Oral historian Tom Jones set out to discover why certain people pursue careers that routinely put their own lives at risk. In Risky Living, he introduces us to forty-five individuals—from astronauts to bounty hunters; NFL players to coal miners—who share their stories in candid and intimate conversations. They speak for themselves, in their words, and what they have to say reveals much about who they are, what they do, and why they do it.
Risky Living takes readers inside drag race driver Antron Brown’s car as he launches from zero to over 300 miles per hour; alongside world champion bull rider Justin McBride as he attempts to stay atop a 1,600-pound beast; next to storm chasing videographer Jeff Gammons as he painfully remembers Hurricane Katrina; right behind Navy corpsman Cameron Begbie as he recalls fighting hand-to-hand against insurgents in Iraq; inside the huddle with two-time Pro Bowl NFL player Kassim Osgood; into the swamp with alligator trapper Tredale Boudreaux; and on many other incredible-yet-typical days in the lives of ordinary-yet-extraordinary people.
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I'm an adrenaline junkie, like a lot of people in this business. We go from one adrenaline rush to the next. You get addicted to it. Whether you're a city paramedic or a firefighter or a race car driver, I think there's an addiction to adrenaline. This job also has the plus of it being a mix of mountain climbing and drama. What we do is critical, and it's important. We make decisions every single day whether people are gonna live or die. I love being involved in that."
Keith Lober manages the emergency services operation at Yosemite National Park. On this winter morning, he leans back in his chair in his search-and-rescue office and talks about his work. "Because Yosemite has such a high incidence of wilderness rescue, we spend a great percentage of our time rescuing people out of the backcountry, which is both emergency medical and rescue work. It's a law enforcement job, because law enforcement is designated the responsible party for search and rescue."
* * *
"A protest against rules banning the sport of parachuting from cliffs in national parks went horribly awry yesterday when a veteran jumper plunged to her death from the top of El Capitan in Yosemite." — San Francisco Chronicle
BASE jumping is not allowed here in the park. They were doing a civil disobedience jump, where they're lining up and jumping. The last person to jump was a lady named Jan Davis. My instructions were to meet and greet everyone at the top, to advise them that it is illegal to jump from the top of El Capitan. I was not to interfere. I was talking to her: "You will be arrested at the bottom, you know that, of course." She said, "Yes, thank you." I said, "Have a nice jump."
She was in love with life and happy. This kind of sport is one of these things that people love doing; they're addicted to it. I appreciate it for what it is, but it is illegal, and so I enforce it, and I'll arrest you if I catch you BASE jumping, because they pay me to do that, but it doesn't mean I don't totally support it. I do, and I think it's wonderful. My personal opinion is that it's a sport and it should be authorized here in the park, but it's not. So, I was the greeter at the top, like the Kmart greeter: "How are you doing, Jan? All right, Jan, when you jump here, expect to be arrested. You know the rangers are gonna put handcuffs on you, they will book you, and then they will release you. Okay?" It's all very cordial.
It was a good management decision not to try to interfere, to allow them their civil disobedience, because if you try to stop it they're gonna jump someplace else, and do it in a hurried fashion. We thought that was more risky, so it was a risk decision to allow it. It backfired. She got killed. She impacted the ground as we're counting — by nine seconds from the top, the chute should open. So we're counting, "One, two, three," and between three and nine you should hear the chute pop open, and then "ten, eleven, twelve." You knew "thirteen" was the deck. Her chute didn't open. She hit so hard it set off car alarms a thousand feet away.
I'm an army brat, so I have grown up everywhere. When I was in my early teens, we lived in Alaska and my dad commanded the 172nd Brigade, which is a mountaineering brigade for the army. I would get dragged around on the glaciers and the mountains by army sergeants. I think it started me down this path. Climbing is in your blood, or it's not. I mean, I was exposed to it, read about it, and knew that that was the direction I was headed. And a part of it was also the romance of rescue work, you know, the old stuff that was done in the Alps, which was as intriguing to me as the actual climbing.
I started out as a professional mountain guide in Rocky Mountain National Park, in Colorado. I did that for the first six years of my employment. I was young and had good knees and a strong back. I got out of it at around twenty-six years old, because I realized there was very little money in it and a huge amount of work; the glamour wore off.
