Ka-ching! Even though I’d never heard it before, the sound was unmistakable — metal striking metal. It wasn’t a coin dropping into a slot machine tray, although ironically we were searchers at a site that would soon come to be known as Larry’s Big Casino — a steep chute on the backside of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain. The tip of my aluminum avalanche probe had connected, two-and-a-half feet beneath the snow, with a ski. It was attached to 18-year-old Larry Arwin from Seattle. He’d been there about 90 minutes and I sensed that he was toast. Fourth from the left in a 15-person probe line, I yelled the trained response, “SHOVEL!” The patrol was digging in less than fi ve seconds.
A mid-level mountain trails manager, I’d just led nine rescuers — patrollers, volunteer locals, and ski school instructors — single-fi le off the top of Baldy. We were the main column of a full-scale ski patrol avalanche rescue. Outside the ski patrol shack, we’d signed in the volunteers as they showed up, then lined them up for an urgent, abbreviated equipment check and probe line lesson. Throat tight with tension, my voiced cracked as I answered their questions. My radio crackled with a garbled message from the steep backside. The Hasty Search Team — fi ve patrollers and a visiting helicopter guide from Alta — had fl agged their route to the slide and were requesting more help. With little radio reception on the steep backside, the message was punctuated by static.
It was the early 1970s, before avalanche transceivers, personal locater beacons, cell phones, citizen band UHF radios, GPS receivers or lightweight folding shovels. Pre-Avalung. Arwin and two of his friends had crossed through the area boundary fence to fi nd untracked powder and a little adventure — they found both in spades. The slide’s fracture line was four feet deep. It had been a heavy storm period, dumping 48 inches of snow in four days on top of a weak, depth-hoar-fi lled layer that covered the ground — a classic, potentially deadly snowpack. One of the three, Larry, had been caught by the moving snow and had disappeared.
The panicked survivors traversed across another potentially deadly chute before fi nding their way back into the ski area. They called from a landline at the bottom of Warm Springs #1 lift, 3,000 feet below at the bottom of the mountain. Larry had been under for 45 minutes when the search was launched. He would be the fi rst dead teenager I’d ever seen. Remembering the fl ood of emotions I was feeling at the time, I wonder now if there hadn’t even been a bit of grudging admiration for this young dude who had fl aunted ski area rules and common sense to take a run at something greater. I don’t know . . . at the time, at least, it was easier to think of him as an Idiot.
One of his friends, who had been escorted back to the slide site by the ski patrol, rushed over: “How is he?” he asked breathlessly.
Overwhelmed with anger and frustration at this seemingly senseless death, worried about the dangerous descent still remaining, I replied with the only words I could manage: “He’s dead. What did you expect?”
I pointed to the corpse, which, wrapped in blankets and a canvas tarp, was being secured in a toboggan for the hair-raising trip 2,500 vertical feet down the backside. The distraught kid looked stunned. To my knowledge, no Angels were present, even though the next chute over was known informally as “Heaven.”
Experienced patrollers kept everyone on the timbered ridges during the descent. Single fi le, 80 searchers side-slipped, caught ski tips under branches, cursed, picking their way down the mountain beneath a sullen, rapidly darkening afternoon sky. Frustrated, some took their skis off and walked. After dark — an excruciating hour later — we could fi nally see the four buses provided by the Ski Corp. — and an ambulance, red lights fl ashing — waiting in a cow pasture far below. Looking back after 35 years, was it worth it? Yes.
A few years later, I took part in a written POWDER Magazine debate about backside skiing. Espousing my mountain-cop worldview at the time, I argued that nobody had the right to jeopardize others’ lives by a foolhardy expression of selfindulgence. My adversary voiced the view of the backside bandit, that he would “disappear (past the area boundary) in a cloud of hi-ho silver dust, middle fi nger uplifted.” I responded that he should keep his middle fi nger in the air, we’d get the message when we dug him out in the spring. Tough talk, but it probably wasn’t true. I would have been tormented by the thought of a missing skier that we had refused to go after for any reason.
