Rescue Team Gulps Danger With Its Mountain Air

Times Staff Writer

We are on the slippery eastern slope of Big Butch Wash, a few thousand feet below the summit of Mt. Baldy. George Duffy, waving his ice ax like a wand, is lecturing on the fine art of moving around on icy “boilerplate” snow.

He scrambled nimbly up the hill, the sharp crampons on his boots biting into the steep slab of snow. He chops little footholds in the snow. He uses his ax as a banister, slamming the head into the ground and his hand sliding down the handle with each step.

This is Duffy’s element. Cold, beautiful, dangerous. One misstep on a slope like this, he says, can send you careening down the snowy, tree-studded mountain as quick as a Flexible Flyer schussing down a bobsled run. “Once you get your velocity going, it’s really difficult to stop,” said the agile Duffy, a veteran mountaineer and a member of the Sierra Madre Search & Rescue Team.

‘Opportunity for Trouble’


Duffy and a dozen other members of the team of volunteers--energetic men in down jackets and ski hats, their shoulders bristling with packs and coiled ropes--are here to sharpen their skills for the moment of truth. As sure as bears forage in the forest, team members say, they’ll be summoned on an occasion or two this year to help evacuate victims in just such treacherous circumstances as these.

“There’s plenty of opportunity to get into trouble up there,” said team member Arnold Gaffrey, nodding toward the snowy ridges above. “If we get involved in some incident, we’ll definitely be using some of the techniques we’re practicing today.”

An errant hiker who has wandered deep into a remote canyon, a climber stuck on a slippery ledge, a troop of shivering Boy Scouts lost in the woods--all have relied on the renowned all-seasons volunteer rescue team to guide them back to safety in the last 38 years.

Just two weeks ago, Gaffrey and two colleagues hiked for nine hours on snowshoes down a canyon called Vincent Gulch, near the base of Mt. Baden Powell in the San Gabriel Mountains, to lead a stray skier back to civilization.

The Angeles National Forest, where the team hones its skills and performs about three-quarters of its rescues, is prime territory for such outdoor predicaments. Not only is it chock-full of sheer, avalanche-prone slopes and stream beds that can turn to white-water in a flash, it is also a playground for about 27 million visitors a year.

Many of the visitors are city-slickers with little experience in the wilderness. “Snow bunnies,” team member Russell Anderson calls some of them. “They come up here in Levis, T-shirts and tennis shoes. They start hiking up a trail or a fire road, and halfway down, darkness falls. That’s the situation we find them in at 2 in the morning.”

Nowadays there are 18 members of the Sierra Madre Search & Rescue Team, with five probationary members, including one woman. About half live in Sierra Madre, the rest in adjoining communities. They all wear pagers so they can be summoned around the clock.

They Don’t Get Paid

They each equip themselves with at least $1,000 worth of camping equipment. They go on a daylong outdoor training session such as this one at least once a month. They can expect to be rousted out of bed, into the inky darkness of the forest, at least eight or 10 times a year. They don’t get paid.

And they love it.

Team members--including a teacher, a Pacific Bell technician, an insurance agent, a wire manufacturer, a tree surgeon, an Army sergeant and several engineers--flounder for explanations, talking about wanting to help out and having some spare time on their hands. But mostly it seems to come down to love of nature and esprit de corps.

“The best part is the spontaneity,” said Steve Millenbach, president of the team. “You’re sitting in your office, and the pager goes off. Two hours later, you’re up in the Sierra someplace, looking at the season’s first snowfall.”

“I just love being out here,” added Anderson, a lean man with iron-gray hair cut in a military style who runs a tree service in Sierra Madre.

He describes a colleague giving a recruit some from-the-heart advice. “He told this prospective member: ‘Buddy, I’ll tell you one thing. If you don’t have a real passion for being out there in the hills, you better not even think about doing it.’ We do some pretty nasty work out there. We handle dead bodies. We’re out in rain, mud and snow.”

They’ve been doing it long enough to establish a national reputation. The team, whose headquarters is a basement room in Sierra Madre’s City Hall, with rows of upholstered seats from an old Boeing 747, is frequently called upon to participate in rescue operations in the High Sierra or in Baja California. It has flown, usually via military transport, to use its rescue skills as far away as the Adirondack Mountains in New York.

Rescue teams all over the country acknowledge that the Sierra Madre Search & Rescue Team has developed techniques and equipment now considered standard in the field, including “helitac,” the use of a helicopter as a rappelling platform or wilderness ambulance.

No one used choppers in rescues before the late 1950s, when the team was called upon to search for a missing fisherman in Bear Canyon, above Sierra Madre, says Miner Harkness, 59, the patriarch of the team.

“We needed to get 10 miles into the canyon,” recalled Harkness, a gray-bearded man with a vaguely woeful look who runs an insurance agency in town. “We were talking to a helicopter pilot about taking us up there. He said: ‘Naw, no way I can land up there. But what do you think? Can you jump out of this thing?’ ”

Voila. Team members, with a lot of skilled assistance from a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department pilot named Sewell Greggors, were soon jumping out of hovering helicopters, rappelling out of the sky on ropes and hauling in victims attached to dangling “horse collars.”

