When someone goes missing on a frozen mountaintop or in a wildfire, my team heads out to help when no one else can — even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.
Three kids are missing on the mountain. They missed their check in, and search and rescue (SAR) has been tasked with finding them. It’s what we do. We track down the lost and injured and bring them home. I’ve been a member of this unit, primarily based around Mount Hood, Oregon, but working wherever we are needed in the Pacific Northwest, for about three years. Given my profound lack of experience at the onset, I’ve only actually been useful for about a year, maybe two.
We have a general idea of where the three kids are, or at least where they are supposed to be. At the base of the mountain, where most climbs start, is a climbers’ register where parties write down their intended route, expected return date, and what equipment they have – vital information in just this type of situation.
It’s cold and windy. Visibility is low. No one wants to be in the field on days like this. But, as Rocky, a veteran member once told me, only half joking, “We’re mountaineers. We suffer. It’s what we do.” That suffering is accepted because this is what we volunteered for (and almost all of us are truly volunteers – only the sheriff and a few others are paid). It’s made tolerable knowing that there is someone worse off, someone who needs us.
We will trace the most likely path and hopefully find them hunkered down in a snow cave or some other shelter, but alive. Bringing a victim home alive is why I go up. The satisfaction is like no other. After more than a decade in medicine, as an EMT initially and now as a physician assistant in a busy urban ER, I have revived cardiac arrests, treated trauma and dealt with just about every other medical calamity, but mountain rescue is different. People get injured in the mountains and back country, we get them when no one else can or will. Even if all we can do is bring back their bodies.
And I know how important that can be.
On the night of my first high school dance, the police showed up bearing somber news to my mother. She took me into the back room of the house. “There’s been an accident. Dad’s dead,” my mother told me, barely a quiver in her voice. She was trying to hold it together, but saying that out loud, she couldn’t. My brother, mother and me stood in that back room, with the lights off, and hugged and cried and lost track of time.
He fell while out hiking two states over. Local SAR was bringing the body out of the canyon. They couldn’t save him, but they could return his body to his family. We grieved while we waited for his return, which would take a day or two. It didn’t become concrete or tangible until we had the body. A tremendous service was done for my family by strangers.
Now it is my turn.
I will do for others what had been done for us. I will bring them home, do what I can to prevent further backroom suffering. Paying a debt to the universe makes the insufferable tolerable.
* * *
We are a team of 15 – physicians, general contractors, business executives and even an animal chiropractor, with personalities as varied as the professions. But there is a core tenet among us all: to help those in need.
A resort at the base of the mountain provides a Sno-Cat that transports us up through the groomed ski fields. National forest regulations prohibit mechanized travel beyond certain boundaries, but occasionally, we get permission to ignore them, to save a life. The driver takes us up as far as we can go before the Cat starts to backslide.
This is where the hard work starts. From here on out, we will be on foot. Once over the ridge and onto the next glacier, we break into smaller teams of three or four and separate to search different areas. Bob, a tall, slender guy who made some wise business decisions and retired early, is my team lead. He is tasked with interacting with the other team leads and Incident Command, as well as making sure all of us come home alive. Then there’s Keith, an engineer who makes dad jokes without being a dad; Christopher, an occasional school teacher who’s fond of instigating shenanigans and watching his work unfold; and me, the newest member of the team – the low-man on the totem pole.
The winds are up. The temperatures are down. Visibility is minimal. Freezing fog deposits a thin layer of ice on clothing. Beards freeze and develop icicles. Any exposed skin quickly turns red and raw. The moisture from my breath freezes my goggles. Periodically, I use the rubber handle of my ski pole to scrape the ice out of the goggles. This only provides a brief window of clear vision.
We follow the kids’ intended route up the mountain, up the gentle snow slope, bearing west. It’s a short distance, but it takes us an hour in these conditions. We come up into a bowl, relatively protected from the wind. The route travels up from the bowl and over a ridge. Once on the other side we must be hyper-vigilant. We will be travelling across a large crevasse field, hidden in dense fog. The route leads up a snow and ice gully from the far end of this crevasse field. This is one of the two more common routes for teams to take after they have previously completed the standard route. It represents a step up in technical difficulty, presents complicated route finding, and is an overall longer route. Most of us on the rescue team have climbed this route before, individually or as a team, but not in these conditions.
