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Ranger Confidential: Secrets of the National Park Rangers

True tales from the front lines--and behind the scenes--of America's national parks.

Within minutes of receiving a report of a missing Czech climber, Mary Litell was in the park rescue helicopter, her eyes scanning Yosemite’s Lost Arrow Spire for clues. She spotted a pile of red and black rags lying on the rocks below and asked the pilot to move in closer. The winds were squirrelly that day, but he hovered as close to the granite as he dared, tilting the helicopter to give Mary a better look. The rotor wash shooed away a flock of crows that had been sitting on the pile of rags, revealing a human body. Leaning out of the helicopter door, the webbing of her seat belt the only thing keeping her from falling, she snapped a Polaroid of the scene.

Back at the rescue cache, Mary showed this photograph to me, the incident commander. (After two summers in Cape Hatteras and four years in Zion, I had transferred to Yosemite.) As I studied the photograph, Mary informed me that this climber must have fallen 800 feet several days earlier. Then she pointed to the snapshot of a tattered lump of clothing and decomposing flesh and observed, "I don’t think he’s going to make it."

If you’re thinking people do not become park rangers to do coroner duty, you would be right. Nevertheless, the job must be done. The body recovery team rolled the gurney with the Czech climber’s remains into the morgue. Mary, meanwhile, went to Sunnyside Campground, where the climber’s girlfriend was waiting for someone from the NPS to contact her. Like most rangers, Mary would have rather juggled knives while attached to a flaming rope dangling over a mile-high cliff than do a death notification. This was going to be her first.

Mary walked up to the dead climber’s girlfriend. Surely the girlfriend suspected the worst, but until someone in uniform said it out loud, she was holding on to a glimmer of hope. Mary saw her words put out that glimmer in the girlfriend’s eyes. But it was the ranger, not the grieving girlfriend, who first broke down into tears.

Of course, there’s help for rangers after such encounters.While some are trained to be coroners, others are trained to be critical incident stress counselors. These ranger-therapists conduct critical incident stress debriefings (CISDs) and often function as NPS liaisons or counselors for families. Like coroner detail, certification as a grief sponge involves a couple of weeks of additional training and no additional pay. When CISD "peer counselors" lead group "stress debriefings," you can talk about your feelings and cry if you want. But the rangers with the weather-beaten Stetsons don’t say much during these sessions. They appear to be able to walk it off, shrug it off, laugh it off, and forget it. I saw an example of this coping mechanism when I showed up for work the next morning. Tacked to the bulletin board in the briefing room was the photo Mary had taken from the helicopter. On the white border under this snapshot of a corpse at the base of the Lost Arrow Spire, written in black marker, were the words "Canceled Czech."

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