Serving the White Mountains since the 1980s
Mike Pelchat and Diane Homes, husband and wife search and rescue team
By Rachael brown
Mike Pelchat and Diane Holmes are no strangers to the mountains.
Pelchat and Holmes grew up with Mount Washington in their backyards, have made several trips to the Himalayas, Arctic Canada, Alaska, the Ruth Glacier, but when it comes to favorites, the White Mountains soar above the rest.
Their backyard is where they recreate, work and give back to the community, to mountaineering, to search and rescue and a life they love.
Both were on hand to talk about their 37 years together, the outdoors and their ongoing work with search and rescue.
"The best thing I did was to marry my husband almost 37 years ago and become an EMT. That education has taken me amazing places, has formulated me helping people, helping neighbors. It is very rewarding," says the trim, fit looking Holmes, actually a nationally recognized AEMT.
"An AEMT is an advanced EMT, a step below paramedics," adds Pelchat, also a Gorham native and AEMT-certified. Pelchat and Holmes both work on Gorham Ambulance and Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue (AVSAR), which they helped found.
The Gorham natives met when they were kids.
"Diane and I knew each other from Gorham High School. We were both on GHS ski team," says Pelchat.
"I grew up next door, this was my grandparent's house," says Holmes of the home where they live and where we spoke.
"There was Walt's Variety across the street, this was the neighborhood meet," adds Pelchat.
"As local kids, a friend was working on top of Mount Washington. There was an old station up on the summit — the state park had food service and a gift shop. As kids we got jobs up there. It changed how I viewed things. It was an exciting life. Lead me down the path of adventure, seeing the beauty, the power of the mountains, " says Holmes.
This was in 1973 and in 1976 Pelchat joined her on the summit.
"Back then there were very few local people who came up to the summit. It was — let's say — like a New Yorker who has never been to the Empire State Building. I got my foot in the door and worked for New Hampshire State Parks. At first it was seasonal and then worked my way up to manager, " says Pelchat, manager of Mount Washington State Park. The state owns 60 acres on Mount Washington surrounded by the White Mountain National Forest.
It is no longer quiet on top of the "Rock Pile."
"Mount Washington rivals the Himalayas. People come to take the train, the auto road or hike the 12 trails. Some of the best mountain climbers in the world train here. The mountain is not closed at anytime. It is a freedom to decide, not too have Big Brother looking over you. For example, Katahdin in Maine closes sometimes [because of weather, avalanche danger]," explains Pelchat adding Outside Magazine lists Mount Washington among the top 10 most dangerous in the world.
"Mount Washington is one of the highest hiked mountains in the world because people have an increased interest in health, the environment, the beauty of the mountains. It is inexpensive to get above tree line and only a day's drive for most, with the trail head accessible from the highway," says Holmes. She adds the importance of checking and following the weather history to see the snow conditions.
"If you travel above tree line, there are aspects you should research. The snow rangers are a good resource. They are trained in snow science. You can go to their website (www.mountwashingtonavalanchecenter.org)," adds Holmes.
"It is a double-edged sword; you can get into trouble," says Pelchat citing statistics that say 154 people have perished since record keeping, which equates to 1.5 per year.
Speaking of rescues, both Holmes and Pelchat say how important it is to stay positive in the unknown outcome. If the ending is tragic, they have a strong core of people — their peers, an internal support group.
"We can see people at the worst moment of their lives. We get into their lives to make them feel safe. Most of the time it is a happy ending. It is an honor to do this," says Pelchat, adding rescuers do this to give back, to pay their dues.
It also helps that they have extensive knowledge of the mountains, like Holmes and Pelchat.
"This [mountain] is in our own backyard. Mike and I know the mountain like the back of our hands," says Holmes.
Both still work for Gorham Ambulance and the two were among the founders of Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue.
"We formed AVSAR in 1988. I had worked for Gorham Ambulance, ski patrol at Wildcat and Cannon. We saw the need for our own rescue team. People were coming as far away as Fryeburg to help. We wanted it so people could respond geographically close. It is a way of giving back. We are under the auspices of Fish and Game, " says Pelchat adding AVSAR is his baby; what began with only a few members has grown into a professional organization.
Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue is working on its website: www.avsarnh.org. The organization is a 501-c-3, established to "save lives and lessen suffering." It assists New Hampshire Fish and Game, U.S. Forest Service and other rescue agencies. Now there are about 50 members living in the White Mountains who also have day jobs.
"During our first 20 years, we were doing nights, straight nights and working our day jobs. When you are with search and rescue you are always on call," says Holmes.
Those day jobs included working for New Hampshire State Parks. While Pelchat is still working for state parks, Holmes retired in 2013, but not before she was able to work on an exciting project in Concord.
"I like being above tree line but the last two years [of state parks career) I was going to Concord to work on a community recreation project: Statewide Comprehensive Outdoor Recreation Plan. With my life experience, love for the environment and I could put my education to work," says Holmes who wrote a chapter for SCORP and has signed copy by former Governor John Lynch and former Commissioner George Bald.
"As Diane and I are reaching our golden years our strength is starting to wane, as you get older you get to pace yourself better. Our careers in SAR are winding down and we are very pleased that we have a new crop of young enthusiastic mountaineers joining AVSAR from the local area: Myles Chouinard, Hunter Cote, Shawn Bunnell from Berlin, Mary Glover and Scot Briere from Milan will help carry on the noble tradition of answering the call for help when trouble strikes in the White Mountains," says Pelchat.
No matter which generation, what prepares one for a life of search and rescue?
"It comes from being an outdoors person. You need outdoor survival growing up here. You hunt, fish and hike. I have hiked the 4,000 footers, done technical climbing in winter and ice climbing. It is something to do in the winter, then I started volunteering and doing first aid," says Pelchat.
"We learned along the way, became EMT's other certifications and avalanche training. You have to be licensed to be on an ambulance," adds Holmes.
Then, there is the lure of their own backyard.
"I have always been happy where I am. There have been several trips to Alaska, Canadian Arctic, the Himalayas, but nowhere is as beautiful as the White Mountains, as Gorham. It is always nice to get away and nice to come home," says Pelchat.
"We grew up on skis and are able to make a living doing the things we love. People might be under the impression, 'What do you do up there?' Oh my, what don't we do here? It is an exciting life we live," says Holmes.
"It is not every day you get to jump out of a helicopter," says Pelchat.
"For myself, the message came across when I was growing up in a one-horse town. I went to college in Boston. I thought it would be the best experience. What it taught me; I was a small town girl and the importance of northern New Hampshire closeness. I was living on Commonwealth Ave in Boston. I looked up and couldn't see the stars. Oops, I knew I was in trouble," grins Holmes.