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.

775830

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.

tech

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.

3rdgoingup

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.

3rdpillar

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.

41280464_10156063121460735_4308123682770780160_o

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.

a busy summer for mono rescue

This post contains graphic content. 

To quote Forrest Gump, Search and Rescue (SAR) is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. Like most first responders the bulk of SAR work is actually fairly mundane and uneventful. But 2018 has proven to be one for my record books. While last week’s volume has been high with nearly a call per day (and two in one day), they’ve also required some of our most advanced skills.

The Sheriff’s Office has clarified its policy on posting pictures so I feel a little more comfortable sharing some of the work we’ve done, hence this post.

chopperout

January 1, 2018: the year started with me getting hoisted out of a CHP helicopter. This would be the least exciting thing I did all year.

On the first day of January, 2018, we responded to a fallen climber. I’ve written about it previously so I won’t belabor things. Eight months later though I’m amazed that something so mind-blowing at the time (getting lowered out of a chopper to treat a heavy trauma patient) wouldn’t rank amongst the more trying moments of my SAR career.

rfr

Me, training, in the yellow gloves. Rigging for Rescue. Horseshoe Piles, Mammoth Lakes.

The amount of training I’ve been through in the last year has been nothing short of incredible. There is of course all the team specific training we put on ourselves. We build mechanical advantage systems and haul heavy loads across parking lots. I rappel off almost everything to learn the different friction feels of various ropes through various descent control devices coupled with different friction hitches.

But then there’s the formal training. Weeks in Alaska getting my Wilderness EMT. The five day Rigging for Rescue basic series. Stop the Bleed. It’s just a non-stop battering ram of advancement in technique, repetition, and locking it in with your teammates.

training

Hauling trucks around the parking lot, practicing mechanical advantage systems.

Most of us have been through training that we’ll never use. It’s rare that you learn something, get good at it, and then 24 hours later you’re using it in the field to save lives. But this year that’s exactly what happened.

mainfield

Mechanical advantage systems in the field, saving actual lives instead of moving trucks around parking lots. Less than one week after our most recent training on the same topic.

On July 29th, our team was dispatched to “a call from help” coming from the Conness Glacier. Trapped underneath roughly two tons of granite, a man was pinned with crush injuries. The same mechanical advantage skills we had been practicing all summer, skills designed to lift patients and rescuers up through vertical space, quickly transformed into a technique to precisely move thousands of pounds of granite.

connessrock

I debated about including this picture. But it’s hard to capture the real anguish for the patient and the urgency of our team in words alone.

glacierview

A small chunk of the Conness Glacier in the background, our team working at the base of Mt Conness. Many of those boulders are loose, including some that are the size of passenger cars, weighing several tons.

conness

Those mechanical advantage rope systems deployed again. I’ve got the blue gloves on, the patient draped over me.

Moving boulders off trapped climbers is not a skill practiced by most rescue teams, let alone something they’ll ever do in the field. Crush syndrome is one of those topics you learn in EMT school that is glanced over: it’s common enough in urban settings because of motor vehicle accidents but in that urban world a hospital is generally not far away. Having a crushed patient in your care for hours, no one needs to tell you that field amputation is a real possibility if your team can’t get the job done. Even if you can extract, the rhab-d clock has been ticking from the start with no mercy.

guardian

Extracted, our patient leaves the Conness Glacier onboard Guardian 2-3.

The call up on Conness in late July scrambled me a bit. It’s hard watching someone in pain, and harder still when the math is not in your favor. My teammate told me later that the rock is what hurt him, we saved his life. Intellectually I know that but the trauma, pain, and adrenaline of the whole operation (nevermind the part where we had to climb onto and off of a glacier ourselves) was a lot to process. The next day our team met up at lunch and disinfected our equipment.

subway

My teammate (and others) after a late night call last week. Laying on the asphalt, eating Subway sandwiches: heaven.

The next night I found myself in an elderly woman’s tent, 7 miles in, an IV bag hung ingeniously by a stethoscope (good work, H40 crew). Treating her, I was happy: she was not actively dying in front of me. My blue nitrile gloves were more of a formality than anything really protecting me from gushing blood or CSF. There was urgency and we needed to do our jobs, but compared to the last few calls this was downright pleasant.

