For many folks, the beauty of retirement lies in being the master of your own schedule: there’s no more boss telling you what to do and when to do it.
But Charles Pitman has willingly ceded control over much of his time since he’s left the rat race. A search and rescue volunteer for Summit County, Colo. Pitman, 69, sleeps with his emergency radio next to his bed, so he can pick up whenever the dispatcher calls. He routinely works through the night helping back country skiers and hikers who have gotten lost, injured, or buried in an avalanche or trapped on a cliff.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” Pitman says of his second act. “I thought it’d be an interesting, exciting way to give back to the community and help people in distress.”
An avid skier, Pitman grew up in western Colorado but spent his career in Ventura, Calif. as a civilian engineer for the Navy. He worked on a team that tested the defense systems of destroyers and aircraft carriers. It was an exciting but stressful job, and Pitman retired at his earliest opportunity. “I turned 55 on a Tuesday, retired on a Friday, drove out to Colorado the following Monday and never looked back,” he says. His wife, Debbie, now 65, was more than happy to accompany him; the two owned a condo in Summit County where they would vacation before retiring there full-time.
Pitman has worked as a volunteer rescuer ever since, with a jurisdiction that includes the backcountry that’s not covered by ski patrollers on the slopes of nearby Breckenridge and other mountains. The job has its own stresses. It’s physically taxing to work long hours in temperatures that can drop to minus 30 degrees, on mountain peaks that can reach up to 14,000 feet high. And it’s emotionally taxing when an operation evolves from a rescue effort into a recovery.
The hours are unpredictable, up to the whims of Mother Nature and individual accidents. Many of the people Pitman’s group helps are out-of-towners who venture out under-prepared. They don’t understand, for example, how quickly cell phone batteries can die in the backcountry, leaving them unable to call for assistance, or the importance of bringing an avalanche beacon in case of emergency.
Once every nine weeks, Pitman spends a week as a mission coordinator, on call 24/7. He swears off alcohol for the week, so he can be sharp when determining the resources that are needed for each mission that the emergency dispatchers send his way. Some he can handle himself from his dining room table, as when he guides a lost hiker back onto the trail using GPS coordinates from the hiker’s cell phone. Other missions are much more intensive, as when he marshals a team of 20 to rescue a stranded skier using ropes and harnesses. When he’s not working as mission coordinator, he’s a regular member of the team and can choose not to be on call if he’s made plans. In the warmer months, his team also handles river rescues.
Despite the serious demands of his work, Pitman finds he can relax once he gets home. He gets plenty of sleep and reads his favorite books, cozying up with ancient history texts by Aristotle or Euripides. He and his wife also find time to travel during the off-seasons, which are April and May and September and October.
Europe is a favorite destination, and Debbie’s Social Security check funds much their travels. Pitman receives a pension from his government job, which covers the couple’s necessities (since they bought their place in cash using the proceeds from the sale of their home in California, they have no mortgage payment). Pitman’s government work didn’t count toward Social Security, so his tiny Social Security check — the couple considers it their “wine money” — is based on work he did in high school and college, and then a bit of consulting work after retiring. The couple also has money in a 401(k) and IRA, but they have not tapped them yet; they plan to do so at age 70, when the Internal Revenue Service starts requiring savers to make taxable withdrawals from traditional retirement accounts.
His search and rescue group is an all-volunteer squad that operates as a 501(c)(3) non-profit under the auspices of the local sheriff’s department. Each member has to buy his or her own gear. Pitman invested about $1,500 in his medical pack, boots, knives, avalanche beacon and other equipment. His one perk? A professional discount at Patagonia and other outdoor retailers.
In all seasons, Pitman trains to stay in shape. Most of his fellow rescuers are in their 20s through 40s. “Not being as young as a lot of these guys, I need to work on my legs and my lungs,” Pitman says. That means hiking and biking in the summer, and Nordic skiing in the winter.
It should be noted that Pitman, who turns 70 next month, is not the oldest member of his team; a man who’s about two years older holds that distinction. With a life expectancy at birth that exceeds age 86, Summit County boasts the longest lifespans of any county in the U.S., according to a study published earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine. That’s thanks in part to the region’s active lifestyle and low obesity levels. “You’re not going to live at 9,000 or 10,000 feet if you’re not healthy,” Pitman says, noting that the elevation can exacerbate cardiac and respiratory problems.
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Pitman knows he won’t be able to work in the field forever. He’s begun to scale back his missions on the bitterest days of winter, since he can’t tolerate extreme temperatures as well as he used to. At some point in the next several years, he’ll likely start to work exclusively as a mission coordinator and cede the climbing and other physically demanding work to his younger colleagues.
For now, though, he continues to enjoy the ride — dark and cold as it often is.
“Our unofficial tag line is ‘join search and rescue and see Summit County by headlamp,'” he says.