Book Review – Mountain Responder by Steve Achelis

Post by blogger | January 26, 2010      

Looking for inflated purple prose from high-mountain chest-thumping adventurers with overwrought deliberations on the meaning of life and death, complete with large glossy full-color photographs? That’s a crowded literary field, and I doubt you need a book review to find a suitable candidate.

But how about a clearly written and engaging account from an impressively humble yet equally impressively accomplished search and rescue leader explaining the real details (both dramatic and routine) of technical backcountry rescue? Then allow me to suggest “Mountain Responder: When Recreation and Misfortune Collide,” by Steve Achelis.

Steve was previously commander of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. He also has a website devoted entirely to information and reviews on avalanche rescue beacons. (I contributed material to Steve’s website prior to my beacon reviews, and we continue to compare notes occasionally on our testing.)

Mountain Responder book review.

When these guys come get you, a lot more is going on than you might realize.

Much of what makes Steve’s book so engaging is the sheer volume of callouts from which he could cull suitable material. During just his first two years on the team, he participated in 88 callouts. The most intense period entailed nine victims over five separate missions during a 40-hour period. Furthermore, given the relative compactness of the recreational backcountry terrain and the assistance from helicopter spotters, most of the callouts entail rescue, not search.

During the retelling of these numerous callouts, Steve makes many educational points. Weighing the benefits versus risks of helicopter insertions and hoists, dealing with the media and bystanders, the frustrations of confusing pages, the highly variable reactions of the rescued, the details of technical rescue work, the safety of the rescuer versus the commitment to the victims – it’s all in here.

Throughout it all, Steve maintains an admirable humility – although I did love the part where he boldly tells off a towering bullying fire captain (while trying to conceal his trembling voice and quaking knees). Speaking of such turf war politics, the Epilogue tells the sad ultimate demise of the SAR team under a new Pharaoh who knew not Joseph.

The occasional criminal-related search highlights the difference between backcountry SAR and urban police work. This page in particular gave Steve some pause: “Assist CityPD on kidnapping […] Suspect is armed, s&r units w/ certifications, bring your firearms, CityPD will be providing armed security for S&R units also.” The search ends up being safe, but unfortunately fruitless, perhaps in large part because of a lead that, “. . . like most of the others, was a hoax. I doubt that this jerk will ever know that his call resulted in our canceling our mountain search. More than nine months later we will learn that while searching the foothills near Dry Creek Canyon, we were within a mile of the “camp” where Elizabeth Smart’s kidnappers were holding her. I don’t know that we would have found her had we not been diverted to construction area, but it might have shortened her abduction time from 280 days to one. No one will ever know.”

The book also has its (relatively) light-hearted moments, like when Steve and his teammates search a river with large powerful plate magnets for the gun used in a murder, all the while watched over by the suspect . . . securely shackled, attended by a deputy. Steve finds railroad spikes, stop signs, car keys, cell phones, and even a shopping cart for their acquired river booty, but unfortunately the only gun they find is a shotgun, and they were instead looking for a handgun.

“Mountain Responder” is accessible to readers of all levels, as Steve carefully yet concisely explains even such basic terms as “glissading” and “avalanche.” Ultimately though I think it will be of most interest to SAR team members, ski patrollers, and those backcountry recreationalists trained in some form of Wilderness emergency care (i.e., WFA, WFR, WEMT). In fact, if you’re interested in what backcountry rescue entails, this book is essentially “must” reading. And if you have no prior rescue or emergency care training, this book should convince you to get some – as well as exercise caution in your backcountry pursuits.

My only substantive criticism of the book is that I wish Steve had stated up front (as opposed to in the “About the Author” note at the end) that among his many other skills and credentials, he is not only a ski patroller and Wilderness EMT, but also an EMT-Intermediate. As such, he is allowed to perform certain interventions legally off limits to a typical “Outdoor Emergency Care” ski patroller or EMT-Basic. And although the book is professionally produced and carefully proofread, the pictures are just low-resolution black and white, but Steve’s website provides the full-color originals (many more available using codes provided in the book) . . . which often had me gulping and palms sweating, as the situations were even more dicey than the text conveyed.

(WildSnow guest blogger Jonathan Shefftz lives with his wife and daughter in Western Massachusetts, where he is a member of the Northfield Mountain and Thunderbolt / Mt Greylock ski patrols. Formerly an NCAA alpine race coach, he has broken free from his prior dependence on mechanized ascension to become far more enamored of self-propelled forms of skiing. He is an AIARE-qualified instructor, NSP avalanche instructor, and contributor to the American Avalanche Association’s The Avalanche Review. When he is not searching out elusive freshies in Southern New England or promoting the NE Rando Race Series, he works as a financial economics consultant.)


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3 Responses to “Book Review – Mountain Responder by Steve Achelis”

  1. Steven January 26th, 2010 1:43 pm

    Thanks for the book review Jonathan. I am always looking for solid mountain books to add to my “to read” list (helps to balance out my typical university business reading).

  2. ME January 27th, 2010 1:38 pm

    I would argue about “the ultimate demise” of the SLC SAR team. While the organization may be different, and we’re dealing with the same team politics there is still an active, and very busy, volunteer SAR team in Salt Lake County. All that was accomplished when a large majority of the old guard of team members left was leaving the team with a lot of newer people and a few old folks who’s input was invaluable. Now, the team is a small, but very dedicated and competent group of skiers and climbers.

  3. Jonathan Shefftz January 29th, 2010 5:20 pm

    ME — I agree, thanks for your correction. Dramatic shake-up and reorganization would have been a more appropriate term than demise.

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