Wispy, cotton-candy clouds move briskly across the mid-February sky. My girlfriend, Thea Hutchinson, and I take turns climbing the mottled brown basaltic rocks of the cliff band just outside of White Rock. Thea gives me a hanging belay—making sure that, if I fall, she can catch me with the other end of the rope from her position 25 feet off the ground—as I climb. The sky doesn’t seem to be falling, but that changes in an instant.
A rock the size of a grapefruit tumbles down from the top of the cliff, striking Thea just above her hairline. I hear a yell and let go of the cliff to which I’ve been clinging.
Her body is limp, blood dripping from her scalp, and she appears to be dry heaving in her unconscious state.
I call to her. No response.
I need to find a way to get to her. But I’m tied into the rope, and her belay device prevents any more rope from being fed out. Even if I were to untie, I’d have to climb unprotected down the difficult route I’d just barely made it up. I’m stuck 20 feet above the ground.
What can I do? I take a deep breath and try to think. It’s difficult. My eyes keep wandering over to the sight of Thea dangling there, and my mind starts turning to panic as I consider the possible outcomes. It takes me maybe two minutes, but it feels like 10 before I realize my phone is in my pocket. I have two bars of service. I call 911. The dispatcher assures me that Search and Rescue is on the way.
That’s the scenario, at least.
Thea and I have volunteered to be part of a training for Atalaya Search and Rescue, one of only two teams in New Mexico that are nationally certified to perform technical rock rescues. Atalaya SAR is up for its Mountain Rescue Association recertification on April 14 and 15 and, as part of its test, will have to prove to the MRA that it is proficient in performing rescues such as the one in which we are participating.
If you’re unlucky enough to be stuck on the side of a precipice, you want a fully accredited MRA team like Atalaya SAR to rescue you. MRA certification means the team is held to national standards in backcountry technical rock rescue, avalanche rescue and wilderness searches. The training is not mandatory in the state of New Mexico; Atalaya SAR voluntarily puts itself up for recertification every five years. (Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council is the only other team in the state with MRA accreditation. Neither team receives state funding for its MRA training.)
Atalaya SAR’s first certification was five years ago, in the spring of 2007. One in six teams taking MRA certification tests may fail, but will usually pass on a retest later that year, according to Dan Lack, the secretary/treasurer of the Rocky Mountain Region MRA. If the failure is minor, the team is allowed to try the scenario again that same weekend.
For the most part, New Mexico Search and Rescue volunteers participate in missions on their own time, often using their own gear. They do it because they love it—but also because, if anyone winds up lost in the wilderness, injured on a backcountry ski trip or hanging unconscious from a cliff in February, Search and Rescue is the last line of defense against potential tragedy. Atalaya SAR’s mission is even more critical: It’s the only group north of Albuquerque qualified to perform technical rock rescues. In this scenario, it’s our only hope.
New Mexico Search and Rescue Council consists of 41 teams and some 1,000-plus volunteers across the state. As a whole, NMSAR is managed by the New Mexico State Police, a division of the Department of Public Safety, which divides the state into districts.
Atalaya SAR was founded in 2002 as an offshoot of the former St. Johns College SAR team, which disbanded a few years after Atalaya SAR began. The team has approximately 32 active members, consisting of professionals of many disciplines—doctors, architects, scientists, lawyers. Besides Atalaya SAR, there are seven other SAR teams in the state police’s District 1. Each team brings different skills to the table: One performs rescues with canines, another with horses, and Atalaya SAR with ropes, rigging and avalanche gear. Each team is essentially a tool, so when missions require a specialty, such as avalanche rescue, teams are called out accordingly.
NMSAR operates through a cascading system of communication called the Incident Command System. Under the ICS, the state police orders a team out on a mission; the team itself then performs the rescue on the ground. This type of ground rescue constitutes the content of the MRA test—and although Atalaya SAR is qualified to perform technical rock rescues, that’s not always what the state police needs from it.
“Ninety percent of our training is technical,” Max Gallegos, a training officer for Atalaya SAR, says, “while 90 percent of the rescues we do are not.”
This fiscal year, NMSAR is working with a total budget of $46,000, which covers gas reimbursements, training costs and insurance for all 1,000 NMSAR volunteers while they’re on missions. In the FY 2013 budget recently signed by Gov. Susana Martinez, NMSAR gets a meager $4,000 increase, to $50,000 annually.
