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SAR Talk

When I arrived for my shift, I heard talk of a search and rescue near the south end of the Ptarmigan Traverse: two climbers, stuck on an 18-inch ledge. They dropped their rope and most of their camping gear while summiting 8,200-foot Spire Point, the remote tail of the route, a spot between Sentinel and Dome peaks that most people reach only after several days of route finding. It’s fearsome, storm-wracked country—the Pacific Crest, where waters spill east toward the Columbia River or west to Puget Sound. And if you get high enough, your cell phone might work, as it did for those climbers this morning. They called 911, who in turn called us, the Park Service.

At least that’s what I gathered when I walked in.

But what do I know? I can hardly handle my ice axe. It’s my first season as a backcountry ranger, and in truth probably my only one. I’m 39 years old—too old to start this kind of thing. Too slow. Too heavy-footed. I’ve got a decade or more on the other new rangers, mostly college kids, a vet or two. They’ve come out West like I did long ago, penniless but happy. Strong.

I hear chatter about the SAR coming from the backroom, phrases like “cloud cover” and “window of opportunity.” Indeed, it’s been raining for hours and the snow line’s dropping quickly. Those climbers might perish come nightfall unless we do something, unless someone with the right skills does something. Me, I’ll be standing at this counter all day, telling people to drive east toward the rainshadow.

The other rangers? Most are already in the backcountry—“on patrol,” we say with self-importance—though a couple of the older, more experienced guys are stuffing overnight gear into their packs, prepping for a helicopter ride with Tony. I can see their tan hands and best-job-ever grins, their colorful climbing boots, their colorful ropes. Soon they’ll fly south to Darrington and then up the Suiattle toward Bachelor Creek. From there it’s a bushwhack beyond Itswoot Lake into cloud-shrouded terrain beneath Spire Point—a long slog over rocky ridges draped in rain-slick heather and slush.

“Is it supposed to dump all weekend?” someone asks. A woman, two kids at her elbow. She’s standing at the counter, annoyed. I tell her there’s a chance every day, pointing to the forecast I put on the wall. She drags her children over to read it, sighs, slumps her shoulders.

But her kids aren’t annoyed; instead they’re looking around—at our stack of bear canisters, at our climber’s log. One of them, a little boy, keeps watching me, his head turned owl-like over his shoulder. I think he’s near my nephew’s age—eight, nine, maybe younger. A bright blue shirt, a ball cap, his skin bronze from a summer outdoors.

The counter is an important job, I try to tell myself; the lead ranger put me here because I’m good with people. I used to direct the nonprofit learning center up the road, but quit three months ago, tired of the long hours, tired of my boss, tired of all the ass kissing. Now I’m just tired of myself. I feel ashamed for no longer leading, and this green and gray uniform makes me feel self-conscious. I’ve got a shiny gold badge that looks like a toy. I’ve got a buzz cut, a thinning hairline. I’m in my own kind of storm, I think. On a ledge. Stuck.

The little boy steps toward me again as his mother and sister talk with a man—the dad, I presume, his hair dripping. The boy’s head rises just above the counter, high enough to survey our topographic map. The map’s pressed under glass, marked with symbols, and spreads farther than he can reach. He points to various locations but doesn’t speak as his fingers smudge the surface, perhaps as those climbers had a few days ago, studying their route, imagining it.

The boy’s movements keep my attention—his sleeveless arm, his probing hand. I lead him along the Ptarmigan Traverse, close to the edge of the counter near his nose. I read aloud the names of the peaks for him, my finger zigzagging along the Pacific Crest. “Mix-Up, Magic, Spider,” I say, deepening my voice to sound tough. “Formidable, Old Guard, Spire Point.” He looks up at me, eyes questioning.

“Sinister Peak,” I growl, circling the white patch near its north face. He smiles like I’m being dramatic. I am. We both know it.

“Chickamin,” I add for the mountain’s glacier. He giggles at the name—it’s goofy.

“Chickamin, Chickamin,” he says, bobbing his head, which makes me laugh. I need to laugh.

And in my mind I grab hold of him, though of course he doesn’t know it, doesn’t know this man he looks up to is nearly falling. I’m squeezing him and digging in my always-trim fingernails, my knees, my tidy boots. I’m hanging on, kid, I want to say. Tell me you have a rope, a plan. All I’ve got is this shiny gold badge, a buzz cut, a thinning hairline.

“Chickamin, Chickamin,” he keeps bobbing his head, turning toward his parents right behind him. He points to the glacier with the goofy name, looks at me, looks at them. He’s thrilled.

We crowd in, we adults. We’re searching, as the helicopter’s call sign comes across the radio: “One two fox trot en route to Marblemount.”

“SAR talk,” I say. Ranger lingo. The little boy looks up again, smiling.

And I think about those climbers at 8,000 feet, a thirtysomething man and his young girlfriend. I think about their ledge in the snow-soaked gray, how lost they must feel, how regretful. “Idiots,” some say, when they hear about these stories, as if every step you take is unforgivable. I see my fellow rangers, packs on their backs, heading out the door to the helipad.

“Chickamin,” the boy says, laughing. His parents do it too, as do I. Then we hear it—Tony setting down, his rotor wash drowning out the rain.

—–

“SAR Talk” originally appeared in The Common. Copyright 2013, Jeff Darren Muse.

Photo: My first backcountry patrol in 2008 in North Cascades National Park, when snow still blanketed Pelton Basin near Cascade Pass. ROBERT BURROWS

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