Ranger Kathryn's Arches

April 26, 2010

BTR: Battle won

More knots I've learned to tie: Radium Release Hitch (a load-releasing hitch to lengthen the line if needed) with long and short Tandem Prusiks

(Continued from previous post)

This was no ordinary battle; it was within myself, and between two opposing parts of me. Anyone who has ever entertained “I can” and “I can’t” at the same time knows what I’m talking about.

Let’s look at this improbable situation. You take a bunch of toned, intelligent, wilderness-skilled, rock-climbing, strong, motivated, mostly-young (mean age late 20s) park rangers from around the country and send them to Rescue School. Then you throw in a 53-year-old mom who has rappelled only a couple dozen times, has no upper body strength, has never packed a backpack, gets confused by physics and couldn’t tie any knots other than her shoes. An improbable scenario — but it was reality.

Crazy, I tell you! But, for some reason, everything in me resonated when I first read about this training back in January. I knew that I knew that I knew that I wanted to apply for this. My supervisor’s “You’ll never get in, but you can apply” didn’t deter me, and my lack of knot skills was just a (large) speed bump that I needed to navigate. I believe the real test was deep within. I had nothing to prove to anyone; I had only to validate my abilities to myself, and discover what well of strength I could draw on. Maybe folks who climb Mt Everest have the same motivations.

The week was a rigorous lesson in listening to my heart. The gutsy, fearless, can-do part of my heart was wanting the challenge; the realistic/reasonable part was screaming, “What were you THINKING?!?!” (“I can,” “I can’t…”) But there I was, no backing out, no discussion between Heart 1 and Heart 2 — just jump in and DO THE THING. My greatest difficulty was in resisting the temptation to compare myself with others, and that was the huge chasm into which I fell on Day 3.

I had to have The Talk with myself at that low point: “You are unique. Your worth and value do not depend on your abilities, success, intellect, wit, strength, or competency. You are you. Bring what you have to the table, and quit looking at everyone else’s proficiency.” That was a turning point. It was a lesson I clearly had to learn. I am quite certain I haven’t fully learned it yet, but this was a crucial opportunity. I have got to quit measuring my worth against others.

I will be pondering these things, and the many more that come up from this course, for some time.

Certificate of Completion

April 24, 2010

BTR Day 5: Success

Kathryn is on the belay line, pulling up slack

(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.

Looking for our injured victim

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.

My rescue team

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]

April 21, 2010

BTR, Day 3: Self doubt

(Continued from previous post)

It’s unusual for me, but tears were near the surface today.  The other eight participants in my group all seemed to be “getting it” way faster than I was, no matter how much I studied and practiced. Oh, there were components that I knew I was understanding, but I certainly lacked the ability to put it all together and SEE how rescue systems are created and what elements are needed.

Packaging the patient for the litter lower

Each evolution of a scenario has a new challenge introduced, or sometimes several. Today we added the litter, which is rigged with a haul system the likes of which I have never seen before. There are single lines and  multiple-strand-and-pulley lines going off of it — to the belay rope (litter attendant), main line (victim), metal frame of litter, bridle above litter… my brain has difficulty following it all. Each connection, remember, has to have redundancy in it so that if any one piece were to fail, the system would still function.

Then the instructors may come along and throw a knot into a rope that you are trying to pass through a pulley! Your job is to problem-solve, or (in my case) grab someone and ask them for ideas.

I have known for a long, long time that I am far more comfortable following directions than giving orders, and being rotated into the Incident Commander position scared the daylights out of me. Somehow I survived it, but the funniest comment of the day was in the middle of that agony when Mr Kindly Instructor pulled me to the side about ten yards and said, “Kathryn, you just need to RELAX. You are so stressed out! I feel like I should tell you what a mentor told me when I was training for Ski Patrol: ‘Before work, have a glass of wine and you’ll be fine.’ That was a non-government job, of course. But, seriously, you need to step back and begin looking at the Big Picture. Your job is to keep everything in view. Stay here with me and don’t walk back toward the action. You can see everything you need from here: your edge attendants and your main line. RELAX.” He smiled a smile that suggested that everything would be okay in the end.

Rigging a belay line and a main line -- groupthink

During a lull in the action I approached a compassionate instructor and, with a lump in my throat, asked, “I know I am on the remedial end in this group, and I wonder if you can tell me whether the objectives are the same for me as for the more skillful students?” He assured me that this was a BASIC technical rescue course, just an intro, and I would not be expected to perform to the same standards as those who came in with more rope and rescue experience. As long as I am learning, and finding out what I can and can’t do, and I know the difference… I’ll be okay. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, but it still is painful to be a slow learner

Winds were blowing at at least 35 mph today and gusts were far greater, probably nearing 50 mph on our exposed cliff. My housemate had lent me her waterproof shell, fortunately; we were pelted at various times by huge raindrops, blasts of sand, and small hailstones being flung sideways. Not until the lightning appeared at 4 pm did they call the exercises, however, and get us off the cliff as quickly as possible.

Tomorrow: NIGHT OPERATIONS with headlamps. If I think it’s challenging in broad daylight, I hardly want to consider what it will be like in the dark and wet and quite cold conditions. Best if I don’t think too much about that and just take every layer I own.

General Douglas MacArthur said, “Age wrinkles the body. Quitting wrinkles the soul.” I have 40 pages to review in my manual before getting back out there tomorrow.

(Continued in next post)

April 16, 2010


Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 8:03 am
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one of my figure eights

In 72 hours I will be en route to Canyonlands NP for the first day of Basic Technical Rescue. While I know that I can handle five days of intensive training (I feel physically ready and mentally ‘on my game’), there is a large degree of trepidation here. It’s normal, but it’s unsettling. I am playing the comparison game — measuring myself against the other participants, and wondering what the heck I am doing among them. Law Enforcement, Search & Rescue, those types — people who have been climbing for years.

My housemate Lauren and I went top-roping last night, just because it was a perfect opportunity to get out of town a few miles and tackle two climbing routes along the Colorado River. [Top-roping: Lauren hikes to top of cliff, secures rope, rappels down, and then we take turns climbing the rock face while belaying each other. Fun, quick, convenient climbing.] As I clumsily attached the rope to my harness I realized that I will be the least experienced climber on the training, having climbed only last fall for a couple of months. That makes my learning curve far steeper than that of other trainees. But, on the positive side, as soon as my feet got on the rock, it just felt RIGHT. It’s a good place to be. Judging from my previous post, there is a strong connection/attraction to rocks.

Still: I’m nervous.

March 12, 2010

Basic Technical Rescue, Part 1: The Announcement

Filed under: 1 — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:33 pm
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Boss Nancy walked out to the visitor desk where I was working, although no visitors were around. She stared at me in disbelief. “You got into that course,” she sputtered. “The course I told you you’d never get into. You were selected.”

It took a second or two for me to realize what she was talking about: Basic Technical Rescue, an intensive five-day outdoor course taught entirely on cliffs. (It teaches rope rescue techniques for those in wilderness or climbing or river-rafting or other situations with an injured or ill person.) It’s an annual course taught by NPS personnel for only 40 selected participants from all over the park system in our country.

I was so elated I looked for somewhere to do a middle-aged cartwheel. This is SUCH a dream of mine. And my boss had told me that I would have no chance, competing against full-time permanent NPS employees who are hired with rescue in mind. “That course has a waiting list every year,” she said while shaking her head. “I still don’t know what happened.”

This grin on my face accompanies me all day…

click to enlarge first paragraph of announcement letter

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