The LCSTARs page was established to recognize the achievements of team members who have gone above and beyond the necessary requirements to be a professional search and rescue person. They are truly an inspiration to other team members. It is also about getting to know our fellow team members and getting a peek at what makes them tick and some insight into the diverse kinds of people that join the SAR community and what they find so captivating about their experience.
Written by Sarah Babbitt
So who is Keith Schafer and why is he just an S1? He has no plans to move up through the ranks again, and "They can't make me," he says with a big smile. Why, since he just joined LCSAR 18 months ago? Because this is only the most recent incarnation of Keith Schafer in SAR. Starting in Idaho, where he was stationed with the Navy, Keith has been a founder and/or instrumental member of numerous SAR teams.
In 1975 he was a founder of the Idaho Falls Nordic Ski Patrol (a patrolling part of the Nat'l Ski Patrol.) Upon moving to Loveland in 1976 (where he lived next door to Ken and Joanne Klein) he joined the Brian Mountain Nordic Patrol in Boulder, and became president of that team. It was around this time that he " somehow got involved with" the Civil Air Patrol. As part of CAP he helped form the Colorado Ground SAR team, a ground operation of CAP, which he helped toward MRA associate certification. Along the way he also found the time and energy to get married and raise two children (and he now has 4 grandchildren.)
Keith joined the Larimer County Rescue Team as it was in 1977 (at that time it was a paid team.) Among many other missions, he participated in the 2-week search around Greyrock for Eric Viehl (of whom no sign was ever found.)
Upon moving to Utah in 1988 he joined the Jeep Patrol. As Keith describes it they required everyone to have a white 4WD vehicle, and he refused to buy one---so he just drove his white Grand Am. "Never got stuck, though, and they got stuck all the time!" Another big smile. 1991 took Keith and his family to Hawaii for the first time, where they stayed for a year (Hawaii was to become a favorite work and play haven for Keith ever since, and he returns there for about 6 weeks each year.) When he returned to Utah he joined the other renegades who had split off from the Jeep Patrol and formed a SAR team.
He was in charge of getting the team MRA certified, which they did in about a year. Keith is proud of his time there because it was difficult to become a part of what is a very tight-knit, religious community. Becoming president for a few years, being an incident commander and getting them MRA certified were accomplishments he looks back on fondly. "I was happy with the team when I left. It was evolving to another level, and I like to see that. New leadership was moving up. You are a success when you are not irreplaceable. Especially in SAR. "
Then there was the year he was the Intermountain Region MRA chairperson. And his 5 years on the Dive Rescue team in Utah ("the most stressful job, I think, in the entire world.") And the fact that he's responsible for bringing George Janson into LCSAR (ah, so it's his fault!!) So Keith Schafer has paid his SAR "dues." But it's clear that it doesn't feel anything like 'dues' to Keith. "SAR is fun. The camaraderie is definitely part of it. Working with people under stressful conditions is always interesting." He cites Chris Wright's calm demeanor on the Atadero search when he announced to Keith that Mark's helicopter had crashed. There was absolutely no excitement in Chris' voice, which impressed Keith. "I control my adrenaline when responding to these [missions] by plugging in a tape of John Denver." "You can sit and think about the problem as you're going in: What do I need to do, where do I need to go, what do I have in my truck, what do I need to assemble?"
The Atadero search took place before Keith was officially back on LCSAR, but as Keith explained, "I go on missing-kid searches—that's a given." So he drove from Estes Park to incident base, approached George (who was SAR manager for that operational period) and said, "Can I help?"
He had applied to return to LCSAR by then and he attended as much of BASART 2000 as his schedule allowed. Some might question why someone with so much experience in SAR would go through BASART, but "whether I have experience or not is irrelevant. The fact that they don't know me" is the point, and "until I learn what they're doing and they learn who I am I'm just a new guy." On the other hand, Keith says it's "nice being 'the old guy'—you don't have to be perfect. It's a nice position to be in. You don't have to be involved with the politics. The politics is the hard part of SAR." And he's found that that is the case everywhere—this team is no different than any other in that regard.
Keith likes to watch what's going on. He's "taken the last 1 1/2 years to learn what this team is doing," trying to understand the systems we use and why, before making comment or giving input. There are certain things he'd like to see done better, but he'll "do it any way they want to do it as long as it's safe." "Those of us who've been around a long time need to listen to the new people coming in, being aware of some of the new and different stuff coming along" (such as some of what is taught in Rigging For Rescue.) But he cautions that we also need to be wary of some of it—cool and complex is not necessarily the best way to go. He points out that efficiency and safety generally go hand-in-hand. He plans on hassling Kurt (of Rigging For Rescue) about using interlocking bowlines and one carabiner on our vertical system, because "it's a hassle and it adds very little in the way of safety," and "because I can," he laughs.
