One Day in the Life of a Volunteer Search and Rescue Dude – Part II

This is part two in a series written by Daniel Dunn. To read Part One click here
Seriously, why do I do this? I can get really, really messed up out here. I give a TON of my free time to train and respond to missions and become first aid certified. You think driving all over the county, responding in the middle of the night, is cheap, when gas is $3.75 per gallon. That’s a ten dollar round trip to Quandary, in my car, which does well on mileage. All this gear I use and totally abuse is expensive. Go check out your typical Patagonia or North Face jacket, $300 easy. But you can’t use the cheap stuff, because if you have the cheap stuff up high in the mountains, on the wrong day, you die. Your gear is your life. The weather up high changes in an instant, and if you’re soaking wet, and really cold, and that rescue turns into an all-nighter, with that crazy summer snowstorm that just rolled in, you are a dead man. Gear is your life, ask any guide who spends his entire life outside, in the mountains. Good gear ain’t cheap, to put it bluntly.
Man, I’m behind on work. What about that edit, I gotta schedule three interviews for that other project for this week, oh yeah, the horse therapy edit, two huge groups in Telluride two weeks from now, I gotta get that stuff to Carson in New York, he’s working on that super cool movie about ski patrol and search and rescue and he freaking told me he wants to see some of my work-Why haven’t I sent him anything yet?!! Jeez, Dan, that’s exactly what you want to do, why don’t you send him something, cause you’re behind, that’s why. And three house edits and one huge house shoot that we still need to plan and then get decent weather for-ARGHHHHH!!!! That’s everything that’s on my plate and I’m out here in this horrible, craptastic weather, on the high side of some loose, dangerous mountain, looking for four guys who made a bad freaking decision!! It’s not my fault they were idiots!! Screw these guys, let ‘em take care of themselves!
No, Dan, you can’t think that way. It’s OK for a minute, but only to yourself. Yes, these guys made a bad choice or two. But you have made SOOO many more than that in your day, and you still do.  The good Lord gave you many things, you’re not perfect by any means. But you’re here for many reasons, and of some of your talents, you can run up the side of a mountain, in crappy weather, in the middle of a dark, scary night, and find people, and help them. They’re scared, they’re cold, they’re lonely, they want to get home, they might be hurt, and they’re really scared. Did I just say that twice? That they’re scared, because they are. And you can get them, so they can sleep in their own bed, and their families can be happy. We all have different skills, and those are yours. So drop the attitude and go get these guys.
13,000 feet, getting harder to breathe now, wow, it’s around 530 and Thank God! it’s actually been pretty nice all day, boy, if that crappy weather kept up, we’d be really screwed, but no, it’s actually been kinda nice. The clouds are rolling, the fog is in and out, but yeah, it’s been kinda nice. So happy about that. Found a nice flat spot. Man, it sure is pretty up here, the valley below is so green. Water everywhere keeps things green. Can’t believe this late in the summer, usually everything is brown and dry and kinda burnt looking.
Take a quick break here and wait for Punchy. Colin just took his pack off, he’s gonna boogie up a little higher and see if he can find someone. Last 30 minutes we’ve been hearing voices, louder and louder. It’s just tough to know if they are near or far, the way these gullies channel sound. But we are getting closer. In fact, the last time they replied, they sounded really close, so that’s why Colin has dropped his pack and going out for a look see. Punchy just got to me and we’re gonna sit for a sec. This is hard work and a little breather will do us all good in the long run. It won’t do anyone any good, if we are unable to help, because we’re too whupped. Gotta go slow, to go fast. Sit, breathe, eat, drink.
Saving Lives
What!? Colin just came over the radio, he’s got a visual, about 100 yards! Awesome! Nice work dude! That is really pretty exciting. He’s about 100 yards away, and said all four guys are moving towards him. Great! He’s about 400 vertical feet above us. Nothing we can really do from here, and in fact he just said why don’t we sit tight, as these guys are all moving, and we still have a long way to go, and we’re gonna need to be fresh for the rest of the journey.
20 minutes later and we finally see all five guys slowly making their way down to us. It’s amazing when we see them. They come out from behind some arete, and they aren’t that far away, but it seems like they moving so slowly. Wow, these aren’t mountain people, even what we think of as they easy stuff, they’re having serious issues with. Hey Dan, stop that thinking right now, they’re doing the best they can, and we’re here to help, don’t make ‘em feel bad.
Cool, they all get to us, yes! 13,400 feet is the elevation, and just about 630. Thank You weather gods for looking with pity upon us. One dude, the big guy, has a pretty good gash on his leg, but it’s all clotted up and he’s mobile. Not even giving it a second thought, there’s no way we’re looking at that wound right now. We gotta keep these guys moving. This is where I feel like my people skills shine. I instruct them to all grab a seat, giving them hot and/or cold water, and some Gatorade. I give them Clif bars and other sugary granola bars, gotta get some calories in these boys. I hang with them and let them know it’s all gonna be OK, while behind me Colin and Punchy discuss the plan of attack. This isn’t going to be a long break, don’t want to get cold and situated, we’ll just stay here long enough to let their heart rates come down. These boys are scared. Two of ‘em look pretty good, two of ‘em don’t. Five minute rest, that’s enough. I’ve guided long enough to know that big breaks will kill you. You get all cozy and then don’t want to start moving again. Well, there’s no way that’s going to happen with this crew. We’re getting down, and we’re getting down tonight. I’m sleeping in my own bed, and so are these boys.
