to the party in distress. It would have been easier that day to put on my approach shoes and walk up the craggy mountain a rope rescue than to walk over to this worried mother in my flip-flops and attempt to reassure her. I think it’s because when you have the gear and the task, your mission is clear: rescue subject with the provided tools. To sit with family, however, takes a whole different skill set. Sure, you can give up your jacket to keep someone warm or offer a drink, but beyond that, it takes sheer determination and vulnerability to stay and attempt to console them. The time we spent chatting, comforting, and laughing at a toddler proved to be truly helpful, and I was reminded that there are many facets of a successful mission. While all are important, there might not be any more overlooked than simply sitting with the loved ones at the trailhead.

While we watched from below, our youngest rescue member alleviated some nerves and helped put some things in perspective. As time passed, we watched a team of rescuers assist the young woman from complicated terrain. The family, exhausted from anxious spectating, was fortunate to have a happy ending to an eventful day. We all walked with light hearts back to the command post in a dirt parking lot, where the family was reunited in tears.

It made for a special kind of afternoon. On one hand, I was able to get some precious time outside in the places I love, with the people I love. More importantly, I was able to see the mountain rescue function at its finest, to see brave men and women sacrifice their safety, skills, and time for the good of another human in a physical emergency. Watching my team scramble in those cliffs was outstanding. Beyond that I was able to see, in an even braver manner, someone open themselves up to a scared human in emotional distress. Stories like this are what make me proud to be a part of this organization, teaching and inspiring me to be a better rescuer in the future. It feels important that I pay attention too. Who knows, maybe one day I’ll be able to teach the same lessons to another generation of rescuers, and if I’m lucky, it might just on one of those sacred, golden, Summit County afternoons.

Dan, Sage and Noah