The only other time I heard the ka-ching was my probe hitting the ski binding of 51-year-old Ann Janss, the wife of ski area owner Bill Janss. She died on a sunny January afternoon in 1973 while heli-skiing on Balcolm Ridge, just outside Sun Valley. A cornice had fractured, the resulting slide carrying her a half-mile, depositing her face down under three feet of snow. The ski patrol director and USFS snow ranger — both of whom knew far more about avalanches than I did — had been among her guides. Clearly, she felt safe and had taken no extraordinary chances. No one that day needed to state the obvious: It can happen to anyone. Was it more rewarding to recover a much-liked and responsible woman who had not skied off with her middle fi nger in the air? Thirty-seven years later, no. The grief of the survivors and loved ones at home doesn’t discriminate. Nor does the pit boss at Larry’s Big Casino.
Occasionally — although it probably isn’t true — I think there may be a bizarre connection between Angels and Idiots that doesn’t apply to others. Sometimes, teetering on the edge of Something Stupid, I have felt safe. Maybe dumb-asses draw Angel attention because they’re more vulnerable. Maybe it was just the adrenaline of the moment, lying to me like cheap wine.
To be sure, I don’t believe in Angels — especially the Guardian type. But I have on rare occasion sensed the presence of something different when out on the ragged edge. Maybe rock climbers know what I mean. I don’t experience it as Heavensent, even if I believed in Heaven, which I don’t. Nor am I positive that it’s always benefi cent, or even real. But there’s a connection to Something that can occur, one to one. “Hello, Angel, this is Idiot … just passing through, ’kay?”
There are spirits, too. Maybe they’re the same thing as Angels. One lazy fall afternoon, while fl y-fi shing on a relatively benign stretch of Idaho’s Big Wood River, the knee-deep current knocked me off my feet and fi lled my chest waders, carrying me downstream as I fl ailed to stay afl oat. It happened twice in 30 minutes at the same spot.
I was a fly-fishing guide at the time and had spent more than 60 days that year on the same river without falling anywhere else. Years later, I still have a sinister feeling about the place, and won’t go back. Rivers have spirits, too. The good ones we probably call River Angels, in the unlikely case that we think about it at all.
Far removed from those ski patrol days, I recently found my way back into the mountains through search and rescue (SAR). It would be a great way, I reasoned, to do something important and exciting again in the backcountry. Especially, it might be a cool new arena to launch a relationship with a working dog.
To my surprise, search and rescue hadn’t changed as much as I had. For me, the changes had been partly physical — a trashed knee from skiing too fast, a hyper-extended elbow from a long-forgotten bull ride, a numb face courtesy of a trailside Douglas fi r, an artifi cial hip from that mescaline-fueled slick-rock mountain bike ride.
The biggest changes, though, were going on in my head. There had never been any lasting glory — in fact, there never had been much glory at all. In the end, chasing my personal vision of Living Large has left far more stitches than good memories (though some of the latter I still cherish). But I knew it was time to stop channeling Idiots. I wanted to just become a good SAR soldier.
It’s easier said than done. The surge of adrenaline that accompanies a mission call-out comes from the unspoken urgency of the message, the instantaneous upload into the realm of life and death, of the incompetent, the merely unlucky, of Idiots and Angels — one or maybe all of them in trouble at Somebody’s Big Casino. Game On!
Five years ago, Tadc (Teeg) — my border collie — and I joined Sandia Search Dogs, a volunteer SAR team based in Albuquerque. When the phone rings, Tadc always knows if it’s a mission call-out before I do. He loves SAR even more than sheep herding, though both are off the scale on his high-octane fun list.
A typical call-out goes like this: In the rugged Gila Mountains of southern New Mexico, a 67-year-old man hasn’t returned from an early-winter hike with his dog. Calling SAR teams from as far away as southern Colorado, the mission — coordinated by the state police — has already been underway for a couple of days. When the phone call comes, I’m not surprised. I’ve been watching coverage of the incident on TV, fi guring it will be a wilderness cadaver mission and they need dog teams.