The calm didn’t last.

ducklook

Me in helmet and goggles, looking at the helicopter hoist wire out of frame. NE of Duck Lake.

24 hours later our team would again be dealing with crush trauma, a call remarkably similar to the one from only a few days prior. Perched on rocky mountain top, an operation that most rescue teams will never perform played out with spooky deja vu.

alexcrush

Normally I cannot show a picture like this, but the patient has allowed it to be public.

Another aspect of SAR is that we’re all volunteers. Our day jobs sort-of care about our SAR responsibilities, but it gets old for them fast. In California we’re protected by the Labor Code, but you can tell it grinds on people when you leave in the middle of meetings or your coworkers need to pick up your slack. The first time or two it’s exciting, but eventually I’m pretty sure it gets old for them.

This isn’t getting into the impact it has to our families or friends, all of which end up being “SAR widows”. The phone rings, the world stops, and I’m out the door. I might be back in 10 minutes, 10 hours, or in rare cases 10 days. Emergencies are quite inconsiderate like that and while we have other good medical providers and riggers on the team, we’re a small team. In the second picture above, counting the guy taking the picture, there were five of us.

Five people to handle three mechanical advantage systems, extricate a patient, communicate with our base and the overhead choppers, and provide medical care, all at the same time.

The next day I went camping with my kids, happy to take a break from SAR and spend some time with two little people in the prime of their lives that weren’t suffering from massive trauma or medical illness.

While walking around Devil’s Postpile, my phone rang. SAR call: Devil’s Postpile, right less than a mile from where I was standing. A deputy that I work with walked the girls over to the ranger station and got them into the Junior Ranger program while I rigged a raise and lower system for the litter team, extracting a patient.

deputy

My kids wondering exactly where dad is going.

At the same time, an 8 year old boy was reporting missing in a remote part of the county, our team responded. The next day (yesterday), a patient was airlifted for medical reasons.

We were notified that our team will be covering a large portion of Tuolumne county because wildfire has shut down critical highways in their area, blocking their team from access.

Today is a new day and I don’t know where it will lead. I do know that my harness has my technical gear. My medical bag is restocked. The battery on my team radio is charged. The fuel tanks are full on our rescue trucks. Three gross Cliff bars that don’t melt in the summer are zipped back into my pack.

And I know I’m lucky enough to work with a team of professionals that I would and do trust my life with more often than I can count.

 

the vt prusik max over one, 6 over 1, 5 over 1, etc.

As a disclaimer, I’m not a professional rescue rigging instructor. I’m on a sar team and do the work and often I’ll need to understand something myself more clearly. Breaking it down step by step I can share that process with others, and maybe you can benefit from it too.

Before you put your life or anyone else’s life on a rope system you should (seriously) get professional training, including about any topic I’m showing you.

Basically the single vt prusik on a twin tension system can replace the tandem prusik belay (TPB). The TPB seems great except that it’s nearly impossible to maintain that level of focus for an entire operation. Slack and user error get introduced early. You can watch professional rescuers in training screwing up the TPB all day long. For years SAR teams have been comparing the twin tension with TPB model and it’s not hard to convince folks to move to twin tensioned vt setups.

Studies and videos show a critical problem of the TPB: long catches. Falling 8′ before the prusik arrests your drop can be the difference between you dropping into a ledge and decking, not to mention the dynamic load that is created and transferred. You can run a single asymmetrical (shown below) vt instead of two normal prusiks because with a normal prusik only half of the six loops are really holding the load. So two normal prusiks are needed to actually create six grabs. With an asymmetrical vt you get all but two loops to grab, coupled with better heat tolerance.

In general, a better is a twin tension system with a single vt prusik on both the main and the belay.

vt1

Step one. Start at the anchor side and keep wrapping towards the load. The amount of wraps you’ll make depends on the vt’s width and the host rope’s width.

vt2

Take the longer (load) end, and wrap it around as such.

vt3

Tuck the longer (load) end under the bar you just made, and pull. Dress it down, make everything tight and have both eyelets equalized.

A couple of other notes from my own research.

The VT Prusik is a brand name of Blue Water Ropes and cost ~$30 a piece. It is not acceptable to use some other sewn-eyelet cords and imagine them as VT’s. The studies you’ll read about are unique to Blue Water Ropes’ product so unless you know what you’re doing, stick with Blue Water. It’s about the material, strength, grip, and temperature rating: switching to random sewn eyelet cords does not give you that.

