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Bree Loewen: 20 Years in Search and Rescue

Posted by Rachel Wendling at Jul 20, 2017 02:00 PM |
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Meet Bree, a 20-year vet of search-and-rescue and author of Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue.

By Charlie Lieu

If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Bree Loewen, you will not be surprised to learn that she is a leader for Seattle Mountain Rescue. Her athletic build and confident demeanor are what you expect from someone who regularly extracts the injured or lost from dire situations.

What may surprise you is that despite her youthful complexion, Bree is a 20-year veteran of search and rescue in the Pacific Northwest. Within her tall, sinewy frame, Bree carries countless tales of rescues ranging from wrapping sprained ankles in the rain to multi-day body recoveries in the remote winter wilderness.

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Bree honing her search-and-rescue skills on a snowy hillside. Photo by Cheri Higman.

Path to mountain rescue

Bree was homeschooled—a somewhat lonely experience— and graduated from the University of Washington at 17. She spent her early adulthood living out of her car and climbing. The freedom was liberating, but she longed for deeper connections. Having been part of a youth search-and-rescue group in the late 1990s, Bree re-entered the world of mountain rescue in 2002 for the National Park Service. The work was appealing: the sense of purpose, the challenge, the phenomenal people and the intense bonds formed from shared experiences. Eventually, though, she wanted to return to Seattle and start a family, so she switched to volunteering with Seattle Mountain Rescue.

Bree isn’t sure how many missions she has completed, as records weren’t always perfect in the early days. The SMR database shows that she has responded to 100 calls in just the last three years, and altogether, Bree has probably helped rescue at least 500 people.

Hidden challenges

To describe mountain rescue as “demanding” is an understatement. In addition to maintaining peak physical condition, Bree must continuously refresh a complex cadre of skills such as rock and ice climbing, rock and crevasse rescue, and backcountry skiing. She maintains her license as an emergency medical technician, and she’s in nursing school to increase her skill set.

Bree’s planned training focuses on “hard” skills that are well defined and measurable, but she points out that soft skills are just as crucial.

“People underestimate how important it is to be able to read people and communicate clearly: with teammates, with partner agencies ...” Bree says, with a warm and casual tone honed from years of having to make strangers feel comfortable under suboptimal conditions. “(You have to) instill confidence in the person you are helping and keep their partners calm so they don’t become a liability.”

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Photo by Bree Loewen.

Bree confesses that “Rescue work takes a toll on you not just physically but mentally and emotionally.” Risking your own safety for complete strangers is tough, and having to deal with injury or death regularly changes your perspective. “You see someone fall from a wall you climb at all the time; you can’t help but second guess how safe it is,” Bree says.

As a woman in a traditionally male-dominated field, Bree sometimes faces cultural challenges. While members of Seattle Mountain Rescue are egalitarian, meritocratic, and focused on gender parity, partner organizations in some areas are not always used to working with women. This is where Bree’s soft skills shine through: anticipating and managing preconceived notions of ability and aptitude.

“When I know I have to deal with a team or an agency that isn’t used to working with women, I get in front of it by having one of the older gentlemen in Seattle Mountain Rescue call ahead to makes sure everything will go smoothly and there are no surprises,” she says.

Despite all the hard work and the occasional suffering, Bree’s enthusiasm for mountain rescue is undiminished.

“Every mission is an amazing shared experience with your teammates. You bond over the challenges, and it’s all worth it when you get someone to safety,” she says.

Bree Lowen


 

Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue

Found_Final_PRINT_F.jpgIn addition to her intense work as a search-and rescue leader, Bree Loewen is an author. Her second book, Found: A Life in Mountain Rescue, is a collection of stories from her life in Seattle Mountain Rescue. The book chronicles Bree’s experiences as she recounts tales of camaraderie, joy and, yes, suffering.

Mountain rescue is a critical part of Bree’s life and takes center stage in everything she does. Unfortunately, such consuming volunteer work makes a “traditional” career path difficult. Found explores this struggle, juxtaposed with the ease with which Bree navigates the mountains. Interspersed between the rescue stories are glimpses of her own personal journey in search of a professional path that made sense, while balancing the meaningful but unpaid roles of wife, mother and mountain rescuer.

Puget Sound locals will recognize details from popular local hikes like Rattlesnake Ledge and Mount Si. However, the feeling of familiarity comes also from Bree’s expressive and vulnerable writing style. Her honest assessments of her own trials and tribulations make her instantly relatable—even if very few of us would ever knowingly venture as far as she does into the depths of the wilderness under the most challenging of conditions.

For anyone who has ever felt a bit lost, either literally or metaphorically, Found will strike a chord.

Found is available from Mountaineer Books’ website, and in bookstores. 

This article originally appeared in the July+August 2017 issue of Washington Trails Magazine. Support trails as a member of WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.

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