How the untold trauma of Teton rescues extends beyond the injured

By on May 2, 2018

JACKSON HOLE, WY – In January 2017, Connor Nolan was caught in an avalanche while traversing from Gothic Couloir on Cody Peak back to Teton Village. Nolan, 23, had accomplished a goal that tops many Jackson athletes’ lists. He skied the 20-foot cliff that is part of Jackson’s iconic “Trifecta,” along with Central and Breakneck Couloirs.

The 2016-17 winter was the valley’s biggest in decades. The avalanche danger was high, the conditions questionable. It had been snowing nonstop for a week. The run didn’t go as planned—he crashed, hard. But he made it to the bottom of the couloir, he’d done it. Relieved and exhilarated, he began the traverse out. His ski partners followed.

“It was totally unexpected,” Nolan said. “We knew the snow was bad, we had been so concerned about getting to Gothic and getting the objective done.”

The last thing Nolan said to his friend and roommate, Jim Ryan, was “Keep an eye on me here.” Ryan did, and watched as the entire face broke. The avalanche started in a split second, and Nolan was caught. In Backcountry Zero’s “The Fine Line” podcast, Ryan recalled yelling, “Ski!”

There was no skiing out of this slide.

Nolan pulled the airbag from his avalanche pack as he tumbled, trying to swim toward air. For a long minute, he plummeted down the face, eventually hitting a tree with his entire right side, amassing significant body and brain injuries.

“At that moment, I was certain I was going to die,” he said.

When the snow settled, Ryan couldn’t see anything. He began skiing down, and was surprised to find Nolan alive.

Ryan and the others delayed calling Teton County Search and Rescue (SAR), debating the money and pride that might be lost in making the call. Meanwhile, it became increasingly clear that Nolan was in serious danger. It was near dark by the time they called for a rescue and Nolan was hypothermic and coughing blood. For two and a half hours, they waited on the exposed face, knowing the rest could slide any second.

Nolan was in a shock loop, repeating the same sentences to his ski partners every 10 minutes, not sure where he was, shaking uncontrollably.

When the helicopter arrived, with only minutes of flying time left in the day, there was no way for pilot Nicole Ludwig to land it on the first attempt.

Nolan remembers watching the helicopter fly away with “sinking dread,” wondering if he’d die on the mountainside.

Eventually, Ludwig landed the chopper. SAR team members AJ Wheeler and Cody Lockhart got to work—Nolan remembers them putting things up his nose and in his throat, putting him in a stuff bag.

“Everybody was in danger at that point,” Nolan said.

They quickly extricated Nolan and the others were left to ski down.

After safely flying Nolan to a waiting ambulance, Ludwig flew to SAR’s headquarters, racing against the setting sun.

Once in the ambulance, Nolan was still hypothermic, still “concerned about continuing to live.” He was freezing cold, and someone placed a warm blanket on him. It felt amazing. He remembers nurses asking to cut his clothes off, he remembers not wanting to call his parents, he remembers texting his boss to say he wouldn’t be making it to work.

Nolan ’s parents flew from New Hampshire to be with him as he transitioned from the intensive care unit to the progressive care unit to St. John’s Hitching Post. A few weeks later, Nolan and his parents got on a flight back to New Hampshire where he would recover. Nolan left town with a shattered right pelvis, a punctured lung, 11 broken ribs, a brain injury and significant trauma.

The avalanche may have lasted less than a minute, but the event is emblematic of the unseen forces at work in Jackson. Nolan’s experience typifies the town’s risk-taking culture, for which he now has much less tolerance. It also brings to light other questions—what is the ripple effect of one person’s decision? Who, beyond the victim, is impacted? How do we heal from trauma as individuals and as a community?

Fearless Wagers

Connor Nolan once chased a culture of extreme that has become commonplace among Teton skiers.

January 12 was the day everything changed for Nolan, but it wasn’t the first time he’d been in a high-risk situation. In fact, he’d spent three years in Jackson pushing the boundaries. That’s what everyone seemed to be doing.

