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MRA Webinar Series: Sharing Search & Rescue Stories: Experience in a Bottle
Transcript of MRA Webinar Series: Sharing Search & Rescue Stories: Experience in a Bottle
by Shaun Roundy
Why Tell SAR Stories?
:to your team
:to the public
Why NOT Tell SAR Stories?
People love stories.
How to Tell Stories
The Writing Process
Writing Skills: Characterization
- Realistic words
- Combine other details
Writing Skills: Description
Abstract + Concrete
Writing Skills: Contrast/Rhythm
Sentence length, word sounds
When I joined one of the world’s best search and rescue teams a dozen years ago, I wanted to know everything about it - what to expect, how things worked, what to do and not to do, and what to think about the commitment I just signed up for. In short, I wanted to hear stories.
Now I look in the eyes of this year’s probies and see the same hunger. They can hardly wait for the pager to go off. They want to get sent up the mountain or underground or into the river or onto the lake to help someone. They want experience, and there are only two ways to get it.
Usually you have to learn the hard way. Trial and error, successes and failures. This sort of experience takes time and errors can prove costly. “Experience is what you get,” they say, “when you don’t have experience.”
A quicker and safer way to gain experience is to get it vicariously through stories. Stories provide concrete lessons that can be readily applied to real world situations. They also have the benefit of hindsight to further draw out the important details.
8 a.m. met in parking lot. Rode lift to top, overlooking Provo Canyon, Slide Canyon. Ducked under the boundary rope and put skins on, started climbing. Climbed for a long time. This looks good! Rope with knots, sawed through cornice, tied in, jumped up and down on it, it wouldn't slide. Not worth the risk though disappointing. Skied down to other area.
Had good exit for a ski cut. Describe that. Tested each area as we went. Note snow conditions varied widely due to sun and shifting wind patterns. Bruce skied a slope and the crust snapped below his skis. Continued straight for an anchor.
We skied the slid slope, continued testing from time to time, returned to the resort.
We met in the parking lot at 8:00 a.m. and rode the lifts to the top of the mountain, hugging ourselves against the cold and burying our faces in coat collars to block out the wind. What would we have thought, what would we have done, if we had known that the mountain would break loose below our feet only three hours later?
I stopped my 4Runner on the River Trail above Canyon Glen Park and jumped out, pulling the last of my wetsuit on and zipping up my PFD. Tom’s Sheriff truck had stopped in front of me and a dozen Provo and North Fork firefighters lined the trail and river’s edge fifteen feet below.
“You ready?” Tom asked, quickly glancing over my gear. “Go!” he directed, and I scrambled down the bank.
My eyes swept over the scene as I took in what was going on. Kenny of North Fork Fire made his way up the river’s edge, dressed in his dry suit and gasping for breath.
Firefighters lined the shore, some holding throw bags, none of them in water gear. Out in the middle of the river, pinned against a large rock, the pale legs of a nine-year-old girl showed through the clear water.
An ICS member walked by and checked my gear. “Avalanche beacon? Probe and shovel?” I nodded and spun to show the shovel strapped to my pack. “Okay, you’re on team three. What’s your number?”
“750,” I answered, trying to conceal my eagerness to get hiking. He wrote it down and turned to evaluate another proby.
The trail up to the ice is steep and covered in frozen dirt and boulders of various sizes. Team 3 hiked quickly for a hundred yards, then paused to catch our breath. I moved to the top of the group before stopping.
We caught up with team 2 at the second lowering station being tied to stubby trees and boulders, and I again moved to the top of the group before stopping.
“Team two, team one,” a dozen radios squawked.
“Go for team two,” the team leader replied.
“We could use four more people up here, and does anyone have extra blankets?”
“I have blankets,” I reported quickly, still trying not to show how badly I wanted to get sent up. I feared that overeagerness would diminish my credibility. Better to appear level headed and calm.
“Go,” the team leader said, pointing to me, then designating three others.
4 Welcome to Utah County
Utah County’s varied and extreme topography makes it a perfect location for search and rescue - if you like excitement and challenge, that is.
Scattered across 2,000 square miles stretches the southern terminus of the Wasatch Range. 11,750’ Mount Timpanogos and 10,908’ Cascade Peak sometimes seem built of half rock and the other half stone. Cliffs pile one atop another as mountains shed altitude in their own version of a crash diet. Crystal streams tumble down gullies and ravines, while pine and aspen grow in terraced layers like a boy scout’s dream birthday cake.
