Category Archives: Life Stories

We the People: Rescue on July 4th

RMRU Rescue July 3
Lee, Helene, Chris and Victoria (subjects at center), Les and Donny

SAR On Call

It’s the evening before 4th of July.

We’re down the mountain in Hemet to grab some goodies for the girl scouts to throw at the parade and pick up the RMRU team truck and litters. Our energized litter races are always a big hit with the hometown crowd. Lee grabs a big bag of brightly colored candies out of a deep bin and tosses it into the cart.

As we start walking down the aisle, both of our phones chime with a new text. It’s 7:43 pm. “We have a search. 2 lost hikers. Respond to the tram.”

Dang… We don’t have our gear with us.

I look at Lee. Should we drop everything and drive to Idyllwild? Grab our gear and beeline to the tram around the other side of the mountain?

There’ll be no way to make it in time before the tram closes. Also, they’ll need the team truck for the rescue. No chance for us to pick it up for the parade. Most of the people responding are those who would be in the parade. A high country search? They’ll be way too beat for anything tomorrow.

Lee tosses the giant bag of candy reluctantly back in the bin. There will be more parades, but we always look forward to the Fourth in Idyllwild.

Getting in on the Action

On our way out of the parking lot Lee calls the rescue line for more info. Gwenda the Call Captain says the subjects departed from the tram side of the mountain, but during the brief, garbled cell phone contact they described traversing Willow Creek trail. If they are correct (subjects often aren’t: since they are already lost it’s generally not wise to trust their sense of direction) that would put them on our side of the mountain.

That changes things. If they’re on our side of the mountain we may be able to make it in on the search after all!

We quickly finish off our last errands in Hemet and follow the winding road back up the mountain, pack our gear and jet towards Humber Park. Seconds before we go out of cell service a text with gps coordinates comes through. They place the couple far from their last known location. Now they appear to be somewhere along the PCT, a section we refer to as Angels Glide, heading up from Saddle Junction towards Wellman’s Divide and the State Park above.

This places them solidly on our side of the mountain, but we have to be careful with this information. Coordinates are sometimes just plain wrong. We’ve even experienced them placing a subject on the opposite side of the mountain miles away from their actual location.

On Trail: Get it in Gear

It’s been dark for a couple hours by the time we hit Humber. We act efficiently, but don’t just rush off down the trail. When you’re in a rush you often forget something critical that could bite you later. Lee and I cross check that we have the correct gear for the mission before heading out. Sleeping bags for a potential overnight, extra food for us and the subjects, extra water, extra clothing for us and the subjects, 3 headlamps each, first aid basics, plus all the other small and large essentials. Check.

10:40 pm. Time to go. I swing on my pack and turn towards the trailhead. Our headlamps create swinging shadows as we steam up the familiar trail. As locals, we hike this trail for fun and training enough to have every switchback engraved in our memory. The full moon above silhouettes Tahquitz rock towering behind us and illuminates the face of Suicide Rock in front. It’s relatively warm in the mid 50’s (if you’re hiking that is), with a slight breeze- a good night for a hike.

We make good time up the mountain. The solid crunch crunch of Lee’s footsteps in front of me is my only timekeeper. A short way after Middle Spring we swing off the trail to an outcropping of rocks to call up into the dark ravines. Deep breath… and “1….2…3… HELLO!”

I listen to the sound of our voices bouncing through the canyons. The mountains call back their echoes for a long time, but there’s no response from the subjects. We call another two times. With no response on the third call, it’s time to shoulder our packs again and head up the trail.

Voice Contact!

We come up on the 3/4 point at the “Soil is fragile, please stay on trail” sign and stop. We catch our breath and call out again. And again. On the third call I think I hear something, but I can’t be certain. Either way we’ll have to continue up to the Junction to get access to the high country.

Minutes pass as we silently push our way up the trail. Out of nowhere I get an odd feeling and stop midstep. Lee holds up right behind me. “I think I heard something”. We listen for a few seconds and I do hear something: a yell from far away, carried by the wind over the ridge line. “If that’s them, they are on Angel’s glide, they’ve gotta be!” We call out in sync: “1..2…3… HELLO!”

A faint, but clear response echoes back in between the rustles of pine needles in the wind. “Helloooo….”

I grin broadly at Lee and he smiles and nods in response. With renewed energy we start up the trail. We hit Saddle Junction in record time and call out again. The response is encouragingly a little louder, a little clearer this time.

“That’s them, it’s got to be.” I say again. “No one is that persistent in yelling back this late at night unless they have a real good reason”. We yell again, identifying ourselves “Search and Rescue!” and giving instructions: “Stay put!”. After dealing with a couple of belligerent yells from a camper we have woken, Lee contacts Base and lets them know that we have voice contact with the subjects.

Rob May at Base relays our find to the other teams and gives us an update on their progress and location. Carlos Carter, Lew Kingman and Ralph Hoetger barely missed the tram and are waiting at the base with the rescue truck. Pete Carlson and Mark Houston have cleared miles of the upper park trails from Long Valley to Wellman’s divide. Donny Goetz and Les Walker have been blazing along the trail and have already swept Hidden Divide to Willow Creek. They now are headed our way.

