By Tom Vines
Published Wednesday, August 8, 2012
On June 3, a 9-1-1 caller notified authorities at the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Emergency Dispatch Center that two people were stuck halfway up a rock face at the Painted Cave Monument in the Los Padres National Forest in California.
Painted Cave, located in the Santa Ynez Mountains about 25 minutes from Santa Barbara, is an historic site that contains ancient rock art attributed to the Chumash native people. The sandstone cave, which is located on a steep hillside, is initially accessed via a narrow and winding mountain road. A short set of stairs leads visitors to the gated cave entrance.
A 35-year old mother and her 11-year-old daughter had parked their car on the mountain road and had taken what they thought was a trail leading to the Painted Cave site. But they were actually on a separate path that led them over a rock face a couple hundred feet above the cave. When they realized their mistake, they tried bushwhacking their way down toward the road. By the time they were approximately 50 feet above the trail, the rock face had become near vertical and was covered with moss. Stranded and unable to go up or down, the mother and daughter wisely decided to stay put on a small, flat area next to an oak tree. Fortunately some motorcyclists who had stopped on the road below heard the pair’s cries for help and called 9-1-1.
At 1547 HRS, the Sheriff’s Department paged Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue (SBCSAR) along with a sheriff’s deputy. Eleven members of SBCSAR responded from various locations in the county.
The initial four-person SAR team arrived on scene about 30 minutes later. One rescuer became operations chief and positioned himself where he could see and talk to the mother and daughter. He cautioned them to remain where they were and reassured them that additional help was on the way. The incident commander for the mission was en route and coordinated other incoming units.
Three of the rescuers on scene took a victim pack and 7/16" low stretch rope from their team vehicle, hiked up the trail and made their way toward the victims to set anchors for a rappel. Because the victims were not injured, were located above the trail, and had a clear path to the bottom, rescuers decided to do a rappel-based pickoff—a single rope technique—as opposed to a lowering pickoff. They considered the rappel-based pickoff to be an efficient, quick and safe tactic for the mission.
Rescuers set anchors using webbing around large oak trees. The site had a natural terrain platform from which rescuers could set up and rappel. As the anchors were being established, other team members started arriving on scene. One was delegated to take a second victim pack to the top along with a second rope.
The first rescuer rigged for a tactical rappel using a Figure 8 with ears and with a Prusik hitch self-belay below the “8,” and rappelled the approximately 100 feet with both victim packs, keeping the rope bag with him.
To secure the victims, he first placed on each of them a victim harness, which has separate loops for the waist and each thigh, and can be placed without the subject having to lift their feet to step into the harness, and outfitted them with helmets. He used a webbing loop to attach the mother to a tree, securing her until the second rescuer could reach her position. He used an adjustable pickoff strap to attach the daughter to his descender in a position that would help control her descent. Despite the girl initially being somewhat nervous, they reached the bottom without incident.
A second rescuer descended to the mother, attached her to his rappel device, unclipped her from her anchor, took the anchor web with him, and descended to the bottom. Both were escorted down the steps to the road.
Search and rescue EMTs evaluated both the mother and daughter and found them to be fine.
At 1724 HRS, the team put out an “incident complete” message to indicate that the rescue was successful and no more assistance would be needed. The rescuers then de-rigged their systems and met at the roadside for a debrief.
Sources: Jim Frank, the SBCSAR operations chief for the mission, provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from a SBCSAR media release.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
Jim Frank observes the following:
“The tactical rappel system is very effective for a pick-off rescue on rappel, as it allows one hand free and the ability to stop without having to lock-off the descender while also providing a Prusik hitch self-belay for the rappel.
“A good decision was made for the first rescuer to take the helmet and harness for both subjects on the first rappel. This allowed the second subject to be anchored and have head protection during the rescue of the first.
“Equipment included a victim pack, which included a helmet, CMC Victim Harness, a pick-off strap and gloves, along with water bottles, MREs and a headlamp.”
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