The Mad Arc of Heroism

After a summer of tragedy, adulation and backlash, Metro’s Search and Rescue Unit gets on with the business of scaling mountains and saving lives

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Photo courtesy of Flashbang Magazine

Photo courtesy of Flashbang Magazine

A clear, brisk day in may lured Las Vegas triathlete Robert Baker to Red Rock Canyon, where he hiked the short Keystone Thrust trail, found a high slab of sandstone and began his yoga routine. He’d done this before—the beauty of the rust-colored rocks and the blue sky worked not only as a backdrop for mindfulness, but also, more and more frequently, as a backdrop for his photography: He likes to take photos of himself in yoga poses.

The slab he’d chosen had long drops on two sides. One was more than 100 feet, the other had a ledge about 15 feet down, followed by a crevice between boulders that dropped another 75 feet.

He set up his camera tripod carefully, did some warm-up stretches and lunged into a Warrior Two—one leg forward, one back, arms outstretched. But he wasn’t concentrating. Was the camera timer on? Was the angle right to capture the sky and rocks?

A split second later, as Baker, 53, tells it, “I lost my balance. My sunglasses and visor went over the cliff, and I started sliding, and I thought ‘How do I put on the brakes?!’”

Somehow, he managed to stop at the 15-foot ledge, but, he says, “I landed on my head, and my left calf was crushed, and the skin was fileted open. There were blood drops all around, and I thought I might have a concussion.” Startled and alone, he managed to use his cellphone to call 911—lucky, because cellphone reception is sporadic in the canyon.

“It could’ve been much, much worse—if I’d fallen the other way, I was looking at the real deal: I would’ve died.”

It was about 4:30 p.m., and 20 minutes later, Metro’s Search and Rescue helicopter came buzzing over the canyon, swooped back toward him, hovered above the slab and lowered officer Mike Young down a rope to his side.

“He had a bottle of water for me, and he broke out his first-aid kit and wrapped my leg, and evaluated how coherent I was,” Baker says. “Then they lowered a cable, and put me in a harness at the waist level, and took me up.

“I’m embarrassed. I should know better,” says Baker, whose crushed leg has required seven doctor visits since his initial trip to the ER. “And I’ll always be grateful to the Search and Rescue team.”

the image of metro’s Search and Rescue Unit has, in the course of a single summer, gone from heroic to tragic to suspect. Just two months after the relatively routine rescue of Baker, a Search and Rescue team was called to rescue a hiker stranded on a ledge near the Mary Jane Falls trail on Mount Charleston. This time, officer David VanBuskirk was lowered to the hiker, but something went wrong. VanBuskirk, 36 and a six-year veteran of the unit, fell to his death while the unidentified hiker was pulled to safety.

As multiple local and federal investigations began into VanBuskirk’s death, the Valley mourned—a procession of police vehicles drove down the Strip in his honor, the funeral was covered by media far and wide, and a fund was set up to help his widow. The County Commission officially recognized VanBuskirk’s family and members of the Search and Rescue team.

But almost simultaneously, the image of the unit began to fray. First, news of Metro’s pilots taking Guns N’ Roses guitarist DJ Ashba and his fiancee on a helicopter ride in August for their marriage proposal came out. The public rumbling began: Is Metro brass watching this unit closely enough? Or is it a team dominated by a reckless, cowboy mentality?

Then, less than a week after a large crowd stood and applauded the Search and Rescue team members as “heroes” in the commission chambers, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported that a 7-month internal investigation into the unit had been terminated just before VanBuskirk died. That investigation, conducted by Metro’s Critical Incident Review Team, began after SAR officers totaled a $1 million helicopter in a hard landing during training in October, 2012. Before that, an officer died in training in 1998 while scaling ice on Mount Charleston.

The R-J quoted an internal email written by Lt. Gawain Guedry days before VanBuskirk’s death: “Our agency has been incredibly lucky thus far, in terms of not losing a single life to an aviation accident. That luck may not continue.”

What followed was a wide range of public responses—some calling for better oversight from Sheriff Doug Gillespie, who shortly thereafter announced he wouldn’t be seeking re-election as sheriff so that he could focus on lobbying for more police officers; others calling for more transparency at Metro in general. To date, Gillespie hasn’t publicly addressed the accusations of problems in the Search and Rescue unit.

Meanwhile, members of the unit have withstood a summer of loss and pressure, all the while continuing to fulfill their mission. “It’s obviously been a difficult time,” says Sgt. Gavin Vesp. “Dave [VanBuskirk] was close to all of us. And we’ve been under scrutiny for a lot of other things that aren’t related to Dave. We’ve been represented [in the media] in a skewed fashion. But we know who we are here. Our sole purpose is to go out and help people.”

That a group of men and women whose sole purpose is to help people—albeit as a taxpayer-funded profession—should instantly become the target of suspicion after tragedy is not wholly unexpected.

In a practical sense, due diligence requires investigations so that tragedies such as VanBuskirk’s do not occur again. It’s a sign of a cautious and concerned society that the National Transportation Safety Board reviewed the accident. (The board found no problems with the team’s gear.) Such a society also needs solid investigative journalism by its watchdogs to uncover institutional problems.