It’s agreed that we will proceed to the subjects, with Donny and Les following as back up. Pete and Mark will stay put at Wellman’s Divide until we’re certain we have a handle on the situation.

Contact

As we hike up the Glide we stop and call out every few minutes, partly to confirm their position, but mostly to encourage them as they hear our voices getting closer. Finally, near the top of the Glide a very happy shout of: ” We see your lights!” says we’ve arrived.

We introduce ourselves and shake hands. I confirm they have no injuries. Their main issue is being cold. We may be toasty from our hike, but they are wearing only shorts and tshirts at night in the mountains. That can be dangerous in any season. Lee and I quickly break open our packs and pass out armfuls of warm clothing like candy. We hand out our extra stores of food and water. They tear into the snack bars and nuts as if they were Manna sent from heaven.

Subject's Roundabout Route, RMRU Search and Rescue July 3rd,
Subject's Roundabout Route, RMRU Search and Rescue July 3rd,

Chris confirms what Lee predicted. The missed turnoff in the State Park shunted them down Hidden Lake Divide and into the Forest Service Wilderness above Idyllwild. Their quick day hike turned into an extended journey. Despite being smart and nice people, they weren’t prepared with the necessary essentials to keep them on track and safe for an unplanned marathon hike.

Our new friends are understandably eager to get on trail, so we get moving. We run into Donny and Les back near the Junction. After a warm greeting for our teammates, we make some quick introductions and head back down the trail to Humber Park. It’s a long, dusty hike that always seems longer on the way down.

Still aglow from the buzz of a successful rescue, the team reaches a consensus- the parade is still on! Rescue or not- we agree we wouldn’t miss the litter races up and down North Circle Drive for anything!

Finally, around 2:40 am, we see the lights of the sheriff’s car shining in the distance through the dust of the trail and silhouettes of trees. Beat, but happy, it’s time to head home. Donny and Les pile in with us for a drop off at their homes. They’ll pick up their cars at the tram tomorrow afternoon. My eyes droop a bit now that the adrenaline has worn off. If I hurry to bed, I might be able to snag a couple of hours sleep before the parade.

RMRU 4th of July team picture
RMRU 4th of July team picture

RMRU members present on mission: Lee Arnson, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Donny Goetz, Rob May, Ralph Hoetger, Mark Houston, Lew Kingman, Helene Lohr and Les Walker.

A Rocking Good Time

RMRU Technical Rock Training, 05.05.2012

“Make sure to bring your rescue gear”. Lee says on the phone Friday night. I’ve called him to ask if I can borrow his ascenders for the team training tomorrow. “Really? You think I’ll need it?” Famous last words…

Saturday, 7:30 am. My wheels kick up gravel along the gritty dirt road deep in Joshua Tree’s Indian Cove campground. The sun rises behind me, painting the faces of the rock a golden red, promising a warm day ahead. Dust follows my 4Runner up the road towards our team campsites. The familiar RMRU Rescue Trucks and a scattering of orange shirts says I’ve arrived.

A few team members are already working on personal skills high up on the steep rock walls surrounding the campsites. More cars pull in. We exchange warm welcomes and start gathering our team technical rock gear for training.

Pete Carlson gives a brief training overview. “Today we’ll be working on secure anchor setting, setting up pulley systems, controlled litter raises and lowers. These skills will help you do your job and save the lives of our subjects and teammates. Stay on task, work hard with your team and enjoy yourself!”

Technical Rock Training: Anchors

We break off into groups. Donny peels off to the southwest with those who want to practice setting anchors. Pete collects the more advanced technical crew to dive immediately into setting up raises and lowers for our litter system off of a steep rock wall to the southeast.

Donny reviews the use of cams, hexes and nuts. How do you evaluate the rock for the most secure placement? He runs us through different scenarios, covering the possible pros and cons. Place the anchor in a crack that flares outwards towards the direction of pull and the piece will be at risk of walking and yanking free. A crack with parallel, or better yet, walls that come together along the direction of pull will yield a bomber hold.

We learn to check the quality of the rock, watching for potential crumbling or flaking. Rock crystals that break off or flaking sections can allow the anchor to shift and put you at serious risk of the piece failing. The strength and angle of placement are critical. Even though anchors have flexible stems, their angle to the fall line (the angle at which you are placing the most weight/force) is important. If you place the piece too far off angle the torque can cause the piece to rotate, ‘walk’, and potentially pop out of position. Just in case you were wondering, this is not good.

Donny shows us how to assess placement of multiple cams in order to maximize the strength of the system. Once again the angle is key. A wide angle running from the anchors to their point of attachment weakens the entire system. Donny explains how lengthening the runners along the fall line can create a tighter angle and also help equalize the load for a stronger system. When we are low on runners, placing the cams closer together can yield the same effect.

I listen intently. Not only our own lives, but those of my teammates and subjects will be at risk if I get this wrong later. The weight of several rescuers, their heavy team gear, full rescue backpacks, a sturdy stokes litter and a subject will all hang from our placement of these pieces.