“I’d seen a lot of avalanches,” Nolan said. He and his friends had made many questionable decisions over their winters in the valley. The day of the avalanche alone, “We’d done 20 or 30 things wrong.”

Surviving near-misses didn’t make them more tentative. They felt unstoppable. Nolan and his friends moved to Jackson to ski the biggest, best lines and “everything was working. Even if I couldn’t stomp what I wanted to, I would still be OK. I grew this sense of indestructibility. There was no fear.”

His group of friends were strong skiers and informed backcountry users. They constantly communicated about snowpack and routes. However, their focus was “mission, mission, mission.” Each mission built on the last. The week before Gothic, Nolan had skied S&S, one of the most technical and consequential couloirs in the area. The drop can be up to 40 feet, missing the landing means slamming into a wall.

But he’d done it. There was no going back, only forward. “I was always building. If I ski this, it means I can ski that, and keep going up the ladder of pro-skiing,” Nolan said.

The day of the avalanche, one of Nolan’s roommates had expressed concern. “We were always talking about what didn’t seem right, the danger. But we always found a way to talk ourselves into it rather than out of it.”

For Nolan, there was the internal athletic drive, the pressure of being a young man proving himself in an extreme town, and the ubiquity of social media.“There’s always pressure to be posting cool photos and videos of skiing,” he said. In Backcountry Zero’s podcast, Ryan said it was their goal to ski the best lines better than others had before them, and to film it all.

Documenting their experiences in the mountains encouraged more high-risk, high-reward runs. When Nolan’s roommate expressed concern about the snow stability, for example, it was too late: “We’d already gotten everyone together, got the film equipment, got the drones. Everything was so much effort that it was easier to convince ourselves to do it than not to do it.”

It seemed that there was only one way to be a high-level skier in Jackson. “The bucket list theory is so evident in our community,” Nolan said. “If you ask any young kid here that’s a big skier their top five runs, they’ll know them all. Horseshoe, Triple A, Gothic, Granite … something some skier did 25 years ago.”

Jenn Sparks, a veteran SAR volunteer and Jackson resident, agreed that what is considered “normal” has changed drastically in the nearly 30 years since she’s been here. She took her fair share of young, naive risk—rowing the river in a duckie without a life jacket—but back then, a day of skiing that ended with a hamburger was considered a full day.

“What is the bar now, and why does everybody need to get there?” she asked. When she first arrived in Jackson, something like the “Teton Picnic” would have been inconceivable. The triathlon includes biking from the Town Square to Jenny Lake, swimming across the lake, summiting the Grand Teton, and then doing it all in reverse. “What’s the top?” she asked. “Climbing the Grand in an hour? It’s changed the level of what you need to achieve in a day.”

Jenn Sparks and daughter Beatrix

Now, that level is incredibly high. Everyone feels they have to do The Trifecta, for example, but these runs aren’t static—they’re different every year due to changes in snowfall, temperature, wind and moisture.

“Just because these things have been skied doesn’t mean they’re skiable,” Nolan said.

The people who pioneered the lines that Nolan and his friends aspired to, those who shifted what was considered possible, are valorized.

And some are now dead.

When he was new to Jackson, Nolan heard people speak their names with awe. Their deaths, he noticed, were also glorified. “People say things like, ‘He went out doing what he wanted.’ And then he’s just out,” Nolan said. “But that guy had a family.”

This was Nolan’s biggest lesson from the avalanche: “It’s not worth skiing to lose your life,” or to risk other people’s.

He has recovered after many months at home with physical therapy. His life has changed, though. He has a different relationship with skiing, the thing he loves the most in the world. Last year, he was in the backcountry every day. This year, he went out three times.

One of Nolan’s rescuers, who was also interviewed in  “The Fine Line” podcast, knows what Nolan went through. He understands the drive to push farther and faster, and he knows what it feels like to get a serious wakeup call, or a few.

Cody Lockhart grew up in Jackson and has been skiing his entire life. One of SAR’s 37 volunteers, he joined the team in 2009 when he was 23 because it seemed cool, another way to spend more time in the mountains.

