Andy Harris, Summit County Rescue Group team member and former British Army colonel, explains the art of survival
Douglas Adams’ timeless classic, “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” posited that the most important piece of advice in the universe comes in the form of two words: “Don’t panic.”
Summit County Rescue Group team member and retired British Army colonel Andy Harris goes one step further with that advice when trying to rescue people in the High Rockies under the harshest conditions: “Don’t panic, eat chocolate.”
Harris, who has been a member of the rescue group for 10 years, doesn’t panic because he’s been to parts of the world where panicking will almost certainly get you killed. In the Army, it was his job for 26 years to keep his head even when the world was blowing up around him.
Harris, who was born in Lichfield, England, first trained as a lawyer before tiring of it and joining the Queen’s army. He became a part of the Royal Engineers Airborne division and specialized in explosive ordinance disposal; known colloquially in the Commonwealth as a “sapper.”
His job was to search for things that could blow up and kill him, and then use steady hands and steely nerves to defuse them. It was either that, or using those same skills to plant explosives for combat and sabotage purposes. With all 10 fingers still intact, it is apparent Harris was very good at that job.
Harris’ service saw him deploy to Norway, the Middle East, South Africa and Northern Ireland. He was deployed in Northern Ireland during the Troubles — the decades-long conflict between the British military, British loyalists and Irish nationalists. The conflict claimed 3,500 lives by the time the Good Friday agreement brought an end to major hostilities in 1998.
In the early ’90s, Harris was deployed to Colorado Springs to serve as an exchange officer and advisor to the U.S. military during the first Persian Gulf War. In 2000, Harris retired from military service. “I ran out of scar tissue,” he said.
After retiring, Harris made his way to Breckenridge and purchased the Fireside Inn on French Street with his wife Nikki. He and Nikki have been owners of the cozy bed and breakfast for the past 17 years. But even though Harris was done with military service, he was not done serving.
“I’m an alien here, and I can’t vote,” Harris said. “I still wanted to do something for the community.”
After serving as a volunteer firefighter in Breck, Harris became a member of the Summit County Rescue Group in 2008. Aside from his service as a bomb disposal expert, Harris also received basic survival training in the army, which informed his expertise for the rescue group. Before arriving to Summit, Harris was a member of Mountain Rescue England and Wales, a similarly organized counterpart to Summit’s rescue group.
“You spend a lot of time in the cold and rain,” said Harris’ rescue group colleague, Helen Rowe, who is also originally from Britain and served with the Scottish Mountain Rescue group. “I imagine it’s what helped build his sense of humor and stiff upper lip. That, and being up s—t’s creek so many times in the service.”
Harris has served in many missions to help rescue and recover people stranded or lost in Summit’s mountains and backcountry, as well as to impart wisdom and training to new recruits. His navigation and survival training skills, combined with a British officer’s unflappability, makes him an ideal mentor and teammate in the rescue group.
During survival training for new recruits back in early November, Harris said that he always carries key essentials like a trusty spoon, a thermos of hot chocolate and a jerrycan full of warm stew. However, he said, the right attitude is the most paramount of all survival tools.
“You can never be complacent,” Harris said. “The conditions here are ever-changing, and you must be prepared for anything. You must be dressed properly and well fed before you go out there. You can’t be arrogant, and if you are lost in the wild, you can’t panic and start thinking, ‘I’m going to die.’ Sit down, take a deep breath, count to 10 and start taking inventory on your situation.”
Harris added that one of the things that gets people in trouble, particularly men, is the kind of bravado and arrogance that makes them feel invincible.
“Snowmobilers go out there with 750cc between their legs and think they’re immortal,” Harris said. “But even with one of those, you can’t outrun the speed of an avalanche.”
Harris and other members of the group have participated in missions that have forced them to camp in blizzards with gale-like winds and torrential snow. Summit’s erratic weather is the factor that makes it stand out, and what makes rescue missions here so dangerous. In those conditions, Harris said, it was paramount to keep your head; as a rescue group member, it’s also essential to be a team player.
“We don’t have room for egos,” Harris said. “When we’re out for over eight hours at a time on Quandary, teamwork and camaraderie is essential, and ours is amazing.”
In November, seven new recruits to the rescue group were evaluated and have been accepted as probationary members. Rowe, who is part of the training committee, said that all seven members passed with full marks and some have already participated in live rescue missions under the bitterly cold harsh conditions they had trained for just a few weeks prior.
“They had their first survival mission which tested them overnight in those conditions,” Rowe said. “It was over by Vail Pass, and they performed exceptionally well. We are pleased the survival training came into such good use.”
The seven new members showed their mettle, being able to think on their feet while working with their teammates. They also all showed the positive, clear-headed attitude needed to survive.
The new probationary members are: Abby Seymour, Andrew Opdycke, Alex Gelb, Matt Coye, Nick Potochnick and Steve Milroy. Anna Debattiste has also re-joined the group from an absence after undergoing new member training again.
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