We split up to practice, with Donny coming over to critique our anchor placements and test their strength.

Nearly a Rescue

The call comes in around 9:30 am. Team President Rob May comes over to let us know. “Collect your gear and clear out. We’ve got a rescue! Meet at the base of the tram. No other details yet”. Glenn and Gwenda head out first to see if they can get more info, while the rest of the team packs up the technical gear and sorts it into the truck.

Dang it, Lee was right! A call can come at any time. I start mentally berating myself for bringing everything but my winter gear. It may be warm down in the desert, but if this turns into a mission in the high country I very well may need the crampons and ice axe still nestled deep in my gear closet at home. Dang! One more lesson learned.

The team peels off one by one into an informal caravan heading towards Mt. San Jacinto. I fall into line behind Paul Caraher and Matt Jordan on the highway. Traffic that was tolerable this morning now seems to creep as we cruise along behind cars forming a slow moving roadblock. Midway through the drive a cell phone chain carries the news to the team- the mission base has changed to Whitewater.

Aviation to the Rescue!

Just a few minutes after we pull into base we get the news. Aviation has scooped up the “disoriented PCT hiker” from high on Fuller Ridge and is already en route to our location. Bewildered grins are passed around: 20+ rescuers and no rescue!

We hear the “thup thup” of the copter within minutes. Star 9 sets down a few hundred feet away. As Tony and Juvien from Aviation escort the subject to the waiting rescue crew, I can’t help but notice that the he doesn’t seem well prepared. He is wearing a dusty cotton Tshirt and cotton pants. His backpack is old and from a distance doesn’t appear to have a sturdy waist strap to properly distribute the load. An old Walmart style sleeping bag and mattress are rolled up together on top to form a bedroll.

I don’t get a chance to talk to the subject, but it’s pretty likely he didn’t have the necessary gear for the mountain. Mt San Jacinto is the first serious non-desert challenge along the route of the PCT. A lot of thru-hikers gravely underestimate the conditions. We’ve already had a rash of heads-ups and rescues due to ill prepared PCTers this season.

Pic- caption- personal Rock Skills- Donny Goetz and Alan Lovegreen form a 2 man anchor to belay Les Walker down a 100 ft rock face.

Back to Business

The “nearly a rescue” has eaten hours of our time. When we get back to JTree our prime location for training has been taken by eager rock climbers. After some time for lunch and personal skills Pete and Donny scout out a new location for litter raises and lowers. The rock at the new location is more complicated, but we take on the challenge and start setting up our anchors to get into litter raises and lowers.

The DG (decomposing granite) rock makes setting anchors challenging. Obvious cracks end up being too unstable to rely on. Despite the crumbling cracks we manage to securely place a selection of cams and hexes. We tie in our red and blue runners and equalize them, distributing the weight leading toward the fall line where we will tie in the litter.

Litter Attendant

I volunteer as the first Litter Attendant. With experienced guidance from the senior members I clip into the litter in the middle and guide it down the face of the rock, using the weight of my body and leg strength to guide it over the uneven rocks. The litter must be held as level as possible in order to not endanger the subject.

The Litter Attendant not only guides the litter, but must keep constant tabs on the condition of the subject. If they are in shock it’s important to keep the head tilted slightly down to increase blood flow to the brain. If we suspect a traumatic brain injury we tilt the litter slightly up to reduce swelling and hopefully buy them some more time before brain damage results from the pressure.

I call out the orders loudly, “down slow…” Holding the litter with both arms I lean back with my full weight and let the strength of my legs, the tension of the rope and the team above do most of the heavy lifting. We hit a tricky spot along the route that threatens to throw the litter off kilter. “Stop!” I look back over my shoulder, decide to head for the rocks to my left and readjust my grip. Chad relays the orders to the rope team at the top. Good communication is key. Down we go.

Guiding the litter back up is challenging and great practice for a real fife scenario. With Kelly securely strapped in I use the Prussik knots to adjust the angle of the litter and keep her level as we ascend the uneven rock faces. I reach up and pull my line to the litter, lengthening it in order to give my legs more purchase as we head back up. “Up, slow!”

At the top I unhook and climb into the recently vacated litter as Matt Jordan takes the lead as Litter Attendant. Mike George and Frank Snider follow us up, while the rest of the team take turns running the rope system and trying out some of our expensive new team gear.

Job Well Done

By the end of the day we are all hot, dusty and in need of a comfy camp chair and a cold beverage. The moon rises to the east as we eat, relax and stare into the campfire. It’s time for stories, laughter and pranks on those who go to bed early. Definitely a day well spent, despite the snag of the “nearly a rescue” incident of the morning.

Rescue Me: What Really Matters

“Great things are done when men & mountains meet.” William Blake

In between my work as a nutritionist and wilderness instructor I make time for my true love- being a member of RMRU- a highly respected Search and Rescue team that covers the rugged mountain areas of Riverside County surrounding Mt. San Jacinto in Southern California.

