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When Someone Goes Missing In Yosemite

YOSEMITE – If you Google “missing in Yosemite,” you’ll turn up a heartbreaking number of links, each a story of a loved one whose trip to this magnificent park did not go as planned.

You can read about lone hikers out of contact with family and feared injured or worse, and tales of one person swept away in frigid and fast moving water, followed by would-be saviors who were swept away, too.

It’s also true that many search and rescue (SAR) missions turn out well and the once-missing person is delivered safely back into the mainstream. Even if that delivery is via ambulance, finding someone alive in vast and perilous Yosemite National Park (YNP) is a victory. Sadly, there are also defeats.

Yosemite Leaning Tower YOSAR rescue - June 2013 - Medical personnel were on hand to load the injured climber Houbart into the waiting ambulance - Photo by Tom Evans - El Cap ReportIt’s largely recognized that YNP has an outstanding SAR team with a reputation for excellence.

Whenever an individual is missing and/or feared dead inside Yosemite National Park, one professional Park employee per case is designated as the missing person’s family’s contact for getting information regarding the ongoing status of the search and rescue.

The job is “Family Liaison” between rescue operations and the family of the missing person.

“As Family Liaison you’re the person who is the family’s main go-to person to get answers,” explains Yosemite SAR expert Jonathan “Moose” Mutlow.

SAR River Patrol 2013 - Photo by Virginia Lazar“You work within the hierarchy of the incident command and designate a person who can give the family answers.”

Mutlow is a full time Director of NatureBridge, a primary Park partner that operates inside Yosemite, helping to support YNP’s educational mission.

“NatureBridge allows me to be part of the search and rescue team,” explains Mutlow. “I help with the swift water coordination and coordinate the Family Liaison.”

You will never hear a SAR Family Liaison team member discuss a particular search and rescue or recovery outside the scope of the assignment.

SAR Jonathan Moose Mutlow is one of a few family liaisons working missing person incidents in Yosemite - Photo by Virginia Lazar“Our job is to support the family, so we don’t give any interviews on the record about a specific incident,” explains Mutlow.

SAR is devoted to the privacy and well-being of the family of the missing person and will never reveal any sensitive information about the search. They choose instead to honor the family’s trust.

What the experts can talk about is the general nature of the Family Liaison position and the many pitfalls of working and communicating closely with families who are often off-site, in another state or country, and completely at a loss for understanding the magnitude of a potential search, rescue or recovery.

“I have worked Family Liaisons that have gone on for months, where you’re on the phone with an out-of-town family most of the time,” Mutlow recalls.

SAR High line rescue technique - SAR team member anchored to tree - Photo by Virginia Lazar

“Your job is to give an absolute truth. As the Family Liaison you can’t surmise, and you can’t postulate; you have to give absolute truth or nothing.”

It’s the Family Liaison’s responsibility to communicate and help people process and cope with the nearly incomprehensible.

Sometimes you have a parent that says, ‘what were my child’s last moments like?’ So I can say ‘your child was not alone; there were people calling their name and working hard to save their life and they were not alone.’ I know that for a fact and that’s our job; to be empathetic and be objective, so you don’t give false hope.”

SAR instructs middle school students from Oakland on swift water rescue techniques - Photo by Virginia Lazar

All too often, people come into the Park with great expectations of adventure and are perhaps ill-prepared for the harsh realities of nature. That’s when accidents can happen.

When they do, it’s often Mutlow’s job to explain to the missing person’s family precisely what is happening at any given moment. While the family may be privy to information, he says not all scenes are appropriate for viewing.

SAR Team on bank of Merced River 2013 - Photo by Virginia Lazar“We have a rule that if you’re recovering a body and the family is standing there, everything stops. It’s hard to watch because you’re wrestling this body out of the water. The flow of the water is incredibly powerful and you have to use a force equal to or greater than the force of the water. It is a violent act no mother should ever be faced with. It’s that harsh, and it’s public. So the family can come on scene, but we’re not going to do anything when they’re on scene. As soon as they leave, the operation kicks off again.”

The Family Liaison also helps to insulate and protect the SAR team at any given time.

“Part of the reason we insulate the team from the family is, the team members are already dealing with a horrific incident if we are going to have to recover someone. Now if you add the emotional challenge of working with the family as well, you can’t do that umpteen times a year. So the Family Liaison helps to insulate the team from that impact.”

SAR Gear and Swift Water Rescue Demonstration - Photo by Virginia LazarThis is clearly a tough job suitable only for the strongest of individuals in both body and spirit. What makes a good Family Liaison seems to be a combination of experience and empathy.

“A lot of the people who are involved in Family Liaison have communication skills that are elevated. We have a number of people who are educators or nurse practitioners or have been around adventure-based activities. They’ve dealt with this, with guests or clients or students. Family Liaisons also require a knowledge of search and rescue, because you have to be able to say ‘we’re doing a grid search,’ and then explain to the family what a grid search is.”

Only a small group of people make it through training to work as part of the Family Liaison team.

“We do regular trainings here with about eight people at each training session. Out of that, there are two or three who find that they can really do this well. We have probably a core of 3 or 4 of us that handle these situations regularly. The most I’ve done in a year is probably 9 or 10, and that was a miserable year. I cried a lot that year.”

Tenaya Lake WikiWhich brings about the question: who or what helps the helpers?

“Everybody has their own coping mechanisms, but I personally recognize that dealing with those really challenging intense emotional situations with family really gets to you. After a couple of intense situations you think you’re okay, and then suddenly you just fall apart emotionally.

“Critical incident stress management is part of any major event or mission. We go and talk about stuff.” Mutlow says the therapy and debriefing are useful.

Yosemite Leaning Tower YOSAR rescue - June 2013 - Jack Hoeflick Aaron Smith Jesse McGahey and Chris Bellino were flown to the top - Photo by Tom Evans - El Cap Report“I make a conscious effort to talk to my peer groups and my family and my friends. Generally it’s known here who are the Family Liaisons and people will say, ‘You want to go for a beer?’ We have good peer support.”

Generally speaking, Mutlow finds peace on the water when the conditions are right.

There’s something great about sitting next to the river and hearing it bubble by. I love it by the water. I’m a boater and I also fish. I think the water is calming because I recognize the inherent power that’s in any water, and you don’t fight it. “

Wayne Behrens and Yodog PennyMutlow is grateful that the Park Service holds the Family Liaison program as vital to the welfare of its visitors.

“I am really proud of the Park Service for investing in the Family Liaison program, because they’ve recognized that people desperately need support at that time. When the Park Service sees a need, we get phoned up really quickly.”

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