Conveniently there are two colors, tan and black. The 7mm is only available in tan, but the 8mm comes in tan and black. Make your life easier and buy 7mm tans and 8mm blacks so you can grab one and know what it fits.

The 8mm VT fits 9mm ropes and above, and is basket rated at 29.5kn.

The 7mm VT fits 8mm-9.5mm ropes, and is basket rated at 22.6kn.

Four VTs on your rack now cost you $120. But consider that the end-to-end rating of an 8mm is 20kn, allowing it to be used as an extender, basketed for quickdraw, etc.

a taste of the sierra high route and tips to remember

My friend and I took off for a section of the Sierra High Route last week and got back in the wee hours yesterday. The spring conditions gave us snow, granite, some dirt, and ice. We spent some time on the JMT/PCT as well which I’ve come to nickname “the highway” : full of people, busy, and usually littered.

It used to be rare to see a PCT thru-hiker, now mid season you’ll easily encounter 20 per day in addition to other trail users. Not a Disneyland mob by any means, but enough to break you from the isolation of the Eastern Sierras.

taking off

Me and my buddy stepping off on the Pine Crest Trail out of Round Valley, Eastern Sierras.

Forget daily mileage, think daily hours and your schedule.

A reality for cross country travel especially on mixed terrain is that you will go slow. Specifically how slow is a crap shoot, but slow it will be. Maybe 1/3 – 1/4 of your trail speed.

Far more important (trails or cross country / mountaineering) is your daily schedule. It’s really not hard to pack away a lot of miles if you start walking early and stop walking late.

branchriver

A valley we needed to descend into, without (a) dying in the river (b) falling off a cliff.

By midday you can start estimating how much farther you’ll get. Whether or not you want to shoot for that next pass, stop ahead of it, or push for some objective. But a general strategy for me (assuming ~8pm darkness) is “how about around 5:00pm we start looking for a good stopping place, and try to be driving in tent stakes no later than 6:00pm”.

If you’re feeling beat down, go slower. If you’re feeling pumped, push it. Either way you know that (by consulting your map and planning materials) that you’ll have plenty of time for evening and a comfortable place to crash.

silverpass

Silver Pass, Eastern Sierra in June 2018. Snow, ice, rock, and water: you’re not moving fast through here.

Get moving early.

There’s nothing fun about standing around a cold campsite in the early dawn hours. But if you went to sleep at “hiker midnight” (sundown), then you’re probably going to be awake by 5:00am if not earlier. It will be cold and you’ll likely have some ice and moisture on your sleeping gear. Provided it’s going to be a clear sunny day, pack it all up as is. Start eating a cliff-esque bar and get walking. You should have done everything the night before to make breaking camp be a 15-20 minute affair. Keep your trail clothes in your tent/bag/bivy so they’re not ice cold in the morning. Get walking. Sure, it sucks to start cruising at 5:00am but you’ll warm up and have more hours to work with.

By mid day you’ll have been walking for ~7 hours and can stop for a bit. Wash your feet off, maybe wash your whole body off in a stream. Put your wet sleeping gear out on a rock to dry in the mid-day heat. Charge your phone with your solar charger. An hour or so later, get moving again.

Also, mosquitoes tend to be extra-motivated in the hour right after sunrise: you’ll bail on them before they show up and since you’re moving they won’t have an easy time latching on.

bivy

My OR Alpine Bivy is great for sleeping, but hanging around for hours awake in it sucks. Get up, get moving.

June is a rough month in the High Sierra.

Intellectually I knew that June generally brings mosquitoes and high/fast waters. But there’s a difference between knowing something and really having it seared into your memory the way that can only be achieved with the firebrand of reality.

I am a mosquito magnet of epic proportions. It’s truly shocking watching them fly by others and head right to my juicy capillaries. Spring through fall carries mosquitoes in the Sierras but the spring thaw causes water to be nearly everywhere and thus mosquitoes are nearly everywhere. And mosquitoes can make the difference between a nice couple of hours hanging around watching a sundown versus hiding in your tent/bivy as they mercilessly attack your mesh netting.

waterfall

It’s hard to capture the ferocity of water in a still frame, but crossing this was the second scariest of ~20 water crossings we dealt with.