What follows is a write up of our latest mission. This kind of experience really helps put your everyday worries into perspective. Nothing like a confrontation with mortality to remind you of what is important in life.

RMRU rescue in Chinquapin Bowl
Upper part of the Rescue Route, photo taken previous summer.

Sunday April 1, 2012

5:47 pm. I had just gotten down from a 7 mile trail run when the call-out came. The text was brief: “We have a rescue. Snow and ice. Call the rescue line.” I jumped up off the couch, pressing the phone to my ear and bee-lining it towards my gear closet.

The message on the Rescue line from Gwenda says we have a 17 year old boy stuck up in the Chinquapin bowl area below Tahquitz peak. He’s uninjured, but not able to safely move from his position. He managed to get a call out to 911 despite the sketchy cell signal in that area. I get a shiver down my spine. The bowl is an extremely steep dropoff on the northeast face of the peak- this time of year it’ll be covered in a nasty sheet of ice. I state my availability after the beep: “This is Helene. I’ll be there in 30.”

I sift through my gear closet, adding items to my basic grab-n-go pack. Ice axe, cramp-ons, gaiters, heavy down jacket and my warmest sleeping bag in case we need to bivy overnight. It had been a warm day down in town- almost 60 degrees, but the sun is already setting- it’ll be a different story up in the high country. An extra jacket, 3 headlamps with extra batteries, another pair of micro-spikes, extra food and water just in case. You never know exactly what conditions you’ll be getting into, and it’s usually a safe bet that the subject won’t have been prepared for this sort of worse case scenario.

RMRU rescue Chinquapin Bowl
Chinquapin Bowl from below

I swing on my winter pack and head out the door. Mission Base is at the Humber Park parking lot at the foot of Tahquitz Rock. Looking up far above, I can see the sheer slope that we’ll be traversing to reach the subject. This would be a lot faster and easier if we could be dropped in the high country, but the only copter currently available is CHP and they don’t fly at night. That means we’ll just have to hoof it. It’ll take us a few hours in these conditions to make it up there. Hopefully the subject doesn’t get brave in the meantime and try to move.

Lee Arnson, Les Walker and I are the first on scene. More rescuers are en route- we can always use the people. Paul Caraher is bringing the team truck up with all the gear that may be needed if this rescue escalates. We form our plan of attack. Les will stay on scene and run base until Paul gets here to take over. Lee and I will head up Devil’s Slide, while other rescuers will be shunted up the trail as needed behind us or towards the South Ridge Trail in case the subject manages to cross the ice field and head down.

Lee and I swing on the full weight of our winter packs and start up the trail. A few minutes later Will Carlson lopes up the trail behind us. After a warm welcome we’re off again at a quick clip.

The conditions don’t really get challenging until we reach the Saddle. As we come into the junction the wind kicks increasingly strong gusts our way. What has been patchy snow coverage turns into a continuous sheet of ice and hardened snow. If the subject is stuck long in this sort of wind on a fully exposed slope he runs a high risk of hypothermia. Getting him out will be difficult enough without this added complication. I glance at my thermometer- it’s already down to 18 degrees… and with the wind chill… We bear a sharp right up the PCT towards Chinquapin with a renewed fervor.

Crampons on an ice feld
Crampons on an ice field

We cut cross-country across the slopes above the buried trail to save time. The snow is really just crunchy ice from continuous freeze/melt cycles. We walk on top of the sheet of ice, not sinking in at all. We’re essentially walking on a slanted skating rink, in the dark, on a windy night. I swing my ice axe off my pack and into my uphill hand where it can do some good. Our crampon spikes bite into the edge of the mountain and keep us from sliding. The slope here ranges from only 20 to 35 degrees but it’s already taking concentration to place each step correctly.

About 2 hours in we reach the first overlook into the bowl. The wind comes up howling over the lip and buffets us. We wait for our chance – when it dies down we yell out over the edge “Hello! ……Hello!” No answer. We shout again. And again. No answer. Will says: “He should have heard that if he’s there.” Lee gives me a raised eyebrow and I answer with my own worried look. “Maybe he made it out the South Ridge Side” I say with a doubtful tone.

We duck back to the other side of the ridge lip and continue our trek to the far side of the bowl. Reaching the flat area around the saddle above the bowl we stop and look for tracks. Bingo! Fresh snowshoe tracks heading off alone. “Base, Team one…” Lee gets radio confirmation from base that the subject had MSR snowshoes. We follow the tracks across an increasingly steep slope, alternately yelling the subject’s name.

Voice Contact

After about 20 minutes Will gets voice contact and we carefully make our way towards the sound. Along the way we gather up a pair of trekking poles caught splayed out in the tips of some brush. “This must be where he slipped.”

