Vail Daily column: The lone wolves
January 14, 2014
It was nearly Christmas, and we were grateful it had been a relatively quiet rescue season thus far. The Vail Mountain Rescue Group had decided to hold a party at one of our members' home. Watching mountain men, ex-Marines, river runners, guides, patrollers, paramedics, truckers and, yes, even the one-off CPA, pastor or banker crowd into a single kitchen can be quite an interesting experience.
Mountain Rescue was once described to me as an organization made up entirely of lone wolves. This is damn accurate. It requires strong personalities and strong will to step into some parts of the backcountry — a will that must often be used for less romantic purposes, like holding your tongue when you want to speak, or standing in the rain waiting for your next set of instructions, or hiking in 12 miles to the backside of Holy Cross to save unwise people that believe you are obligated to come get them. It's a volunteer organization, but few people realize how much of themselves must actually be volunteered.
I'm proud to stand among these lone wolves on this particular night, but looking around the party I am again reminded of just how much of a rookie I am. I'm approaching my third year, but I feel green on every mission. There are supermen (and women) all around me. Guys that can lift their bodyweight from the first knuckle of their fingers, greybeards that saw combat in their youth and now strategize finding a missing party the same way they found the enemy, technicians that can predict avalanches and individuals that have served on hundreds of missions over decades of service. I'm none of these things, but I was blessed with a quick mind, a careful tongue and faith in the goodness of men. If I'm quiet and I pay attention, then I realize these wolves are training me in the rest.
My first remembered mission with Mountain Rescue was not glamorous. I showed up in my gear for a night-time rescue, expecting to be in the field, but I was somewhat disappointed and relieved to be assigned to keep Dan Smith, the operations commander, company. It was past 10 p.m. and temperatures were rapidly dropping. I heard radio traffic for a few hours. Missing snowboarder, suspected in Lime Creek area, health concerns. I'll never forget hearing one of our supermen, Tom (codename Sludge), chime in with, "We found him." There was an intensely restrained excitement in that statement. It was humble and calm, but my heart nearly leapt out of my chest hearing the undertones of joy in his voice over the radio. I had to laugh when I finally got my first order as a rescuer: Go get pizza. I'm glad I played my part that night.
Now, as I look around the party again, I peer over to the stairs and see Dan huddled over his radio. The former lobbyist and Vietnam vet holds the radio to his ear like it can tell the future. In many ways, for us, I suppose it does. There's a flood happening nearby, and families are being evacuated. Dan pulls a few of us aside, myself included, with a simple request to be ready. This wasn't the backcountry, but we would be ready to help anyway. We nervously sit around in the living room and wait. Will we man a shelter tonight? Will the families have injuries? Did everyone get out as needed? In the end, the families were taken care of, and we all went home.
In the period of time that I have associated myself with these lone wolves, I have been often asked by friends about the rescues we perform. The organization has a tendency to avoid press, for privacy reasons, and most of the wolves I serve with prefer to stay in the shadows. When called on, however, these men and women rally with discipline and poise under adverse circumstances. There is, truly, some romance in it, but it's not well understood. I was recently asked at a family gathering, "Have you ever rescued anyone, Ben?" "Why, of course," I say, as my heart leaps in remembrance. "Myself."
Benjamin A. Gochberg lives in Avon.