Rescuers without borders
Ryan Summerlin November 24, 2012
When they arrived in China’s Sichuan Province in early September, it quickly became clear that members of the Summit County Rescue Group had little in common with their hosts, a Chinese mountain rescue team.
The two groups spoke different languages and came from different cultures on opposite sides of the globe.
But they shared a one very powerful connection: a love for the unforgiving high-alpine landscape where they work.
“They had the same spirit we do,” Summit County Rescue Group team leader Aaron Parmet said. “And they had the hearts of volunteers, just like us.”
Parmet was one of five local rescuers who spent nearly a month in China earlier this year as part of a cultural exchange and rescue-training program. The Summit County Rescue Group spent 18 days living and working with members of the Sichuan Mountaineering Association, teaching them high-angle avalanche and search and rescue techniques.
“China is just starting to get out into the mountains for play, so you see parts of their culture, with respect to mountain recreation, that are similar to where our culture was years ago,” Parmet said. “But they’re moving at an incredible pace, so they’re seeing a lot of growing problems as far as rescue.”
Problems like the total absence of beacons. Distance and inadequate equipment mean responders are often running recovery operations rather than rescue missions in the wake of China’s frequent avalanches. As recreationalists push farther and farther into the backcountry, rescuers are also having to respond to calls from terrain where there have never before been accidents.
The Sichuan Mountaineering Association’s exchange program is part of a proactive push to enhance rescue teams’ techniques and improve results. Through translators, Summit County rescuers – who traveled with members of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group out of Boulder – taught basic rope skills, avalanche rescue and search techniques.
During one exercise, Summit County Rescue Group leader Jim Koegel hid from SMA rescuers to give them an opportunity to test their skills in the field.
“They found him by asking other villagers if they had seen any other round-eyed people come by,” remembers SCRG rescuer Amber Moran.
The trip wasn’t all work, however. Local rescuers, who funded the trip themselves, got to stay in a national park, experience some of the cultural and visitor attractions of the region and climb one roughly 17,000-foot mountain just for fun.
“That’s as high as I’ve ever been,” Parmet said.
The stay in China was eye-opening for Moran and Parmet, not only as Americans, but as mountaineers.
While they were training their hosts in rescue techniques, they were also learning about the Chinese way of life – sampling new dishes such as duck eyeballs – and a whole different mountain landscape.
Coming from Summit County, sitting comfortably above 9,000 feet in elevation with peaks of up to 14,000 feet, rescuers were suddenly exposed to a mountain environment where the 10,000-foot valley floor sat at the base of towering mountains reaching 18,000 feet in elevation.
“The vertical relief there ended up to be about twice what it was here,” Parmet said.
“They have a whole different environment they have to rescue people from versus what we have,” Moran said.
Still, it wasn’t the mountains but the friendships that were the most moving part of the journey, they said.
Shortly after meeting the SMA team, even without the luxury of a common language, local rescuers said they felt at home with their hosts.
“You really learned how much you can communicate with people without words,” Moran said. “One of the first nights we got together as a group, we sat down to dinner not knowing how to talk to each other. By the end of that night, we were all hanging out together, and we were laughing and cheering. It was really cool to see how two completely different cultures can just be put together like that and become friends without talking.”
Members of SCRG were invited to their Chinese hosts’ homes for meals. If members of the SMA were to return to the U.S., they would be welcomed with the same open arms, Parmet said.