The slope has increased to about 45 degrees, some particularly nasty sections even ranging towards 60 degrees. I take extreme care with every step, making sure to plant my axe securely before I move each foot forward. Even with the weight of the winter pack I don’t have enough mass to really bite into the ice, so I have to put extra downward punch in every step to make sure it’s secure. I’m definitely feeling my trail run earlier in the day. Maybe I shouldn’t have pushed it so hard…

Setting up a belay on an ice encrusted tree
Setting up a belay on an ice encrusted tree

Lee and Will pick their way over 100 feet downslope to the subject. He is lodged in the well of the tree that stopped his slide and saved his life. They check his status- amazingly he’s uninjured and is still awake and alert, but very cold. They outfit him with a down jacket, crampons, my extra headlamp, and one of our back-up harnesses, while I wait above securing the belay we’ve rigged. I notice that the tree I’m nestled against is encased in an inch thick sheet of ice. The thermometer reads 13 degrees, the wind chill bringing it down below 0. In a matter of minutes Lee and Will tie the subject in to the line and get him moving upslope as I take out slack.

We radio in to let base know we have the subject and that he’s in good condition. Due to the conditions the call is made to not crowd the slope with too many rescuers. We have enough people to set up and run belay and monitor the subject’s wellbeing. Pete Carlson, and Alan Lovegreen (Team two) have hiked up to the saddle behind us. Carlos Carter and Les Walker (Team Three) are approaching on South Ridge Trail. Base calls them back. Despite their cool heads and experience, on this steep windy slope more rescuers would not necessarily be better.

The wind is increasing, with sudden howling gusts interrupted by unpredictable bouts of silence making it even more difficult to keep our footing. One very strong and abrupt gust actually lifts me up and knocks me off my feet. I feel a rush of adrenaline as my training kicks in and I managed to arrest my fall before it even starts. I stare down the slope and imagine sliding uncontrollably down the several thousand feet to the bottom of the bowl.

Up and Out

The decision is made to head up towards the ridgeline instead of traversing an increasingly steep slope in dangerous wind conditions. If we can get up there it’s a straight, if rocky, shot to the Forest Service Fire Lookout Tower. The only problem will be finding a way in. This time of year the Lookout is still locked down tighter than San Quentin.

On the third try I manage to make a cell call out to my friend Lookout Coordinator Bob Romano and get the combo to the tower. He wishes us safety and luck. I tell him that we appreciate the help- getting the subject (and us) warm and out of the wind will likely be critical to keeping us all safe.

RMRU member Lee Arnson carrying Rope at 3am
Lee carrying rope at 3am

We slowly coax the subject up the incline along a series of belays. He’s understandably scared and nervous after his experience, but we can’t afford to move too slowly. In these conditions succumbing to the cold is a looming risk for the whole team if we don’t keep moving and get out of the wind soon. I’m already shivering off and on and I can see that the guys are working through the cold as well. In order to set up the belays quickly they have to take their gloves off, instantly leaching the heat from their hands and putting them at greater risk the longer we spend on the slope.

We crest the edge of the Tahquitz ridge and the wind abruptly dies. Now that I’m reasonably sure of my own safety I turn my attention to checking more thoroughly on the subject’s wellbeing. He’s still shivering, but that’s a relatively good sign. It means that although he’s cold, his body still has enough energy to try and produce much needed heat. I engage him in conversation to both encourage him and make sure he is still alert.

He relates that, expecting only a day hike, he only brought a small daypack with minimal food and water. This sets off alarm bells in my head. In extreme conditions the body needs both the calories from food and enough water to adequately maintain body temperature. If a person is low on energy and dehydrated they run a much higher risk of hypothermia. I break out my extra provisions and make sure he eats. Lee melts a Nalgene worth of snow and we watch him drink. After a few minutes he noticeably peps up.

Will has gone on ahead to explore our route along the ridgeline. He comes back with good news- only about a half an hour more to a flat section and then it’ll be the “simple” grind of making our way to the tower. The guys take over the subject and I head out to open up the tower and get it ready.

Exhausted subject in bed at Tahquitz Fire Lookout
Exhausted subject in bed at Tahquitz Fire Lookout

Safe and Sound

It’s about 4 in the morning when the whole group finally meets up at the tower. We give the subject the narrow bed and slide him into one of the extra sleeping bags. We all share a few snack bars and some water and settle down onto the floor for a couple hours rest. Being out of the wind and relatively warm is an amazing feeling after this long night.

After a wake-up serenade from the radio at 6am (thanks Paul!) we pack up our gear and hit the trail. The wind had blessedly died down around dawn. The South Ridge trail, with its’ southern exposure is refreshingly clear of snow and the going is easy. My legs are stiff from overuse and it takes a while to really get into a rhythm, but the siren song of scrambled eggs and bacon is calling us all and we make short work of it.

Helene and the Mountain Shadow
Morning View from the lookout: Me and the Mountain Shadow

Pete Carlson and Les Walker are waiting on us at the trailhead- I can’t say I’ve ever been more happy to see them- especially since they were there to drive us out. We brought the boy back to his grateful mother up at base. Then headed out to a much deserved breakfast.

What Really Matters

Looking back over the night I remember the feeling of being in the moment; of not caring about all the worries that I often allow to consume my day. All that mattered was doing what was needed to preserve my life and that of my team. Although it can be challenging, an experience like this helps clarify a lot of things. When you strip everything away you come down to a basic appreciation of life and an understanding of what it means to truly cherish those you care for.

