I have been on all sides of the equation. I have broke people off, I have been the crewmember not broke off watching the hike line break behind me, I have passed the person who broke, and I have been broke off. Everyone hates getting broke off. “Close the gap” haunts some fire fighters dreams. “Catch up on the flats” is belted out on a 45 degree slope to encourage those 5 feet behind the next guy hyperventilating. Its fucking awesome sometimes, and it’s the equivalent of mental nuclear warfare as well. But does it benefit us?
There are a multitude of ways you can be broke off. You can be broke and left behind not because of a physical deficiency but because your mind has decided that the mountain you’ve hiked 35 times pre season is instantaneously “too steep”. Or perhaps you have a 42 pound cubee on your shoulder and it’s an unknown hike through the desert on day 12. No one should get mad at that crewmember. Still sucks but not too bad. Then there is the guy who comes in sorely underprepared and by the time you get one switchback up the mountain they break. Don’t be that guy.
The Beginnings of the Break Off
The “pre hike jitters” are VERY REAL. They are experienced by everyone. From the student season rookie whose stomach is like the North Sea during a January storm, to the Supt truck who looks at the mountain and thinks “we’re doing this again?”. What are the pre hike jitters? They are the gut biome in your stomach and your subconscious each trying to communicate with you. The gut biome first… “Red alert, Red alert, this stupid son of a bitch is about to do something totally irrational again.” Alarms are sounding, resource supply chains are drastically being reallocated, and for some reason they shut the saliva off in your mouth. Then the double crossing Subconscious… “you better not break off, you’ll be the only one, you’ll get fired, you didn’t train enough".” Neither of these are necessarily beneficial to power slamming up a hill under stress.
As everyone stares up at the Mountain that you know you are about to get rammed up, suddenly you have to pee, or you start questioning why you are here. You start to believe your training wasn’t good enough or that you ate too much for lunch. You jump out of the truck without your bucket and you forget to lock a bin. Total performance disaster incoming.
“🚨Vrrrrt Vrrrrt🚨 Warning Warning”.
Your breath has quickened and you are just simply waiting in line for the swamper that forgot their Dolmar. You haven’t even budged yet. The line starts to creep forward. “Moving!”
After the first couple switch backs the initial small gap is forming ahead of you. “Ok, I’m not the first one.” Then the first pass happens just behind the saws. “Close the Gap” is heard from the squadie running as sweep. The Supt climbs over a log. Now you have a gap. Before long your mind tells you “just take a break, you are too far back, you can’t breath.”
But this is the learning and growth moment. That moment where you have the opportunity to act like Jim Morrison and “break on through to the other side”. Those that can mentally push through these times of self doubt will always come back stronger. Those that don’t will always bounce off the same wall of doubt only to fall back into comfortable settings. It is important to know where your “wall” is. It’s important to know how high or thick that wall is, and its imperative to self growth to know how much it takes to get through that wall. Someone can lead you to your wall, but only you can go through. Once you break through you have transcended doubt and are now on the journey to yes…, another wall in the distance.
The Types of Break Offs
It’s not just the hikes that can break someone off. I’ve seen individuals get wrecked swamping, in the gym, and even playing Ultimate Frisbee. There are also different reasons to “break someone off”. It can be to test their mental strength, their physical strength, or maybe they just want you to quit. A cold hard truth. These can all be done maliciously or achieved with care.
On one occasion a filler came over to the crew in a mutual cooperative agreement with another agency. The “fill” was to occupy an overhead position which made a few of the folks looking to inhabit that permanent position preeetty upset. He showed up arrogant, out of shape, and unwilling to play on the same team. So we organized an overhead PT session that wasn’t that bad. However, it would destroy anyone if they didn’t work out with us everyday. I’ll never forget when one of our leads busted out of the gym door… “I think we killed “fill”. The filler quickly learned three things.
I’m not fit for this type of environment.
Mountain Dew, Beany Weenies, and Pringles are a horrible diet for a Hotshot.
These folks are serious about who is on their team.
He didn’t last a full roll with us.
Another time we had a sawyer who was a stellar cutter but had crazy hiker’s anxiety. He could run a saw all day for a full roll nailing cut after cut but as soon as we got to the PT hike, he crumbled. He broke off always. This sawyer would beat himself up so badly that eventually I had to call him into my office for a chat. Some thought I was going to give him a pep talk or a “you can do it” talk but I knew him better than that. I knew he didn’t want a pep talk, I knew he didn’t need a pep talk.
So I told it to him direct… “if you break off on this next PT hike you’re off the saw. I’m sorry man but I need my saws with me when we hit the fireline.” He looked as if he would cry and simply replied, “copy that, I understand.” Then I called in his swamper. “We are going to get this SOB up that hill. You DO NOT pass him. GET HIM UP THE HILL.”
When we got to the PT hike all I did was slow my pace a 1\2 step. Still PT pace. However, the motivation to not lose his saw, keeping the mental destruction of getting passed at bay, and just barely a slower hike… he made it. The wild thing is it stuck. Once he got there with the crew he never broke again. The growth that can occur from blowing through mental barriers is immeasurable. I threw his saw over his wall and he went and got it.
One of my favorites is the “end of the hike mental break off.” It is a risky maneuver in some cases but it it a true test of mental fitness for a crew. You take them up the usual PT hike.
Keep reading with a 7-day free trial
Subscribe to The Hotshot Wake Up to keep reading this post and get 7 days of free access to the full post archives.