With all that melt comes the swelling of streams, creeks, and rivers. Bridges can end up submerged. Stepping stones to hop across are equally deep, tossing up whitewater. It’s worth remembering that in our county people die every year from drowning or the trauma that results of getting carried away in a river.

At best, your feet will be getting wet constantly, and if you take your shoes off to cross you’ll be taking the time to do that ~12 times a day.

branchcross

We crossed through this with similar conditions. Blown mist and out of frame to the left is the multi-hundred-foot drop on polished granite.

A benefit to June is that the days are long, allowing you sunlight by 6:00am and not needing a head lamp until nearly 9:00pm (in the Eastern Sierra). For thru-hikers in particular, this is pretty ideal.

You won’t eat much.

My friend and I knocked out 27 miles on our last day. Outside Magazine’s calculator says that I burned roughly 320 calories an hour, so 8,640 calories. That’s a lot, and nearly impossible to eat enough to support. When you’re walking and scrambling all day there’s not a lot of time to eat, and even if you could most folks find their appetite suppressed.

jmtresupply

Some fellow JMT hikers we met in 2015, sorting through their resupply boxes, Vermillion Valley Resort.

It seems really counter-intuitive but you’re better off with slightly less food than slightly more as you’re probably over-estimating what you’ll eat anyway. It’s of course better to be dead-on accurate but I’d rather stretch my meals a bit than haul a bunch of weight (food) around that I never use.

VwNMcdU

Beef jerky, dehydrated apples and bananas and much else are staples for me. I even dehydrate my pasta sauces, ground beef, and ground beef to make something resembling a real meal.

Figuring out what to eat and how much is a never ending quest. Most folks, especially if only going out for a couple of nights, are generally better off buying freeze dried food (Mountain House, etc) for their dinners. I don’t personally enjoy the stuff and find it expensive, but to each their own.

Be prepared for the long dark.

Winter backpacking sucks for me, chiefly, because of the incredibly long nights. The sun comes up much later, stays lower in the horizon offering up less heat, and sets earlier : the whole “winter” thing.

I generally need 6-7 hours of sleep to feel good, but 9:00pm plus seven hours is 4:00am and that’s if I don’t wake up early or pop up in the middle of the night for some reason.

If you can lay peacefully in the dark of your tent for a couple of hours with your own thoughts, go for it. For me I pre-load my phone with several long and dry audio books. Stuff on moral psychology, political autobiographies, etc.

Try not to think of night time as a cohesive block of sleep but rather a long span of cold and darkness in which you’ll be mostly asleep but also awake for portions.

niceface

I’ve started using a bivy, but on this trip I rocked a 2 person MSR Hubba Hubba NX. It was September/October and with the long nights it was nice having some room to move about.

Filtering water is probably not necessary.

I’ve watched cows crap and pee into a river that I’m getting water out of: you definitely want to filter that. But I’ve also seen snow melt from a 13,000 foot granite spire: you don’t need to filter it.

Backpacking gear companies make a fortune off of selling filters, and it’s hard to argue against the safety-first adage of “well you don’t know for sure that’s safe so filter it to be positive.” That’s true, sort of, but you trust your car won’t explode the next time you go to start it even though you don’t really know that for sure either.

Just read up on the data and make your own decisions. What you’ll find is that it is very rare to find dangerous protozoa (giardia lamblia being a chief culprit) in wilderness settings. What is very common however is people taking a dump, not washing their hands properly, and then grabbing some of their buddy’s trail mix. Further, the incubation period of gastroenteritis (aka “food poisoning” aka “stomach flu” aka “jelly belly”) can be hours, days, or weeks. So one week after a backpacking trip when you come down with diarrhea for a day it’s complete guesswork as to the cause.

If you travel along rivers known for heavy use, I’d bring a filter. If you’re watching snow melt drip off a granite slab, no one’s going to stop you for lugging a filter around and taking the time to use it, but base your decisions in data and not REI’s marketing. To which, I’ll leave you with these conclusions from the linked study:

Published reports of confirmed giardiasis among outdoor recreationists clearly demonstrate a high incidence among this population. However, the evidence for an association between drinking backcountry water and acquiring giardiasis is minimal. Education efforts aimed at outdoor recreationists should place more emphasis on handwashing than on water purification.