I look at the gear piled in my living room, trying to pare it down for the mission. Random thoughts fl ash through my mind — bring survival gear, this one’s gonna be bitter cold. Gotta drive fi ve hours, sleep in the car for a couple more before dawn. Bring pillows, a sleeping bag … too much stuff. Crap! I fi ll my pack, which is presumably ready (radios, cell phone, head lamp, GPS all have fresh batteries, right?), a couple of 100-ounce water bladders and a big Thermos water cooler. Where’s my goddamned knee brace?
The phone rings again. The hiker has just been found alive. He’s survived a week injured in the frigid mountains, wearing only a light jacket and no cold-weather gear. His dog (still missing), a black lab, had stayed with him, keeping him warm enough to survive the bitter nights. You just never know … there are probably more Angels in the passing lane than in the middle of the freeway.
Last year, 13 miles into the rugged Sangre de Cristos outside of Santa Fe, a lost hypothermic hiker (and the veteran pilot who carried her most of a mile on his back) died when the helicopter crashed while lifting off a steep ridge in a whiteout. (You have to wonder where were the Angels on THAT one.) Should the pilot have done less in the name of safety? Was it worth it? I guess it depends who you ask. Some who were there came home frustrated; two didn’t come home at all.
The financial cost was never an issue in this case — but often it is for state and federal agencies that foot the bill. In 2008, the U.S. Park Service alone spent $5 million on rescues. Agencies are starting to take a closer look at why the calls keep coming.
A 17-year-old Eagle Scout in New Hampshire was fi ned $25,000 last year for a rescue when he sprained his ankle on a 17-mile day hike in the White Mountains. He tried to take a shortcut and was stranded by snow and rising streams. The charge was reportedly levied by the state even after his grateful family had already made a generous donation to rescue teams. Being legally designated as “irresponsible” can carry heavy consequences for any backcountry user, even if it has nothing to do with the truth.
Still, a helicopter costs at least $700 an hour to operate and somebody’s gotta buy the gas. Agencies can easily drop $10,000 in the course of a long weekend, ferreting out and extricating some doofus who forgot to bring along an extra water bottle. According to a USA TODAY report, “Oregon caps the amount that can be billed at $500. Hawaii requires that there be ‘an intentional disregard’ for safety, and Idaho limits reimbursement to rescues from lands that are closed to the public.” Colorado partially funds its SAR operations by a tax on fishing and hunting licenses and New Hampshire by a $1 surcharge on snowmobile, boat and off-road vehicle licenses.
A recent Newsweek article reported that “The national Mountain Rescue Association and National Association for Search and Rescue both oppose charging subjects for search and rescue. A Colorado SAR group illustrates the problem with examples of people who refused help because of fears over a bill: A climber stuck on a 14,000-foot Colorado peak asked to be talked down because she couldn’t afford help; a stranded Idaho snowmobiler told his wife to hang up on a SAR team because he’d read media coverage of rescue charges; a lost runner in Arizona heard searchers in the night but deliberately avoided them because he was afraid he’d be billed.”
Experienced mountaineers tend to be clear about SAR: “I can’t imagine EVER not going out for someone who says they need help. Even dumb fucks are people, not much different from you and me. And very few people can pay for the cost of a full-blown rescue without it ruining their lives, or at least a big part of it,” says long-time MG contributor Dick Dorworth.
When it comes to personal costs, most volunteer searchers I know just bite the fi nancial bullet. My pack, counting communication, survival, fi rst aid and other stuff, probably holds $1,000 worth of gear. In New Mexico, mileage reimbursements have been so slow and infrequent that many searchers don’t even turn in the forms. Still, it’s a small price to pay for … what?
It’s the tragi-comedy, the stuff you never hear about, that fascinates me. Something funny, horrifying, or inspiring will happen out there. Every time, guaranteed.
Last fall, an incident base was established at a missing hunter’s camp — a meadow near the summit of Elk Mountain in the Pecos Wilderness — reached by a jarring 12-mile drive up a steep, rock-strewn Forest Service road. When we arrived, it was the fourth weekend search day for a missing local bowhunter. Tadc and I were assigned a promising sector adjacent to the camp, although one that ground-pounders had searched the week before.
