Friday, September 24, 2004

When All Hell Breaks Loose

This just in from Suzanne Yack on the scene of the tragedy in the Subaru Primal Quest:

In the face of tragedy
September 23, 2004

By Suzanne Yack

Some people read tea leaves or palms of hands. I read faces.

When I travel from place to place, I make it a game to study the faces of my fellow travelers. At airports, in elevators or on the top floors of a tall building, I sort people into two groups: Helpers and stampeders. In an emergency -- a bomb, a fire, an earthquake -- which of these people that I travel with will reach a hand back to help others, and which will stampede for the exits?

I look for character, selflessness, caring and resolve in their faces.

As a volunteer at Subaru Primal Quest this past week, I played the same game. But where at most places I count 99 stampeders to every one helper, at SPQ every single last person landed in the helper group.

Adventure racers, from all walks of life, have in common the traits of courage and willpower.

These are the people who you can count on in a tight spot, the ones who will strive until every last alternative has been explored, to save the life of a fellow traveler, whether it be a fellow adventure racer or a mother struggling
to free her child from a burning car.

And as I started meeting the racers, I discovered that, indeed, many of them are in the helping fields: Marines, state troopers and even a few massage therapists and chiropractors.

The helper category could not have been more proven than in the swift actions by Patty Lynch, who was the race official at Checkpoint 21. A volunteer, Lynch is also an adventure racer who is currently still recovering from a climbing accident that broke her back in two places.

She is a Santa Clara police officer, and when the call came in that extreme injuries had been sustained by a racer on Mount Illabot, Lynch relied on her 11 years of police work to mobilize headquarters. Familiar with the language and
protocols of rescue operations, she moved seamlessly from leisure into action.

Her previously smiling face grew determined and focused and I could sense the gears turning in her head, covering the territory of what needed to be considered in this emergency that was unfolding.

She also knew that Team Nike/ACG, coming up the 14-mile mountain bike ride from 2,000 feet to 4,000 feet, would be required to pause indefinitely at Checkpoint 21 and would not be able to continue onto the orienteering portion of the course until the situation on Mt. Illabot was assessed. She knew that at some point their delay, too, would become an issue.

Helicopters passed overhead -- one, then another, then another. Team Nike/ACG noted their presence and sensed the situation was serious. They spoke of the injuries they knew must have occurred, and expressed hope for the teams on the mountain.

There was no whining, even as these racers curled deeper and deeper into body-heat-protection positions to ward off the chilly air.

The evening sun was dropping behind clouds, and Nike/ACG didn't have clothing for 40 degree temperatures. Soon, their faces were tensing from the cold and their lower jaws began to chatter. They started jogging in place to stay warm.

Lynch made the call to remote headquarters at Rockport and received the answer she sought; the four racers were hurried into a race vehicle, the seat warmers were turned on and the heater was dialed to high.

The faces of the racers, now realizing that they would be sent back down the mountain on their bikes, a 14-mile retreat in the gathering darkness, showed no bitterness or angst, just quiet resolve and a few squinting glances off into the distance that revealed their concern for their friends on Mt. Ilabot.

There were others who brought quiet, swift competence to the moment. Winslow Passey, a mountain guide knowledgeable about the Cascades who happened to be at Checkpoint 21, stayed on the scene to be available should assistance be needed.

The competent voices from the race's remote headquarters at Rockport telegraphed the quick response of a seasoned and mountain-savvy crew.

Tragedy sometimes happens in all outdoor sports, just as it does at NASCAR or the neighborhood pool. Whenever we venture out of the safety of our houses, tragedy can strike, and sometimes we don't even have to step out the door.

But in an emergency, I'd want an adventure racer at hand. I'd want any one of the 56 teams to be present. They may race for the finish line at Orcas Island this week, but none of them are stampeders. These are the ones that will do
whatever it takes to help a fellow traveler.

They aren't superhuman, but I know this much: These are the people you can count on when all hell breaks loose.

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