All NMSAR members are unpaid volunteers; they get up in the middle of the night to hike into the darkness with only their headlights to guide them. They find dead bodies of lost hunters; they respond when someone has fallen off a 30-foot cliff; and they chase down mentally unstable subjects who, for one reason or another, haven’t been taking their medication. And they do all this with no monetary incentive. As volunteers, they give up family time, paid work time and vacation time so they can help people who are lost or hurt outdoors.
It seems a little masochistic, until one considers the type of people that SAR attracts. Most of them like to be outdoors; they’re backpackers, climbers and skiers. Atalaya SAR volunteers’ abilities in technical rescue come from a love of not only the mountains, but also for rock climbing and, more specifically, the technical rigging aspects of the sport.
“We want to know how to get out of these situations if we get into them,” Gallegos says. “And if I’m stuck, [the people] I work with are the ones I would want to save me.”
According to several SAR volunteers, members are mostly type A personalities: dominant, aggressive, controlling multitaskers.
Take Field Coordinator Judy Allison, for example. Allison coordinates entire SAR missions from the incident base. She always holds the title of field coordinator, but when a mission starts and she’s assigned to take charge, she becomes an incident commander. Basically, she oversees the logistics of entire rescue operations.
When I meet up with her, I can tell she’s a dominant personality. I suspect she’s a schoolteacher, one who runs a tight classroom where note passing is forbidden, well before she tells me that she was one for years. As I struggle to understand the chain of command that NMSAR uses, she impatiently takes my notebook from me and draws it out—which, I’ll admit, helps. Instead of going around and around in circles trying to explain it to me from different angles, she takes the most direct and simple route, even if it makes me feel like a grade-schooler again. And she’s not the only one with this approach.
“It is a thrill to work with people that you know are well-trained, that they’re competent, that they’re focused on the task at hand,” Allison says. “That’s why I do it. Time after time, it’s like, ‘Oh boy, I get to work in that kind of stimulating intellectual environment with professional-minded people.’”
One might think all those dominant personalities would end up butting heads, but Devin Kennemore, the lanky, soft-spoken, bespectacled president of Atalaya SAR, says otherwise.
“It’s great, actually,” Kennemore says of his team. “We’re sort of…like the Knights of the Round Table. It’s not like I rule by fiat. They’re all intelligent people, and they’re all willing to listen to logic and reason. I won’t say that there haven’t been a few moments when everybody’s had to stop and take a deep breath and take a step back. But, in the end, I think we always end up making the decisions that make the most sense.”
I hang from my harness while April Grisetti, a physician’s assistant, assesses our situation from the ground below. I can’t help but wonder what the team is doing up above me. My waist harness suspends my full body weight, and my legs are starting to go numb. I intermittently set my legs on a ledge at head level and hang nearly upside down to relieve the pressure. Occasionally, a head peeks briefly over the edge. Grisetti tells me to stay calm and relax; we’ll be receiving help soon.
Hanging on the end of a single rope, it’s nice to know that decisions regarding my life and Thea’s won’t be hasty. Eventually, people start showing up at the edge of the cliff. Gallegos is hanging from a separate line, which the team uses to lower him to me. He communicates the lowering speed and distance over the radio while simultaneously asking me questions about the scenario. He makes it very clear that the situation is under control and that the team will be helping us as quickly as possible. As he gives me the medical head-to-toe inspection, the team lowers muscly New Zealander Darryl Styles down to Thea, 20 feet to my right.
For the sake of the scenario, she’s unconscious. She plays it well, giving in to gravity, her back arched with the weight of her limbs pulling downward. Gallegos determines that I’m in good shape and calls in a litter—basically a beefy stretcher—and another team member to load me up.
As we wait, I watch Styles take control of unconscious Thea. He tries to get her to respond, but she’s playing dead. Due to her scenario-induced unconsciousness, he determines he must get her to the ground as fast as possible. He essentially straps her to his back and into his main line (the rope that supports his weight), forgets that he has to put a helmet on her, flips her around, clicks it in place, and has the team lower them to the ground, where he sets her directly into a litter. He does this all without even a grunt. I keep envisioning her head cracking against the wall or Styles dropping her, but it never looks like that would happen, not even for a second.