It changed his perspective.

Lockhart spent his early 20s skiing everything he could. “It was my extremely young and dumb phase,” he said. Like Nolan, he idealized the great skiers who had come before him: “We have this Viking culture where you go die in the mountains and it’s a noble death.” His icons died not with their sword but their skis. “We have normalized it,” he said.

Unlike Nolan, it took multiple major wrecks and avalanches to wake Lockhart up. “Life flights were involved, intensive care. It just made me a different person.”

It was his last big mountain wreck that changed him: “As it was happening, I remember thinking about what I owed my mom and my dad. I was thinking ‘Why are you doing this?’”

“I thought it was about me, but it was about my family.”

Years of risk-taking caught up with Lockhart. He lived scared, was on edge. “I was dealing with some type of PTSD, just not being normal.”

An athlete’s drive to ski the next best thing is a valid one, Lockhart said. He still wants to go on big adventures, believes that humans are, at their core, ambitious creatures. But eventually there are consequences. “There is an end. The great struggle is if you keep trying to do the next big thing at some point that catches up with you.”

Either you’re lucky or you aren’t. Either you wake up or you don’t. “The tuition to understand this is really high. You have to be part of a disaster.”

As a SAR volunteer, Lockhart has seen plenty of disasters. The first avalanche fatality he witnessed stuck with him. “Doing CPR on someone you dug out of a hole who you know is dead makes avalanches a lot realer. I think about how I spent a lot of time skiing in those same conditions.”

Cody Lockhart

Winter’s Hidden Costs

Being a first responder takes a tremendous mental toll. According to the National Center for PTSD, rescue workers of all kinds often suffer from mental health issues. A 2018 study found that depression affects up to 53 percent of first responders. About 34 percent suffer from PTSD.

Until recently, this was not widely acknowledged in Jackson. As Lockhart put it, “Ten years ago, you would never go to see a shrink, and you definitely didn’t talk about it. Now, we talk about it.”

Just this month, PTSD expert Tania Glenn visited from Austin, Texas, to talk to first responders, including SAR volunteers, about mental health.

One of the biggest obstacles first responders face, Glenn told PJH, is that they worry about being pulled off the job if they ask for help. But asking for help is necessary, especially because trauma can accumulate in unanticipated ways, and responders need to be able to realize when they’ve reached a breaking point.

“There’s a psychological wear and tear from calls over time,” Glenn said, “And then usually, there’s one incident that blows the top off of their coping … it’s not even necessarily a bad call, they’ll just say it’s one event that flipped everything. They can’t get past it, they can’t recover, it changes how they feel. They’re not sleeping, they’re having increased anxiety, stress, and irritability … their coping mechanisms no longer work.”

As Sparks put it, “You wouldn’t join the team if you didn’t have a resilient personality, but there’s a point where your resilience stops.”

If someone is still experiencing flashbacks or stress from a call 14 days out, Glenn said that’s a sign to reach out for help. The key, she said, is to not drink it off or suck it up, that doesn’t work. “The more quickly they get help the better, but it’s never too late.”

The area’s rugged individualistic culture may explain why it’s been traditionally difficult for first responders to ask for help. “There is an old school Wyoming cowboy mentality of being a tough guy,” Lockhart said, “and I embrace that in a lot of ways. But we have to able to admit that we’ve lost sleep over these things to be mentally healthy as a team.”

Lockhart’s involvement in SAR has made him more cautious, more cognizant of risk in the mountains. But it has also made him happier, kinder. He emphasized that being a SAR volunteer is an honor, and the the majority of the time it is positive. Being involved with rescues like Nolan’s, he said, are fulfilling and highlight SAR’s ability to work well as a team, “a very tight tribe of volunteers.”

Though it is often rewarding and exciting, it is in the difficult moments that the importance of being tight-knit becomes evident. They have to check in with and take care of one another, to get through the traumatic events they see. Lockhart said that is  “the single most important thing.”