In the team’s headquarters hangs a picture of Greggors at a field demonstration, with pencils taped to his chopper’s runners. The pilot could maneuver the pencils with enough precision to knock the helmets off a pair of team members, Harkness said.

Nowadays, team members practice helitac procedures at least four times a year.

Famous Foursome

Old-timers such as Harkness remember the gritty days before the team formed in 1951, when four brawling Sierra Madre residents, the LaLone brothers, were frequently called on to rescue people in the San Gabriel Mountains.

There was a particularly difficult rescue in 1951, in which the LaLones, a family of trappers and lumbermen, pulled out a severely injured 17-year-old boy after a tumble down a cliff. That’s when they organized the team.

“They decided then that they needed a professional search and rescue team,” said Harkness, who was himself rescued by the leader of the group, Fred LaLone, as an 11-year-old lost in the forest. (Fred LaLone died three weeks ago, at 80).

The young men they recruited soon developed a reputation for tenacity in the field, ingenuity in their techniques, a “hot dog” attitude toward other teams and headstrong independence in their relations with the county bureaucracy.

In 1967, after the team refused to undergo training as sheriff’s deputies, Los Angeles County Sheriff Peter J. Pitchess fired them from the county rescue system and began excluding them from local rescue operations. Team members insisted that they didn’t need to learn about firearms and arrest procedures.

“There’s a whole different mentality between a rescue team and a police force,” said an unrepentant Harkness, who was president of the team at the time. “People missing in the mountains aren’t guilty of any crimes. It’s hard for a police officer to go from wearing flak jackets and busting people to suddenly going out and saving someone.”

The team eventually hooked on with the Los Angeles County Fire Department. It has since rejoined the Sheriff’s Department, its principles intact.

The Sierra Madre Search & Rescue Team is the only one of seven volunteer rescue teams in the county whose members don’t train as reserve sheriff’s deputies. The team continues to refuse county or state money, raising about $30,000 a year for its operating expenses through direct mailing and other fund-raisers.

Tenacious to the End

But the “hot dog” rap still pursues them, probably because of the team’s tenacity in searching. Team members pride themselves on being the last to give up on a search. “Our team philosophy is: ‘The victim is alive, and the victim can be found,’ ” Harkness said. When other teams succumb to inclement weather, the Sierra Madre team tends to persist, often spending extra days in the field.

In 1979, the team joined a search in a wilderness north of Yosemite. The victim was an 80-year-old man with heart problems, missing almost a week in wintry weather. Law enforcement teams dropped out early, presuming the man dead, but the Sierra Madre team persisted.

“We found a campfire with hot coals, and finally, during an airlift (of rescuers), the crew spotted him,” Harkness said. “Here was a guy who, according to most accounts, shouldn’t survive.”

Success such as that is often not appreciated, he added. “They thank you, but you find that you don’t get called the next time.”

The team persists, nevertheless. “A lot of teams don’t like inclement operations,” said Millenbach, who runs the computer system for a large Pasadena engineering firm. “We prefer it that way. The satisfaction of pulling off an operation under adverse conditions--bad weather, snow, falling rocks. Most of the guys like that the best.”

But you have to be prepared, says Duffy, who works as a U.S. Forest Service snow ranger in the Mt. Baldy District. “If you’re going places where you’re going to subject yourself to a great deal of exposure,” he said, “you gotta do it right. . . . You can’t be sloppy.”

He leads his trainees up and down the snowy slope, with vapor puffing out of their mouths and noses in the early morning cold. “What crampons can do is give you a great sense of security,” said Duffy, a slight, ruddy-bearded man who lards his presentation with professorial observations and anecdotes from his mountain-climbing excursions to Mexico and the Himalayas. “When it’s icy, the only thing that’ll keep you alive is the bite of those things.”

Soon, he has team members sliding cheerfully down the hill on their backs, like otters playing on a river bank, with axes cocked to dig into the snowy crust and bring them to a gradual halt. Then, they set up belaying lines, using aluminum snow anchors, and practice lowering a “victim” down the slope with ropes.

But, by afternoon, the snow-covered riverbed below is jammed with screaming sledders. They veer perilously close to each other on inner tubes and cardboard boxes and plastic disks, and they whomp against hard surfaces. Soon the injuries are mounting, and Duffy’s walkie-talkie crackles with calls for assistance. A gashed head, a back injury, requests for directions. Duffy himself is called away.

Anderson is talking nostalgically about helicopter flights he has taken in the Sierra. “People would pay thousands of dollars for a flight like that,” he said. “You fly over a canyon, and it feels like you could reach out and touch these beautiful rock walls. Then they drop you off in some remote area. Gorgeous country.”

Millenbach sourly surveys the scene of careening humanity below and calls it a day.