But of course, outdoor companies make a lot more money selling you $100 water filters than they do a $3 bottle of Campsuds.

filter

Me filtering water at ~12,000 feet, well above tree line, from a snow-fed stream into a tarn. There’s no evidence to support my actions.

The more you go, the better you’ll do and the more fun you’ll have.

The first backpacking trip I went on was in 6th grade. I brought, amongst other ridiculous items, a propane lantern. Cotton socks and ill-fitting mountaineering boots rounded out the disaster.

Until you know what you need and what you don’t there’s a tendency to bring items “just in case”. The penalty for all these unnecessary items of course is weight which directly corresponds to pain and fatigue which equally tracks with you hating life.

Similar to life in general it takes a while to learn what makes you tick versus what your neighbor is into. You both probably love indoor plumbing, but you might have a better mountain bike because that’s important to you as where your neighbor’s TV might be better.

I’ve seen people in the backcountry with stuff I’d never bring, and I’m sure they feel the same about me. But do try to lock in the general principles and common threads that nearly all wilderness travelers can agree on. Go with other people that have experience and learn from them, I certainly do. As soon as you get back and unpack, note the things you loved, the things that were debatable, and the things that you didn’t even use.

Hike your hike.

Maybe backpacking for you is getting somewhere to hang out and fish for a few days. Maybe it’s crushing miles. If you’re like most people it will be several different things and it will be based on your input and those that you’re with. Don’t get boxed into doing things that you really don’t want to do, but don’t make the world revolve around you either, if for no other reason that you won’t learn new ideas or have your boundaries pushed.

chillaxing

I like to crush miles as much as I like to lay on my ass and do nothing.

And hey, maybe I’ll see you out there sometime. It’s a mighty big backcountry and I hope you find it as good for you as I find it for me.

i still hate heights

Any official operation we do as members of search and rescue is run by the Sheriff up here, and as such I can’t really talk about specifics. Also when I’m touching a patient both out of HIPAA and general decency I can’t talk about the person(s) involved very much. You can read up on the official story  with officially release details, and the Sheriff released this video for public consumption. I’m down there on the bottom.

So this story really isn’t about the rescue as much as it’s about what it’s like for this particular guy to get a call on my phone and find myself in a world that I’m still coming to grips with.

For starters, the part you don’t see in the video is where my buddy and I got lowered out of that helicopter, by a little wire, with all our packs and gear, onto those rocks, a half hour before that.

So let’s backup a bit to the point where I found myself at a lonely municipal airport, geared up: harness, mountaineering boots, helmet, goggles, radio, full pack. The helicopter crews start to rip the gear off slowly but surely: all the excess weight must go. Seats, spares, everything. Hauling my teammate and I up into the mountains takes a lot of power and to carry us the rest must go.

I’m surrounded by paramedics, the CHP flight team, other SAR members, and law enforcement. Radios crackle with updates, and I’m noticing that this all seems totally normal to them.

A little voice gets into my head:

It’s time you come clean and tell these people that you have no business here.

I try to shake it off, just figuring it’s the jitters. The pilot does his last fuel calculation and we load in. Sitting on bare metal, clipped to a bolt on the flooring, and holding onto the back of the pilot’s seat (the only seat left), the blades start slowly whirring.

leavingearth

My buddy and I in the back, red helmets, taking off.

The voice comes back, trying to bargain with me:

You’re on the team and technically you’re trained for this but this is the real deal. The is the stuff you see on Youtube. You’re not that guy. You’ve managed to get here, but you’re not supposed to be. You better tell them they have the wrong guy.

A classic case of imposter syndrome, I was feeling it in earnest. Putting myself on the couch, was it actually imposter syndrome or was it my deathly fear of heights scrambling for leverage? I even got worried that my feet would fall asleep being crunched up on the chopper floor. Wouldn’t that be hilarious: rescuer tumbles out of helicopter because his foot fell asleep.

I first decided to get into search and rescue, bluntly, because my daughter’s life was saved by a team like that. Maybe knowing that I’ll never be in the incredible PJ squad has me always feeling like I’ll never really be “enough”, and that it’s a cast of heroes that do the real work and my place is more centered around getting them coffee than being on the the pointy edge of the spear.

laurelhill

This was the first fire truck I ever ran a call on. Laurel Hill, Norwich, CT.