Keith's technical experience is broad—he has conducted studies on self-equalizing anchors, and some of his information is used by Rigging For Rescue and is cited in the book On Rope. He is currently working on a proposal for a slow-pull knot efficiency test that he hopes to have a CSU engineering student carry out as a project. The test will use the 4 or 5 knots used the most by MRA teams and test them under slow-pull conditions (which is more relevant for most rescue work than dynamic fall testing,) using both old and new rope. Keith is also on the committee reviewing LCSAR's current technical standards.
An "Airforce Brat," Keith was born in Texas but moved around quite a bit while growing up. He joined the Navy after high school and spent 9 years in the service, stationed in Alameda (where he served on the USS Coral Sea and the USS Enterprise) and in Idaho (where he was an instructor and a reactor operator at a nuclear training facility.) His interests in backpacking, rock climbing and cross-country skiing began during these years in the Navy.
Keith remains a member of the Navy Reserves and was recently honored by a promotion to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. This is quite an honor because it is the highest rank attainable by non-commissioned personnel. He must be nominated by a commissioned officer, and the promotion is approved by an act of Congress.
These days Keith works as an engineering consultant for Marsh, Inc. His work takes him all over the world working on power plant steam systems. In addition to his 6 weeks per year in Hawaii, he gets to American Samoa once a year, and he gets to "throw in a little Indonesia and Australia, England, a couple of other places.."
But it's Hawaii he enjoys the most. In fact, he thinks they need a SAR team—he is generously willing to go there and train them and he's got their bright orange aloha team shirts all picked out! On the other hand, "the water's a little cool in Hawaii," so for diving he prefers the 88-degree waters of Samoa. He insists it's quite safe, too, adding that "the sharks don't bother you 'cause they're all full, there's so much food down there. They don't care about you."
One talent that Keith didn't put on his BASART application was his Ukulele playing. He explained that the exposure most of us have to the instrument does not do it justice at all. He takes lessons each time he's in Hawaii, and "I'm getting pretty good, if I do say so myself!" He plays Hawaiian songs, mostly, but is also working on "Anchors Away." While on the Islands he also likes to watch Hula, which is also much more complex and beautiful than most of us know. "It's really nice—almost a martial art in a lot of ways."
What else is important to Keith Schafer? It's important to him that people be acknowledged and respected for their knowledge and experience, but that they not be considered special or put up on a pedestal. In addition, he stresses that in SAR "regardless of who finds the subject or 'does the save,' if you want to call it that, no individual ever deserves singular credit for that. Ever. Because if one person makes the find, he's only over here because someone else is over there, or someone told him to go over there—so it's always, always a team effort."
Keith has been involved in countless missions over the years, and can think of 6 or 7 that were "incredibly intense." The "Christmas Miracle" was one which received a lot of media attention ( that would have been 1987 or 1988) and a mission in which he worked with Stan Kilgore— a former CAP member who has greatly influenced Keith (and George and Mark, as well.) Stan "had a tremendous impact on all of us because of his leadership abilities." Another which sticks in his mind was a CAP mission in Canon City where they "pulled out the subjects and the team with the "Jolly Green Giant" helo," using the jungle penetrator down through the trees. "It was like 'Close Encounters of the Third Kind,' watching them being sucked back up into the helicopter!"
One of the things which is exciting about SAR, for Keith, is that "you go from one extreme to another. Extreme boredom followed by incredible chaos. It's chaos that's interesting—it's not really chaos, it just looks like chaos. " "It's just like that: One minute you're driving down the road, fat, dumb and happy. The next minute you're screaming to an avalanche in a helicopter. That's really exciting."
"I like the technical work the best. It's the most challenging, because you have to think so much under such incredible stress. And when a team comes together it's a really neat thing. Or when you make a knot-pass and the litter team never even knows it. That's my favorite. Ken Miller (another former LCSAR member) and I did that on a rescue" [another big smile.]
Keith then made a point of bringing up Ken Klein, because "Ken is probably one of the best friends I've ever had, ever." They have been on many backpacking trips together, some as long as 90 or 100 miles. They've been on "some of the most excellent backpacking trips, and we've done some of the most stupid things" (like not noticing that their maps changed to 80-foot contours when they got to the Tetons..) And spending Ken's birthday doing 10 miles of bush whacking in thick bear country—"one of the few times I've used very, very foul language!" They hiked the Grand Canyon rim to rim with their sons, running out of water once and filtering more from a mule trough at midnight. "I can't recall ever having an argument, even on an extended, 9-day trip like that. He's one of the best guys I've ever met. You can quote me on that. Ken is a great person. Ken and Joanne have been great friends to me." When he told me of their plans for another trip coming up, I asked if it didn't sound like a SAR mission waiting to happen. His response: a big laugh and "Oh, no, we'd never admit that!"
Keith Schafer takes his participation in SAR very seriously. When it comes to getting the job done, he's a no-nonsense kind of guy. But whenever possible the task is accompanied by his smile and sense of humor. And his humility. When asked what else the world should know about Keith Schafer he smiled and replied, "I make the best minestrone soup there is. I make the best minestrone soup there is. I do."