At 4,489’ above sea level, the lowest point of the valley floor towers above state high points of 25 other states.
Stack another 7,439’ atop that for the county’s high point - Mount Nebo’s 11,928’ cone - and only a dozen states stand taller (including Utah’s 13,528 King’s Peak).
Yet Utah County doesn’t only go up. Beneath the surface, caves plunge deep into the earth’s crust. The West Desert has Utah’s 9th deepest known cave. ...
Half a million county residents can’t avoid catching a glimpse of nature’s majesty every time they step outside. Steep mountain ridges catch the morning sun and make them feel like they live in a postcard every time they look up. Canyon breezes tempt commuters to skip work and go for a hike. Afternoon sunlight shimmers like a million diamonds on the lake and calls students from two major universities to take time out for a dip in the lake’s murky but refreshing ripples and waves.
Some resist Mother Nature’s temptations, others yield. Eventually, inevitably, something goes wrong. People get lost, stranded, hurt, or killed.
Entropy is a law of nature. It’s the one predicting that “things fall apart.” Spend enough time in nature and it happens to everyone, regardless of whether they have prepared or not.
That’s why we’re here. Search and Rescue volunteers are on call 24/7/365 to pick up the pieces and, as much as possible, glue them together again.
40 Utah Lake Monster
A killer lives beneath the waves of our county’s enormous, shallow lake. This monster typically claims several lives every year, snatching its unsuspecting victims as they swim near the shore, near boats and rafts, or capsizing boats and sinking them in order to capture its next meal.
The monster is the lake itself.
In many areas, the lake bottom slopes slowly away from shore, allowing waders to walk for great distance on sand, rock, or mud without getting into trouble. Once the water rises above your chin, all bets are off.
When placid, the lake is dangerous enough, and swimmers sometimes panic and sink below the surface within a stone’s throw from a marina jetty. When storm systems or weather fronts blow through, the lake grows agitated and even more deadly. Unlike deeper waters, Utah Lake wind waves stack up steep with brief intervals between them, making a three-foot wave more dangerous than a ten-foot ocean swell.
Such was the case one August afternoon when an east wind shoved two brothers on a float tube near Sandy Beach away from shore. They hopped off the tube to walk back, but the water had grown too deep and they couldn’t touch bottom.
Following an hour of training, a review of last month’s call outs, announcements of the upcoming Saturday training, and information about various conditions around the county like the thickness of the ice developing on Utah Lake, someone requested that the new probies stand and introduce themselves again. President CJ nodded and we began.
Two other probies introduced themselves, and then came my turn.
As I stood and opened my mouth to tell my name, my cell phone rang in my pocket. My ringtone was the tune from Indiana Jones. “Daa ta-ta-taa, daa ta-taa.”
CJ cocked his head slightly and his jaw dropped enviously. “I want my own theme music!” he exclaimed.
18 The Old Couple
“What’s the toughest call you’ve ever been on?” a proby asked Olin.
Olin thought for a minute, then began his answer. “There was a couple in their 70s,” he began, and several of us rolled our eyes and nodded our heads, recalling the incident and reliving the memory of our suffering that night.
SAR teams across the Wasatch Front and Back trained together to work out interagency communication and logistical kinks before the real thing arrived and caught us off guard.
Finally, the Olympics arrived. Massive fireworks displays lit up the valleys and illuminated the snow-covered mountains. Visitors landed at the Salt Lake International Airport and filled hotels and Olympic venues for the next 17 days.
We woke up, went to work, came home, kept our pagers near, and waited.
And waited. The calls never materialized. The Olympic spectators turned out to be just that. They didn’t come to Utah to ski or hike or climb, but to watch.
I went hiking above the falls myself one day to better familiarize myself with the terrain when I heard a loud whap above me. Looking 150’ up the slope where no one had been hiking, I saw the top of a blond head, its part still perfectly combed, lay motionless in the dirt.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Are you okay?” The boy did not answer or move.
31 Lost and Found
Life is hard. It’s hard for everyone at times, regardless of the brave, happy face they may wear for the world to see. People often suffer alone, bearing their burden in silence when they should reach out for support. Eventually, the struggle wears them thin or crushes them completely.
I don’t know if any such feelings drove a young Utah County man to give up the fight one October night. All I know is that he wrote a note and left it with his watch and wallet along the River Trail near the lake, shot up heroin, and stepped into the current.