My RMRU team members are the best. From working with Will and Lee in the worst conditions on the mountain, to the support from the backup teams (Carlos, Alan, Les and Pete) ready to spring into action, to the guidance and information from Paul at base I wouldn’t want any other team of mountaineers, any other family, at my back.

RMRU members involved:

Lee Arnson, Will Carlson, Helene Lohr, Les Walker, Pete Carlson, Carlos Carter, Alan Lovegreen, and Paul Caraher

Staying on Track: SAR Tracking Training

Fernando and Rob at the RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training
Fernando and Rob at the RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training

Getting on Track

It’s Saturday morning. Pulling into the dirt upper parking lot at Simpson Park I swerve around the large puddle left from the rain the night before. It’s time again for our yearly tracking training.

Just this winter we had a frustrating search in the rugged terrain at the back of the expansive park. Dogs and helicopters combed the area to no avail. A “ground-pounding” by our foot searchers yielded results only after a long and exhausting night.

Now, in an odd coincidence, we’re returning to the scene to learn skills that might help us find the subject faster on future missions. For the next 2 days Fernando Moreira, a highly respected tracking expert, will be giving us in-depth Search and Rescue Tracking Training.

RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Simpson Park
RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Typical Simpson Park Terrain

 

Getting Started

It’s a cloudy day, the sun showing through only intermittently. Fernando takes this opportunity to show us how varying light conditions can affect the visibility of the tracks. With direct early morning sun at a low angle, the tracks he has laid for us stand out in sharp relief. But as a cloud covers the sun the contrast fades. The print disappears into the ground. The effect would be the same around noon with the overhead sun obliterating contrast. Fernando explains that we can counter this by shading the area and shining a flashlight at a low angle to create shadows and reveal the prints.

RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Tracking Exercises
RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Tracking Exercises

The class dives immediately into practical experience for the SAR tracker. How do you estimate the height and weight of a person from their shoe size? Predict the path of their travel? Where their foot will fall next? How can you tell the age of the tracks? How can you measure and use knowledge of their stride length to your advantage?

The location is perfect for our purposes. To put it plainly- it’s confusing. Simpson Park is a popular mountain biking, running and dog-walking destination. With so many tracks and current activity in the vicinity it can be vital to have several tools that help you to distinguish the track of your subject. Quite often you wont get a clear print- only a series of scuffs. How can you tell if this is your man? Knowledge of their usual stride length (measured from prints at their last known location) can help you rule out many prints and keep on track.

Focus on the Details: Micro-Tracking

Those who have gone through the class the year before are enlisted to help guide the new trackers in the basics of Micro-tracking. The slightest of clues; the transfer of grains of wet dirt up onto vegetation, a broken leaf, and pebbles shifted slightly forward from their positions are the language of Micro-tracking. We line up across a vaguely level hillside about half the length of a football field. Tracking sticks in hand (trekking poles with a set of adjustable rubber bands to mark print and stride length) we kneel down to read our first tracks of the day.

RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Micro Tracking
Micro-Tracking: Using a flashlight at an angle can reveal hidden details

The ground is already covered in tracks from daily usage of the park, but after a few pointers from Fernando and his aides the subject’s prints start to announce themselves. As my eyes warm up I see the telltale slight depressions, transfers, and subtle shifting forward of pebbles that signal that we’ve discovered the next step.

The next couple days are full with practical exercises and live scenarios designed to help us find our subjects more quickly and efficiently. We learn leapfrogging or ‘cutting ahead’ in boxes and half moon patterns to speed up the process of tracking. We learn to look for natural “Track Traps” along the path of travel. Tracking at night had once seemed impossible, but if you angle the light just so the patterns of slight depression in the ground can become a path pointing directly towards the subject.

Fernando discusses how to most efficiently set up and work tracking teams. We learn to read the story that tracks are telling us- did the subject shift their weight to one side to look back? Throw something? Trip and land heavily? “The tracks don’t lie”, he states.

RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Tracking Exercises
RMRU Search and Rescue Tracking Training: Tracking Exercises

Live Scenarios

Several live scenarios are staged to test our growing tracking skills in the field. The team responds successfully to a search for a missing hiker. Another person is “lost” and we learn to track from a central location such as a car, determining a Direction of Travel. We measure the prints leading out from the car, mark the stride length on our tracking sticks and move out in a spiral pattern, careful to not destroy any prints we encounter.

In our final live scenario slight scuffs on the ground, dirt transfer, drag marks and a broken quail egg under leaf cover lead our team to the ‘body’, an orange team shirt. We return proudly bearing our prize and a newfound confidence in our own practical tracking skills.

After a weekend of practice with Fernando, what before had seemed a series of hints in the dirt transformed itself into a clear trail pointing to our subject. After this weekend I’ve come away with an entirely new respect for the value of tracking in Search and Rescue. We’ve added a valuable new skill to our arsenal as a team, one that we can use on missions to come.

