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The Dark Side of Search and Rescue

When rescues become recoveries, search-and-rescue volunteers can experience an emotional toll.

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In my nearly 15 years as a member of the Alpine Rescue Team, I’ve been directly involved in more than 70 body recoveries. As my much-better half (who is a homebirth midwife) and I sometimes joke, she helps brings ’em into the world, and I often help carry ’em out. It’s gallows humor like this, along with the support of our peers and families, that allows those of us who work in mountain rescue to carry on without being carried away.

Performing mountain rescue can take a real toll on the non-paid professionals who call the mountains their backyard. Everyone understands the physical toll. But performing mountain rescue can take a toll financially, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually. After speaking with fellow rescuers, I have come to the conclusion that every fatality affects us differently. A rescuer might respond to a dozen fatalities without losing an hour of sleep, without shedding a single tear, or without spending a single moment lost in dark reflection about our own inescapable mortality.

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But, maybe the next time the pager chirps and prompts the mountain rescuer’s Pavlovian call to action, death will wear a face that resembles that of the rescuer’s best friend. Or sister. Or brother. Or dad. Or mom. Or child. In those tortuous times, the support of our teammates is paramount. Even the comfort of our own spouses may not be enough to assuage the variety pack of emotions that can assault us.

Case in point: the summer of 2010. Ten of my Alpine brothers and sisters and I helped recover three badly burned corpses from a plane that had crashed into the east side of the Continental Divide. I can say with honesty that I went about the grisly work with nary a second thought to the fact that, only 20 hours earlier, the blackened skull I pulled from the still-smoldering wreckage and held in my rubber gloved hands had still been attached to a living, breathing human being. The plane was returning from an air show in the Midwest, and doubtless the pilot and two passengers were doing what they loved best—flying.

We spent most of the morning and part of the afternoon working in concert with the county coroner, the Federal Aviation Administration, and the National Transportation Safety Board. When our work was done, I marveled with a remoteness that surprised even me that what remained of the three of the corpses fit neatly into the small basket on the back of an ATV. Before we began the nine-mile ride out on our ATVs, the Sheriff brought us lunch. This lunch consisted of a delicacy that we refer to as jail sandwiches (lovingly made by inmates in county lockup).

This time around, the inmates had neglected to include any meat on our sandwiches; these “sandwiches” consisted of a single slice of processed cheese between two pieces of stale bread. We were grateful for the Doritos and small plastic packet of French’s mustard that were included in each paper sack. I hungrily applied the condiment, and managed to get just as much mustard on my fingers as I did on my so-called sandwich. Absently, I licked the tart yellow mess from my fingertips as I sat cross-legged on the dirt next to the blue bagged corpses strapped down to the ATV a few feet away. Just as I had cleaned the last of it from my finger, I froze, tongue to digit, as I looked sideways to fellow Alpine team member Angie Lucht. She regarded my finger-cleaning efforts with a look of amused disdain and disgust.

For though I had been wearing rubber gloves during the recovery, I still had smudges of ash, oil, and human remains on my hands and clothes. I slowly retracted my tongue, looked sheepishly at my filthy hands.

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“Dude, that’s gross,” she said.

I taste dead people, I thought to myself, and then Angie (who must have had a similar thought) and I both burst into a fit of much-needed laughter. It wasn’t exactly a therapy session on a couch with a trained and licensed psychiatrist, but it would do for the time being. I chuckled heartily at the awkward moment, but as soon as I thought no one was watching, I turned my head and discreetly spit and sputtered whatever I could get out of my mouth onto the ground. Shortly after that, we saddled up, rode down the mountain, and delivered our smallish blue bags to the coroner’s assistants.

Mission accomplished, right? But nearly two weeks later, I found myself in an odd state of mind. I was edgy, and overly critical of myself, my wife, my kids, and my co-workers. Not raging, but just enough off the scale for me (and of course my wife) to take notice that things that usually slipped by me unnoticed seemed to take on much larger proportions than I usually granted them.

I caught myself, more than a couple times, staring blankly into space, without being able to recall what had captured my attention. Unnervingly, this seemed to happen most often at stoplights in rush-hour traffic. A simple goodbye hug from my youngest daughter resulted in a fierce reciprocal hug from me as though I was headed off to war rather than to work in Denver. Food didn’t have enough flavor; I was constantly in search of the saltshaker and the Tabasco. The ol’ libido took a nosedive. Perhaps most inexplicably disturbing of all, I found myself embarrassingly fighting back tears with the back of my hand while watching, of all things, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with the kids.

W. T. F.

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Putting the puzzle pieces together now on paper, it is no great mystery that I was suffering a mild—if there is such a thing—case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But back in the moment, I attributed my funk to the mundane aspects of life that somehow managed to pile up around me until they’d become a hill that prevented me from glimpsing happiness. Money problems, work problems, car problems. But it still didn’t add up.

It wasn’t until the night before I had to board a plane (just two weeks after the crash recovery effort), that I realized lifting burnt turkey-sized torsos out of the ashes of that plane crash and putting them in labeled paper bags for the coroner might have had a little to do with my recent mood. Let’s not even discuss the anxiety I felt climbing onto an airplane the next day.

I’m still not sure why I didn’t get that flash of inspiration earlier, but that odd emotional salad of light depression, edginess, flatness, and listlessness dressed with a hint of bewilderment suddenly seemed like an understandable part of the mental menu I had been staring at. And just knowing the root of these feelings went a long, long way toward releasing their hold over me.

(Read more about Colorado heroes in “Home of the Brave”)

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