Granola bars and warm jackets: Lessons in motherhood and mountain rescue

In Public by Anna Debattiste

by Hannah Gallager, current member of Lake County Search and Rescue and former member of Alpine Rescue Team

Back in January of 2019, I was accepted into a training program for new members of the Alpine Rescue Team. I had a fair amount of insecurity about what I could offer them, although I was very passionate and committed to the mission of the organization and had already volunteered for a few years doing various administrative tasks. One of my biggest fears was that being a new mom represented a conflict of interest or, at the very least, a handicap to being the best team member I could have otherwise been in other seasons of my life. After all, my son was only eight months old at the start of the program and was still mostly reliant on me (both emotionally, and physically as his food source) and this commitment meant a significant amount of time away from him in our future. After extensive discussions with my husband, we decided that this commitment was still within the realm of possibility for our family and my husband was excited for me, and so I applied. After all, part of our family mission statement proclaims, “We are a family that runs to help others.”

It was a very interesting chapter in my life, to grow into the role of a mother at the same time I stepped into the mountain rescue world. I found some strengths I had been developing as a mom that lent themselves perfectly to the work of search and rescue. Being a mother is a lesson in putting other people’s needs first, as well as monitoring and preparing for those needs; mountain rescue is all about setting aside your personal life to aid others.  In both realms, you must attempt to empathetically and patiently meet people where they are–regardless of their bad choices or attitudes. Carrying extra snacks and layers is second nature to me now, and looking for signs that others need a calorie boost or warm jacket is just part of both jobs. My body learned to function on little-to-no sleep and to handle physical stress with a quiet but persistent fortitude (no hike has anything on childbirth). I found the applicability of all these skills both as I trudged up a mountain with a heavy pack full of gear late at night, or as I walked with my son on a gentle trail on a sunny afternoon.

The one thing my experience as a mother also supplied my new role as a mountain rescuer was a deep reverence for life and empathy for other human beings–deeper than I can put into words. Becoming a new mom gave me an intimate understanding of the hard work, tears and love that are invested in bringing each new life into the world. I am often startled by the deeper impact of both the good and bad events I encounter now. My heart is splayed open and exposed to both hurt and joy in a deeper way than I have ever before known.

This truth was made clear to me on my very first mission with the team, which was to respond to a call for a fallen climber in a nearby canyon. I drove with a few other new members, nervous and excited at the prospect of finally putting into practice all the hard-earned training to help a person in need.  I can recall nervously laughing with a few teammates on the drive to the mission.

When we arrived, I was stunned to learn that the young climber had already passed away. A news release later reported that the teen girl fell to her death while climbing with her friend; the two had graduated high school mere days before. The girl should have had her whole life just beginning to open before her. Although I knew it was inevitable that I could encounter a tragedy like this in my work, I was shaken to run straight into it on my first mission.

I remember staring up the cliff and seeing a blue body bag making its way down to us as we waited to carry out her body. In that instant, I felt a horror for the enormity of the loss overwhelm me…and I also knew and felt deeply a multitude of things:

  • There were many, many people whose lives were irretrievably changed forever that afternoon.
  • There were parents who were about to begin an excruciatingly difficult journey with grief.
  • Those parents had a million beautiful, perfect pieces of their daughter wrapped up in their hearts.

As the team approached me, I felt my heart physically hurt for the loss that I knew was being felt by another parent that day. I felt like there was nothing I could do to make this horrible thing better.

In that same moment, I thought back to a different day when I had stood near death. The day my grammy passed away in hospice there was a horrible moment when her body–this vessel that had meant so much to so many of us–was leaving us. In that surreal moment, as she was being wheeled away, the entire staff stopped what they were doing and stood silently. A bell tolled, and I saw a nurse brush away a tear.

I can recall being completely moved that this woman, who saw death day in and day out, would still allow death to affect her.

I looked around at all the staff, standing silently in solidarity with my family, and their respect for the enormity of this moment in our lives meant everything to me. No, they could not fix this moment nor make it better. But, they could stand alongside us and recognize the immense loss we were experiencing with quiet respect.

As a mom who could only guess at the levels of pain another family was experiencing, I took hold of the weight of someone precious and walked her with quiet respect out to her family.

I know there are other search and rescue members who can more efficiently compartmentalize their response to tragedies and this is, by all means, to the benefit of their teams! A well-functioning team of mountain rescuers needs a full spectrum of people to work best. But I have found my own niche. In my brief time as a mom and mountain rescuer, I have found that to serve others the best I can, I must do it with all of the heart, energy, compassion and empathy possible. Granola bars and a warm jacket help too.