But in another sense, we’ve become a culture that likes to dismantle its heroes. We’re skeptical and ironic; realists or pessimists prepared to be disappointed. Perhaps too many of our elected officials and celebrity icons have proven to be unethical or otherwise disheartening; perhaps the omnivorous media has made it impossible for anyone, or any entity, to be perceived as one-dimensional enough to fulfill the old understanding of the hero—one who takes action to help those in need. There’s gotta be a catch. The very act of lauding ensures an imminent stoning—if not by the media, by hordes of anonymous or not-so-anonymous online voices.

The notion of a world without unsullied heroism is a bit of an existential grind, but in this case, it may help us forge a more realistic relationship with officers like those in Metro’s Search and Rescue Unit—a relationship based on risk and trust. We take measured risks, and we pay taxes and fees to offset those risks, trusting that a trained officer will show up to help us out when we end up hanging on a canyon wall.

In the last 12 months, Metro’s seven Search and Rescue officers and 14 pilots have conducted more than 150 rescues. More than 130 of them involved one of their three primary helicopters; 70 percent were rescues of lost or injured hikers, climbers or ATVers. Other rescues involved people who drove into flooded ravines and those who had boating accidents on Lake Mead. Not everyone could be rescued: In May, a 17-year-old Bonanza High School student fell to his death while hiking in Red Rock Canyon.

The question has been raised time and again: Why should taxpayers fund the rescue of the arguably irresponsible outdoorsman? A helicopter rescue mission can cost between $500 and $1,200 an hour. It puts officers’ lives at risk. And the Air Support Unit draws roughly $6.6 million from Metro’s annual budget.

But inasmuch as we’ve decided that the Great Outdoors is a theme park complete with imaginary guardrails and safety assurances, Search and Rescue becomes a part of the modern social contract. The American Way, circa 2013, requires that we have public servants willing to slide down ropes onto 2-foot ledges over 500-foot drops to save us.

Hiker Casey Masters would be the first to agree. He admits he made a mistake when, earlier this year, he and a friend planned their hike over the west face of Red Rock by looking at Google Earth images. “We saw a dirt road down the back side, and we thought it looked like an easy jaunt,” he recalls. “But it drops to a 700-foot cliff.”

By the time the two found themselves facing that situation, they’d been hiking nearly 12 hours, much longer than they’d expected. The sun began to set, the temperature began to drop, and gusts of wind were up to 35 miles per hour.

“I am an experienced hiker, but it’s easy to get in over your head,” Masters says. “We definitely didn’t have the right equipment, and it started getting colder than we expected. Around 6 p.m., we started to worry.”

The two were able to get cellphone reception long enough to call a buddy and let him know where they were; Masters’ buddy called 911.

“So in half an hour, a helicopter was near where we were, and we shined our flashlights up at them,” he says. “They dropped supplies and blankets first, and then [officer Jason Connell] came down the rope.”

Connell harnessed Masters’ friend and sent him up to the helicopter.

“But the winds got too strong after they picked him up,” Masters says. So he and rescuer Connell had to stay put until conditions improved.

“We found a better crevice and made a fire. We stayed there three or four hours, hanging out under a tarp and blankets,” Masters says. “He had only a few bars on his walkie-talkie left, and I was so tired after hours of this.

“Eventually the pilot actually set the skid bar on the side of the rock. It was surreal. It was pitch-black. They had night goggles on, but I didn’t, and they led me over to the helicopter and I stepped out, in total darkness, and got in.”

Masters says the crew was “very calm and confident, very measured.”

“I asked if we were going to be fined for the rescue,” Masters says. “‘They said, ‘No,’ and they didn’t make us feel like too big of idiots.”

I recently visited metro’s Search and Rescue Unit in its North Las Vegas Airport office, which is attached to their unit’s helicopter hangars on the tarmac. Several officers and I sat in a conference room adorned with photos of various rescues and training exercises: officers hanging on the face of Mount Charleston’s gray stone walls; officers underwater in Lake Mead searching for the drowned.

I asked them the questions that Masters had raised: Do they think the rescued should foot the bill for rescues? Do they ever resent that they are asked to put their lives in danger because of others’ mistakes?

“Oh no,” officer Mike Young said. “This is what we do.”

The division started as an unofficial group of police officers and volunteers known as the Sheriff’s Jeep Posse in the 1950s, and officially became Search and Rescue in 1986. The team is assigned to cover 8,000 square miles in and around the Valley and its mountains; calls for help increase in the fall and spring.

Each officer in the unit is a certified advanced emergency medical technician, and most are certified scuba divers; all know how to work the ropes and climb. Additionally, Search and Rescue has a well-trained and diverse stable of volunteers, including a neurosurgeon and 12 tactical medical volunteers who are either ER doctors or plastic surgeons or paramedics, along with 18 non-medical volunteers, including a host of experienced rock climbers. The unit also works with multiple agencies: the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, National Parks, all local fire departments, ambulance services and hospital emergency flight teams.

At the base, I noted that several of the officers used this line in describing their jobs: “We’re just cops” or “We’re still cops,” as if to say, they may get more attention for rescues than other everyday patrolmen and women, but they recognize the pros and cons of that role. Dramatic rescues draw positive attention, but the concept of heroism is short-lived and prone to backfire.

Nevertheless, Search and Rescue is one of few units that gets thank-you cards—a pleasantry a traffic cop probably doesn’t often receive. Young shows me one from a Red Rock hiker the team rescued. It’s a comic picture of a big-butted guy wearing small shorts. The inscription: “Thanks for saving my ass.”