This piece was first published December 14, 2014.
It was still dark as a caravan of us sped toward Zion National Park. With the approach of dawn on a clear spring morning, the plateaus and bluffs were just large shadows against the night sky as it turned cobalt blue. The roads were mostly empty as the towns lay in slumber. Bo Beck, myself, and a handful of others were on our way to hike Lady Mountain, one of the peaks in Zion National Park. I had purposely jumped in Bo’s car to get an interview with him on the drive to the park. An earlier attempt to make this hike had been cut short due to an injury, so I was itching for that summit and hoping it would not elude me again.
Strangely enough, Lady Mountain was the first maintained front country trail in Zion. Strange because with such a parochial name, Lady Mountain is anything but. It is 1.9 miles of near-vertical scrambling and climbing with an elevation gain of 2,345 feet in that relatively short distance. The narrow trail has a couple of sketchy 5.7 climbs on sheer walls with high altitude drop offs, as well as several steep pitches. It still has remnants of the Park’s attempts to maintain it as shorn off metal bolts can be seen periodically sticking out of rock faces on the scramble up, hinting at a time when chains, rails, and ladders were installed to help people up the strenuous route. Though it is no longer listed by Zion National Park as a designated trail, it is still a popular backcountry trail for those who know where it is.
This was my second attempt going with Bo. I was almost as excited to talk with him one-on-one as I was to do the hike. Most people know Bo as the manager of the Desert Rat, the local outdoor store, or as part of Zion Search and Rescue (SAR). Though I have known Bo for half a dozen years, we didn’t become friends until a couple years ago. Strangely enough we got to know each other through tragedy, which I am certain is probably true of a lot of people who know him.
My first outing with him came about when he invited me to do Employee Canyon with him and a group of people. I excitedly said yes. After I accepted the invitation, he told me that the trip was being done for a woman who wanted to put closure on her sister’s death which happened 15 years earlier at the very canyon we were going through. It added a solemn touch to the hike and intensified the descent of the dangerous canyon.
Outdoor adventure can be treacherous and carries a certain amount of risk, no matter how prepared or skilled. The recent base jumping deaths at Zion show that even professional outdoor athletes die from mishaps and chance. Seeing as Bo was a member of the team responsible for handling such accidents, I was curious how he had become a part of Zion’s SAR team.
His career with Zion’s high angle search and rescue unit happened in the summer of 1996. His big wall climbing partner, Dean Woods, had volunteered to help Zion National Park’s Acting Chief Ranger Dave Buccello, who was in charge of emergency services. Dean had asked Bo if he would help out with a mock rescue operation on Sheer Lunacy, a climbing route near Angel’s Landing.
Bo was intrigued and accepted. He climbed to the top of Sheer Lunacy and lowered himself a few hundred feet so that the team could affect a rescue. At the end of the day as they were getting ready to leave, a call came in for the rescue of a woman in the Subway. Dave asked Bo if he would like to come along and help. He accepted. The next morning he got a call from Dave asking him if he would like to be a part of the high angle rescue team.
That was almost 20 years ago. Bo is now a seasoned, crusty, mid-50-year-old man with nearly a quarter century of experience in rescue who could out-hike most 20-year-olds. He is not only knowledgeable and experienced, he is unabashedly protective of the role of search and rescue and the people who choose to do it.
“Ultimately, your safety is up to you,” Bo said. “Do the research, get trained, know the routes, have the right and necessary gear, and if possible, go with someone experienced and responsible who knows the route. The SARs mission is not to save people, but to rescue people – if possible.”
While it is understandable that when someone dies out in the wilderness, the loved ones left behind want to know the details about how and why it happened, it is also often the case that they are looking for someone or something to blame. Unfortunately that blame is often directed at search and rescue personnel.
“People look for somebody to blame,” Beck said. “Maybe there is somebody to blame. When something goes wrong, families and people are looking for answers. Sometimes it’s nature. Sometimes it’s a decision made by someone that ended up being fatal. Search and rescue cannot be blamed for anything. Search and rescue is not there to keep everyone safe. They are there to rescue someone if they can, but not at the expense of their own lives. Training is a big part of that. Sometimes it turns out, sometimes it doesn’t.”
I asked how dangerous it was for SAR teams to go out on rescues. “When someone engages in dangerous activities there is always risk involved,” he replied. “It’s always dangerous, no matter what.” He further explained that his advice to people wishing to get out into the backcountry canyons or trails would be training.
“By training, that danger can be mitigated to a certain degree. But there’s always going to be danger. You can’t control if a rock is going to fall and hit somebody, or if someone is going to slip and wasn’t properly tied in, or the wrong knot was tied or something of that nature. So it’s always constant, but you can mitigate risk with the proper training. You have one opportunity for a mistake. You can’t learn on the fly. If possible, go with someone who knows the route. Someone conscientious and capable will be able to help you and give you sound advice on the beta to safely do a route.”
As we drew closer to The Lady, my stomach started to get tied up in knots. I felt like a superstitious sailor talking about capsized ships and drowned sailors while heading into a storm and wondered if we should stop talking about dislodged rocks and people falling to their deaths on our way to do this hike.
I couldn’t help wondering if Bo felt a responsibility to people since he is often the go-to man when others have questions about canyoneering, climbing, hiking, and anything outdoor related. When I shared my question, Bo replied that when a customer he knew had to get rescued twice, he started to rethink how much he should be prodding people to go into such situations before knowing what their capabilities are.
I could imagine that given Bo’s experience in search and rescue, he might feel an added burden for the safety of people embarking on such adventures. When asked if that was why he was so giving with his time and so willing to go out with friends and strangers alike, he replied, “I think I do not consciously feel that weight. I like to take people out and show the what I’ve done.”
Then he grew quiet for a moment before continuing. “But at the same time, yeah, I think I like to ensure people are safe and I try to instill an awareness of safety. So I guess I kind of feel like a father figure, or an authority. Maybe that’s wrong, I don’t know. I’ve been in positions and seen where people have done things that I wouldn’t have done and it got them into trouble.”
By the time we had wrapped up our conversation, we were pulling up to the gate at Zion. I knew I felt better going out on adventures with Bo. He was always safe, patient, and the consummate guide. Even though I am no stranger to the backcountry, I still like going with people more experienced than I am. Our mission to reach the summit of Lady Mountain was a success. At the top we all congratulated ourselves on reaching the pinnacle injury-free and took in the breathtaking 360 degree view on top of what seemed like the stairway to heaven.
Disclaimer: Do not attempt this route without getting the beta (route information) on it and assessing whether or not you are capable of hiking it. It is a strenuous and dangerous hike. Click here for information on Lady Mountain.