Time to go. I think they’re all anxious to move, especially having some experienced mountain people around. It kinda gives them new blood, I can see it. They all seem much more comfortable now, as if they know everything is going to be OK. There is a certain level of fear gone from their eyes. I catch a smile every now and then. Conversation actually happens, they ask questions, and they thank us again and again. All this makes me feel really good. I gotta say, now that I’ve done this Search and Rescue thing for a few years, part of why I do it is purely selfish. I LOVE the feeling I personally get when I help someone. It feels so good inside, like all is good with the world. These people are genuinely happy you are there with them, and you are going to make everything alright. These guys are happy because I exist in the here and now, and am going to get them out of a really crappy situation. You better believe that makes me feel good.
We don’t have to drop a whole lot more elevation, but do have to traverse about 3/4 of a mile to our belay spot, over some airy, dicey ground. Not really worrisome stuff if you’re a foot off flat level ground, but one wrong move, in the wrong spot, and someone would just for a really long slide/fall, probably resulting in a really painful death. Not to put it to bluntly, but there is some serious exposure up there, but only after sliding on some very slick, very steep rock. Twisting, turning, flopping on hard rock, yeah, it would be ugly. But we take it very slow, and I coach the two slower guys exactly where to put their hands and feet, and make them go SLOW. I’m in front of them, Colin is behind, and we’re both working hard, directly them, but also encouraging them, so they don’t really think about where they are, but to also just stay positive. We still have a long way to go, and we need these guys in as good a mood as possible. Punchy is just ahead of us, with the two stronger guys, and I know he’s dealing with the grumpiness from them, as they detail the drama of the day, and complain about the two slower guys. Tip for hikers and climbers-know your partners. Anyway, we all have our hands full, and the sun is dropping now. Is that fog I see?
Tense Times
Ok, at the lowering spot, wow, this could actually be kinda fun. We have a 200 foot rope, and about a 198 foot lower, boy this is gonna be close. Punchy and Colin do awesome work setting up the anchor, I’m so glad those two are along, they have much more experience than I do with this kinda stuff. I could do it, but I’m just glad they’re here. I’ll handle making the guys feel OK, those guys handle the anchor. Punchy is doing the lowering, Colin is safety/double check guy, and I just got elected to go first. I’m the tester-GREAT! We double check, we triple check, we swear a lot, we look each other in the eye, dead on in the eye, and this is when you realize lives are on the line. It gets really quiet, I swear I can hear my heartbeat. This is when you know what it feels like to trust someone, my life is literally in Punchy’s hands. Holy Pete, here goes, over the edge.
Except it’s not quite as sexy as you see in the movies. This particular edge is all funky, rocks going everywhere, it’s off angle and not clean at all. There is no jumping off involved, it’s more of a belly slide/crawl maneuver, but then I feel my weight being totally on the rope, and I’m hanging. And from here, for me at least, I’m almost on auto pilot. I’m so focused, so involved in the moment, that nothing else matters. I don’t think about the elevation, the drizzle that has started back up, the work that I didn’t do today, the lack of a girlfriend, or any of the other crap in my life. I think about the rock in front of me, keeping my left hand up, and my feet out straight. There is nothing else right now. Ultimate focus.
And then I’m on flat ground, that’s it. About 60 seconds and 200 feet straight down. I call up on the radio, “Off belay”, look up and give the thumbs up. I’m good. Wow! that was incredible, and exactly why I love being high in the mountains. It’s this whole Zen Buddhism thing, being totally committed to the moment, being right here, right now. It’s awesome.
I get the call on the radio, they’re ready to lower the first guy, down he comes. I’m not gonna say it was easy, but everything goes exactly as it should. No drama, no excitement. The guys come down one by one, I untie them and tell them where to stand, out of the way of rockfall. It’s getting darker now. I send the first guy down through the scree by himself to Sheri, he’s the strongest, and I feel totally confident he’ll be fine. I want to get them out of the field as fast as I can, because it’s getting dark and starting to rain. If the crap hits the fan, I’d rather deal with three wet guys, than four. He gets down no problem. Sheri radios up and I suggest she take him out.
I take the three other guys down, and Colin and Punchy are on their own. It’s now dark, but I’m not worried about those two at all. Super experienced mountain dudes, they stay calm in all conditions. Yes it’s dark, yes it’s raining now, and yes, they still have to rappel down, but I know they’ll be fine.
After a somewhat arduous descent through the scree with the other three guys, we finally make it to another couple rescue group members. They have one spare headlamp. We’re all soaked now. The victims have been out for 13 hours, maybe more. They’re cold, they’re really tired, but I here it in their voices-they’re happy. They know they’re going to sleep in beds tonight, with a story to tell. Between five of us, we have three headlamps, and one slick, muddy trail to get down. It takes about 40 minutes, but we make it. Rescue trucks, headlights, noises, other people. Civilization (sort of). At least it feels like it.
It makes me sad in just a little way. My partners are still up there (they make it down fine, no problems.) But being back to normal life I mean. We get everyone down, all are safe, parents are smiling, and all of them give me great big bear hugs. Meaningful, genuine, thank you type bear hugs. And that feels good. But still, I miss the concentration, I miss the moment. All the other stresses in my life instantly come back to me now, on the drive home. Life happens again. I want the here and now. I want that ultimate focus back, I want all the crap to wash away and really know what’s important.
Maybe that’s why I do Search and Rescue, because it helps me deal with the rest of “normal” life. It’s a tough one to explain, and sometimes I think, or really I realize, that I’m not like the rest of the people on the planet. They’re happy, or content, with life down there. I like knowing I’m different, with a few others like me on the SAR team. I like helping people, with all the junk pushed to the side. There are no political parties, no racial stuff, no tourist/local silliness, no rich vs. poor, there is none of that up there. Life is pure, the way it should be.
Yeah, that’s why I keep doing it.

