Maintaining Mental Health as a Rescuer in the Grand Tetons

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As a climbing ranger in Grand Teton National Park, Drew Hardesty is one of those charged with rescuing lost and injured hikers, runners, and climbers. When things are good, he’s putting his life on the line, dangling 50 feet below a helicopter, harnessed to a survivor. When things get bad, he’s one of the ones who brings home the bodies. When we think of outdoor adventure gone wrong, we often think of the victims — those who died on a climb, on a trek, on a run. At Outside, Hardesty shares a little about how deeply death on the mountains affects the rescuers and how they cope with repeated trauma.

He had been on his share of body recoveries. “Sure, man,” he said. “I get it, I’ve been there. We’ve all been there.”

“This one was different,” I said. “Two women on the ledge. It was obvious they had injuries incompatible with life. We had to climb up through blood in the chimney to find the last gal. I’ve picked up plenty of others—friends even—but this one felt … different.”

Karl Marlantes describes conversations like these in his 2011 book What It Is Like to Go to War. Marlantes was a young Marine lieutenant in Vietnam and noted that none of his men ever wanted to talk to the chaplain, because the chaplain had never seen what they had seen. But another soldier, the sergeant, was in his third tour in Vietnam. And one by one, the men would steal back to his tent to talk.

Mental health is like physical health. Both can suffer trauma. Each can take weeks, months, or years to recover from. Sometimes we never recover at all. Mental trauma can affect different people on the same rescue or recovery in very different ways. We may walk through terrain where we conducted a body recovery or see someone in a crowd who you’d swear was the person from the body bag. Bob Irvine, a Teton climbing ranger from 1963 to 1995, says he can’t walk through the range without seeing places where people have died. On the flip side, another climbing ranger, George Montopoli, who began his summer Teton climbing career in 1977, told me not long ago that for every place he sees a body recovery, he sees another place where we made a rescue. For a time, I too could only look at the mountains and see death and injury. I know countless widows around these mountains.

The alpinist Will Gadd recently told me: “If you only see death in the mountains, then you’ll never go there.” I know this is how we are wired. We embrace things that nourish us and give us joy, and we avoid things that cause pain and sadness. But the mountains bring about joy, and they bring about sadness. They remind us of the eternal link between life and death—we can’t have one without the other. Understanding this connection is fundamental to our own resiliency. So is talking with others who hold similar experiences. This is often referred to as peer-to-peer counseling. Another crucial part of the path is finally shedding the stigma of mental health and suffering.

In the Tetons, at the end of a rescue or body recovery, we’d often wander over to the porch at the large cabin in the meadow just south of Jenny Lake. There’d be a bottle or two on the porch, but often it would go unopened. We’d look past one another, tell a joke about death, look up at Teewinot, listen to Cottonwood Creek and the rustle of wind through the leaves. Sometimes we’d tell stories. What was important was that each of us had been there; we all, in another way, had blood on our hands—we had all shared the same experiences. While always offered, we didn’t need the chaplain. We needed each other.

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