Sparks, who has been on the team since 1998, says that though there is more training now, the team has always debriefed traumatic rescues and leaned on fellow volunteers for support. It’s always been that way, “but in the last five years the culture of helping each other out has grown. I’ve never felt like I couldn’t go to somebody, get help.”

Trauma is an unavoidable part of their job, even when rescues go well. It is one of the unseen side-effects of Jackson’s extreme culture. It is not just victims of avalanches who are impacted, but their families, their rescuers, and their rescuers’ families. One disaster has invisible ripples through the entire community.

SAR volunteers average 70 to 100 rescues a year, and respond to an average of three to four fatalities. They are always on call. The impact of a disaster starts before it even happens. Every time the phone rings, volunteers’ blood pressure rises, their hearts beat faster. “We go from zero to 100,” Lockhart said. “You pick up from wherever you are in your life and go into an intense scene.” Then they have to come back down, return to work, go home to their families.

Glenn confirms that there are psychological and physiological realities to what Lockhart described. As she put it, “Flight or fight is really great for survival and really bad for your health. Chronic launches into fight or flight are really bad for you.”

First responders experience the stress response most of the time, which elevates into full-blown survival mode during every call: “It’s very taxing for the brain and body,” Glenn said. “And then they have the adrenaline dump after, the body is trying to recover,” but they don’t always have time to recalibrate before the next rescue.

All of this ages a person and has a widespread effect: “The ripple effect is quite large … When a first responder is exposed to trauma, the stress and their reaction to it goes straight to their house. It’s very common for loved ones of first responders to have vicarious trauma. They’ll take on a lot of the same symptoms,” Glenn said.

In a small town, that tendency may be exaggerated: “Jackson Hole being a small community, everyone is affected, everybody is connected to an incident. There’s a community grieving process.”

It’s important to talk about that grieving process, and to acknowledge the impact of trauma, even the low-grade wear and tear. In places where extreme risk-taking is normalized and glamorized, Glenn said, people don’t always realize that “they’re hooked into a very dangerous cycle.”

Scott Guenther, the Jenny Lake District Ranger, has plenty of experience with the flight and fight cycle. He coordinates Grand Teton National Park’s 70 average rescues per year, sometimes with the help of SAR volunteers.

“There’s a cumulative stress,” he said. “Rescues are fun and exciting but the stress ramps up, your adrenaline jumps in. It’s stressful to stay fully focused for hours on end and then come down to some normal level. You never come all the way back down.”

Jenny Lake District Ranger Scott Guenther on a short-haul helicopter rescue. (nps.gov)

He is most impacted by winter rescues. When the phone rings in the winter, he can be relatively sure of two things: the person in trouble is a local, and he knows them or knows of them. After 27 years of working in the park, and his own fair share of risky adventures, he knows the valley’s skiers, and where they’re likely to get in trouble.

Winter rescues are technical, and first responders are as vulnerable to avalanches, cold, and waning daylight as their patients. After saving a life or bringing home a body, the work continues.

They have to get back to base, clean blood off the equipment, restock bags, eat and hydrate. “You never know when the next call is coming. Every time your phone rings, your mind says, ‘This is the one,’” Guenther said. “You wonder who it is now.”

Loved ones also feel the stress. When the weather is bad in the mountains and a rescuer gets a call, family members know their son, daughter, wife, husband, mother, or father will be risking their own lives to save another.

Guenther has responded to friends’ fatal accidents. He’s had to tell wives and brothers that their loved one is dead. It adds up. There are the memories, like “that smell is stuck in my nose, this sight is stuck in my head,” and then the enduring, difficult work of being there for victims’ families.

“I talk to friends, wives, or children in the months, weeks, and years following the event,” Guenther said. “They’ll call and say they couldn’t bear to hear the story at the time, but they’re ready now.”

After a tragedy, Jackson tends to move on quickly. “At the community level, it seems like we process tragic events quickly and we’re back out there. I think that’s a cultural thing, maybe even nationally. We tend to pick up the pieces and move on.”

There is no moving on for Guenther and his team. The names of the dead “are stuck in our minds forever. I can name them all. That’s how personal it is for us. It’s not just some guy who died, I got to know his wife, his parents. I had to tell his kid his dad just died, or watch a parent see their kid’s body.”

