In the unforgiving mountain terrain, each action can be a life-or-death decision, and every single person must be focused on his assigned responsibility. Carlos is a world-class expert on belaying ropes. Joe is an emergency field-rescue medical technician with more than 20 years' experience working in dangerously high altitudes. Brian is an expert at coordinating communications between the recon helicopters and the ground team. Me? I'm the life of the search party.
Everybody brings his own special set of skills to the table with a team like this. I'm the clown. I bring morale-building goofy antics. When word came in that the authorities were organizing a rescue effort for those two missing couples, I was the first to show up—wearing Hawaiian shorts and a "Search Party Naked" T-shirt.
Somehow, I was the only one who thought to bring beer. Our team coordinator, Russell, said it isn't good to consume alcohol at this altitude. I said, "C'mon, Russ—a couple drunk recon dudes are the least of these hikers' worries. Given the condition they'll be in if they're ever found, they're gonna need a drink." And then I totally popped open a foamer.
Facts are facts—temperatures this far above the tree line can climb to more than 100 degrees in the midday sun and plummet to hypothermia-inducing levels at night. The fear that the missing hikers are nothing more than bird-pecked, desiccated corpses huddled in some rocky outcropping weighs on all of us. Which is where I come in with my one-liners, quips, and puns. Somebody's gotta break the tension by yelling "Ricola!"
Yesterday at nightfall, we got word from the rangers that a storm was moving in. We had no choice but to call off the search until sun-up. Carlos was furious. He started swearing, saying, "They'll never make it through the night!" I could tell the stress was getting to him, so I made one of my trademark irreverent remarks: "Yeah? Well, if we don't head back down this mountain ourselves, we'll never make it back in time to score at the ski-lodge bar. And if that happens, I'm gonna die!"
Or there was that time when I came around that ridge and saw Carlos heading toward me from the other direction, and I hid behind a shrub and cried out, "Help me! I'm blind! Birds ate my eyes!" Then I stumbled into view, pretended to trip on some loose stones, and faked breaking my femur. Nobody really laughs out loud at my pratfalls, but I understand that participating in a race against time can cause a lot of psychological strain. Repeatedly referring to the missing parties as "cougar food" is the perfect way to ease the stress.
You can't expect everyone in a search party to feel upbeat. Some of my fellow rescuers have gone without sleep for 36 hours. But even if they don't laugh, or smile, or acknowledge me, I know my clowning is crucial. When everyone else's sense of humor fails, I'm there to construct a big "S.O.S." sign out of logs, and then another one below it that says "NOT!"
Somebody's gotta have the foresight to save the coffee grounds from morning base camp and slip them into Joe's sandwich for a hilarious lunch prank six hours later. It seems I'm the only one who even thinks of making fart noises over the emergency distress-call wavelength to crack up the boys back at the ranger station. Just think of how those poor guys must feel, watching the hours tick away as they sit there with the victims' tearful families.
I'm not saying what I do is easy, but when I see the pressure my fellow search-party workers are under, even if I'm not in a funny mood, I pull myself together, put on a silly face, and start singing "Doo Wah Diddy" like Bill Murray did in Stripes. It's the least I can do for my fellow man.