Op-ed: Climbing Rescue

I have a belay set off the anchor and am steadily bringing up my partner. My second is still out of sight when the sound of a rock cracking off somewhere high above snaps the air and a jagged boulder comes screaming past my shoulder. I hear an impact and the rope goes taught. I shout out asking if my partner is okay, but there is no answer that comes back over the howling wind. The rope runs over a ledge and around a small corner so I have no hope of being able visually assess the situation. It has also now started to rain.

With no movement on the rope for a period of time, and no response to my calling, all I know is that my partner has likely been hit by a rock and is maybe seriously injured enough that they aren’t responding, aren’t climbing, and possibly dead. I am four pitches up and there is no one else around.

What do I do?

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First Aid supplies are great, but knowing how to even get to the injured climber is probably more useful in the long run. 

Fortunately for me, and my imaginary probably-super-injured-or-dead partner, this is just a scenario given to us by the ACMG Guide teaching a Rock Rescue and Advanced Ropework course. Nobody is actually injured, there is no emergency, and we are in a very controlled environment. There is a cute dog nearby belonging to one of the other course members. One person is eating a box of smarties (me). Although it is POURING rain, that part was sadly real.

There is a group of 6 or 7 of us, all climbers with at least some multi-pitch experience. We’ve just spent most of the day reviewing the necessary component skills of how to go and get an incapacitated partner. Although I’ve been climbing for a long time and felt I more or less knew how to muddle my way through a rescue, I was surprised at how many new skills and techniques I picked up from our guide. Techniques and times change, and it was good to get myself up to speed.

While perhaps a somewhat dramatic “worst case scenario”, the situation outlined isn’t exactly a stretch of the imagination for anyone who multipitch climbs, especially trad and alpine in the Canadian Rockies. Yes our crumbly limestone builds a sense of pride for those of us who climb here, and we knowingly say to out-of-towners and from-aways that our rock builds character and will put hair on your chest (even for the women). Best of all if you find a hold you really like chances are it’ll just break off in your hand for you to take home and use on another climb later!

The conditions here in the Rockies also highlight the necessity for acquiring proper skills and training if you and your partner are heading out on some serious vertical adventures. The two basic skills to know would be retrieving a fallen/incapacitated leader, and assisting/retrieving an injured/incapacitated second. After taking a rock rescue course and seeing how involved a rescue becomes, I asked myself: how many of us actually have that training and would be able to quickly and efficiently employ those skills in an emergency situation?

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Having a few rescue items on your harness and knowing how to use them can greatly improve your ability to implement a rescue system.

Among my consistent little rogues gallery of climbing buddies rock rescue isn’t something we as a group practice. We don’t even really talk about rescue much beyond updates about the latest accident report and trying to figure out what those unfortunate souls did and how can we avoid making the same mistake. And don’t get the wrong impression, some of this crew get after some big impressive objectives, climbing remote north faces or well into the 5.13 range. I don’t climb at this level (but I have a great beard so that has to count for something) but I certainly get out enough to get myself into terrain where serious trouble could ensue. And despite many of my friends impressive physical capabilities moving vertically, I can’t say with confidence how many of them would be equipped to deal with the scenario given during the above rock rescue exercise.

With climbing becoming more and more popular, and more and more people making the leap from gym to crag and then from crag to multipitch, how many of the “average climber” contingent has any form of rescue training? I interact with lots of new climbers through a few outdoors groups I’m involved in, and my impression is that the majority of beginners feel that rock rescue, rope rescue, and emergency management skills are really only necessary for “advanced” or “extreme” climbers.

And maybe my impression is wrong. Just because I didn’t get more skilled and knowledgable about rescue until later in my climbing career doesn’t mean that it is that way with everyone. Maybe most people out there are getting trained up and learning the necessary skills of basic rock and rope rescue. I definitely hope that is the case, but if I had to guess from the number of bike helmet wearing hands free belayers I’ve seen at the crag this summer I’m thinking that sadly my impression is not far off.

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Beginner Climbing Outside 101: These are not the same thing.

Part of this may come from the fact that climbing accidents are tough to talk about and think about. Our climbing partners aren’t just nameless replaceable entities, they are our friends, wives, husbands and kids. It’s really hard to reconcile the thought that the activity we all love so much could result in tragedy. But climbing is not really like a lot of other sports, mostly in the way that if something goes wrong you run a very real risk of being seriously injured or killed, and that risk shouldn’t simply be ignored.