With our navigator ready (dog teams always send a second person with the handler), I shrugged on my 45-pound pack and took one step before WHUMP — I doubled over, gasping. Tadc, who’d been prowling around the edge of the clearing, had run full speed and launched himself, slamming me in the groin with both front paws. This was his alert, a jump — he’d already found something! Still fumbling with my pack’s shoulder straps, I stumbled after him. He led me 30 yards to a woman, one of the searchers, who was sheepishly zipping up her pants. She’d stepped into the woods to pee.
“Good dog! That’ll do (hee hee).” We started again. Within five minutes, another alert — a powerful jump that again took my breath. Then, nose up, his tail trailing straight out behind, he was off and running.
“This one’s IT,” I thought — the alert was strong, positive. We followed again. My mind and heart were both racing: “It’s gonna be an early trip home. It’s our fi rst find, wow! People are gonna be blown away.”
From far ahead, Tadc raced back — weaving through the aspens, jumping logs — to alert twice more. This time it was for real, I knew. We followed … and followed. At nearly a half-mile, I saw them — two of our team members and a dog, working a distant meadow in the next sector. Somehow, he’d scented them from the deep timber at this distance — a great fi nd, wrong subjects.
To him, the difference between dead and alive is more or less irrelevant to the game. He alerts for both. “Okay, good dog!” We go back to where we started. We spend the rest of the day thrashing through the deadfall at 11,000 feet, with no results. The guy is, we think, still up there somewhere. We’ll go back next summer, after the snow melts, to try again. “He’s not,” according to one Incident Commander, “going to get any deader.”
Sometimes Angels are watching. When a three-year-old boy wandered off while his mother was hauling a load of fi rewood near their mountain cabin, Tadc and I — competing in a sheepherding trial a few miles away, were the fi rst dog team to show up. Search Base wouldn’t be operational for another hour, so the local sheriff asked us to go up to the PLS (place last seen) and see “She showed up the next morning at an equipment yard at the edge of town, still naked.” if we could fi nd anything. We’d been out about twenty minutes when a distant rumble grew quickly louder. It seems the National Guard had been training that weekend in Albuquerque, and — already geared up — had decided to help with the search mission. The fl eet of Blackhawks came in low and loud, ferrying several dozen weekend soldiers. Standing below the deafening air assault, I called Tadc. Forty yards away, he couldn’t hear me. He was watching the helicopters, looking for all the world, I thought, like Snoopy at Normandy. Neighbors found the boy a half-hour later. He’d walked nearly three miles.
Other times, the Angels seem to turn away. Last summer in the middle of the night, a meth-addled young mother parked her VW bug alongside the highway fi ve miles from Encino, a remote eastern New Mexico ranching town. Taking off her clothes and those of her 16-month-old son, she began walking toward town. She was fi rst sighted about 2 a.m. by a passing trucker. She showed up the next morning at an equipment yard at the edge of town, still naked. Her son wasn’t with her.
She had, in the pre-dawn hours, walked all the way into town four miles away, through it, and out the other side on different highway. A couple of miles later, she had wandered off into some deserted hills before finding her way back to the edge of town.
The next morning, my navigator and I chose a sector beginning at the equipment yard where the mother had shown up the morning before. For five hours, we walked a grid through the arid, flat plains, a news helicopter occasionally buzzing overhead. At one point we came across an abandoned, severely weathered little wooden ranch house not far from the road, its porch on the verge of collapse.
It hadn’t been searched yet, so we went inside, Tadc sniffing cautiously. In a corner of one musty room was an old iron woodstove. My dog hadn’t alerted on it, but the unthinkable, that we were about to be players in a nightmarish scenario, edged into our consciousness. They say meth is crazy-making. We held our breath when we opened the door to the stove. You could have heard a pin drop. Nothing! The boy, having died of exposure, was discovered by a police dog team in the next sector three hours later. When we heard the radio transmission, “This is team 17, we’ve got a red bandana (the death code for the day),” we turned wordlessly and headed back toward Incident Base. There, they had forgotten that team 13 was even in the field, despite us having called at noon to report our location. As we were signing out, another dog team said they’d just had a bad experience with a herd of range horses, which apparently thought their search dog was a coyote. They had made it over a fence ahead of the horses, they said, barely. They were angry because, for 45 minutes, they’d been told to keep searching, even after the boy had been found. They said it was because reporters were at Incident Base, where nobody wanted them to know about the find.
