Book Review- Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue

In Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue, Bree Loewen, gives us a personal look into her life as a volunteer search and rescue team member in the Cascades with over 20 years of experience. While recounting 14 memorable rescues, or recoveries, out of the hundreds of missions she has participated in, she shares the personal struggles of trying to balance her service to her community with the responsibilities of being a wife, a mother, and a career-seeking thirty-something.

Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue Book Review
Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue Book Review

Her prose is light and humorous at times while still reflecting the grim reality that sometimes it doesn’t matter how skilled you are or how fast you are. Sometimes there’s nothing left to do but hold someone’s hand and be there in the moment with them, at what she suggests is one of the most important moments of one’s life, their passing from it.

Unlike other mountain rescue works Bree does not really spend much time on “lessons learned” or accident prevention rather she focuses on how S&R fulfills a spot in her life that would have a rather large hole with out it. If she doesn’t answer the next call she has serious “FOMO”, Fear Of Missing Out, of both the likely suffer-fest her friends and fellow SMR (Seattle Mountain Rescue) colleagues would be enduring but also the post mission beers or pancakes (depending on the time the rescue wraps ups).

Internal conflict is present in just about every chapter. Having to drop off her two-year old daughter for the 10th time in a month with her mother-in-law and dodge the question “Will you be back before her bed-time?”, knowingly heading out on an all-night rescue when she has a tough nursing exam the following morning, seeing members of the victim’s family back at the parking lot and trying to find the words… through-out the book Bree demonstrates some of the best traits of a rescuer. The ability to lead, to follow, to listen, to order, to endure, to cry, to laugh… to be human.

On death

A fair portion of the book deals with the reality of death in the mountains. Here she is able to lean on some of her training as a hospice nurse and firefighter Chaplain to be present with people during their final moments and continue on mission after someone has left us. I would like to share a couple excerpts from the book that resonated with me…

Having been lowered down alongside a popular tourist waterfall to recover the body of a young woman who committed suicide…

Who do you you have to be in order to be the right person to do this?… This is one of the most intimate and vulnerable moments of this woman’s life. It should be her mother doing this, and in this way I feel that it’s not the job of a professional, not the job for someone acting with detachment and black humor and the support of a thousand buddies, and a thousand more bodies to collect down the line. This is a job for a human, not a hero, a human who has nothing else to do today but this.

Having been called out to recover the body of a climber who she knew, who had rappelled off the end of his rope…

I see Ross’s shoe before I see him, lying under a weather-beaten tree at the edge of one of the few ledges. Ed gave me a camera, and I document everything for the medical examiner. But the photos don’t convey what happened… Only a climber can look at a climber’s fingers, survey the rock, and trace the fall. I touch his belay device first, kneeling under the tree with my feet above another thousand feet of space… I look for the same things every time. I touch the gates on the ‘biners, look for knots, cuts, gouges, fraying, backups, double-backing, shoes, gloves, everything. The absence of things…

I lift Ross in my arms with his body against mine because only a climber can get a climber back, and this is how it happens, the way everything happens in the mountains: with intimacy and fear and effort.

On humor

Despite dealing with the seriousness of fatalities there are quite a view laugh out load moments where Bree shares the joy and happiness one finds in the mountains, even while out on a search for a missing hiker. I particularly liked this exchange between Bree and her fellow rescuer Jenn regarding an oft-dissed mode of transport during the snowy months…

We took snowshoes, because even though snowshoes are an accursed method of travel, it is easier to carry insane loads with them, and they make for faster maneuvering around trees while making anchors, and lowering a litter through terrain too steep and cliffy for tobogganing. Traveling anywhere in snowshoes takes so much more effort, though, and I feel like a dork when I’m wearing them, because backountry skiers spend an inordintate amount of time dissing on snowshoers. Being a snowshoer is just not cool. Jenn, who is better at staying up on these sorts of issues than I am, tells me that brown is the new black, purple is the new pink, and I’m not allowied to wear gaiers, even in knee-deep slush, because it would be a huge fashion faux pas.

“No one in Colorado wears gaiters,” she tells me.

“How often do they have knee-deep slush there?” I ask her.

