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Saving Lives in the San Gabriel Mountains

One of the country’s busiest search-and-rescue groups puts our social contract into practice

Ryan Bradley
May 25, 2018 · 8 min read
Credit: Kit_Leong/iStock via Getty

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There was a story making the rounds a few years ago about a village in England called Ashton Hayes that had cut a lot of its carbon output all on its own. That is, there was no government program, no mayoral decree, or anything like that. It was just a bunch of villagers installing solar panels, taking fewer trips on airplanes, air-drying their clothes. A woman from the village named Rosemary Dossett told a reporter, by way of explanation, “We just think everyone should try and clean up their patch.”

I couldn’t get that phrase out of my mind. It’s still there, lodged somewhere near the middle to forefront, most days. “Everyone should try and clean up their patch.” What is my patch? What is your patch? How much should we try and clean up? And what does this look like, this cleaning? And then, inevitably, this string of questions about patches being cleaned leads me to the heart of the matter, which is: What do we owe each other? Ms. Dossett from Ashton Hayes had subtly highlighted what I recently found so depressing about the news, the politics, the economy, and the world, which is that we seem to be constantly debating what we are owed, what we can get, and not the flip side, which is not only much more important but also makes for a far less depressing world.

I live at the edge of the Los Angeles Basin, very near some large mountains called the San Gabriels. People get lost in these mountains regularly, often several times a week, wedged as they are against one of the largest and most densely populated metropolitan area in the United States. When someone or a group of people get lost, they are often within easy sight of the whole vast basin. Usually, by the time they realize they are in trouble, night has fallen, and the endless plain of lights in the basin shimmers before them like a mirage, so close it seems they could touch it or walk down to it. Often, this is what they attempt to do: walk down the mountains, straight down, which gets them into deeper trouble, since the mountains are craggy and crumbly and filled with small canyons and sudden cliffs.

Eventually, someone — either the lost party or a relative or friend waiting back home — calls 911, and the call gets routed to the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, which then alerts a volunteer search and rescue group out of Altadena, which goes to work. Usually, by the time the call arrives and is routed to the team, it’s late in the evening or the dead of night. Everyone on the team has a day job, and most of those day jobs are unrelated to saving people. Jeff Moran, the former captain, runs his family’s auction house. James Moussali, the current captain, works in a warehouse that stores and provides costumes for movies and TV shows.

The team is among the busiest in the nation. Last year, they had more than 100 “missions,” meaning searches and, usually, rescues (sometimes the search turns into not a rescue but the recovery of a body). The number keeps ticking up. A few years ago, it was 76; in 2014, it was 64. The team members haven’t really figured out just why the rise, but one has what he calls the Starbucks theory: “How much trouble can I really get into when I’m not even three miles from Starbucks?”

Quite a lot. The wilderness, even so close to so much civilization, can kill you, either through a fall or in the cold, at night. But more often, looking over the list of the team’s missions, one is struck by just how mundane the trouble can seem at first. A hiker’s flashlight was failing and darkness was falling, so he called. Another hiker’s dog ran off the trail and got stuck in a spot he didn’t want to risk climbing down to, so he called. A pair followed what they thought was a marked trail that turned out to be unmarked, unofficial, and the sun set, and they couldn’t figure out a way down, so they called.

The team often finds these folks who call uninjured, maybe shivering a bit, but able to walk down the mountain on their own. Often, since it’s the middle of the night and they are hungry, the team has bought dinner — dollar tacos are a favorite — and they share it with the found hikers before escorting them to their parked cars. I’ve wondered if they ever get slightly peeved about being woken up on a weeknight because someone forgot to bring water or a flashlight but was otherwise fine. But no, they are happy people call sooner rather than later. “Better safe than sorry,” they say, along with a string of other clichés about preparedness and safety. But at its heart, there seemed to be, to the team, an unspoken contract that someone up in the mountains needed help and it was their charge to help them.

This duty and responsibility we have for each other has, lately, seemed less and less obvious. I was in Arizona not long ago, talking to the CEO of a company that builds panels that pull moisture from the surrounding atmosphere to make drinkable water. He described how he’d set up one such panel in a far corner of his property, in exurban Phoenix. It wasn’t for his own use, but as a kind of high-tech watering hole for thirsty desert critters. I mentioned how useful more such water way stations might be, speckled throughout the desert borderlands, for saving humans attempting to cross over and into the United States. He grimaced and said it would be hard to pull off. The politics of it, he added. The problem was the gesture itself, which, taken one way, yes, could be seen as saving a life. Taken another, it was an invitation. I said something like: Well, we can all agree on saving people’s lives, can’t we? It didn’t seem like a political question at all. “If you think that, you don’t know Arizona,” the CEO said.

