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.