by Kris Hegler, Fremont Search and Rescue
Although search and rescue missions requiring daring technical skills are always captivating, there are also those rare missions in which the emotional qualities outweigh the dramatic operations. This is an account of one that had a profound effect on the fifteen of us who were part of it.
This mission began like any other, with an activation page on a late mid-March afternoon: “Male hiker down with suspected cardiac issue at Beaver Creek Wildlife Area. All available SAR members report to the yard. Further information to follow.”
As details trickled in, we learned this individual had collapsed as he and his hiking companion were finishing their lunch. The friend had performed life-saving measures for over two hours but the subject never regained consciousness. With no nearby landing zone and darkness approaching, the team mobilized at the trailhead and began hiking to the cell phone ping location with evacuation equipment in tow.
When the hasty team arrived at the scene, night had already settled. We found the subject in a condition “not conducive to life,” along with his companion, well off-trail and at the bottom of a steep ravine.
Two members of the technical ropes team began to scout the best route for a litter uphaul of a subject of more than 300 pounds, while two other teammates sat with the friend who had endured a truly heart wrenching and horrific event. They assured him he had done everything humanly possible to try to save his companion. As they tried to comfort him, they commented on the peace and serenity of the location – a sheltering grove of scrub oaks with a carpet of grass beneath, where his friend had taken his last breath.
When supporting team members arrived on the scene, logistics were discussed and belays set. With the friend looking on and even assisting, the subject was moved into the litter with solemnity and made ready for his final journey out of the backcountry. Members of the team packaged the body with as much care as they would have for a breathing soul, knowing this would be a memory his friend would carry with him for life.
The uphaul to the main trail was slow and arduous, through crusted patches of late winter snow, cacti and loose scree, requiring many resets. When at last we crested the high ridge, we took several minutes to rest and refuel before the downward trek began. We were calmed by the view of our home valley and the remote points of light dotting the dark horizon, and the even more distant canopy of the Milky Way and familiar constellations overhead. The mood was somber, hushed.
As night crept closer to dawn, we navigated the twisting downward trail in the constant company of the subject’s friend, who resolutely chose to share every step of this final passage beside him. The night was peaceful and windless. Despite the fatigue of a sleepless night and physical strain, it seemed a privilege to be the first pallbearers for a man we had never met, and to support the friend who’d experienced a life-altering event. In those protracted hours, a bond formed between rescuers and a stranger with a common goal.
Although we always train with an emphasis on technical expertise and safety, this particular mission had elements that went beyond the tangible. Spending an entire night with the friend of a deceased subject as we transported the body out of the backcountry showed us how exceptional our team is. While there normally is humorous banter among members, this mission was quiet and dignified. Everyone showed the utmost sensitivity to the deceased’s friend, continually checking on what he might need, as well as keeping tabs on each other.
As we traversed the rutted road from the trailhead toward home at sun-up that morning, emotion swept over me. Never have I felt prouder of our team’s dedication and selflessness.