You never know who or what’s going to be on the other end of your fi gurative probe, and after a search ends, you never know how other people will perceive what you did.
Searchers are not allowed to talk to media about an incident. Ever. There’s a lot of paranoia in the SAR community about releasing inappropriate information during a search. Last spring, I was grounded by the fl u at home when the call-out (always happens) came. They especially wanted dogs, and no others were available. Tadc and I loaded up and headed for the Incident Base. A 15-year-old girl was missing — maybe — in the desert foothills on an Indian reservation. She and her sister had been out drinking with some older boys. Her sister had been found the next morning, her blood showing an alcohol content of .36 — a near-death level — and, by rumor, evidence of a date rape drug. She and the older guys were so drunk they couldn’t remember where they’d been.
Beginning at a pile of beer bottles on the ground, Tadc and I were assigned a wide, flat drainage — very searchable, good terrain. Our team gridded the sector without luck, fi nally arriving at a highway fi ve miles below, where a tribal police SUV picked us up. The search was suspended that night because the location had been covered by canine, ATV, horse, ground and helicopter teams, and because the location was still considered sketchy. We went home and I heard nothing further for three days. On the fourth, I got an email. One of my team member’s sister in Philadelphia had seen a TV account aired by an Albuquerque network station. It reported that the girl had been found in Albuquerque, safe and well, “after becoming separated from her friends while hiking over the weekend.” Holy shit!
Incredulous, I called the station’s assignment editor to learn where he got this bizarre info, so different from what we’d been told. “An FBI release,” he said. “They were the only ones who would say anything.” Angels, apparently, deal with a lot of stuff that we don’t need to know about.
AP reported last summer that two men and their teenage sons hiked into the scorching Grand Canyon’s Royal Arch Loop. Carrying a personal locater device that signals for help and transmits GPS location via satellite, the group pushed the panic button three times. Each call triggered an exceptionally dangerous helicopter rescue mission. The fi rst was because they didn’t have water and were thirsty. When the helicopter arrived, they declined evacuation because they had found water. They called again because the water they drank “tasted salty.” On the third call, exasperated rescuers forced them into the helicopter. The head of California’s SAR operations termed the use of the devices “Yuppie 911” — you push a button and the government pulls you out of something you shouldn’t have been in in the first place.”
In truth, unless helicopters are involved, it’s usually not the government but teams of volunteer searchers who “pull you out.” New Mexico, which averages 160 missions every year, has 40 teams. One of these, Sandia Search Dogs — my SAR team in Albuquerque — can fi eld 3-4 certifi ed wilderness search dogs at the drop of a hat. We train formally six times every month, rain or shine. Every day, my dog and I work on some aspect of SAR. It takes most handlers two years of steady training before they and their dog can qualify as “mission-ready.”
I don’t know if it’s ever possible to be “mission ready.” SAR missions are often little more than the wilderness stage for a larger drama — Idiots and Angels — always a volatile mixture. And how do you get ready for that? In the end, most of the players will survive; some won’t. I’ve done my own share of dumb-ass things in SAR. Once I showed up for a night mission without a headlamp or fl ashlight. Another time, I came within a footstep of walking off a 40-foot arroyo wall in the desert without seeing it. I’ve been lost for two hours because I forgot to program my GPS.
It’s always gonna be a gamble. And probably against the House Margin. I’m still here at the table, having never rolled snake eyes at My Own Big Casino. But now, when driving home after someone else’s gaming fatality, I often think that there, but for Angels, go I.
Living in Albuquerque, Dave Baldridge and his border collie continue to volunteer for wilderness search and rescue missions.