it’s a long way down

“Down slow!” came out of my my mouth and I stepped backwards into the void with 800 feet of air underneath me. Since joining Mono SAR, I’d heard stories about Dana’s Third Pillar. It’s the name tossed around for one teammate to scare another.  The tallest climb in our county, it’s in rarified air as having exceedingly high consequences, requiring solid technical skills, and hosting weather that can change in minutes.

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That huge scary ass thing is Mt Dana’s Third Pillar.

Three hours before that, my phone rang. An automated voice recording came on going something like this:

Team, we have a callout. Report of an injured person on Third Pillar Dana. Please bring technical gear and Rescue 3. We’ll be staging at the airport for helicopter insertion.

In 21 minutes I went from sitting on my couch to being in a Ford F350 loaded with teammates and gear, barreling up the 395. Readiness and response times are critical: people call us when they’re hurt or otherwise in trouble. Getting the job done right means getting it done fast.

“Technical gear” means all the stuff for rigging. With it you should be able to lower someone, raise someone, lower yourself on a rope, ascend a rope, and create anchors. Not shown is 50′ of 8mm and 30′ of 6mm rope.

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My base technical equipment, aka my “RFR kit”, named after the Rigging for Rescue curriculum that we base our practices on.

We got to the airport and went through our briefing. How many people, who was hurt, the nature of the injuries, stuff like that. For these I always have a pencil and a pad handy because random tidbits of data fly out that you allow you to assemble a narrative, be it medical or perhaps trying to put yourself in a lost person’s mind. If they’re lost, what do we know about them and what are they inclined to do and not do?

If it’s medical, when did they get hurt? Did they report something on a 911 call that two hours later they don’t remember saying, perhaps indicating ACR or a more serious TBI? Stupid little things aren’t so stupid, and I’m not smarter than my pad and pencil so I write everything down.

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My team leader ahead, we’re on Dana Plateau headed to the summit of Third Pillar.

We decided we could beat the chopper if we headed in on foot so we packed up and drove to the trailhead. The folks on my team move fast. No matter how fast you’ve ever seen me move, I have to use everything I’ve got to keep up with a few folks in particular. They kick my ass on the way up and can standing glissade on the way down.

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Me, going down. Someone was hurt about a 100′ below me. The boulders and snow are about 800′ down.

I balked at the idea of being litter attendant, which is the job shown above. You go over the edge, find the person, treat their injuries, attach them to our rescue system, and guide the whole thing back up again. I’m well trained on all of that, but the “going over the edge” for lack of a better term is just scary as hell.

On the walk up though I did the math. I had the most medical training, held the highest license, and had the most patient time. I had gone through five days of professional rescue rigging taught by the best of the best barely two months before. I practice this stuff. Two days before when camping with the kids we rigged a mechanical advantage system to pull a snag widowmaker down.

I stepped through every component of the rigging systems in my mind. What they should and would look like. I knew the people who’d be running them, and I have and would again trust them with my life.

I re-volunteered for attendant. I had a teammate who’ve I’ve done a lot with double check me. I double checked him. We do it in silence because solid systems setup correctly don’t need explanations.

The screaming in my head before I went over the edge was loud: neurons were ganging up like angry peasants with pitchforks and torches. Fortunately, all I had to eek out was, “Down slow” and my team lowered me where my own nerves probably wouldn’t. Once over the edge it was game time.

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My team on top of 3rd pillar, I’m over the edge coming up. Mono Lake and the 395 in the distance.

I’ve told my daughters that when things get hard you need to listen to that part of you that won’t quit, and tell all the other parts to shut up. The original line was “…the patient is the one with the disease…”.  In emergency medicine, you can say “The patient is the one with the emergency.” At that moment there’s someone hurt that needs help, I get to have my emergency later.

I stopped by Vons at midnight after I got back, bought a pack of frozen yogurt popsicles, drove home, and hopped back on my couch and ate the whole box. My PS4 game was still waiting for me where I left off.

2 thoughts on “it’s a long way down

  1. Dude this is so incredible man, great write up, so matter of factly.. This part where you say: “We do it in silence because solid systems setup correctly don’t need explanations” Does that mean you’re keeping quiet so that person can concentrate, or is that something you call it? (solid systems setup) or both?
    I’m sitting on the edge my chair reading this.. I was hoping for more emotions but okay.. lol
    Eric I have a question. Is it easier going up or going down from a climb like that? For me it was combing down.

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    • Mainly we’re quiet because it’s a really hectic and adrenaline pumping scene. Your safety check is the last chance for someone to carefully and calmly step through everything. Anything that distracts them will take their focus away. The rigging systems should be set up in a way that anyone trained in that arena can clearly see what you did. If someone looks weird or off it’s probably wrong.

      The hard part for me and most folks I’ve heard from is the first step back into the air. Once you’re moving down it’s not as bad. Coming up I think it actually gets a little spookier right at the top because safety is a foot or inches away and there’s parts of my mind that are screaming for it. Sorry for being a little light on the emotions, I wrote that the day after it happened and was still processing.

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