My ride finally appears in the form of Rich Siemer, an architect and 13-year NMSAR veteran, whom the team lowers down with a litter strapped across his lap. Siemer is tied into two ropes and has pulley and hoist systems attached to both him and the litter. One thing is certain: These guys have a lot of gear. They have to.
NMSAR members around the state pay for their own equipment—backpacks, outerwear, skis, beacons and anything else they need to perform their SAR duties.
“They’re unpaid, and they have to provide all of the equipment, gear and clothing necessary to save people’s lives,” Allison, the field coordinator, says. “Teams fundraise; individuals pay for their own stuff; but it’s a financial burden which is not compensated.”
Aside from the thin monetary support SAR teams receive, state police resources—such as helicopters—do accompany missions when needed, provided they’re available. (State police helicopters were used in 26 missions in 2011.) Incident commanders can request these resources, but may not always get them, depending on factors such as state police priority, terrain, weather and crew rest.
NMSAR’s 2011 mission summaries reveal that many missions are false starts. One 70-year-old man was reported missing by his wife, only to return six hours later when the hike “had simply taken much longer than he had expected.”
New Mexico Game and Fish found another man after his day of hunting. He was unable to send an “OK” message to his family via his SPOT messaging device because of poor service for the previous three nights.
According to numerous volunteers, NMSAR’s job has become easier lately. NMSAR Resource Officer Bob Rodgers, mustachioed and much smaller than his voice would have one believe, claims that, in the past, NMSAR would average approximately 150 rescues per year. In 2011, there were 81 (Atalaya SAR is busy compared to many teams; it participated in seven rescues last year, while some teams only did one).
NMSARC members speculate that the proliferation of cell phones and handheld GPS units is making people not only easier to find, but also more likely to resolve bad situations themselves.
Also, there may be fewer people going into the backcountry, volunteers say. According to the website National Parks Traveler, visitation to US national parks declined by 4.2 million people between 2009 and 2010. Visits to New Mexico state parks declined by nearly 200,000 between 2010 and 2011, according to the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. But that drop doesn’t hold up in the long run—visits in the state are up by close to half a million from 2007.
But even if there were only a few rescues each year, someone needs to perform them, and NMSAR teams are the lifeline in the backcountry.
“There are many factors that may contribute to this [decline], but to pinpoint to a single one is impossible,” Rodgers says. “The ideal situation for SAR—and this is going to sound really funny—is that we have no SAR missions. If no one’s hurt and no one’s lost, that’s a benefit. If we get called, someone’s in trouble.”
NMSAR will always have missions, even if they are few and far between. Unfortunately, not all of those missions go according to plan.
On June 9, 2009, at 9:35 pm, a New Mexico State Police helicopter hit a ridge while evacuating a hiker from the Pecos Wilderness, killing the hiker and the pilot [cover story, June 9, 2010: “Mission Critical”]. There was no flight plan; communication with the incident commander was minimal at best; and separate ground teams had been deployed at the time of the crash, according to the official National Transportation Safety Board report.
This was, essentially, a break in the chain of command. The female hiker—cold, lost and separated from her boyfriend as night was falling—called 911 and reached an NMSP dispatcher. The district shift supervisor was present in the dispatch office and asked the mission initiator, an NMSP officer, to initiate an SAR effort. While SAR was coordinating that effort, the district shift supervisor had dispatch initiate an aerial search into poor weather late in the evening. This is where the problem in command fell during this mission.
The ICS, implemented by the NMSAR plan of 1996, sets the protocol for the chain of command for any rescue. The ICS was working in this situation until a helicopter went out before the SAR incident commander had any idea the flight was happening.
“Communication is key to any SAR mission,” Rodgers says. “Our No. 1 priority is safety. It is safety before mission here at the [Department of Public Safety].”
Could the accident have been avoided if the ICS had been followed? Maybe. It’s possible the helicopter would never have even gone out. Would the subject have survived? Possibly. She was cold, isolated and two to three hours away from a potential ground team rescue—a ground team that didn’t find the sole survivor of the wreck until 11:55 am the next day.