On motivation

Much of the book is focused on the “why?”. Why do we ask our families to miss us at yearly gatherings, our husbands and wives to put the kids to bed without us and get them ready for school the next day alone, our employers to understand why we are late to work (or miss work completely) while we walk miles in the dark to help a stranger. To this Bree offers much confirmation of feelings I’ve felt but couldn’t express. She answers the question in different ways through-out the book and I particularly liked this passage towards the final chapters…

I love the cold. I love the struggle, the realness, the ridiculousness, and the tenderness of it. Rescue missions are not actually work, not a career; money, power, and prestige mean nothing out here. It’s not a vocation, it’s an avocation. I don’t know why it took me so long to find the words to hold it up against. This is just what I do for love, just taking the time to be with someone who needs someone to be with them.

Summary

Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue is a powerful read for anyone who spends time in the mountains. Members of search & rescue groups will connect strongly with missions Bree shares that are similar to missions they have been on. Hikers and climbers from novice to experienced will get a valuable look into how complex search & rescue can be from the wide angle big-picture logistics to individual rescuer’s story, motivation, conflicts, and resolve. It’s a story worth reading and worth sharing. Thank you Bree for sharing yours.

Bree Lowen’s first book, Pickets and Dead Men, is about her seasons as a climbing ranger on Mount Rainier, I and just ordered a copy!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

Support/Donate to Search and Rescue

Seattle Mountain Rescue

Mountain Rescue Service

Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue

Mountain Guide Manual Clinic

Since my copy arrived this past May I’ve been steadily devouring the massive amount of information contained in Marc Chauvin and Rob Coppolillo’s recently published book, The Mountain Guide Manual: The Comprehensive Reference- From Belaying to Rope Systems and Self-Rescue.

The Mountain Guide Manual

This past Wednesday I attended one of Marc Chauvin’s Mountain Guide Manual Clinic’s; the first of three he is currently offering. I’ve heard rumors he will offer this in a few other locales outside of our Mount Washington Valley home turf and if one is offered in your area I would highly suggest you try to attend! If you can’t make one of the scheduled dates consider hiring Marc for a private day. The “guide of guides” who wrote the book on guiding is sure to give you a mind expanding day!

A friend who saw my Instagram story asked me what they should expect in a brief recap of the day and the type of material covered so I thought I could share that here for those who might be curious or on the fence.

Mountain Guide Manual Clinic

First, if you are considering the clinic you absolutely need to buy the book first! A brief run through the first few chapters, especially the long chapters on various transition methods, will better prepare you for the day, but a solid understanding of any of it is not quite necessary (unless perhaps you are preparing for a guide exam and want to crush transitions). I’ll also say you don’t need to be or want to be a guide to benefit from this book or clinic. Two of my fellow clinic-mates where not guides and were there to become more proficient in their recreational climbing.

Mountain Guide Manual Clinic
AJ, Lovena, and Zach practice a transition to rappelling while leading “parallel” style with two seconds

Marc will challenge the way you’ve been “doing things” for years. He will help everyone in the group re-program their climbing brains and get them thinking about things like “rope-end equations” and “back-side of the clove-hitch” in ways that actually simplify and streamline our processes. A simple example was introduced early in the day. We dissected how two climbers might climb a single pitch route with a single rope and then rig to rappel. Basically the “climbing to rappelling transition”.

Most of us would imagine both climbers tether into the anchor with slings, PAS’s, etc. untie from both ends, thread the rope, and rappel one at a time. Marc demonstrates how we can pull this off with greater security and speed by using what is already built instead of deconstructing and re-building a whole new system. This method also allows the leader to stay tied in, removes the need to tie a “stopper knot” in both rope ends, and is really pretty darn slick. This isn’t “rope trickery” but classic “think big picture/outside the box” type stuff. I’m not going to describe it fully here but it might make it into a future Tech Tip!

Mountain Guide Manual Clinic
Marc can teach so much without ever putting on a harness!

I’ve heard from a couple guides, some close friends, that they are kind of avoiding these “new” techniques. They want to stick with what they know and kind of have the “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” type mindsets. I’d encourage any and all of my climbing acquaintances, friends, and colleagues to try to stay open minded in their full climbing careers, from day 1 to your last.

Seek to get better, learn more, go faster, safer, simpler, when ever and where ever you can. The fact that there is always something more to learn is what drove me to a career in mountain guiding and avalanche education. It is thrilling to know there is no finish line!

Thank you Marc for continuing to inspire and challenge me from the first course I attended in 2002 to today!

