Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers

Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers

Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers

Heroic Efforts: The Emotional Culture of Search and Rescue Volunteers


Winner of the 2006 Outstanding Recent Contribution Award from the American Sociological Association, Sociology of Emotions Section

Many search and rescue workers voluntarily interrupt their lives when they are called upon to help strangers. They awake in the middle of the night to cover miles of terrain in search of lost hikers or leave work to search potential avalanche zones for missing skiers, snowboarders, and snowmobilers in blizzard conditions. They often put their own lives in danger to rescue stranded, hypothermic kayakers and rafters from rivers.

Drawing on six years of participant observation and in-depth interviews, Jennifer Lois examines the emotional subculture of "Peak," a volunteer mountain-environment search and rescue team. Rescuers were not only confronted by physical dangers, but also by emotional challenges, including both keeping their own emotions in check during crisis situations, and managing the emotions of others, such as those they were rescuing. Lois examines how rescuers constructed meaning in their lives and defined themselves through their heroic work.

Heroic Efforts serves as an easy to understand sociological introduction to the ways emotions develop and connect us to our surroundings, as well as to the links between the concept of heroism and other sociological theories such as those on gender stereotypes and edgework.


On a dark November morning in 1999,I awoke to the squelching emergency tones emanating from the pager next to my bed. Rolling over, I glanced at the clock: 6 A.M. The dispatcher’s voice came across the pager next: “Attention all Peak Search and Rescue members. Report to the base for a search in the Mount Alpine area. Time now o-six-hundred.” Mount Alpine? I thought. Who in their right mind would be hiking a 14,000-foot mountain at this time of year? True, it had been a dry season so far. There was no snow yet in our Rocky Mountain resort town (a mere 7500 feet above sea level), and we’d had a warm, dry fall. But up in the high-alpine wilderness, there had been some snow, and the temperature was dropping well into the single digits at night. I hoped this lost person had brought the proper equipment.

I debated whether to get out of bed. I was finished collecting data for my research, I reasoned, so perhaps I should go back to sleep; after five and a half years, I had plenty of information on the rescuer experience. What’s more, they’d probably call off the search once we all got rolling anyway. I’d most likely spend all day hiking up one of the two trails to Mount Alpine (again) only to find that the missing person miscommunicated his travel plans to his friends (again), who were now reporting him missing (again). Or, maybe someone really was lost. Cursing my conscience, I stumbled out of bed, got my gear together, and headed down to the base building to meet the team.

I walked into the rescue base just as Joel, the mission coordinator, was beginning to brief the eight other volunteer rescuers who were also able to get out of their commitments today. We’d be looking for Bill Brown, a white male in his late thirties from Springfield, a town in the foothills about 100 miles away. A sheriff’s office dispatcher had called Joel at about five o’clock Friday afternoon, saying that she had received a 911 cell phone call from a man who was lost on Mount Alpine. She still had him on the . . .

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