Photography by Tom Rogers
Stowe Mountain Rescue member Tom Rogers is just sitting down to dinner with his wife and two young daughters when his phone goes off. He immediately knows by the distinctive ringtone that someone in the backcountry needs help.
He also knows that the other 16 team members have gotten the same alert and are scrolling through the information being pushed out by Active911, an app that sets rescue squads in motion. Active911 notifies the team of how many people need help, what happened, whether anyone is hurt, and the GPS coordinates of their location.
Each member responds with a yes, no, or delay as to whether they can answer the call. They also indicate whether they'll meet at the fire station or at the scene, depending which location is closest. If they need backup support to field the call, the chief contacts another nearby backcountry rescue team.
When Rogers hears the ping, his initial reaction is, Oh crap. "It's very rare that a call comes at a convenient time," he says. "All of us are busy and I am almost always right in the middle of something."
But that "oh crap" response lasts about two seconds. "Then I drop whatever I'm doing and become mission-oriented," Rogers says. He jumps up from the table and races to his car in whatever he happens to be wearing. His rescue pack is in already in the trunk, so he just turns on the flashing light in his car and books it.
"Minutes—or even seconds—can make a difference," Rogers says, recalling a recent time-sensitive emergency where a woman fell through an ice-covered pond. Then they hop in the truck and are off to the scene. "As soon as we pull out of the station, my nerves disappear," Rogers says. "Now there is a calm—we are doing what we are trained to do, we know our roles, and we feel very prepared to take the necessary steps."I always feel an intense sense of urgency to get there as quickly as possible."
When he arrives at the station, he immediately gets to work. "We hook up the trailer if we need it and get the appropriate equipment," Rogers says. That might include a stretcher, ropes, medical gear, snowshoes, and a rubber gumby suit for a water or ice rescue.
Then they hop in the truck and are off to the scene. "As soon as we pull out of the station, my nerves disappear," Rogers says. "Now there is a calm—we are doing what we are trained to do, we know our roles, and we feel very prepared to take the necessary steps."
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Stowe Mountain Rescue responds to three different types of emergency calls. If the person isn't badly injured, has cell service, and is near the trail, the chief or dispatch may be able to talk them back to safety using their location coordinates from the 911 call, no rescue required.
or instance, the "lost skier off the Bruce Trail" is a well-rehearsed scenario. "Located in the Ranch Valley, just south of Stowe Mountain Resort, many people who start on the Bruce accidentally veer into an area called the Waterfall Pitch, which looks beautiful at the top and then ends in a gully," says Greg Speer, a 16-year veteran of Stowe Mountain Rescue. "It's a predictable enough mistake that the team put numbers on some of the trail markers to help direct people out."
The second type of call is folks who require equipment—say, hikers or backcountry skiers who miscalculated the amount of time of they'd be out on the trail or took a wrong turn along the way. Now, they need flashlights, water, or food in order to get safely off the mountain. In that case, the chief will call out to two team members to deliver goods to the weary adventurers.
he third is a true SOS necessitating the kind of organized effort the team has been carefully trained to carry out, and it's all hands on deck. If the person has battery and cell service, the team will plug their coordinates into mapping software for faster help. If the team can't trace the location, things go a lot slower.
During a winter rescue, the chief might coordinate with Stowe Mountain Resort ski patrol to ride in the snowcat. If that's not feasible, they drive in an ATV or snowmobile as far up the mountain as they can. Then, it's time for snowshoes. And since there's a possibility the person could be injured, they'll bring a litter (a sled-like stretcher with sides and handles that can be pulled by a skier). From here, it's all about old-fashioned communication: whistles, shouting, and headlamps.
"When we reach the person, there is a huge sense of relief—and then the efficiency ramps up further," Rogers says. "Each of us brings a unique skill set: Some members are advanced EMTs, others are phenomenal rock and ice climbers who are highly trained with ropes. We each lean into where we are strongest."
