“I write so I can sleep.” So Bree Loewen begins in Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue. “I know I’m writing other people’s stories…. So for a long time, once I’d written the stories I burned them in the fire pit in my back yard and scattered the ashes. Or I turned the paper boats and floated the words out into Puget Sound, committing what had happened to the universe to remember.” With the publication of her second book (her first, Pickets and Dead Men, appeared in 2010), readers will be glad that Loewen stopped throwing her pages away.
Found is a reminder of the passion and camaraderie that drew many of us to the mountains in the first place, as well as an intimate portrayal of the vital but often overlooked community of volunteers who serve as a lifeline for backcountry travelers.
As a volunteer for Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR) and a former backcountry ranger on Mt. Rainier, Loewen has spent almost 20 years helping return, or recover, injured or lost people from the mountains. Several of the chapters in Found are organized around her experiences with SMR. Between rescues, scenes from Loewen’s everyday life appear in bright, colorful flashes: watching cartoons with her young daughter, climbing at Squamish, washing dishes at the fire station, and trying to find fulfilling work for the hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. after her husband humorously “fires” her from being a stay-at-home mom.
Despite her nearly 20 years of experience with mountain rescue, Loewen confesses that, as a volunteer, she sometimes feels “second-rate” because she’s not a professional. “Not getting paid makes people think I suck,” she says. Yet as she lowers down to the base of Snoqualmie Falls to recover a body, Loewen reflects:
This is a job for a human, not a hero, a human who has nothing else to do today but this. And I think it’s a good thing that I can be here, that there are so many people like me who are here today.
Over the past few years, we’ve heard more and more women’s voices in adventure writing–and in climbing literature especially–that expand the range of perspectives in mountain narratives. In Found, Loewen illustrates how women can sometimes face additional challenges in the backcountry brought on by society’s expectations. In the chapter “Red Mountain,” Loewen describes a moment when she and her husband, also a SMR volunteer, are out together looking for Monika, a missing skier. Loewen comes to the top of a dangerous, wind-loaded chute, and the rescue party reasons that the missing skier might be below. At that point, the group faces the question of who will and won’t go. One member of the rescue party, a young father, decides it’s too risky, and that he’ll stay at the top. Loewen’s husband, however, chooses to descend, leaving her to ponder the potential repercussions her own decisions might have. In this scene, the multitude of roles Loewen inhabits–the various and sometimes competing identities of a mother, a climber, an emergency worker, a rescuer–come to the fore in one of the most powerful moments in the book:
The only choices I actually have are to go, too, and pull it off, or else back away and admit that I shouldn’t be here, that I should go home and vacuum something. Psych. It’s not a choice. I have to go, and it has nothing to do with my risk assessment which, adding up everyone’s mental state, the likelihood Monika’s still alive, the temperature inversion, the darkness, and the wind-loaded chute, tells me to stay on the ridge until it slides in a few hours when the rain really starts, and then go down.
Throughout Found, Loewen writes about the trips and rescues in an honest and thoughtful manner. On the drive up to Red Mountain to look for Monika, Loewen notes: “I should spend this time–driving 90 miles an hour up Snoqualmie pass, my little car shuddering–finding the right words to say to Ryan [Monika’s boyfriend]. Something communicating empathy, but yet not implying that I have any idea what this really means for him. I know that nothing is going to be the right thing to say.” The struggle to find the right words at such times recurs in the book–an undertaking that Loewen admits doesn’t get easier with experience, but that she conveys with eloquence after the fact in her spare, lyrical prose.
The stories are often punctuated with laugh-out-loud moments that, nonetheless, hint at deeper, human truths. After a rescue, Loewen processes her thoughts aloud to her daughter: “I want to be involved and to hurt, to know I’m human. I want to be connected to other people. I want to be vested in this world and do the kind of work that you do for someone you love.” Her daughter, still in preschool, responds, “I want an orange kitten with white spots.”
Recurring characters in the stories–her friends on the SMR team–appear as dedicated, compassionate and lively individuals. There is Bob, who’s working on his EMT certification and, while out on a midnight rescue, yells to a patient: “Get the pad under your ischium!” “No, higher, under your ischium!” “Just sit on it so it’s under your ischium!” He’s also a retired Marine who “does not condone hot pink pants” but routinely buys dinner for the whole crew after a late-night operation. And there is Jenn, a children’s librarian, who changes her Yosemite climbing vacation plans to help locate a missing hiker. She also reminds Loewen that snowshoes are “not cool,” and that she’s “not allowed to wear gaiters, even in knee-deep slush,” because, Jenn says, “No one in Colorado wears gaiters.”
The SMR crewmembers are the people I’d like to encounter, should ever I be in need of a rescue in the mountains. But, more than that, I’d like to buy them all a beer (or, you know, if I could ever afford it, a shiny, high-clearance vehicle, as well as the storage and office space that SMR desperately needs).
Reading Found, you’ll be thankful for the entertaining and thought-provoking stories of risk and rescue. But you’ll also be thankful for the author and her friends who serve the backcountry community, even when it means missing family dinners or a night of sleep–even when it hurts.