The first time I ever responded to a 911 call I was 18 years old running code 3 to a motor vehicle accident (“mva, car vs motorcycle” in dispatch parlance). I distinctly remember the feeling of “Oh shit, there’s no one else coming, it’s just us.”

I think for the average Joe Citizen when you call 911 you imagine this Hollywood-esque crew of Dwayne Johnsons rushing towards you, equipped with everything and flawless. But when you’re the one getting the 911 call it’s a very different story. You’re aware of your shortcomings. You’re trying to remember everything from your training. You’re trying to be aware of the things that won’t let you stay focused. You’re trying not to get hurt yourself but really you know you took this job because you wanted to help people and a bit of risk is part of the package.

LeeViningFall

My team and I, doing our thing, in the middle of nowhere.

The voice kept talking to me, but I went back to that realization I had as a teenager: this is your job and people are relying on you. If you don’t want to do this, quit later, but for now do your f’n job kid. You trained, you have a solid team that will back you up. They’re relying on you. The patient is relying on you. He’s hurt, he needs your help.

The crew chief hooked me onto the hoist wire and unclipped my tether. The spitwadded toilet paper in my ears did its best to muffle the rotor noise. I don’t remember going over the edge, but I do remember looking up at the underside of the AStar helicopter, dangling from its hoist wire: RESCUE was written in large, bold letters underneath it.

Touching down on the ground, I unhooked the wire. Meeting up with my other teammates we got started on our jobs. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I belong in this work, serving with these amazing people. But I sure as hell will try to keep up with them, not let them down, and take care of my patients. The voice in my head can quiet down and take a number.

 

i don’t like heights, just to be honest with you

There’s an inherent problem with fear-of-heights (acrophobia) and mountain rescue. Like a lifeguard who’s afraid of water, there exists a constant and underlying carrier signal that ranges from slight anxiety to full fledged terror. Interestingly enough I’ve met a lot of climbers who only got into vertical pursuits because they were afraid of heights.

Exposure therapy can be done in a clinical setting under the guidance of a skilled practitioner or you can just DIY the goddamn thing. Like home surgery it may not work out well all the time but you can’t knock the sense of accomplishment when you pull it off successfully. Chalk it up to the many cases of things that work out well for you but that you may not advise others to do themselves.

prussik

A view from my harness as I dangle on the edge of a cliff.

So when I got tapped in rescue training the other day for “edge”, I had the dueling voices in my head:

  • Voice A, my helpful voice, the angel on my shoulder: “This is great, you’re around expert climbers and riggers, you know all your system components yourself, and you’re going to get exposure and show yourself that you know how to do it.”
  • Voice B, my other-than-helpful-voice, the coward on my shoulder: “HOLY SHIT NO YOU’RE GOING TO DIE WTF ARE YOU THINKING!?!?!?!?!”

I nodded at my instructor, “Got it, edge.” For those not in the know, “edge” basically means you hang out near, on, and sort-of-but-not-really-over the cliff edge. Rarely are “edges” a clear delineating 90 degrees, hence the vagueness. People up higher who aren’t in the “hot” or “death” zone as it’s affectionately called can be unroped, but “edge” needs to be properly able to move around, securely, while ensuring a nice, happy, and safe environment in the aforementioned “death” or “hot” zone. Terms clearly used to remind you that a single careless act will, not could, result in your untimely expiration.

These days, I’ve found it best to not think about the scary stuff. The old expression of “don’t look down” is well intentioned but unrealistic. Better for me is “look at the task at hand and things you need to pay attention to.” That gives me a focal point and objectives so I keep my mind occupied in a constructive capacity.

Like telling someone to think of anything other than an elephant, instantly they think of an elephant. I’ve needed to scrape the whole concept of “down” out of my mind and fill it with anchors, edge protection, patient comfort and safety, and kilonewtons. Randomly tapping on my carabiner gates to ensure that yes, just like thirty seconds ago, they’re still locked.

ericsky1

Yeah, I really didn’t like doing this either. Solo skydiving is no longer an activity I voluntarily participate in.