I didn’t. And I still don’t. The desert, the frontier, the borderlands, the land generally throughout America, and everywhere else in the world has usually not just allowed for but necessitated this most basic tenet of mutual aid: When presented with the opportunity to save a life, you take it. You don’t let people die. Particularly not when they are dying in front of you. Not, at least, without doing anything about it. We owe each other that much. Don’t we?

There is something explicitly American about this notion of aiding one another. During his 1831 travels through the United States, French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at this fact. In Democracy in America , he reported, “Not only do they have commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but they also have a thousand other kinds: religious, moral, grave, futile, very general and very particular, immense and very small; Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools.” Civil society, in other words.

These mutual aid contracts, binding us to each other, don’t simply undergird civil society; they link it to the state. The very notion of the state, beginning with the city-state, exists in large part as a means of staving off war. There are the obvious ways of doing this — a wall, an army — but the less obvious way has always been far more effective: promises, treaties, oaths. Agreements with one another, as all of us wish to protect, and clean up, our collective patches.

Elaine Scarry, in her book Thinking in an Emergency, cites the development of the major cities throughout Europe with the emergence of mutual aid agreements “to protect the inhabitants against external sources of human aggression. The cities did not accidentally emerge. They came about through explicit acts of oath-taking and contract-making.” The walls and the armies were the outgrowth of something that began at a far more basic, essential level. This is a recurrent theme of Scarry’s book: Emergency response—effective emergency response, that is—must be bottom up, not top down.

The saving of a life is, after all, most often, a terribly individual act. For example: The country where you are most likely to live through a heart attack outside of a hospital is Japan, not because of particularly well-trained and fast-working paramedics, but because more individuals in Japan know CPR and are trained in it every year than anywhere else. They know what to do when faced with someone in cardiac distress. It’s the knowing what to do that most often determines whether or not something will be done. Thinking in an emergency, in other words, means preparing and practicing for the inevitable emergency to arrive. I wondered what that looked like, and if that was as simple as learning CPR and, say, readying an earthquake kit, because I live in a place prone to earthquakes. But then you look around and realize there are emergencies everywhere that require all kinds of responses all the time.

We have as a nation been in an official state of emergency since 1979, when Congress passed the National Emergencies Act. Soon after, President Carter declared the first state of emergency for the hostage crisis in Iran. Not a day has passed since without a federally declared national crisis in effect. There’s usually more than one. They’ve only increased, year after year. Currently, we are living through nearly 40 states of emergency. Most have been caused by natural disasters (hurricanes, floods, fires), but some are caused by disease. The opioid crisis, caused by addiction, a noninfectious medical condition, controversially did not make the cut. (Avian flu and, eventually, AIDS did.) The difference is resource allocation, mostly in the form of federal funding. But a state of emergency does not have to be officially declared to be felt.

Moussali, the new captain of the search and rescue team, described to me how, almost imperceptibly, this volunteer role became not something he needed to make time for, not something he did in his free time, not a hobby, but something that wasn’t even a part of him, because it was him. This is how he describes it to newbies who come to initial meetings and start training: “You have to be willing to understand that if you take this on, you’re essentially embarking on a new way of life.”

Moran, the former captain, told me he used to be interested in what drove people to do this—if there was some specific character trait that would make someone get up in the middle of the night and run into the mountains, all to save someone who might have gotten stuck, often for pretty dumb reasons. He even put a question on surveys for potential members trying to get at this. The question was something like: “If you see an old lady collapse in the street, do you run to help her because she needs help or because it makes you feel better?” “I used to care about that, used to think they needed to be pure. Now I don’t. Whatever gets you out of bed at 2 a.m.,” Moran said. There was no through line, he realized, to the sort of people who were attracted to and could do this kind of work. In fact, it didn’t matter. You either believed in the mutual aid contract, believed in the ever-expanding patchwork of humanity, believed in one’s duty to others, or not. You either got up or you didn’t.

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