By Tom Vines
Published Tuesday, April 1, 2008
| From the April 2008 Issue of FireRescue
The New River Gorge National River in West Virginia has become increasingly popular as a rock climbing area and, as such, the rangers there have been responding to an increasing number of climbing accidents. A Nov. 12 incident illustrates the different types of communication and coordination challenges rangers sometimes face during a rescue response.
At 1434 hrs, the Fayette County 911 Center in Fayetteville, W.V., received a 911 call reporting a climbing accident in the park. Fayette County then used a National Park Service (NPS) channel to call for response from a park service unit. Fayette County also dispatched the Fayette County Rope Rescue Team and a private EMS service, General Ambulance. Two NPS rangers responded and instructed all units to stage at the Fern Creek Trailhead.
One initial problem was establishing the exact location of the accident site. The caller only reported that the accident was at the Endless Wall climbing area, but the Endless Wall covers approximately 4 miles of cliff band.
The Fayette County team began their search from the north end of the wall, and two park service personnel began their search from the south end. After about a mile of search, the two park service personnel found the accident site in an area known as Fern Point on the “Nasty Groove” climbing route. The injured climber was approximately 80 feet from the top.
This area of the wall has been previously rigged with fixed handlines and ladders for sport climbing, so while one ranger remained at the top, the other ranger, an EMT with a medical kit, was able to reach the climber. He found the climber alert and oriented, but he had had fallen approximately 20 feet and had suffered some extremity fractures and lacerations.
It had been a rainy day, so the three climbers in the party had searched for a dry climbing route. They found the “Nasty Groove” route, rated 5.9 at Fern Point, which was sheltered by an overhang. The climbing route had previously been set with bolts, so they decided to use the third bolt up as a high-directional in which they ran their climbing rope as a “top rope.”
Once they finished climbing the area, one climber went back up to clean the route (i.e., remove their rope and hardware) and was down-climbing without protection when he lost contact with the rock and fell some 20 feet.
As the lower ranger assessed the fallen climber, he also directed the upper team to a spot at the top from which to raise the patient. For the 80' raise, the team decided to use a 3:1 MA litter haul, with a litter attendant, along with a separate belay.
For the two separate anchors, the upper team used 1" webbing in a wrap 3, pull 2 anchor, which they attached to two large trees about 20 feet back from the edge. Near the edge, they set high-directional pulleys in two trees and ran the haul and belay lines to avoid edge friction. They constructed the 3:1 MA system using pulleys and triple-wrapped Prusik hitches. The separate belay system used tandem Prusiks along with a release hitch. The haul and belay systems each used a 60-meter rope.
The lower end of each rope was tied with interlocking long tail bowlines to attach the plastic litter. The tail of the main line went to the litter attendant’s harness, while the tail of the belay line went to the patient, who was wearing his climbing harness.
When the systems were in place, the litter and attendant (a registered nurse from Fayette County) were lowered to the patient using a six-bar brake rack. The ranger, the attendant and the other two members of the climbing party loaded the patient in the litter and secured him using Velcro® spider straps.
Once the litter was hauled to the top, rescuers attached a wheel to the litter and rolled it on a trail approximately 2 miles to the staging area. An ambulance then transported the patient 5 miles to a landing zone where he was loaded on a Health-Net Helicopter. After a 10-minute flight, the patient was admitted to the Charleston Area Medical Center. All units cleared the scene at 1800 hrs.
Sources: New River Gorge National River Ranger Randy Fisher provided information for this report.
LESSONS LEARNED/LESSONS REINFORCED:
The New River Gorge National River park stretches 53 miles across five West Virginia counties, which can mean occasional challenges in coordination during mutual-aid operations. During this rescue, the park personnel and Fayette County responders did not have common radio frequencies. This meant radio communication had to be relayed through Fayette County 911 Center. As the Fayette County team closed in on the accident site, the two teams were able to communicate through whistle blasts and yelling. The park personnel are normally dispatched through the Raleigh County 911 Center. As an ongoing revamp of its communications system, the park is now looking at adding other jurisdiction to its radios.
The rescuers set their main anchors on trees some distance back from the edge because trees at the edge tend to have shallow root systems, so they may not be reliable anchors.
The Nov. 12 incident was the fourth accident of the year and reflects a significant increase in climbing-related incidents in the park. Accidents have been the result of bad belays, traditional gear pulling from the rock and poor climbing decisions.
The New River Gorge is also an international destination for whitewater rafting, and the rescue team is trained for and responds to water-rescue incidents.
Comment Now: Post Your Thoughts & Comments on This Story