I’m still a scaredy cat around heights and have very little desire to intentionally place myself in harm’s way. Gravity never sleeps and the minute you screw up Newtonian physics is there to turn you into a mushy pile of goo at the bottom of whatever you’re on top of. Ladders, roofs, mountains, ski lifts: we should all do these wide eyed, knowing that better people have died doing the same.

roofshovel

Shoveling the roof, thirty feet in the air, on top of snow and ice. Mid winter, 2016/2017.

But I’ve tried to replace that fear with more helpful things. The other day I tied some bowlines in an old 8mm rope and had some fun. Secure one end to a big rock and the other to my truck’s 8,000lb winch, I had a go at it. Then I did the same with a dynamic load by having it tied off to my truck’s rear bumper as I drove away. Faster and faster until eventually it broke. It might sound dumb, but now I know my properly-tied-tail-inside-double-bowline on 8mm from GM climbing will hold me. There’s more parts to the system to verify (anchors, harness, etc), but piece by piece we can build confidence.

In rescue world, we have dedicated safety officers who are inspecting all the equipment that you can’t see yourself, monitoring for loosening, chafe, and the such. Once you get to know the system, you can start drilling into the component parts a bit more. Coupling all that knowledge with the mental discipline to never even think of the “down” word, one can at least occupy their mind with other things. Things that are productive, helpful, and genuinely reduce the risk of you turning into a human pancake hundreds of feet below.

And then when on flat and wonderful ground again you can shake your head at all these stupid vertical objects on our world and go sit on the couch, where god intended us to be all along.

 

lots of sar training this spring

Every since joining the Mono County SAR team, I’ve been working closely with existing members and my 2017 cohort. In no particular order, here are the various skills we’ve been dialing in:

  • Ice and snow anchor use and placement. Flukes, pickets, and snow bollards.
  • Rock pro anchor use and placement (climber speak for “protection”). This is for 20 kilonewton (2.4 ton) rescue loads, typically consisting of at least two sets of three independent banks of protection. You should be able to hang a Honda Civic off our rescue rigs.
sarchopper

Rescue teams being able to radio a chopper in loaded with a paramedic and hoist should make you feel better about paying your state taxes.

  • Running top speed and jumping down Bluejay, landing on our back traveling head first, sliding to our doom. No worries, just use that ice axe and self arrest without piercing your femoral artery.
  • Helicopter insertion and patient hauling, courtesy of the awesome H40 crew at CHP’s Central Division. Popping smoke grenades, grabbing the hooks without getting zapped, rotor wash everywhere, and giving your patient a fastpass ride: it’s hard to not get stoked when you see that work out smoothly.
littercarry

San Diego Mountain Rescue, performing a litter carry. I’m in the back there somewhere.

  • Tracking training (which is nearly an art form), complete with sage-on-the-hill trackers who will track people in the woods just for fun and to see if they can. One guy on our team has a sandbox of sorts at his front door and asks everyone to leave an impression so he can keep seeing different tracks.
  • Blood borne pathogens and what they mean to a first responder. Want to catch some hep c? What about working on patient A, then going over to patient B without changing out your gloves, spreading whatever goo patient A has on patient B?
  • Radio training, to include all repeaters and frequencies used by air crews, law enforcement, and municipalities throughout the county.
  • Mountain navigation, chasing down small markers scribbled on small pieces of wood across a forest and scree field. As a Navy trained sailor with a USCG captain’s license, I had to work hard for this practical and written test.

Nevermind the examinations, gear signoffs, medical provider qualifications, immunizations, pack signoff, and take home tests.

And we’re not even close to halfway done with training at this point. Really it’s just enough to turn our 2017 cohort into a field effective team for the summer.

loadedup

The back of my truck is in go-mode for the summer. Pack, uniform, “maybe” gear. Even spare undies.

Then there are the self-study sessions groups of students will do for practicing various skills, typically high angle rope work and patient care.

July marks the typical beginning of rescue season. Right now the Lakes Basin is pretty inaccessible because of snow, PCT thru-hikers are skipping the High Sierra (my backyard), and major campgrounds are scheduled to only be open for two months this year.

So even though the backcountry is pretty treacherous right now, road closures and applaudable risk analysis have kept most folks from getting into trouble. That said, the sheriff could be getting ready to hit the call-out button right now.

*As a rule, I will not and cannot discuss any particulars of search and rescue operations that approach the realms of patient privacy and law enforcement.