Another contributing factor might be (at least here in the Canadian Rockies) that we have some of the most skilled rescue helicopter pilots and rescue personnel in the industry available at the push of a button. Kananskis Public Safety posted on their facebook page that there has been a sizeable increase in the number of SPOT/InREACH/PLB calls for rescue this summer compared to last. The belief that a rescue chopper is never too far away is one that has become dangerously ingrained in people’s mindsets. Not only are there numerous scenarios that proper skill and ability could allow self rescue, but reliance only upon an electronic device as your safety net is a dangerous game to play. After all, what if you drop the SPOT?

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Radios, SPOTS or even a cell phone can provide a great way to contact the ground world… up until you drop them.

During the winter I mostly backcountry ski and without exception every single person I skiied with last year had taken at least AST1, if not AST2. The general impression I got from people was that they felt it would be extremely foolish to venture into the backcountry without taking at least some form of avalanche training. Can we say the same about climbing? And if not, why? Is it a generally accepted climbing community principle that knowing how to rescue your partner is a skill that you simply should not be without?

I’ve spent enough years in the mountains and taken enough wilderness first aid, avalanche safety, and rock rescue type courses to realize that 98% of not getting hurt outside is making smart choices and constantly reviewing your ongoing surroundings with a critical mind and eye. But shit happens. Rocks fall, ice breaks, people whip. If you can buy your partner a bit more time for the helicopter to get there by knowing how to get up to them to patch up a serious bleed, or get them down off a pitch to a ledge because they’ve broken both legs… common sense would seem to dictate that those are pretty mission critical skills to have.

Knowing just how badly something can go wrong and getting some proper rescue/first aid training and realizing just how hard it is to actually do anything of meaningful consequence when stuff hits the fan in the mountains can also help you make those smart decisions. Yes you’ve got a SPOT and a first aid kit, but do you have any idea how very little you can actually do for someone who just got smashed in the face with a boulder from three stories high? Or yes you think you could muddle your way through a rope rescue, but have you actually tried and seen for yourself how hard it is to emergency lower an incapacitated partner? Especially if they are heavier than you? My partner for the rescue course was only about 15 pounds heavier than me, but even that difference made it a surprising amount more work.

I’m not saying this to try to scare you, but I think alot of us are afraid to think or talk about climbing accidents and just how bad something could get, so we push it to the back of our minds and hope that optimism and positive thinking will mean that accidents don’t happen to us. But optimism is a damn poor lifejacket, and if you are more aware of what can happen and what tools you have to deal with evolving situations, you will make smarter decisions to avoid negative outcomes.

So while I’m not trying to scare you, I am trying to motivate you. Learn what can go wrong, learn what you can do about it, and then make good choices so you hopefully don’t have to use that knowledge. And if you have already taken rescue training, encourage your friends and new climbers to do the same.

At the very least maybe I’ll have a few more climbing partners who can rescue me when I biff it up majorly.

4 thoughts on “Op-ed: Climbing Rescue

  1. craig says:

    Good article. Took a rock rescue course 2 years ago,and feel pretty out of date already, not practicing those skills means you forget them fast. Going to get another next year for sure.

    About the bike helmet not being the same as a climbing helmet, other than a climbing helmet strap being able to release with upward pull (in case your head gets stuck in a chimeny) and doesn’t choke you to death. What are the differences?

    I’d rather have one of those newer POC bike helmets on my head for lower back of head protection in an upside down fall. Even the new Petlz sponge bob helmet (which I’ve got) and the BD vapour do a poor job compared to the POC of covering the back of the head.

    • Raf says:

      Good question re: biking vs climbing (vs ski) helmets. I honestly don’t know the answer, having never looking into the issue too deeply. I’ll send out some e-mails and follow-up on here.

    • Adam says:

      Hi Craig

      That is a really great question! I am aware of some fairly substantial differences between the type of bicycle helmet pictured here and a climbing helmet, but I have not researched the differences between one of the newer POC helmets and say a BD vapour. I am aware that the standardized testing and safety ratings are different to pass a cycling standard than a climbing standard. The tests for climbing involve things like puncture tests, repeat impacts, object impact deflection, whereas cycling has different standards for impact coverage, fall angle, etc.

      Here is a link to the US CPSC standards

      http://www.helmets.org/cpscpam.pdf

      I’ll do a follow up article however once I dig a little more into the research!

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