A fall from their route could have spit the kids out onto this crevasse field. We must search it exhaustively. First, we rope up – tying ourselves together so that if one of us falls into an unseen crevasse, theoretically, the rest of the small team can arrest the fall and retrieve the teammate. A rescuer becomes a liability if he is dead. As the newest, least-experienced member, I’m in the middle of the rope. Bob, on point, has to choose a path around the crevasses. The man in the back is the last hope if the first team members can’t arrest their own fall. Bob scans the snow for signs of weakness indicating a crevasse. I follow the footsteps exactly.
Slowly, methodically, we spread out to search the area. Ice axes are at the ready in the event a rope mate goes into a crevasse. My eyes strain to look for clues through fogged-up goggles. Even a light snow can cover vital clues. We move westward toward the terminus of the route the three kids were attempting.
“I need to search that area down by the big crevasse. Keep eyes on me,” Bob says. Rather than continue with our roped travel, Bob will move more cautiously down towards the crevasse on his own. I head up a ridge and plant myself in a vantage point where I can maintain constant visual contact. The area looks lousy with crevasses, with more likely hidden. Bob is belayed down into the field by Keith, who is anchored to the snow. Any fall should be terminated quickly. Should be. Our gloves have a layer of icy grime, so holding the rope during a fall would require more effort than in more pristine conditions.
He goes out, searches, and returns. No incident, but no evidence found of our three kids either. We’re preparing to keep moving when our radios start crackling and we hear someone from one of the other teams say, “I think I’ve found something.” We all stop and put lift our radios to our ears.
“Should we head up to you?”
Silence. Crackle. “…Yeah.”
My team was searching the lower end of the glacier, so we are some of the last to get to the scene. As we approach, I see the other teams standing around a body. If it weren’t for the people standing around him, I might have walked right by; he was nearly invisible in the waning day, under a fresh layer of snow. I see that no one is frantic. No one is pulling a medical kit out. Our kid must be dead. His mouth is open, in the shape of an “O” and full of snow. I get to him and place my hands on his body. He is stiff and frozen. His base-layer shirt and soft shell jacket are unzipped. There is blood on his thigh, though no obvious deformity or injury. I see no grossly apparent signs of blunt trauma. Some distance away, there is climbing gear strewn at the bottom of the route. One of the other teams had continued searching and found it. It looks like he walked some distance away from the debris field.
Maria, a newly minted ER doctor, digs a little bit of the snow out of his mouth. Not much, just a little. I’m not sure why. It is an image that will stick with me.
“Hey, why don’t I package the body? Not everybody needs to see this,” I offer to the overall rescue leader. Some of the team members have never seen a dead body before.
He pauses for a moment. “Yeah, do it.”
I’m new to mountain rescue, but seasoned to life’s grim realities. The body must be packaged for extrication. He will be covered with a protective plastic tarp and placed into a litter. The litter is like a backboard with small walls and rails. It proves difficult to package him. He is frozen and did not have the foresight to die in a position conducive to packaging. But, I make it work. I have to.
Looking at what’s in front of me, I know what is ahead for the family. I know the sound. I know the dark, backroom scene, huddled in a private anguish that comes after the authorities deliver the news. There’s a wail that comes with unexpected death. It comes from the gut. It’s a sound I heard time and again in those first few days after my father died. I lost a parent, but they have lost a child. I package him as gently as I can. We will get him back to his family. The importance of our task is visceral. I cannot fathom what mourning without the body is. This family will not have to try.
* * *
The radio crackles again. The sheriff is thinking that we should package the body, anchor it someplace safe, and mark the location on GPS. This would allow us to keep searching for the other two. The freezing fog has turned to heavy snow. It was early afternoon, a time in the Pacific Northwest when the sun begins to set, and we are worn. We wouldn’t have more than a few hours of daylight left and still had to get off the mountain.
This is a dilemma. He’s dead, but the other two kids may not be. Until we find them, there’s no way to know. The weather forecast calls for continued lousy conditions for the rest of today and the next few days. Extrication is a lengthy process. Under the best conditions, in more easily accessed terrain, extrication by foot takes half a day. Do we begin the extrication of the body and leave our other two kids to try to survive another night? Do we try to place our first kid somewhere we can find him later and keep searching? In these conditions, among the crevasses, with the accumulating snowfall, it’s unlikely we would be able to find him again. Even anchored in a corner somewhere, location marked on GPS, any manner of event could prevent us from retrieving him. Avalanches could change the landscape of the entire field. There is the risk of continued snowfall and burial. An anchor could fail, leaving the body free to slip into one of the crevasses below.
