What’s at Stake – How Search and Rescue Shapes Our Mountains

Those engaged in search and rescue in New Hampshire's White Mountains represent the thinnest fraction of all who come to enjoy the freedom of our hills. But, despite their small numbers, one can argue that they are among our mountains' primary users and in that use they shape what we seek and what we find there. They are its guides, its most skilled travelers, and most celebrated characters. How they come to our hills and what they do there unites practice and path, and almost everyone else follows along, or walks under the wing of their presence.

In their book Forest and Crag, preeminent White Mountain historians Laura and Guy Waterman describe how, early in the 20th century, the hiking and climbing community was affected by the mountain-altering story of Curtis and Ormsbee (see sidebar). The Watermans noted the way that their deaths during high summer on Mount Washington caused deep introspection among the day’s leading climbers, helped speckle the uplands with shelters that were seen as passive rescuers, and offered resolve to those who go out after hikers in trouble. Over time that introspection has led to the outlined seams and multihued sections of what has often been called “a patchwork,” or, more comfortingly, “a quilt” of rescue. But the practice of that rescue has become anything but patchy—where once it consisted of informal aggregates of whoever was around, it now is a precise and proficient response to robocalls sent out by leaders of groups spaced throughout the Whites. As it deals with the wild sets of variables the mountains and their walkers, runners, skiers, and climbers can create, and even as New Hampshire Fish and Game (NHFG), its supervisory agency, is chronically underfunded, White Mountain SAR manages to remain highly efficient. At the same time, White Mountain SAR has stopped short of becoming the fully professional contingent that patrols the Alps. It is a giving practice, supervised by professionals and brought to life by volunteers, who, time after time, suspend the usual and climb up into another world to bring us back when we’ve fallen.

And there we are, in our gaudy variety, a spectrum of seekers that runs from jokers and clowns to Zen walkers and mystics, with the great middle being average citizens who would feel the touch of wild and, for a day or more, enjoy this extraordinary upland gift of the natural world. But even as we aspire to self-sufficiency in that wild, most of us carry the usual here there. We bring along phones and beacons and soundtracks, often just for sending out a modern equivalent to postcards—Don’t you wish you were here? Like me? If trouble finds us, or we find it, very few of us resist calling for help getting out of there, even as that call for help asks others to walk where we’ve fallen.

That someone will answer is the modern equivalent to sun worship—it gives life; we bow to it. Now, it is the assurance that someone will go out there to find or lug us back here that colors in the human character of our wild lands.

Consider then, for a bit, what the Whites and your experience in them would be like if there were no searchers and rescuers available. Once, in the 1990s, I edited and published in Appalachia Robert Kruzyna’s provocative (and to some extent, tongue-in-cheek) essay arguing for just such an absence. Kruzyna argued for dismantling any SAR structures and leaving any rescue up to the wandering self or group. And he made a point of climbing and exploring as if there were no SAR people on call. Others, too, have made that argument; it is a sort of libertarian dream. Okay, you’ve probably not migrated to that point along the spectrum of response, but where do you set up shop along that line?

Does your consideration argue for even a little dialing back of search and rescue? Or do you want your SAR dialed up—fueled and ready to lift off at moment’s notice? That’s a central question posed by the book from which this essay is drawn. But it’s one for each reader and, finally, a collective of mountain-drawn people to answer.

In that spirit, here’s my answer: Bans don’t work, either of equipment or behavior. Prohibition once seemed a reasonable answer to the ways in which alcohol could alter lives. During the ban, alcohol went right on altering lives, and we—society—had a whole new set of problems of criminal empowerment and debasement of law to deal with. The freedom to wander up into the hills, and the freedom to summon help when those hills deliver difficulty can’t be banned or tightly regulated; neither should they be. But what each of us does when we walk up, or what we do when summoned by someone who has stumbled up there, can be measured and done with restraint.

Restraint by both mountain seekers and rescuers seems such a namby-pamby answer: “Be moderate . . . please.” Please?

Yet moderation is, in fact, what’s called for, in part because it must be spawn of thought; restraint asks each of us to take up residence in rational response, to consider consequences, to think our actions through. Chamonix and its rescue scene, copter-based and professional, offer magnetic stories, drawing both narrative’s and heart’s compass needles. They seem pure positives. Chamonix’s rescuers are similar to those of New Hampshire’s Mountain Rescue Service, in that they are guides and climbers of high caliber. But Chamonix’s Peloton de Gendarmerie de Haute Montagne await your call at any hour in a sparely furnished room right next to a helipad; they can be off to the rescue in minutes. In the Whites, NHFG must gather its rescuers, professional or volunteer, from the disparate scatter of their lives. Yes, they are all “local” to the scene, unlike their high-angle forerunners from the 1950s and -60s and before, but collecting them still takes time.

Time is of the essence, say advocates for professional rescue. The clock’s ticking can be a heartbeat running out, a metronome of measured possibility that runs down. Soon. There’s no denying that. It’s simply true.

But if the Whites were to shift to professional, on-call rescue, they would change. Irrevocably, I’d argue. Once organized and fledged, professional rescue will not confine itself to time-sensitive emergencies; it will go out pretty much for any call. Otherwise, how do you justify its expense? Very few professions build in a structure for less use. Surgeons, for example, want to operate; they want to use their fine skills. It’s no stretch to liken a pilot who can fly with his rotor blade only feet from a cliff and a rescuer who can be lowered from that helicopter to precise place on that cliff to a surgeon. They all share fine-tuned senses of space, and they revel in using their uncommon skills.

