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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.”
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