RMRU Members at Training: Glenn Henderson, Gwenda Yates, Carlos Carter, Helene Lohr, Craig Wills, Rob May, Nick Nixon, Mike Herman, Roger May, Michael George, Matt Jordan, Alan Lovegreen, Paul Caraher, Joe Erickson, Lew Kingman, Pete Carlson.

 

Alien Invaders

20120620-213518.jpg

It started with a sprout. A very healthy sprout. It shot up alongside the garden gate, growing what seemed like inches each day. Its waxy yellow-green oval leaves seemed impossibly lush in the heat of our summer climate, where all around it the dried out husks of foxtail grasses and scrub brush rustled aridly in the wind. It crowded out anthing else that dared grow in the vicinity. It was so healthy, so just plain vigorous, that I decided to let our little prodigy grow- in the hopes of finding out what it could be…

And it grew and grew and GREW… I’d never seen anything like it. It seemed like a plant possessed, a real go-getter, if you will. From a small (if energetic) sprout in the early summer, it grew into something much more like a tree by the beginning of fall, towering over the gate and providing an area of unexpected shade and relief from the sun. I bought a bench and placed it underneath, creating a reading area in the new island of cool. Along its long graceful branches blossomed hundreds of small cheery yellow, trumpet-like flowers . If I sat still under it long enough I was surrounded by a stream of hummingbirds, chirping and darting in to take advantage of the flowers.

I was surprised by my (not so little) over-achiever and more than a little mystified. Where did this plant of herculean vigor come from? What leant it the almost bionic skill, the ability to be “better, faster, stronger” than the other plants surrounding it? A fruitless search on the internet was cut short by a discovery outside the realms of “da interwebs”. During a field trip for a Natural Resources class I was taking, the identity of our mystery plant was revealed, and the unveiling wasn’t entirely a pleasant one. Our little guest was technically more of an invader- Nicotiana glauca, otherwise known as tree tobacco. A native to Bolivia and Argentina, this aggressive plant had little to no competition in the area and easily towered over the local shrubs.

According to invasive.org and several other websites, “ Wild tobacco is a highly invasive opportunistic weed, and easily out-competes natural vegetation in regrowth or disturbed areas. It is also thought to be toxic to livestock if eaten in sufficient quantities”. It is a “tall shrub or small tree in the nightshade family (Solanaceae, of family that contains potatoes and tomatoes) with pendulous tubular yellow flowers an inch or more long. The oval leaves are 2 to 8 inches long with a waxy grayish covering. It is a rather weedy plant, yet somewhat attractive, especially to hummingbirds.” The seeds of this plant are eaten and spread long distances by birds.

My shady, graceful, flower covered Tree Tobacco is apparently pure poison. It is on the list of toxic plants in several states, including Texas, California, and North Carolina. To enhance the spiritual experience, tree tobacco is sometimes smoked by California Native Americans in combination with Datura wrightii, which may be dangerous as both plants induce respiratory depression. “Although Nicotiana glauca has been publicized as a safe, hallucinogenic plant on some internet websites, smoking or ingesting the plant has frequently lead to death and parents are encouraged to keep the plant’s leaves and stems out of the reach of their offspring, for fear of accidental death.” Say what?!

In addition to this damning testimony, our professor contributed another volley of condemnation: the plant was one of the worst invasive offenders- extracting water from the soil at a frightening rate and transpiring it away into the atmosphere- effectively desiccating the soil around it while at the same time outcompeting local shrubs and trees and displacing them.

After much reading about invasives, I felt I had as much of a handle on the issue as possible for the moment. Here is the basic argument against invasives, summed up in a few paragraphs:

A healthy ecosystem is composed of a complex set of interdependencies between its members that has developed over time. This set of relationships should be in cyclical flux over time. The introduction of a new invasive species (like my Tree Tobacco) can and will change this set of interdependencies- and affect far more than just a single plant or animal that is “replaced”.

Although not all introduced species have such detrimental effects, many invasives have the potential to do great harm to the local ecosystem into which they are introduced. This can result in the extinction of multiple local plant and animal species. The entire food web along with its members (from bacteria and fungi to arthropods, earthworms, up to birds, mammals and beyond) can be decimated by the introduction of invasive species of plants or animals. (of course, this brings up the issue of many of our agricultural species such as apples, colonial bees, etc, which we will have to deal with at a later time)

With the advent of rapid methods of modern transportation, this introduction is occurring at a much higher pace than in the past, species are now mixing much like a blender set to puree. And this “blender effect” is accelerating. The process of change occurs gradually as a matter of course in nature- but the speed at which the change is being spread is astronomically faster than in the past- not allowing many local ecosystems to adapt to the onslaught of new species. If you want a damning example look at the deadly effect of the Miconia on the forests of Tahiti…

Even in situations where the invasive does not cause a breakdown of the entire local ecosystem it still leaves the system highly vulnerable to a breakdown. As a genetic monoculture spreads over an ever-greater region, wiping out the specifically adapted individual species, the entire ecosystem becomes more vulnerable to an assortment of pathogens that can spread quickly and broadly through the population.