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start



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Top Ten Climbing Instruction Books

I recently saw a fellow guide post a picture of his climbing book library and thought it might be helpful to share some of my favorite books in my own personal collection. Early on in my climbing career I simply could not read enough about climbing. Not only did I read every book I could find on the subject I also read the two popular climbing magazines of the day religiously. Here’s a quick run-down of my top 10 climbing books.

Top Ten Climbing Instruction Books


Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills 9th Edition

Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills 9th Edition

One of the first two books I purchased when I started climbing in 1994. Since then it has been updated 5 times and is currently in its 9th Edition. This book is often referred to as “the Bible of climbing” and while it is not the only book you’ll ever want it is encyclopedic in nature. The scope of the book is massive and it’s an excellent resource to start building your basic skills. This one belongs in every climber’s collection!


How to Rock Climb!

How to Rock Climb!
How to Rock Climb!

The second book that set me on a direct path to becoming a climber was this iconic piece by John Long, an author I would go on to read just about every book he ever published. John’s way of mixing humor with instruction made reading this book cover to cover multiple times really enjoyable.


Climbing Anchors

Climbing Anchors
Climbing Anchors

An essential skill that tends to mystify many new climbers is that of building quality anchors for climbing. This greatly illustrated book came in clutch during my formative years and helped lay a foundation for advanced understanding during further training and practice.


Advanced Rock Climbing: Expert Skills and Techniques

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The first book I am mentioning that is targeted to an intermediate to advanced audience. This book assumes you’ve been climbing for awhile and have the types of skills covered in the first three books pretty dialed. Great prose and inspirational photography in this one!


Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher

Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher
Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher

This was the first book that really started improving my efficiency in the mountains. While the first three books I’ve listed laid the foundation this work started me thinking more about optimizing systems and streamlining concepts to move farther and faster in the mountains.


Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, High, and Fast

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Another eye-opener that challenged a lot of conventional wisdom from previous works I still remember how this book really helped me update my clothing systems and speed up my transitions allowing to move more quickly and more comfortably in all types of winter conditions.


Climbing Self Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations

Climbing Self Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations
Climbing Self Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations

Another essential skill that can seem over-whelming to learn, this book is one of the best on the topic I have read. Many of the systems described can be quite complicated and occasionally there is a newer and often simpler way to execute some of techniques described in this book so I’d strongly encourage newer climbers combine a day or three of qualified instruction from a certified guide to go along with this book.


Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide To Glacier Travel And Crevasse Rescue

Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide To Glacier Travel And Crevasse Rescue
Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide To Glacier Travel And Crevasse Rescue

The authors take a complex topic then gracefully break it down with easy to follow explanations and light-hearted illustrations. A great primer before or after taking a glacier skills course.


Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual

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For those contemplating getting into the guiding world this is a must have before you take your AMGA Single Pitch Instructor Course. Studying this text before the course will really help you get the most out of the program and having it for reference after will help commit skills learned to long-term memory.


The Mountain Guide Manual: The Comprehensive Reference–From Belaying to Rope Systems and Self-Rescue

The Mountain Guide Manual: The Comprehensive Reference--From Belaying to Rope Systems and Self-Rescue
The Mountain Guide Manual: The Comprehensive Reference–From Belaying to Rope Systems and Self-Rescue

The newest and arguably the most relevant addition to my library, this book is absolutely a must-have for aspiring and current guides and instructors. The authors assume the reader already has a fair amount of understanding (likely gleamed from the above books, previous instruction, and experience) but any climber will find skills in this book that can improve their climbing even if guiding is not the end-goal.


Did I miss one that would be in your top-ten? Let me know in the comments below! You can also purchase any of these books on Amazon by clicking the book below!


Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills 8th Edition

How to Rock Climb!

Climbing Anchors

Advanced Rock Climbing: Expert Skills and Techniques

Alpine Climbing: Techniques to Take You Higher

Extreme Alpinism: Climbing Light, High, and Fast

Climbing Self Rescue: Improvising Solutions for Serious Situations

Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide To Glacier Travel And Crevasse Rescue

Rock Climbing: The AMGA Single Pitch Manual

The Mountain Guide Manual: The Comprehensive Reference–From Belaying to Rope Systems and Self-Rescue

See you in the mountains,

Northeast Alpine Start

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