(Continued from previous post)
As I stepped out of the truck, the fresh morning light bounced off of cliff walls. It made me smile; it just did. I was 80% done with my course.
After the midnight finish the night before, I had grabbed a piece of paper and scribbled down all the new things I had already learned this week. In a short time I had a list of 35; I could double that list if I sat and thought long enough. This training has been like drinking from a fire hose.
Our first scenario Friday was to learn how to retrieve victims from low-angle slopes — maybe a talus slope at the base of a cliff, or a boulder field. These litter carries are considerably more dangerous than vertical missions for the rescuers because of the uneven terrain. Sprained ankles, tripping, dropping the litter… these happen with regularity. Our instructors now told us that we didn’t find Jimmy last night, but we found his 350-pound body — and now had to carry it down to the road in a litter.
We improvised a guiding line off of a couple of juniper trees and clipped our team to the litter rail. The ‘dead body’ was every last piece of rope, webbing, hardware, etc., that we had worked with all week, under a blue tarp. It was HEAVY. Litter-carries are sweaty, difficult, cardio-challenging work.
Once we completed that task, we corrected our written tests and had lunch. Two of our instructors slipped away during lunch, and at 1:00 one of them came running back in disguise as an ordinary person and agitatedly reported having seen a para-glider slam into the cliff face below our lunch site and hearing moaning from down below. He couldn’t see him, but he could hear him, and he definitely needed help.
Talk about being primed! At lunch time we had already designated an Incident Commander for whatever scenario was coming, and we had collectively decided to play to our personal strengths. We lesser-skilled folk were paired with more-skilled folk, and each team knew what to do and how to do it. Gear was hauled to the staging area. Personal items off to one side, tarp spread out for dumping the rescue gear, the leader shared her vision for where each line would be anchored, what the anticipated fall line would be for our ropes, and what our Plan B would be if the victim were found to be not directly below us.
We all sprang into action. This was the culmination of the previous 4.5 days of training, and our instructors just took up comfortable spots on the sandstone, pulled out their trail mix, and watched. One was taking notes about how long it took us, and the Safety Officer of course checked every anchor, knot and carabiner after the student S.O. had already done so. They had warned us that the ONLY time they would say or do anything on this mission is if we were doing something unsafe.
It took considerable self-restraint on their parts to keep their mouths closed when we were doing things the hard way instead of the easy way, because they have about 60 years of combined rescue work beneath their belts. There are, however, MANY ways to conduct a mission safely and effectively, and they were letting us do it our way.
We lowered a rescuer, Steve, down to locate Andrew, who was conveniently just below us 100 feet or so, and then hauled Steve back up with pulleys before sending the litter down. The team worked like a well-oiled machine. The long pulley lines on the 5:1 mechanical advantage system kept intertwining, but apart from that, everything went as anticipated.
We got Andrew out before 4 pm. I know that may sound like a long time, but rescues have to be done cautiously and methodically, with the safety of the rescuers coming before the patient’s needs. The last thing we want is for a rescuer to become a second victim.
As each of the four teams straggled back to base camp upon completing their missions, applause broke out. This was what we had signed up to learn — and learn we did. Certificates of completion were handed out and my dear teammates gave me extra applause and enthusiastic “Woot!”s as I received mine. They knew the struggles I went through, and they honored not my skills but my tenacity and determination.
[Continued in next post]