“[The accident] did bring many changes in both the operations of the air division and SAR,” Rodgers says. “We increased the training requirements for the certified personnel for both the field personnel and the ICS staff; we implemented a mandate of ‘safety first before mission’ concept; and we increased the spot reviews of every SAR mission in the state with an emphasis on adherence to procedures and overall safety.”
Basically, the changes employed after the accident come down to increased communication and accountability within the ICS. Paperwork is more necessary; internal reviews are more frequent; and if a team’s safety is in question, it holds off.
Rodgers, whom Gov. Martinez appointed resource officer in April 2011, is striving to make sure these changes are implemented to the best of DPS’ ability. He brings 20 years of SAR experience to his management of NMSAR. He worked his way up from a ground-pounding, horseback search team member to section chief, then field coordinator. He’s also a nationally certified cave rescue instructor.
There are conflicts of interest, arguments over protocol and questions of command within the system, Rodgers says. Even then, New Mexico has it easy regarding missions compared to some states: SAR is state-mandated here. In other states, such as Colorado and Oregon, local sheriff’s offices run SAR on a county-by-county basis, entering even more politics into the equation.
Although NMSAR’s budget is small, the first item on Rodgers’ list of improvements is better communication.
“I want to improve the relationships with the volunteers and the agency itself, and that’s clear across the board,” Rodgers says. “There is sometimes a conflict between the volunteers and the agencies. Both sides of the fence think that you’re stepping into our territory. Well, you know, we’re here to help somebody.”
Everybody interviewed for this story spoke highly of the ICS and said that it worked well when executed properly—but that it takes some time to learn and perfect.
“Bob is new at the job and doing his best to fix things all over the place,” Allison says. “He’s had a bunch of years of problems to resolve. And he’s doing it. He’s doing it. But it’s one step at a time.”
I’m hoping similar communication issues don’t occur now. Gallegos and Siemer load me up into a litter, all of us dangling 20 feet above the boulder-strewn ground. They have me loaded and strapped in shortly. Gallegos rappels to the ground to help the crew there carry Thea out; Siemer, now on the outside of the litter with his boots on the wall below me, radios in: “Ready to raise.”
We go about four feet before we stop. We’re jerked around a bit and then told via radio to wait. A few minutes later, the team members lower us a little further. They attempt to raise us again—no luck, more waiting. It’s fairly chilly, and all Siemer is wearing is a lightweight navy blue pullover and climbing pants. Despite my light down jacket, I’m starting to get cold.
Chatter over the radio discusses calling off the scenario because of some complication that isn’t clear to those of us hanging over the edge. Eventually, the team sends down a new main line to replace the old one. Siemer attaches it in a matter of minutes, and our weight is transferred over. After that, we’re pulled smoothly over the edge to safety. Only then do I see the extent of the team and the resources they used to operate the rescue—thousands of dollars’ worth of gear spread around the ground, like a bomb went off in REI. There’s also a 14-person rescue team bustling about, radios strapped to their chests.
The team brings Thea up a medium-angle scree slope a couple of minutes after I arrive atop the cliff. The four members attending to the litter scramble over basalt boulders, ledges and juniper branches. If this weren’t a practice scenario, a helicopter would have been waiting at the top of the slope to take Thea to the
And just like that, we’re rescued. The team members clean up gear, figuring out which slings, ropes, and devices belong to whom, and then gather for a debriefing. They dissect the whole operation in excruciating detail for nearly 45 minutes, going over everything from the miniscule issues to the big mess-up: the tangling of the mainline and the backup line while they were raising Siemer and me. The focal point, where the two ropes met the cliff, was poorly chosen, and when they went to lift us, the ropes bound up in a little crack. But they realized the problem, addressed it and eventually fixed it. Kennemore says that such an instance of problem solving under stress would have led to a pass if they were being tested by the MRA.
And that’s just it: These missions are complicated, and these people are dedicated volunteers who are always learning. They choose to train for and react to situations in which others need help again and again. These are some of the most stressful situations people face, and NMSAR volunteers take these missions on willingly, mostly on their own time and their own dime. If we’re stuck in the wilderness with a broken leg, or under an avalanche losing oxygen, or hanging off the side of a cliff, they’ll be out there looking for us. SFR
Editor's note: A previous version of this story referred to "NMSARC" as the acronym for New Mexico Search and Rescue; it has been corrected to "NMSAR." This was an editing error, not the author's mistake.