When we turned to exit the marina, immediately encountered the large waves. With any speed at all, our watercraft launched from wave crest to wave face, a jarring experience that made me wonder how long the hulls could stand it before smashing to pieces.
We adjusted our speed up and down for a minute, seeking the ideal speed to cross the wave intervals more smoothly, but only slowing down to a few miles per hour could reduce the pounding.
I turned toward Olin and pointed west. He nodded. The plan was to cross the lake nearly perpendicular to the waves rather than trying to drive directly toward our destination. I squeezed the throttle and felt the satisfying power of the 1.8 liter engine thrust the craft forward.
By changing our trajectory, we were able to travel around 60 mph. We still spent roughly half the time airborne, but we landed smoothly in the next trough rather than slamming hard against each wave face.
The speed felt good, as did the jumping, the smooth landings as the wedged hull sliced apart the water surface, and the combination of sun, wind, and occasional spray of water on my face. Having a destination and an important purpose made it all the more rewarding. No wonder everybody on the team likes lake rescues.
Kimmie lay there, submerged and face down, her legs only a few inches below the clear, glassy surface. I grabbed her legs and held on tight, determined not to let her wash away from my grip, and expecting to find her wedged in tightly based on Kenny’s experience of having difficulty dislodging her.
Instead, she slipped right out. I lifted her limp body into my arms and cradled her against my chest. She felt small and light. She was not breathing. I didn’t take the time to check for a pulse as there was nothing I could do about it perched precariously midstream.
I spun my legs sideways and the current swept us back into the river. My feet touched bottom and I took several steps through the boulder’s eddy, then swam when the current knocked me down.
I kicked hard toward shore, holding the child up in front of me, then shouted “Take her!” to a fireman waiting with a throw bag as I swept past. He lifted her from my arms and I washed another fifty feet downstream before I could stop and climb onto the bank.
Hordes of uber athletes plunged into the water, reaching out with muscular arms and pulling against the lake, then raised their arms above the water, fingers sliding up their lats and past bulging shoulders sporting a number written with permanent marker, and reaching ahead once more to punch the water, break the surface tension, and open a passage for head, shoulders, and body to slip through.
Legs kicked hard, bodies rolling elegantly back and forth from side to side as they charged fluidly forward; left, right, left, right, left, right.
Mouths blew bubbles underwater, releasing spent air whose oxygen had been sucked out by muscle cells now burning fuel like coal heaped into a locomotive’s furnace. Now and then a racer twisted his or her neck to one side or the other to gulp down a fresh lung-full of air. The swimmers’s lips resembled the blowholes of an enormous pod of very slow dolphins.
I knew the area and had climbed here before. Stairway to Heaven is an 800’ frozen waterfall - the tallest free-flowing vertical ice in the Lower 48. Standing in the center of the 200’ wide ice sheet gives the impression that time has stopped a frothy waterfall. You might glance around half expecting to see a salmon caught mid leap up the falls, or a grizzly bear standing half submerged, stretching out its toothy snout to catch the fish for dinner.
The ice came and went, waxing and waning, throughout the winter, depending on the air temperature. Cold temps turned the ice thick but brittle. Warm spells gnawed away at the ice and sometimes sent huge columns crashing down the mountainside.
As the dogs continued to scamper back and forth across the hull, they threatened to tip it and send Percy back into the water.
“We gotta shoot ‘em,” Gary declared.
“Wait ain’t gonna shoot Percy!” Gerald objected. “Are you outta yer frickin mind?”
“Not Percy, you idiot! We gotta shoot the dogs!” Gary bellowed back. “If they keep runnin' around like that, they’re gonna knock Percy off! What’s the matter with you?!”
“Oh,” Gerald muttered. The cold was really digging into his skin now, along with the seriousness of their predicament. No one would know they capsized the boat. No one would expect them back for hours.
What’s the point?
he thought to himself.
We’re all gonna die out here anyway.
“Gimme the gun,” Gary directed. Gerald was cradling his new Remington 20 gauge when the boat flipped and he had somehow managed to hang on. He would miss the dogs, but they could be replaced. He handed the shotgun to Gary. When he felt Gary grab the double barrel underwater, he let go.
“Gimme the gun, Gerald,” Gary commanded again. “No use putting it off. It’s gotta be done.”
“I already gave it to you,” Gerald said.
“You mean after you poked me with it?” Boyd asked.
“I never poked you with it!” Gerald objected, and it dawned on everyone at the same time what happened. Gerald thought Gary had the gun and simply dropped it into the lake.