Someone is onmedical duty,checking out the person for injuries or frostbite; others assemble the litter or build an anchor for climbing ropes. And everything happens super fast. "One of us talks to the person we're rescuing the entire time, reassuring them and explaining the plan," Rogers says. "The rest of the team works like parts of a machine operating around them." Meanwhile, the chief is busy updating the person's family and discussing next steps with the police or fire department.
Even though the team is often called on to do formidable tasks, Rogers insists he is never afraid for his own safety. That's partly because the team is so practiced (more on that later), and party because their own wellbeing is paramount. Stowe Mountain Rescue members understand that there is a clear hierarchy of priorities when on a call: keep yourself safe, keep your teammates safe, keep bystanders safe, don't make the situation worse, and lastly save the individual in trouble. "If rescuing someone involves taking an outsize risk, we won't do it," Rogers says.
Sometimes a rescue happens quickly—they can assist a hiker with a twisted ankle and be back to the station in 45 minutes flat. But other missions can take 14 hours or more, and the team is out all night long. "It is mind-boggling how exhausted I can be," Rogers says. "The next day I feel like I've run a marathon and there is nothing left for my body to give."
The ultimate goal, of course, is getting everyone safely down the mountain, and delivering the person in distress to Stowe EMS (there's an ambulance on standby) for transport to the hospital or home to bed. "If things have gone very wrong for someone and they are in a bad spot, it is fulfilling to be able to turn that around and make it right again," Rogers says
But things don't always end well. "We do our best to process [tragedy] in a healthy way, but sometimes it is really tough," Rogers says, noting that the team has a counselor to help them cope. "We talk about it as a team to make sure everyone's okay, and we often stay in touch with the victim's spouse, checking in on them periodically."
What to Do if You're Injured or Lost
Even experienced backcountry travelers sometimes get turned around or hurt. Make it easier to get rescued by following these steps:
- Activate the Compass app on your iPhone before leaving. (If you have an Android, download a similar app that provides latitude/longitude.)
- Text a friend—an SMS is more likely to go through than a phone call when you have poor service or low battery. Include the following in your message: your coordinates from the Compass app, how many people you're with, where you think you are, where you started from, if anyone is hurt. Then stay where you are. (When your friend dials 911, the call will be routed to Lamoille County Dispatch, who will convey all this info to Stowe Mountain Rescue.)
- If you don't have cell service but you have a map, head downhill where you're more likely to find a road and people.
- If you're injured without cell service, do your best to light a fire and stay put.
It's crucial to keep your body temperature up while awaiting rescue. Here's how.
- GET OFF THE SNOW. Pile up spruce bows to sit on, rest on a dry log, or slowly march up and down.
- FIND SHELTER. Head below the treeline and into the woods. Try to take refuge against a large boulder or a stand of trees where the wind will be less likely to cut into you.
- KEEP MOVING, but only enough to keep you warm. You want to strike a balance between getting your blood moving and starting to sweat.
- EAT AND DRINK, if you can. Food equals fuel, and fuel means warmth. If you have water, drink it. Dehydration can often cause chills.
- MAKE A FIRE. You should always tuck a lighter in your pocket before heading into the backcountry. Tamp down the snow in a protected spot, and make a flat platform from rocks or logs. Gather dry tinder, such as pieces of birch bark or tiny twigs from an area not covered by snow. Arrange sticks around the tinder in teepee formation and light your tinder underneath. Look for dry spruce branches to keep the fire going, as they catch flame quickly.
- TRY WIM HOF BREATHING: Take a deep breath and let the air slowly trickle out. Repeat 10 times. On the eleventh breath, hold it while contracting your chest, back and shoulders muscles.
- STAND UP, extend your arms, and twist your body for one to two minutes, letting your arms swing as you breathe naturally. Repeat as necessary.
Stowe Mountain Rescue is an accredited mountain rescue association that was founded in 1980 to support rescue efforts in dangerous areas—primarily the Smuggler's Notch cliff region, which had recently become a destination for climbers and ice climbers. Today, the team handles all types of backcountry rescues. They respond to an average of 30-40 calls per year, although as of press time they were already at 54, likely due to an overall increase in outdoor recreation during the pandemic.
