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Big Walls, Swift Waters: Epic Yosemite SAR Stories

YOSEMITE — From the literal cliffhanger to the real raging waters, the stories in Big Walls, Swift Waters will leave you hanging on the edge of your seat. Most of Yosemite National Park’s nearly five million annual visitors leave the park without a scratch. For a few, however, a vacation in this renowned land of cliffs and waterfalls takes a turn for the terrifying.

That’s where the YOSAR team comes in. Yosemite Search and Rescue, otherwise known as YOSAR, is one of the premiere search and rescue teams in the world. The men and women of YOSAR work around the clock, ready to respond at any hour in any weather.

It’s not all helicopter heroics and plucking unlucky rock jocks off the mountain wall. It also means helping the teen with the busted ankle, finding the missing child, and rescuing the newlyweds whose raft implodes on a river.

Author and legendary YOSAR team member Charles R. “Butch” Farabee relates tales of endurance and survival, misadventure and fatal consequences.

In his 34 years with the National Park Service, Butch rose from protection ranger to superintendent and responded to more than 900 search and rescue missions.

Ten years and 800 of those missions were in Yosemite National Park.

NPS photo credit Keith Lober

Now that the book is finished, Butch took some time to relay some personal background, highs and lows of search and rescue and details on the recent publication of Big Walls, Swift Waters.

Butch explains that he went on his first search as a junior in high school at the age of 16, with the Boy Scouts of America, but it wasn’t until he was a National Park Service (NPS) ranger that he became deeply involved.

“That was after I had been a Tucson, Arizona, policeman for three years,” Butch recounts. “When I was in the NPS at Lake Mead, I ended up scuba diving on over 20 drownings/body recoveries, as well as getting really involved in boat rescues on the largest man-made lake in the U.S. It was pretty much because of my job.”

While saving lives is gratifying, professionals are aware of the stress a position like this can create, and Butch is candid about the toll his job took on family.

Charles R. “Butch” Farabee

“I cannot totally blame SAR for my divorce but it was partly the job and I was not very good about setting my priorities and balancing my job with my personal life. There were others who could have taken up the slack and I did not have to be in the middle of all of it.”

Nonetheless, Butch says he loved the adrenaline of the entire job, including EMS, law enforcement, fire and all of the rest, in addition to SAR.

“I enjoyed the challenge of getting it right and being part of a team. Most of these operations were different in many ways and so how they were resolved was different. It was a continual learning process, trying to refine the principles and techniques for each scenario.”

As a significant number of  wilderness adventures end in hardship, Butch is sensitive to the moments that lead up to rescue and recovery, and is frustrated by people who don’t use common sense and expect someone else to bail them out.

“You need to rely on yourself,” Butch emphasizes. “Be situationally aware! Pay attention to what is going around you, such as the dark clouds on the horizon, and avoid putting others at risk because of your stupidity.”

The SAR expert has a checklist for people who are planning to recreate in the wilderness:

  • Plan ahead and anticipate, “What if…?”
  • Let someone know where you are going and when to expect you back.
  • Do your adventure with a partner if at all possible.
  • Give yourself plenty of time, more time than you might expect.
  • Are you physically and mentally prepared?
  • Do you have bivouac equipment and can you safely and somewhat comfortably spend the night?
  • Do not rely on your cell phone or GPS!
  • Be very cautious around water, especially moving water such as streams and waterfalls.
  • Do you have proper footwear? Do not trust your footwear around moving water.
  • Do you know what the weather is suppose to be and are you prepared for adverse weather such as rain, snow, wind, heat?
  • Take plenty of water.

A must-read for thrill-seekers, armchair travelers, outdoor adventurers, national park visitors, and expert explorers, Big Walls, Swift Waters gives readers the inside story on the elite YOSAR team, and provides inspiration and information for adventure.

NPS photo credit Keith Lober

The transition from the physical nature of his life’s work to the perhaps more cerebral writing process was not a big hardship for Butch.

“I always wanted to do something like this and was tickled that the Yosemite Conservancy thought I was up to it. However, it soon became obvious to me that this was maybe bigger than I anticipated.”

This is the first book he’s done with contractual time constraints.

“That put pressure on me, which I enjoy, most of the time.” Butch credits a group of perceptive people for helping him navigate this particular literary landscape, including one of his editors Nicole Geiger, who is apparently similar to having search and rescue for writers stuck in words.

In this case, the writer wanted to publish the book to honor those he’s worked with, inform the public, and help out the organization behind the publication.

“First, I hope that people who are involved with search and rescue, particularly with Yosemite SAR, will be proud of the book and that I revealed to the general reader just how difficult and dangerous the job can be — the job that they are doing each and every day!

“I then hope the book makes Yosemite Conservancy some money so that it can be put back into projects for Yosemite National Park. I hope it sets the ‘Gold Standard’ for these kinds of books.”

Through the support of donors, Yosemite Conservancy provides grants and support to Yosemite National Park to help preserve and protect Yosemite today and for future generations. Thanks to dedicated supporters, the Conservancy has provided more than $100 million in grants to Yosemite National Park.

Big Walls, Swift Waters: Epic Stories from Yosemite Search and Rescue
Publisher: Yosemite Conservancy | yosemiteconservancy.org
Publication Date: July 11, 2017
Outdoors | 224 pages | ISBN 978-1930238-74-9| $22.99 paperback original

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