Then I realized that I really liked emergency services work, so I became a ski patrolman, and then eventually a firefighter paramedic in Washington, D.C., which is a whole other story. You see so much so quickly in a big city system that it polishes your skill sets, because you get inundated with so much; it's like going to the University of Carnage and Trauma. When you come out here in a rural setting such as in Yosemite, there's very little that one hasn't seen.
In Yosemite, 96 percent of this park is wilderness. It's 1,200 square miles; it's bigger than some states and bigger than many countries. This is "climbing central." The thing that brought me here is that the incidence of rescue is so frequent, so constant, you do it all the time. Sometimes a case goes wrong or goes sideways and you wish you had done something different, but I don't dread or shy away from making those decisions, and no one here does. We seek and hire the guy who marches toward the sound of the guns when everyone else runs the other way.
We average 250 backcountry missions a year, but the meat and potatoes of this job is on the Mist Trail, which is the heavily used corridor of the Yosemite Valley up to Half Dome. There's a waterfall there that mists across the trail. Our job is to clean up people with damaged ankles who fall down on the trail. It's not glamorous, we hate it, it's boring, but it's got to get done. So we just go up there and we wheel them down. We have a litter that has a big wheel on it. We will do that in the summer, sometimes once or twice a day.
There's everything in between that and up to the big El Capitan climber rescues where they are three thousand feet above the ground. We have to go down under the face of El Cap and pull climbers off. We're very good at that. Back in the seventies, it was just an unbelievable operation. Those days are gone, because we understand the animal, and we can pull off an El Cap rescue in a matter of hours without blinking an eye. That's not bragging; we're trained for it. All the guys that we use have climbed the face of the Cap multiple times. They've done it at night, they've done it in the day. We've mastered that skill, and our technical expertise is the one thing that we're known for. But what we're not recognized for is the volume of calls that we have. We're the masters of disaster. We manage chaos — that's what we do whether it's an earthquake or a rockfall event.
Our operation gears up from the staff like you see around here, which is pretty much nonexistent right now, to a huge team the busiest five or six months of the season. We form emergency teams on the fly, but everyone knows their roles. We're very good at managing emergencies because we do it with such frequency. We cover so many different hazards from fire to rockfalls, from law enforcement to emergency medical traffic accidents to search and rescue; you name it and we will manage it. We operate comfortably in high-angle terrain, and we aren't necessarily always roped. We try to minimize our risks, but there are certain inherent risks of just being able to move in terrain that preclude you from being roped up. Most of my team is very comfortable in technical terrain, so the level of which they personally feel they need to rope at is much higher than what we force them to use the rope.
Less than probably 2 percent of our caseload is actually a real search; probably 40 percent is an overdue report that you got to follow up on. That's where people haven't turned up when they're supposed to, for whatever reasons: unrealistic expectations on the person who's reporting it, delays because of weather, or they just didn't get their itineraries right. But that 2 percent tends to be a big part of our workload, because a search for a person in a 1,200-square-mile park can be huge.
I'll give you three events that have happened here recently that were each slightly different but uniquely interesting. In the first one, I was the IC, the incident commander. I ran the operation and directed the troops. The next one is an avalanche where I was simply a rescuer, one of the team members that went out. And on the last one, I was the operations chief directing actions on scene. So the first one is a missing person, the second one is an avalanche, and the third one is a suicide where a man threatened that he had a gun and was going to jump off the upper Yosemite Falls, which he eventually ended up doing after a five-hour standoff with our tactical team.
The first event is the Steve Frasier search. Steve came to the park by himself, hitchhiked into the park from I think someplace like Atlanta. Why that is significant is that there's no trail for us to follow to find him, so when eventually we were told that he might be overdue, there was no way to track him through the system. A lot of people leave a car, they use a credit card or a cell phone; he had none of that. So we didn't know anything. We get a call on the ninth of November saying, "I have a friend who might have gone to Yosemite, but I'm not sure. He hasn't returned, and he had a plane ticket to return on the ninth, and it didn't get used. Is he in the park?"
One of the patrol officers takes the initial call — we get this kind of crap all the time, and that falls in the category of crap, because there's not enough information to deal with — and the officer goes, "There's no way to track that down." The next day it gets dumped onto my office. We discussed some strategies, which included running all the backcountry permits that were taken out and, bingo, fourteen days earlier his name shows up on a permit. All it says is that Frasier is going to Sunrise, which can be a trail, Sunrise can be a High Sierra camp, Sunrise can be a specific campground, but they are all in the geographic north middle section of the park. Then we developed a large investigative search team who are looking at permits and campgrounds, and some are running credit cards, looking for cell phone records. We're aware that we're not gonna have much to go on, but there's enough to indicate that he might have been here in the park. We don't want to end up in a bastard search situation, you know. "Bastard search" is just what it sounds like: It's a search for someone who's not in your jurisdiction and you're wasting your time.