PHOTOS: Courtesy of Summit County Search and Rescue, Tim Faust Photography and Daniel Dunn Photography


  1. Beautiful, arresting, charming, real! Love it. Can’t wait for more. Thank you Daniel and Summit Sojourner. These are the kind of stories that should be told for volunteer search and rescue is a beautiful thing and all of you that save lives are our true heroes!

  2. Absolutely awesome!

    Dan Turkal
    Civil Air Patrol, Wisconsin Wing

  3. Awesome article! It clearly states what I have a hard time articulating sometimes, and what goes through my head. You nailed it exactly in the “Fulfillment” paragraph. Thanks for what you do.

    Tom Felix
    Pinal County Sheriff’s Office SAR Posse

  4. Wonderfully written! I’m also a SAR volunteer and found myself nodding the whole way through this post.

  5. Tim Martin at 10:04 pm

    Well written Daniel! I really enjoyed reading this. Makes me miss my SAR days in Colorado. Keep up the good work & stay safe brother.

    Tim Martin, BA, FF, EMT-B
    Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue, Volunteer Division
    (Former Douglas County Search and Rescue Team Member 2001-2004)

  6. Thanks for all the comments everyone, it means a lot to me that first responders are reading this, and especially letting myself and the Summit Sojourner crew know how you feel. Sometimes SAR stuff is a very thankless line of work, but it means everything to me, and it’s my way of giving back.
    You are all appreciated, and this article is a tribute to you. It’s my way of saying thanks.

Comments are closed.