For Fred Wenzel, the newest member of the Montrose Search & Rescue Team, completing his training was a dream come true.
By Brandon HENSLEY
Before descending down a mountain of rocks underneath the second bridge in Big Tujunga Canyon, Fred Wenzel goes over his checklist, making sure he has the right equipment and is properly secured for his big test.
Helmet? Check. Chin strap? Check. Gloves? Check.
But what about the other intangible requirements most human beings must have to do a job, like a conscience, or sanity?
When you do what Wenzel did last Saturday on that bridge, there are some things better left checked at the door.
Wenzel completed his training over the weekend to become the newest member of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team.
“It means everything,” said Wenzel. “This is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done.”
The search and rescue team is one of eight in L.A. County. The Montrose team, made up of around 25 members, consists of reserve sheriff deputies that are on call 24 hours a day to assist in any kind of wilderness emergency.
They are volunteers (unless you count their annual salary of one dollar), so their work is admirable, considering the members work important day jobs.
Team captain Janet Henderson is an ER nurse at Huntington Hospital. John Rodarte, another member, is a pediatrician, and Wenzel himself is a machinist for the MTA.
For his training, Wenzel had to take part in several tasks seemingly reserved for extreme game shows. He had to descend a mountainside and ascend the bridge on a rope (going up 50 feet). He had to climb back up the rock mountain, and also perform a “victim pickoff,” a simulation where another team member pretended to be stranded somewhere and waited for Wenzel to rescue him.
Training for the job can take up to two and half years, including EMT training at Glendale Community College and classes in the L.A. Sheriff’s Department. It took Wenzel three years to complete his training, “through no fault of his own,” according to Henderson. Budget cuts and red tape delayed Wenzel’s dream at least a little while longer (“It tested my patience quite a few times,” Wenzel admitted). Sometimes life gets in the way of helping people.
Last weekend, Wenzel was the only person performing
his tests because, “Fred was
the only one who made it through the background check,” said Henderson. Background checks can take up to six months.
Physically, the job is demanding, which makes Wenzel an impressive case study. At 50, he might make most men his age look like they belong in a retirement home. Wenzel wanted to be a part of the team when he was younger, but he said he just didn’t have the time for such a big undertaking.
“How can you commit to something that big when you’re younger?” he said.
“You have to like to get dirty,” said Henderson of the job. For the Montrose team, that included helping out during the Station Fire in 2009. The team went into Angeles National Forest (where they respond to most calls) and helped recover the bodies of the two firemen who were killed.
The heat was so intense, Henderson recalled, “You could feel it take your breath away.”
Montrose Search and Rescue also helps out beyond the boundaries of L.A. They have been called to Lake Tahoe and Joshua Tree, because sometimes Northern California needs a helping hand.
“They need help, mutual aid,” said John McKently, a team member for 37 years. “Surprisingly, a lot more reserves are in the south.”
The atmosphere was loose while Wenzel went through his tasks. The others didn’t have to worry about him passing. He’s officially one of them now.
“I really enjoy the team aspect … it’s a great group of people,” Wenzel said.
After completing one of his first tasks, a slightly sweaty and fatigued Wenzel was asked how he felt.
“That’s one less monkey off my back,” he responded.
Maybe one day there will be a person whose life was just saved on it instead.