We start searching in the north middle section of the park, a two-hundred-square-mile area, but it turned out it was the wrong place. What really solved this case was criminal investigators who persisted in calling back and trying to find friends who might know him, and they found someone who he had discussed his plans with. So we now changed the direction of the search 180 degrees and now had a four-hundred-square-mile area, because now we had the possibility of him being in the north — because that's where his permit said he's going — and in the south, because this person said, "He pointed out that he wanted to go to the south end."
So I jumped into the helicopter with the search manager and took a joyride with him, because I wanted to actually see the terrain that I was gonna assign people to. And as we were flying over, we find Steve Frasier. He had written "SOS" in the snow in ten-foot letters outlined in pine boughs. It stood out so dramatically that as we're going by, bingo, there he is. We flew the itinerary that he had given his friend, and he was on it. He just got snowed in. He's out there forty miles out in the backcountry and had four feet of snow drop on him. It was like the Donner Party, except he didn't have anybody to eat. He had been out there for thirteen days on two days of food, so he had gotten very skinny. I mean, here is a guy who had scratched his last will and testament into what we call a "bear canister," which is a canister that is bear proof so bears can't tear into it and eat your food (it's not to protect your food, it's actually to protect the bears from being habituated by constantly getting your food). And then the helicopter flies over. He was elated. We landed, and it's like, "All right, problem over. We did a good job; a life saved." Steve knew he was gonna die, until we arrived. He told us that.
In mid-February, a group of Korean climbers were siege-climbing the northwest face of Half Dome, where it's colder than can be in the middle of winter. What they're doing is they're climbing a technically difficult low-altitude climb, but it would mimic almost Himalayan in its proportion because of the cold and the snow and access problem. It has many of the overtones of a huge wilderness mountain in the far-out distant regions of the world because of the circumstances. It's a challenge.
So they're climbing it in winter, which is a very legitimate although difficult proposition. It's cold and miserable and nasty. To facilitate access to the face where the actual real climbing begins, North Face is like a 2,500-foot dead vertical rock wall. Just the access to that is a three-thousand-foot chute that comes up from Mirror Lake, and part of that chute is subject to avalanche in the right conditions. Now, the Sierra snowpack is a fairly stable snowpack, and avalanches don't happen with the frequency that they happen in the Continental snowpack, which is a real dry snowpack. But when they do happen, they can be catastrophic events and equally hard to predict. In this case, there was a real warm spell and rain was falling on the snowpack, percolating through it, lubricating it from below, and loosening the adhesion to the surface below.
There were about eight climbers, male and female. And, because the weather had been so atrocious, they were going up and down on fixed lines, meaning that they had fixed ropes from the base of the actual start of the climb to the valley floor, so they could access it safely.
I'm gonna guess that they were like a week into the climb. This one guy was going down the fixed lines, by himself, when an avalanche struck and swept him down three hundred to four hundred feet. He stopped before the pour-over, or he would have gone off like a five-hundred-foot cliff. But he's in the debris field of the avalanche, which, because it's a Sierra snowpack avalanche, the rubble is computer-terminal-sized blocks of ice — it's like being put into a dryer with bowling balls — and he has been ground up in that.
The report came in to us from members of his party around 4:00 PM — they had those little family-band radios, the kind you buy from Kmart, they're very common in climbing, inexpensive, and they work reasonably well. This guy was supposed to go to their base camp and he never arrived, and so the two teams — the one on the wall and the one at base camp — started talking and they realized he was missing. They sent another couple of people down the wall to go look for him. When these two guys go down, they find their friend ground up in the rubble, with a broken femur, a broken arm, he has altered mental status because he has got some kind of closed head injury, and he can't breathe right because he has some kind of compression injury on his chest. He's very critically injured.
