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.
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.