It’s unbearable, in my mind, to leave him to keep searching. The thought of having to tell the family that we found the body, but left him on the mountain, is crushing. It seems inhumane. But then what would we tell the families of the other two kids if we left the mountain without knowing whether they were alive or dead?
I’m supremely thankful not to have to make that call. There are benefits to being a rookie.
The medical team, my other team, has setup nearby, in an area safe from crevasses or avalanches. There is a tent to escape the wind and warm drinks are being brewed. The medical team is solely concerned with the living. In the absence of proof of life of the other two, the medical team bears watch over the rescuers. The tent is for the rescuers. The warm drinks are for us. Periodically, people have to take a breather, to warm up and mentally recharge. It’s amazing how beneficial something as simple as a warm cup of tea can be in these situations. As one of the new guys, I still feel like I have to prove myself. I stay in the crevasse field and suffer.
Conversations between the rescue leaders in the field and the sheriff’s SAR deputies have been ongoing since we packaged the body. I haven’t been listening. I have no input to offer. Just feet to carry me to wherever I can be useful.
“The sheriff wants us to keep searching.” Word is spreading. My heart sinks into my stomach. I am exhausted. There is no good decision to be reached. I look at my teammates and can tell many are feeling the same. We don’t want to keep searching, but we will.
“SAR base from Team One.”
“Go ahead Team One.”
“Yeah, hey it’s Rocky. We’re not going to do that. It’s cold, it’s late. We’ll never find the body again. We’re bringing the teams in.”
A respected member and veteran of decades of mountain rescue has shut down the sheriff’s plan. Ultimately, it’s the sheriff’s call, but a good leader knows when to listen to experienced heads.
“O.K. Team’s coming in.”
We re-cross the crevassed glacier, this time with a sled with a body in it. Once at the eastern end of the glacier, we raise the whole package up and over the ridge, which is accomplished with ropes, pulleys and brute force. Eventually, we reach the waiting Sno-Cat. The packaged body lies between two rows of bench seats. The seats are full of rescuers. The layers of ice that had been our constant companions begin to melt. Steam rises off each living person’s head. Some people are looking through the camera we found among the scattered belongings. Perhaps a clue will be found to lead us to the other two kids. Perhaps there will be some indication as to what went wrong.
We reach the familiar transition point at the base of the glacier. We get out of the Sno-Cat and unload the package. A short distance below, snow meets parking lot. Rescuers meet sheriff. I head inside. There is to be a debrief. We are reminded of the resources available to us, should we need them, if anyone is experiencing grief or stress from recovering a body.
The body is brought inside the lodge. I can hear the family. By the end of the debrief, the family of our first kid should be well on their way to the city with the deceased. They are not. Word is traveling. The family of our first kid is staying on the mountain to support the families of our other two kids. I can’t imagine how they came to that decision. Their boy is dead. Yet, they remain with the other two families, while the body of their boy travels back to the city.
When I hear this, I remember that the ache I’m feeling all over is just physical pain. It is temporary.
* * *
I return to my warm apartment. The two kids are still up on the mountain. I’m mentally preparing for a return to the cold and misery tomorrow when the page comes through. We are grounded. No searchers will be deployed tomorrow on account of the horrendous conditions. Officially, this is still a “rescue.” The longer our other two kids are out there, the less likely they are to survive, if they are still alive at all. But they are up there, somewhere. I have little faith that this is going to be a rescue.
I feel utterly helpless, sitting in my kitchen, in a worn-out old chair, head back, staring at the ceiling. The debt I set out to pay remains. I am unable to provide the service that was done for my family. Logically, I understand it is out of my hands. The dangers and risks are real. This is a rational decision. In my gut, though, I have failed. This was my task. Bring the bodies home. Yet they remain on the mountain. There is only failure now.
So, I get drunk, the only solution I can think of.
Over the next few days conditions continue to deteriorate and eventually I have to go back to work. Finally, the search gets called off completely.
The following summer, I’m returning from a wildfire when the text comes through from my good friend Bob G., a member of the medical rescue team.
“multiagency effort. found the other 2.” He gives me no context. He doesn’t need to.
There is a great deal of discussion and speculation as to what happened. It doesn’t matter to me. I don’t particularly care how they got there, just where they end up – back with their families.