Because he’s seen how much one death can influence so many people, he wishes that people would have more honest conversations about risk. “We have a lot of really hard-driving, really adventurous and athletic people using equipment that allows them to get really far into the mountains in really remote areas. We can go on grand adventures, but we should think about what level of risk we’re exposing ourselves to, our families to. Think about the rescuers, their exposure and their families. We’ll make every effort to go get you, or get your body out.”

The cost of such relentless effort and dedication can be high. In 2012, SAR “paid the ultimate price,” Guenther said, when veteran volunteer Ray Shriver died in a helicopter crash during a rescue. Shriver was a beloved community member. His death rattled a lot of people. As SAR pilot Ludwig told PJH in 2016, “After Ray, people didn’t want to fly anymore. For a long time, like the rest of the season.”

The team struggled to cope with the grief that still impacts them. Many SAR volunteers and Jenny Lake rangers have been with their organizations for years, and the trauma of loss, within their ranks and without, can accumulate.

Because of this slow accumulation, Guenther said staying vigilant is critical. That means monitoring personnel very closely. “It’s insidious how trauma can affect you and your professional life and your judgement, how it affects your home life.” Guenther pointed to at least one Jenny Lake ranger who left his post because of traumatic experiences on the job.

But Guenther has noticed a shift away from stigma. The National Park Service offers a free employee assistance program. He said the culture among rangers is one that encourages people to use their resources. “We aren’t tough guys anymore,” he said. “We’re willing to address it and say, ‘I’m messed up right now.’ That’s how you take care of it and heal it. It’s the only way you last.”

A Cracked Bucket

Jake Urban, president and owner of the Jackson Hole Leadership Institute, has also been a SAR volunteer since 2010. For the first time, he is taking a break, partially because of the cumulative stress and trauma.

Urban said outdoor leadership training and education is his calling. All of his work, he said, brought him to this day. Indeed, being outside, teaching people to be safe outside, and rescuing those in trouble is his entire life.

“It’s a career that’s also a lifestyle … the two are blurred horribly. It’s difficult to delineate between personal and professional time. Every facet of my life revolves around it.”

The strain of his entire life revolving around one thing has affected Urban.

Jake Urban (Dirk Collins)

Behind every rescue is an enormous amount of work and investment. “We normalize the capabilities of the [SAR] team. The tactics we use in our local environment are not everyday, normal procedures. We sensationalize it to rockstar status.”

Lockhart also referred to this normalization of extreme techniques and abilities. He pointed to a rescue in early April for a snowmobile wreck, when the conditions were poor for flying a helicopter and the situation did not warrant it. The patient on the ground was saying that SAR needed to do a short-haul evacuation. “They’re calling for the most dangerous and advanced rescue we can do. The public knows that these heroic rescues can be done, that’s what they’re asking for and expecting.”

People don’t always know what they’re asking for. As Urban puts it, many tend to focus on the remarkable skills of the SAR team. This emphasis means that the real consequences of the work are lost: “At the end of the day, it’s people, not a thing … When we recognize the team, individuals get lost. We forget that there are peoples’ lives behind that team. Those stories are important, the stories of how people make time to go and rescue.”

Making the time requires sacrifice. “There is always a loss that is not seen … the individual is lost, the individual’s feelings, the fact that they’ve made sacrifices. They never get that time back, time with their families. And there’s dealing with the loss that occurs on the rescue.”

There are two ways that first responders tend to start feeling the effects of this loss, Urban said. Generally, incidents accumulate over time in one of two ways. Think of it like a bucket: “The bucket is made up of the support system. Either, the bucket fills up—there’s too much pain or fear” (the bucket gets filled up even on the good days) “or what the bucket is made of can break. A piece of the support system falls apart. That might trigger what’s inside of the bucket.”

Therefore, the entire community has a part in holding buckets together. “As a community, we’re all interconnected.” If a volunteer is struggling at work, with their family, or friends, they may start to feel the impact of rescues more.

