In 1997, Tom Wood sold everything he owned and cruised the long, flat road from Ohio to Colorado. He had no job, no place to stay — a familiar story to many Colorado transplants. He only knew one person in the state.
“My goal,” he says, was “to not fall flat.”
After a year of working in construction, Wood says, “I came to realize working full time wasn’t cutting it out for me.”
Then one day at the library, he came across an ad for an avalanche class.
“Shortly after that, I was hooked, and lucky enough to join a search and rescue team,” he says. “And here I am, 18 years later.”
In the late ’90s, when Wood first joined, search and rescue “was a lot different,” he says.
“I’d heard from folks that PTSD [was something] that only affected soldiers coming back from war, not us. So when I joined, the prevailing attitude dealing with the not-so-happy endings we saw was, ‘Suck it up, buttercup, and if you can’t deal with it, you don’t belong here,’” he says. “The more time I spent on the team, I saw friends leave because of difficulty of coping with the things we had to deal with.”
In Colorado, the 45 volunteer-run search and rescue teams are divided along county lines, each one answering to their respective sheriff and responding to emergencies within their zones. The teams supplement other emergency medical services and firefighters, providing free services to anyone in need of backcountry assistance. Wood joined the Alpine Rescue Team, which operates a little differently by providing service to Jefferson, Clear Creek and Gilpin counties along the Front Range. They are also often called to assist other counties throughout the state.
The Alpine Rescue Team has about 90 members on its roster, according to Paul Woodward, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Board. “Across the state we have 1,800 search and rescue calls every year,” he says. “Which is pretty crazy.”
A state issue
Search and rescue teams respond to all kinds of emergencies — injured hikers, stranded climbers, snow mobile accidents — and carry missions through rain, darkness and sub-zero temperatures to rescue whomever, wherever, or recover the remains of any deceased.
Woodward is in charge of tracking Colorado’s rescues and recoveries. “For [the Alpine] team, we average 13 fatalities a year,” he says. He also tracks what people were doing right before their death. “The highest activity is backcountry suicide,” he says.
Since officials began recording suicide rates, Colorado has constantly ranked among the top 10 for highest per capita. A perplexing fact considering Colorado also regularly ranks among the happiest states. Sally Spencer-Thomas, a clinical psychologist and survivor division chair for the American Association for Suicidology, asks, “Why, in such a beautiful state, especially with a lot of sunshine, fitness and education, is this the case?”
She can only speculate several reasons: “First, the vast and isolated landscapes in the West create a major sense of separation — in both the geographical and the psychological sense. Geographically, it might be hours to the nearest help facility, and psychologically difficult to reach out and ask for help.”
Second, “We have a high per capita gun ownership rate.” Homes with firearms are more likely to commit suicide, “and people often go to remote places with firearms to commit suicide,” she says.
Third, “are our funding issues: while we consistently rank top 10 in suicide numbers, we rank among the lowest 10 for funding mental health initiatives.”
This includes programs to help search and rescuers as well. One year, Wood’s team was called to aid in eight consecutive recovery missions for backcountry suicide fatalities. After that stretch, Wood says, “A couple people left our team. There was no continuous observation on how we were doing; we’d suffer in silence and wouldn’t get any extra resources for mental health.”
The exposure to death took an alarming and lasting toll on Wood’s team. “Even 15 or 20 years later,” he says, “I’d run into them and find out they were still recovering from [a] that mission that was particularly grossly.”
Such contact with suicide and death — often gruesome — can be taxing on the minds of volunteer search and rescue members if they’re not properly prepared and cared for afterwards.
“These people, the ones in Tom’s work, are overexposed to suicidal behaviors and death,” Spencer-Thomas says. “Emergency medical service people tend to be stoic, strong and brave, doing things the average person probably couldn’t do. But these qualities can work against them too. They are highly unlikely to reach out to mental health care.”
A rough start
Jerome Stiller was a rock climber before he ever considered joining a search and rescue team. After realizing that in the event of an accident, he had no idea what to do, “I wanted to learn,” he says, “And honestly, I just thought it was cool as shit.”
Stiller became part of the Alpine Rescue Team the same year as Wood. “My first mission,” he recalls, “involved a fatality. I’d only been on the team for one month. The body was still warm when I got to it, [so I knew] it had been alive not too long ago. And I just accepted it, knowing it was our job to do this.”
He never recalls anyone ever asking him, “‘Are you OK? Did this impact you at all?’ The culture was simple: This is what we do, actual people die and this is just part of the deal.”
Suicide body recovery especially, Stiller says, is dealt with a sort of dark humor. “It’s the only way to deal with it,” Stiller says.
Learning how to cope with exposure to suicide and death is important, according to Spencer-Thomas. She’s particularly concerned that, “The overwhelming majority of suicides — 75 percent — are white men of working age. It’s these men that fill the demographics of the first responder.” She says there needs to be extra caution and awareness among search and rescue, and all emergency medical service personnel. “It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg phenomenon,” she adds. “The search and rescue job is attracting those with high risk, while also contributing to these tendencies.”
Additionally, she says, “[Search and rescue team members] often have the means to commit suicide. They have courage and might own firearms. They are not afraid of high places. There’s a strong culture of substance abuse — the intensity of their jobs can often lead to post-traumatic stress, and alcohol helps in the short run, but is damaging in the long run.”
Stiller resigned from the Alpine Rescue Team in 2007, after a succession of disturbing rescues and mountain-related events. “Now I know you’re allowed to feel bad about it all,” he says. “But back then, I really doubted mountain rescue. I’d ask myself, ‘Are we just doing this to be cool rescue guys?’ These are deep and pervasive issues that have echoed in my life for years, and caused a lot of doubt in my life.”
Now Wood acts as the Alpine Rescue Team’s field director. Central to his agenda is mental health and awareness throughout all search and rescue teams. In 2012 he authored Trading Steel for Stone: Tales of a Rustbelt Refugee turned Rocky Mountain Rescuer, a memoir that explores behind-the-scenes of alpine rescue and the intense mental and physical work of its agents.
“Today, the huge and enormous change that Tom has evoked [within search and rescue culture] is apparent,” Stiller says. “Tom has taken it on himself to spearhead a movement with all search and rescue communities to be more aware, and to care about the mental health of its members. He’s been successful in starting these conversations about the full effect that rescue takes on their members.”
“Now that we know a little better, when we have new members on our search and rescue team, we warn them that that’s a part of what we do,” Wood says. “It’s not all hanging from helicopters and saving the day. Sure, that’s a small part of what we do. But a large part of what we do is provide peace of mind for people who have lost people in the backcountry.”