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The Falling Season, by Hal Clifford

Review by Allen Best

Mountain Rescue – February 1996 – Colorado Central Magazine

The Falling Season: Inside the Life and Death Drama of Aspen’s Mountain Rescue Team
by Hal Clifford
Published in 1995 by HarperCollins
ISBN 0-06-258565-7

Covering news in the mountains means that I’ve written dozens of stories about mountain rescue groups.

Their night-long grunts into the backcountry to carry somebody with a busted ankle back out to the trailhead, I have dispatched to my reading public with a paragraph. There have been the avalanche fatalities, stories full of drama that I tried to capture, as best I could — second-hand. There have been endless training sessions, and there has been internal strife the power struggles, of which I’ve been vaguely aware, but I’ve never written about.

In Aspen, a reformed newspaper reporter took this a long stride further. Hal Clifford joined the search and rescue team, with the understanding that he would write about the team, be it beauty or blemishes. Two years later, he had found both.

Yes, there is adventure in this book, but Clifford also paints a detailed picture of the sociology of a small-town volunteer group. Only a clumsy writer can make an adventure story boring. Clifford is by no means clumsy. That he could also make the politics of a search and rescue team interesting makes this book worth fetching.

You’ll find high drama, both literally and figuratively, in “The Aspen Miracle.” Remember when the seven Front Range skiers set out for the Braun Huts from Ashcroft, blithely dismissing warnings of avalanches and one of the worst blizzards in many years? Clifford takes you there in the days that followed, when nobody — including the searchers — expected to find survivors.

He tells, too, about the movie offers that came rolling in — a potent temptation to men and women eking out livings in a flush resort town, but utterly against the spirit of a volunteer mountain rescue group. Ultimately, the offers were rejected.

In another chapter, he tells about searchers dispatched to a valley near Independence Pass, where a hunter from Oklahoma has disappeared in a September storm during bow-hunting and muzzle-loading hunting season. He takes you to the scene where, even in death, the eyes of the hunter refused to close, of the clues that told of his last hours after suffering a dislocated hip, and of his mistake in wearing cotton clothing in an early winter storm. And he tells, too, about the burden of informing the hunter’s partner and family of the tragic news.

During another season, the volunteers shuck aside their daily responsibilities and ignore their need to sleep so that they can march up to Capitol Lake. Expecting to find a life-threatening injury, they are surprised to find something less obvious — but still disconcerting enough to call in a helicopter. Helicopters are not called into wilderness areas unless potential loss of life is suspected. On their nine-mile march back to the trailhead, they are met by the “victim,” who was already treated at the hospital and discharged.

Rescue group members get wound up in leadership tiffs. Ego turf battles are inevitable in such groups. In Aspen, there was an added complication. The sheriff wanted to get a tighter grip on this volunteer group, which legally serves under him (leaving him liable). But volunteers, accustomed to operating on their own schedule, and convinced they know rescue operations better, resisted mightily.

Some people become peace officers as an outlet for bullying tendencies or insecurities, and others become newspaper reporters for the same reasons; I’ve occasionally wondered about the motivation of search and rescue members.

Clifford attributes largely noble motivations to Aspen team members. They see in their victims people, who, but for the grace of God, could be themselves. Most climb mountains, some hunt. All love the outdoors.

But the commitment required of a volunteer rescue team member goes far beyond those things. It’s not just a matter of marching into the back country, or even making quick decisions that could mean somebody’s life. Rescues get people wound up. If it ends up being nothing, they’re still wound up, unable to sleep. And if the worst does materialize, as in the case of the Oklahoma hunter, the volunteers face interrupted sleep for days, weeks, or even months.

If you’ve ever ventured onto a backcountry trail, you’ll probably find this enjoyable and informative.