Well, in February we're at our lowest staffing levels that you can imagine in the park, because we're seasonal, and at this time of the year, we're on an adrenaline deficit. So we're eager, we got something to do. We're like hound dogs, we want to run, every one of these guys wants to run. We release our units as they become available. We try to pair them up into groups of twos and threes and send them out so they can watch out for each other. Ideally we would like to send them all at once, but that resource isn't there, yet we want to get it started, because even a rescuer who's ill-equipped on the wall — or not equipped to complete the mission — can actually get started fixing lines and carrying supplies up to the high points on the trail for the next team to come up.
We launched the rescue, but there's a certain hesitancy, because there's three things going on. One is we initially weren't aware that this was an avalanche. Two, it gets back to us that the Korean climber has actually been ground up in an avalanche, so that's two red flags of operational risk that we know as we walk into this thing. The third was ongoing avalanche activity. Since there's avalanches going on, what's the potential of more avalanches above us? Are our approaches, for the most part, protected and safe?
So we now have the three red flags, which is to say, Hold on, we can't put people into a known avalanche chute when they're already climbing through debris where the avalanche has run, or will run, or can run. Then, the incident commander pulls the plug. He says, "I'm not gonna send people in there. It's too unknown and too operationally hazardous. Pull the people back." That's a hard decision for a guy to make, because he's potentially signing the climber's death warrant. But it was good operational risk management. I have to give him credit for that. I probably would have made that same decision, but I wanted to run up there, get as high as I could, and get a scene size-up. I wanted a boots-on-the-ground feel for what was going on in there. I would have come to the same decision had I been in I think reversed roles.You really want to go get this guy, but we put our life safety at a very high premium, meaning that if we injure one of our people, we've made the situation worse. We say, "Our life is not worth their life." We're not gonna kill ourselves to get you. There's a point where we're gonna pull the pin and say a person is on his own for a little bit. We can't get everybody.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Risky Living"
Copyright © 2009 Tom Jones.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
KEITH LOBER - SEARCH-AND-RESCUE RANGER,
JAMES IRVIN - MIXED MARTIAL ARTS FIGHTER,
RICH KING - FEDERAL MARSHAL,
STEVEN FRICK - ASTRONAUT,
ANDY CASAGRANDE - WILDLIFE FILMMAKER,
ROB DICK - BOUNTY HUNTER,
JEREMY ROENICK - HOCKEY PLAYER,
TREDALE BOUDREAUX - ALLIGATOR TRAPPER,
JIM DICKERSON - PRISON GUARD,
ANTRON BROWN - TOP FUEL DRAG RACER,
CAMERON BEGBIE - SOLDIER,
MELISSA STEELE - FIREFIGHTER,
BRAD JONES - SKYDIVING INSTRUCTOR,
JEFF GAMMONS - STORM CHASER,
JEFF SHINER - COAL MINER,
JOAQUIN PEREZ - PIZZA DELIVERY DRIVER,
CHRIS MOYER - COMMERCIAL DIVER,
ULA THE PAIN-PROOF RUBBER GIRL - KNIFE THROWER'S ASSISTANT,
BUBBA BLACKWELL - MOTORCYCLE DAREDEVIL,
TOM MULLALLY - POWER LINEMAN,
JOEL HELGEVOLD - COMMERCIAL FISHERMAN,
KATIE ROWE - STUNTWOMAN,
BOBBY BURRELL - NASCAR RACE ENGINEER,
JEFFREY MARSH - SPECIAL EFFECTS PYROTECHNIC OPERATOR,
TYSON RININGER - AVIATION PHOTOGRAPHER,
PETER YELLOWLEES - PSYCHIATRIST,
JUSTIN MCBRIDE - BULL RIDER,
KASSIM OSGOOD - FOOTBALL PLAYER,
VICENTA PAGES - TIGER TRAINER,
JOE DEAN THOMPSON - OIL WELL FIREFIGHTER,
WALTER DIAZ - HIGH-RISE WINDOW WASHER,
MIKE BALDWIN - AUTO REPOSSESSOR,
FRANK WEISSER - BLUE ANGELS PILOT,
R. E. "SONNY" DUNLAP - SPECIAL RESPONSE TEAM AGENT,
JOHN KABAKOFF - CAB DRIVER,
JERRY HURLEY - TIMBER CUTTER,
GRIFF WITTE - JOURNALIST,
JODIE WILLIAMS - RESCUE SWIMMER,
JOE BAUMGARTNER - BULLFIGHTER,
RICK LEE - IRONWORKER,
GENE HAMNER - CROP DUSTER,
MATT CORRIERE - CRAB FISHERMAN,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,