By Erik Eisele
CONWAY — Forty years ago, the Vietnam War was ending. The U.S.S.R. dominated Eastern Europe. Gerald Ford was president. Bruce Springsteen released his third album, Born to Run, and Night Live launched as a new show.
Forty years ago, Rick Wilcox hadn’t summited Everest yet. He didn’t own International Mountain Equipment, hadn’t led dozens of expeditions to the Alps, Africa, South America and Nepal, wasn’t the author of several guidebooks to New England ice and alpine climbing yet.
He wasn’t the elder statesman of the North Conway climbing community yet; he was just another young Mount Washington Valley climber, a mountaineer honing his skills on the local cliffs and ice flows.
But 40 years ago, when the phone rang and a rescue was called, Rick Wilcox went. And last weekend, he was honored.
On Sunday, March 22, officials from the New Hampshire Outdoor Council and the N.H. Fish and Game Department gathered at Cranmore Mountain Resort to present Wilcox with the New Hampshire Search and Rescue Extraordinary Service Award, given to search and rescue community members who display an ongoing standard of dedication, teamwork, professionalism, compassion and leadership.
Wilcox, 67, has served as the president of the North Conway-based volunteer Mountain Rescue Service for just shy of 40 years. In the organization’s history, there has been only one other president, who served the four years before Rick took office.
The organization provides manpower and expertise in environments and terrain beyond the scope of most rescue agencies — from the cliffs of Cathedral, Whitehorse and Cannon ledge to the summits of the Presidential Range in wintertime.
MRS has been involved in over 500 rescues, bolstering state Fish and Game and U.S. Forest Service personnel in the most extreme of circumstances, as in February, when Mountain Rescue Service volunteers took to the flanks of Mount Washington in 100-mph winds and subzero temperatures to search for a lost hiker.
These are conditions few rescue groups are prepared for, but for the close to 40 years Wilcox has helmed the service, MRS members have volunteered.
“When I first heard of this award, Rick was the first person I thought of,” said Bill Kane, a former MRS member and founding member of the New Hampshire Outdoor Council. It was Kane who submitted Wilcox’s name for consideration.
“This award was meant for someone like him,” Kane said. Among climbers, there is often an independent streak, he said, and that can make it hard to organize them. But Wilcox has been able to do just that. There were disagreements, Kane said, but they never hamstrung Mountain Rescue Service.
“Rick just listened and then kept leading,” he said. Forty years, he said, is “just an extraordinary tenure in this business.”
It’s on the cold, windy, raw days — days that most people don't spend outside — that Fish and Game calls Mountain Rescue, said Col. Marty Garabedian of Fish and Game. And on those days, he said, his officers “breathe easier,” knowing Wilcox is responding.
Among the 50 people who came to Zip’s Pub at Cranmore evening to honor Wilcox, a number were conservation officers, both active and retired. Many of the others were members of the rescue service itself or one of the other regional rescue organizations with which MRS members work.
The audience wasn’t lost on Wilcox.
“It’s a big family here tonight,” he said after Kane and Garabedian presented him with a framed award and showed him the plaque with his name on it.
“When I look at this award,” he said, “it may say my name on it, but it has everybody’s name on it.”
“It’s been a great 40 years,” he said. “This team has been a big part of my life. I was there when they started in 1971-72.” Individual volunteers may come and go, he said; they might be off for a night or traveling abroad, but “there’s always someone Fish and Game can call.”
The next Mountain Rescue president, however, won’t have the opportunity Wilcox had. “They have put in term limits,” he said. He’s four years into his last six-year limit.
Whoever takes his place, he said, he will support fully.
But whoever comes next, Kane added, will have big shoes to fill.