Right now, the entire community may not be doing their part to maintain the integrity of others’ buckets. “We’ve normalized an upmanship,” Urban said.“We sensationalize skiing … we’ve made risking your life so sexy, we don’t show what it takes in order for that to really happen, what’s behind the scenes, all the preparation and practice.”

Urban sees people unwilling to be honest. He has been in many debriefs where individuals have been seriously injured or there has been a fatality. “The reality is that a bad decision was made … but I often find individuals are more concerned with talking about what they’ve done right rather than acknowledging the loss and beginning the process of learning.”

Responsibility Culture

Sparks and her SAR teammates

Unlike many others who have found themselves in similar situations,  Nolan is both alive to tell his story and willing to acknowledge the mistakes he and his friends made.

“This incident was the lightbulb I needed,” Nolan said. For much of his life, skiing was what made him truly happy. But it was the accident that “made me really understand how fragile and important my life is, to really understand how many people are impacted by me.”

He saw how the accident impacted his family. He learned that friends and co-workers had heard rumors that he had died and saw their pain at the thought of his loss. He was also humbled by his rescuers, Lockhart and AJ Wheeler: “AJ has two kids and a wife he needs to go home to at the end of the night. He is a human, he isn’t just James Bond.”

Nolan is indeed still grappling with the emotional and physical fallout of the avalanche. For many months, he slept in a recliner at his parents’ house. He felt isolated, and no one understood what he’d been through. He made up a story that he repeated over and over to make everyone else feel better about it. But he felt terrible: “I didn’t want to be a part of my own life.”

Now, he is back in Jackson, which he worried would be difficult. After all, folks in Jackson tend to demean people who have been in avalanches: “There’s definitely a shame culture here. People are always saying, ‘Oh yeah, XYZ got caught in a slide. What an idiot.’”

A light was shone on this culture on April 22, when a 24-year-old man died when his snowmobile was caught in an avalanche. Some media outlets reported neither he nor anyone in his party had any avalanche gear.

Sparks, who was on the rescue, said that that information was both false and unhelpful. It shames a group of people who’ve just experienced traumatic loss, judges something that could happen to the most experienced and prepared people: “A lot of our rescues are of locals, who know the terrain and who know the consequences.”

In addition, there are plenty of locals who go out in the backcountry not fully understanding how their transceiver works, Sparks said. Shaming or judging will not increase their responsibility or accountability. What will change is if people start to come forward and say what they should have done differently. That’s what SAR does after each rescue, and it’s what every outdoor athlete should do, Sparks said.

Nolan did not experience any shaming. He’s felt supported, people are simply happy he is all right. Today, he has completely changed his relationship to skiing and taken leave of bucket list culture. “I’m getting back to the basics,” he said.

For the past three years while pushing himself into increasing danger, “I had anxiety and stress because I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough, should be doing more, skiing something else. I just wanted to get back to why I love skiing in the first place, and that’s because it makes me feel the best out of everything in my whole life.”

In the race to be extreme, Nolan says people forget to have fun. Now, his goals are to have fun, to push himself while skiing—mostly inbounds, for now—and to take responsibility for his actions.

Urban said that as a community, we need to do more to prevent unnecessary loss, and shift from shaming culture to responsibility culture. And, “we need to support people better.”

Although Urban commends SAR’s efforts to destigmatize the effects of trauma, he said there needs to be space for this work in the community, too. “The organization can’t always be responsible for healing the trauma that occurs within it.”

“Strong,” Urban said, “ means knowing when you’re not.”

The helicopter that made Connor Nolan’s rescue possible has become critical to SAR rescues, especially as an increasing number of athletes venture into more extreme terrain during more months of the year. SAR has access to a helicopter six months of the year, but it is trying to up its access to seven months. SAR’s “Heli-yes” campaign is attempting to raise $60,000 by May 19 to cover the cost of the extra month. The helicopter, even when not used, costs a minimum of $32,000 per year. Eventually, SAR hopes to have access all year long.

Those interested in donating should visit tetoncountysar.org/heli


About Sarah Ross

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