By Tom Vines
Published Friday, August 1, 2008
| From the August 2008 Issue of FireRescue
An April 27 rescue of an injured climber in Colorado illustrates how complex backcountry rescues can be. The rescue involved dozens of rescuers from numerous agencies and included high-angle lowering, “scree” evacuation (low-angle lowering) and a highline.
At 1309 hrs, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Dispatcher notified the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG) of an injured climber in need of assistance on Redgarden Wall in the Eldorado Canyon State Park, southwest of Boulder, Colo.
Personnel from the Rocky Mountain Fire Authority, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office and the Boulder Emergency Squad (swiftwater support) were also dispatched. The Red Cross and the Colorado State Parks aided in the rescue as well.
Two experienced climbers had been climbing the first pitch of a difficult technical climb that started from a small ledge 150 feet above the base of Redgarden Wall. At the time of the accident, the lead climber was above the belayer, who was sitting on a ledge below. When the lead climber put his weight on a large, table-sized flake of rock, the flake broke loose. The falling rock gave the lead climber a glancing blow, causing him to fall. The rock landed on the belayer.
Despite being struck by the rock, the belayer was able to stop the lead climber’s fall using a Trango Cinch, an auto-locking belay device, and successfully lower the lead climber to the belayer’s ledge. The lead climber was then able to rappel to the base and later walk out on his own, but the belayer suffered incapacitating injuries.
The initial challenge for rescuers was locating the injured climber. Dispatch had indicated that the accident occurred on Redgarden Wall, a large cliff area, but no specific information about location was provided. Redgarden Wall is a big formation, so even minor shifts in location can drastically affect rescue access and the evacuation route used.
In their search for the climber, some rescuers went up along the west face of the wall; some rescuers went east; and others accessed the Fowler Trail, located across the canyon, and used binoculars to try to locate the accident scene.
Within about 10 minutes, spotters across the canyon observed a group of people approximately 150 feet above the wall’s base who did not appear to be climbing; this group included the injured climber and others climbers who had been nearby when the accident happened and moved to the climber’s location to help. Spotters alerted searchers at the wall base who were then able to establish voice contact with the injured climber.
Rescuers now had to determine how to access and rescue the climber. The first rescuer on scene found that another climber had come to the scene and set a fixed line anchored by rock protection—artificial anchors using hardware pieces inserted into cracks and other spaces in the rock. The rescuer decided that the line could be used to access the climber since it had been established by an experienced climber, and it had already been rappelled on.
The rescuer quickly ascended the fixed line, assessed the climber’s injuries, provided first aid and established that it was possible to build a rescue anchor. Other rescuers positioned around the area examined the wall from afar and determined that it would be best to have additional rescuers haul evacuation gear to the patient from below. This gear included a steel-plated litter basket designed by the RMRG, a full-body vacuum splint, anchors and brake equipment.
The RMRG eventually had five personnel on the roughly 3'-x-4' ledge. A paramedic provided continuous medical care while four rescuers prepared for a vertical evacuation.
As is often the case with a rescue from a ledge on a big face, it was challenging to establish anchors for lowering. A climber assisting the rescue climbed above and to the side of the ledge to establish an anchor system using several pieces of protection in a larger crack system. This appeared to be a bit high, so the climber found a second crack system to establish another anchor system. Members of the RMRG inspected his work to ensure it was sound and then statically equalized the two anchor systems to create one system. This resulted in an anchor set up well above the ledge so a brakeman could manage the ropes and braking system while hanging from the anchor, thus optimizing the limited space on the ledge. After the patient was securely packaged in the litter, the rescuers attached it to a double-line lowering system, and lowered it using two litter tenders. The vertical litter lowering was complete in a couple minutes.
While the rescuers on the cliff conducted the vertical evacuation, a second team of rescuers prepared to transition the climber to the subsequent scree evacuation—a low-angle evacuation over a slope of broken rock. The fall-line path down the gulley below Redgarden Wall required three or more pitches of lowering on a 200' rope.
Approximately 10 RMRG rescuers and 10 personnel from other agencies got into position at the base of Redgarden Wall below the accident site. Some of these rescuers worked in support roles for the mid-wall activities, managing ropes and gear from the ground. Others prepared the scree evacuation route. Rescuers set anchors for the evacuation to large trees and used the brake plate to control the lowering. Rescuers scouted the entire route for potential hazards, and established multiple belay (lowering) stations. Additional rescuers positioned themselves down-slope in case they needed to relieve litter bearers during the evacuation.
An RMRG member who is also an emergency-room physician was waiting at the base of the cliff to provide additional and nearly continuous medical care throughout the scree evacuation.
Litter bearers then reached the Boulder Creek. Rescuers determined that it would not be safe for litter bearers to wade through the creek, so they decided to employ a Tyrolean (highline) crossing because it would be faster, safer and more comfortable for the patient.
The Tyrolean traverse used 3?16" steel aircraft cable. Rescuers attached the litter to the cable using 5" pulleys, which were large enough to cross connectors, and then attached a tag line to each side of the litter. The Tyrolean ended at a road, where an ambulance was waiting. The ambulance transported the climber to the Rocky Mountain Fire Authority (RMFA) station on Eldorado Springs Drive, where an Air Life helicopter ambulance was waiting. Reports indicate that he suffered a fractured femur, hip, tibia, fibula and foot. The lead climber who was able to walk out suffered a lacerated liver.
Sources: Tim Holden, group leader in charge of operational readiness for the RMRG, provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from a report on the RMRG Web site, MountainProject.com and from CBS Channel 4 Denver.
LESSONS LEARNED/LESSONS REINFORCED:
When a patient is located in the middle of a wall, rescuers must decide whether the best access is from the top, the bottom or some sort of traverse. In this case, ascending the fixed rope from the bottom proved to be the most efficient method.
Scree evacuations can go quickly; however, because of the significant and unavoidable rock-fall hazards in the Redgarden Wall area, rescuers had to proceed cautiously with the evacuations. During this evacuation, at least two bowling-ball-sized rocks were inadvertently knocked loose.
Although two litter tenders add weight to the lowering, they were used because of the severely broken terrain. It took two tenders to maneuver the litter around obstacles and to care for the patient.
Note: The RMRG is an all-volunteer organization trained and equipped for search and rescue on mountainous terrain and in all weather conditions. Founded in 1947, the group is a fully accredited member team of the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA), a U.S. organization of 65 member teams. Each year RMRG receives about 130 calls for emergency assistance.
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