Now the dilemma. Do I heartlessly uproot this interloper? Or would it turn out to have some redeeming qualities? I had watched it grow for an entire summer, nursed it along sometimes, to tell the truth, with extra soaks from the watering can to support its ever-spreading canopy. Now I had to decide if I should tear it from the very ground of my garden and cast it out- a modern day Bible story reenacted.

Further research only muddied the issue… It seems that this noxious, sometimes deadly, aggressive ‘weed’ is also often used in decorative gardening as a way to attract hummingbirds to the garden. In “Hummingbird gardens” by Nancy L. Newfield, it is earmarked as a “very choice” plant species particularly suited for attracting our little darting feathered friends. And there was the delicious shade it had so quickly and temptingly provided in my otherwise searingly arid ‘gardenscape’.

Now that I knew the identity of my uninvited guest, I saw his relatives everywhere. Along the roadsides, in drainage ditches and even dominating a corner of the occasional garden. In our class we had learned how to efficiently uproot these invaders. With saw, root wrench and shovels, we had eagerly applied ourselves to the task- removing dozens of trees from the bottom of a clogged up riverbed near Irvine Ranch.

Finally, it was the very abundance of the plants that decided me. If I could slow the invasive tide and it’s consequences that much more by removing my one tree, then it would be worth it. One morning, with a sad heart and a heavy shovel, I set out to cleanse my garden of this exotic invader. Next year I’ll plant a native shrub in its place… but I have to admit, I’ll miss Nicotiana glauca’s graceful branches and yellow flowers in my garden.

Prescribed (heart)burn

20120621-134251.jpg

I live in a rural area that has about the same amazingly fire resistant properties as fluffy cotton ball tinder- on a hot, dry day…. with a butane torch held under it for good measure.

Our family ranch in Sage (on Sage Rd) is surrounded by large amounts of dry Sagebrush, dry chaparral, oaks (with dry leaves), occasional pines (with dry needles) and dry debris, with plenty of dry invasive grasses to add extra oomph to the potential conflagration. (Bonus! Now with more fuel!) This leads to conditions that might be generally described as “you’re f*^#ed!” when fire season comes around. We pretty much know each of the local firemen by name. We’ve run the fire prevention gamut: prescribed burns, backfires, helicopters dropping water and retardant in wide swathes like graffiti from giant orange spraycans across the land.

Each time a backfire or prescribed burn is suggested, my heart drops down into my stomach and panicked thoughts run through my head; what about the safety of the process? The possible risk to land and home? Will the animals make it out alright if something goes wrong? Will we?

Our family homesteaded this land. That’s pretty uncommon in California, with its big box stores, strip malls and cookie cutter houses. Here everything is new- anything over 10 years is considered dated. 20 is old and venerable and fifty is practically enshrined as ancient. Our family has lived here for over a century and a half. Most of the houses and structures are well over 100 years old and have housed several generations. That may not seem like too long on, say an evolutionary scale, but it’s plenty long enough to grow more than slightly invested and attached. Every time a fire passes nearby a chill runs down my spine. The suggestion of purposely setting a fire as a preventative measure makes me nervous- even if I see the necessity.

Several years ago, 3 adventurously dumb kids with motor bikes and a desire to avoid boredom in the most destructive way possible set a fire (by mistake, one sincerely hopes) near our property. The blaze proceeded to burn a large section along our Northwest flank, leaving the land resembling an unhealthy bald patch on a mangy dog.

The fire department took one look at the fire raging (ushered along by our good friend, the Santa Ana wind) and made the decision to let it burn through a section of overgrown, dense chaparral to remove the accumulated dry debris. In essence this was an accidental form of a ‘prescribed burn’. It was a nervous time for us- there is always the fear of the fire escaping the tenuous ‘controls’ and burning down everything that we’ve built. But as quickly as it had come, the darn thing decided to peter out. The winds died down, and the fire quickly followed…

Later next year, a much larger fire swept through the area again (not an odd occurrence in an area where we have a fifth season- Fire season), ravaging much of the land to our Northwest. We watched from (relative) safety as the fire block provided by the accidental “prescribed burn” from the year before protected our house, leaving us in a little island of our own.

Breathing in the air heavy with smoke particles (some of them so large I could swear that I could feel them rolling grittily down my throat and into my lungs…) Oddly enough, despite feeling a bit sick to the stomach and having a pounding headache from the smoke, I ended that day feeling rather good. Our home wasn’t a crisply charred black charcoal shell, my garden with its bounty of luscious tomatoes was still there, the old butchering oak and hammock with the view of Mt. San Jacinto still stood in place, swaying in the breeze.

I know that there are many obstacles that fire managers face when using fire as a management tool- The unpredictability of wind and weather, the issue of obtaining enough funding and crew with experience necessary to carry out the job, the need to make extremely quick decisions concerning millions of dollars of property and human lives that will later be judged by the general public are just some of the difficulties in fire prevention and prescribed burning.

I’ve been in this situation myself, and even though my heart was pounding the entire time and my stomach does flip flops until the last flames die down, I have been more than happy with the results. Thank you, Sage volunteer fire crew.