The team members are paid volunteers funded primarily by the town of Stowe, plus donations (see how to give on pg 15). They apply for state and federal grants in order to purchase necessary equipment, but no one is getting rich while risking their lives for others. They earn around minimum wage for the hours spent on the ground. "We make just enough money not to lose money," Rogers says. "Most of our earnings go toward replacing our own rescue gear as we wear it out."
And folks in trouble don't pay a fee. That's based on the philosophy that if you charge for rescues, people are less likely to call—or will only reach out when the situation is truly dire, putting rescuers in greater danger.
Instead, nearly all members of Stowe Mountain Rescue have full-time day jobs. Rogers works for the Nature Conservancy. Speer is co-owner of Sunrise Mountain Guides in Stowe. Other members include a computer chip designer, disaster management consultant, engineer, professional ski patroller, financial advisor, project manager, cyber defense specialist—it runs the gamut.
Although anyone can apply to join the squad, the bar for entry is high. They look for candidates with a background in backcountry skiing or climbing. Another plus is having medical training—the ability to assess and administer medication and treat injuries like broken bones.
"I applied in 2012 because I wanted to put my outdoor skillset to use helping people," Rogers says. "If my wife or daughters were lost in the wilderness, I would want someone trained to go out and save them, and that was a big motivation for me."
If a candidate is accepted, they'll go through a rigorous boot camp, followed by a nine-month probation period where they continue to train twice a month, in addition to heading out on calls.
Once they're officially in, they still attend regular training sessions. Stowe Mountain Rescue is one of the few rescue teams who deal with mountain as well as swiftwater saves, so the instruction is wide-ranging. Their certifications include land navigation; high angle rope rescue; ice rescue; setting up load hauling systems; medical trainings; and swimming, throwing ropes, and powering a boat through swiftwater. It's a significant time commitment and members sign up knowing they're in this for the long-haul.
Going through so much together fuses a powerful bond among team members. "I imagine that our camaraderie is similar to that of a military platoon, because only we understand what these rescue efforts are like," Rogers says. "There is a very strong feeling of family among us—during the busy season, I end up seeing my team members more than anyone else other than my wife and kids."
For Rogers, that sense of connection expands to the rest of the community. "Stowe Mountain Rescue is such an integral part of Stowe that I feel a lot closer to my town being a part of the team," Rogers says. "Everyone is really proud to serve and grateful to have this opportunity."
Three Legendary Rescues
These real-life saves sound like they could be blockbuster film scenarios. But it's all a day in the life for the Stowe Mountain Rescue squad
At Joiner Brook in nearby Bolton, extreme currents carried a golden retriever into a raging river headed toward 100-foot waterfalls plunging into a gorge. While attempting to pull the dog to safety, its owner also tumbled into the frigid water. Both were swept downstream, and the man managed to clamber onto a rock above the falls. With the river rising and his real estate rapidly dwindling, the team rigged up a twin-tension high-line with a boat on a tether to make a successful save in the nick of time.
A snowboarder who rode out of bounds off Toll Road got lost. There was so much snow that he couldn't ride downhill, so he started walking. By 8pm, he was exhausted and didn't have a cell phone. When he didn't return home that evening, his parents called 911 and after an extensive search, the team found him on top of Powerline, near the Stowe Derby trail, in his tee shirt—no mittens, no hat, no jacket.
He had worked up a sweat while getting himself out of the deep snow. Once he started to cool down, his wet, cold body became dangerously hypothermic. At that point, he likely experienced what's known as "paradoxical undressing," when victims of hypothermia feel hot instead of cold and begin to disrobe. Luckily, the team located him before it was too late.
Two hikers were scrambling up the nearly-vertical Smuggler's Notch cliff without ropes or support when one of them slipped, knocking his friend off balance on the way down. One climber plummeted 110 feet, landing on his head in an inaccessible area. The other grabbed hold of a tree mid-fall and was able to perch on a precariously small ledge.
First, Stowe Mountain Rescue transported the injured hiker to an area where he could be helicoptered out. Then, the team climbed back up to save the second climber, who had been clutching the tree trunk for at least four hours. They rappelled him out, and both hikers ended up being okay.