You can, of course, create your own comparisons with other professions. The point is that skills and a career thrive through use. In the early 2000s, as NHFG’s Specialized Rescue Team developed and gained confidence, their use of volunteer groups waned. As fewer calls came in, volunteers drifted from rosters. The volunteer enterprise of going out to get your own seemed in danger of atrophy. But NHFG conservation officers have many responsibilities, and as those responsibilities burgeoned, too, volunteers got more calls; the SAR system settled back to its usual mix of responders.

I’m arguing for restraint, which is sometimes slow. I’m arguing against a fully professional response, which is often speedier. “We did what we could with what we have” might be that SAR’s motto. How does that stack up against, “We did everything we could?”

How does one argue against doing “everything” to save a life?

At this point, I wish to speak a word for Nature, as Thoreau famously did in his signature essay, “Walking.” The other life at stake in this question needs consideration, too. That life doesn’t have an individual face and backstory; it is huge, amorphous, and sometimes threatening, and it doesn’t vote. But wild Nature is also a savior. It is our oldest home, the one that shaped us, the one that now reminds us who we are. It is the place many of us go to find ourselves, a search as vital as any. A backcountry overflown and lined with the suture sound of helicopters and drones loses quickly its wild nature. Its primary sound, silence or the sotto voce whisper of trees and rocks and air, vanishes. Using more machines in it encourages their further use. When the backcountry becomes infested with our technology, it is no longer itself. We have lost it. Then, I would argue, we too are lost. Restraining our wing-and-rotor brigades helps keep our wild country intact, let’s it be itself. That’s vital for all life.

Restraint then. By those who would wander and call, and by those who would answer and search. Learned behaviors all. It seems that the future of the Whites may lie in this bumpy, hard-won terrain. For a limits-testing species, that may not be welcome news. But, whether restraint lies in our response to a large-scale challenge such as climate change, or a small-scale decision such as whether to call for or provide rescue, it is rooted in human decision making and ethics. There is much that is beyond our control, but within the limits of what we can control, restraint may be our greatest asset.

A final thought: not doing something can be seen as passive. I’m not arguing for sleepy response. I’m arguing for active restraint. I’m arguing for the sort of vigilance that has us sitting forward and getting up. I’m arguing for a holding back that is as alert as an animal’s eyes.

This essay is drawn largely from Critical Hours—Search and Rescue in the White Mountains, a book to be published by University Press of New England in spring of 2018.

At the midsummer pivot point of the first year of the 20th century, two of their era’s strongest climbers set out for an Appalachian Mountain Club field meeting on the summit of Mt. Washington. The June 30, 1900, meeting had no doubt been scheduled with balmy temperatures, long light, and walks to and views of distant blue ridges in mind. But that weekend drew a different set of cards from weather’s deck: cold rain swept the low ridges, and above treeline that rain mixed with sleet and became finally wind-hurled ice rain. Most of those attending the meeting chose the shelter of the cog railway or carriage road as a way up, but “Father Bill” Curtis, age 62, and Allan Ormsbee, age 28, inclined toward the Crawford Path and its 8-mile southern approach. After a brief foray up Mt. Willard, they set out in the Saturday forenoon, clothed mostly in their reputations as formidable mountain walkers. Curtis, in particular, was known for covering distance, being inured to cold, and hiking in light clothing; it was a point of pride.

The panes of glass in the Summit House hotel’s windows began to shatter on Saturday morning. As the storm intensified, bits of wind-driven ice broke one pane after another, and employees hurried to tack rectangles of woods into each opening. One can imagine a gradual darkening of the room. Still, the Appalachians, as AMC members were called, were undeterred. They read papers and held discussions, and the trains kept carrying new arrivals up.

The Summit House was full of notables, a who’s who of White Mountain hiking history. A modern reader of that history or walker of its terrain can’t help but bump into reminders of these pioneers: the Edmands Path or Edmands Col recalls the Presidential Range’s greatest path-builder, Rayner Edmands; an old topo-map points to mapmaker Louis Cutter; AMC’s long history is embodied by its first president and 40-year editor of Appalachia, Charles Fay and a cadre of MIT professors. These men and many others were at the hotel meeting. They were used to solving problems, and their kind of solving meant acting. But as they waited for Curtis and Ormsbee and kept to their meeting schedule, they were also pinned inside by the storm. And that storm went on, only strengthening through Saturday night and into Sunday.

On Saturday night, at the urging of others, noted guide Thaddeus Lowe and another man took lanterns and went out for a look-see. If nothing else, the pair hoped their lights might offer guidance to Curtis and Ormsbee should they be out there in the thick dark. Within steps, the wind snuffed their lanterns and in the absolute blackness, Lowe and his companion struggled to cross the iced rocks and regain the hotel. Clearly, the only action was waiting. Against the relentlessly audible roar of hurried air, the Appalachians waited. When they finally emerged on Monday morning, they walked out into a changed mountain world.

The July sun began to melt the accrued ice. Some chunks weighed in at hundreds of pounds as they fell from summit structures, and the rime ice, “white fingers pointing at the wind,” dropped from every post and stone. Across this glassed landscape, the Appalachians looked for Curtis and Ormsbee, finding Curtis first, fallen and glazed on the Crawford Path, not far from the Lakes of the Clouds. Ormsbee took more finding. Eventually, a three-man sweep following the intuition of Ormsbee’s friend Herschel Parker (later to gain fame on Mt. McKinley), located his body a mere 130 vertical feet below the summit. Battered from recurring slips and collisions with the summit cone’s sharp rocks (the coroner would count 50 significant bruises), Ormsbee had almost made it to safety.

Photo: David Anderson