By Tom Vines
Published Thursday, September 13, 2012
A July 16 incident initially presented Washington State park rangers with a puzzling situation, but their skills and determination helped them pull off a successful rescue.
“Unknown Problem” in the Wilderness
At 1232 HRS, the Washington State Emergency Management Duty Officer notified North Cascades National Park dispatch of a SPOT beacon emergency alert, and that the coordinates placed the signal in the area of Luna Peak in the northern Picket Range, a remote area of the park.
The beacon alert gave responders the name of the beacon’s owner, but no information about the nature of the emergency. It was essentially a 9-1-1 call for an “unknown problem” in the wilderness.
At the time of the alert, the Park’s lead climbing ranger was out in the field. When notified by dispatch, he began hiking back to handle the emergency. He asked dispatch to contact HiLine Helicopters, the Park’s short-haul helicopter contractor in Darrington, Wash., to see if they were available for a rescue.
He also asked dispatch to see if the Park SAR coordinator and district ranger, who was off duty for a couple days, could come back on duty. Both rangers were about 60 to 90 minutes away from reaching Marblemount, a helo site, SAR cache and base of operations. Dispatch reported that HiLine was available and pilot with helo could meet them at Marblemount.
The Initial Plan
At 1400 HRS, the rangers reached Marblemount and began organizing for a search and rescue operation. Using the GPS coordinates, they realized that the victim’s location was well into the Pickets Range. Given the nature of the rugged, mountainous terrain, a litter carryout of an injured person wasn’t really feasible. It would take days and many people, assuming an injured person could survive for that long and under those conditions.
The initial plan: Prepare for a helicopter short haul, do a recon of the site, locate the injured party, try to establish some sort of communication to determine the exact nature of the emergency, reach the party, find a staging area nearby and, if there were serious injuries, use Airlift Northwest as a medical helicopter for hospital transport.
Rangers contacted Airlift Northwest in Bellingham, Wash., placed them on standby and provided the coordinates. At 1516 HRS, the SAR coordinator, climbing ranger and pilot, along with their short-haul gear, departed in a Hughes 500 D helicopter, a small but fast and maneuverable craft.
A Confusing Situation
At1532 HRS, they reached the area of the GPS coordinates and quickly spotted two people on a ridge. But now they found themselves in a confusing situation. The two climbers were giving a “thumbs up” signal, which seemed to indicate they were OK. But they were also pointing downhill and making hand signs that seemed to indicate “tumbling” but still indicating they were OK.
The rangers had checked the backcounty permit registry earlier, and there was a party of two that matched the description that came through the SPOT company. There was also a party of five climbers that had a permit for the area. The rangers’ initial impression was that maybe the two-party group had triggered their beacon but were now OK and no longer needed rescue.
But the rescuers remained skeptical and wanted to communicate directly with the two climbers to make certain everything really was OK before leaving the area. So they began looking for a landing site. The area is very rugged, with no flat spots where even a small helicopter like this could land. So the pilot kept circling.
Locating the Injured Party
The pilot then spotted a flash, like that from a mirror, coming from below the climbers, so the pilot descended approximately 1,200 to 1,500 feet. They then spotted a group of people on a forested hill. Along the hill was a finger of snow approximately 15 to 20 feet wide, and near the middle of it they detected a little “bench” carved into the snow. On the bench they saw a tarp on which there appeared to be a person lying down.
The rescuers realized that this was the person in need of rescue. The pilot descended a bit farther and found an area where the terrain flattened out a bit. He landed the helo at 1542 HRS. The rescuers alerted Aerlift Northwest through the Park’s communications center, asked that a helo be dispatched to the location, and provided GPS coordinates where they could land in the basin. Airlift Northwest provided a 35-minute ETA for their arrival.
One of the climbers, a member of a party of five climbers (including the injured person), hiked down to the LZ and explained to the rescuers what had happened. It turned out that the two people atop the ridge were the owners of the beacon and had activated it for the other climbing party.
What Went Wrong
The 49-year-old male had been ascending up a steep snowfield when he slipped and began sliding back down the snowfield. For a few hundred feet, he attempted to self-arrest using his ice axe. But he then hit a bump and lost control. From there he continued rolling and tumbling approximately 1,200 feet down the slope, across a band of rocks 20 to 30 feet wide, across more snow, and crashed into a grove of trees, preventing him from sliding down another snowfield. He had slid out of sight of his companions. Fearing the worst, the other climbers descended to the victim as quickly as they could.
Upon reaching their companion, the other climbers found him not only alive, but conscious. They stabilized him, placed him in sleeping bags and on Thermarest pads and then covered him with three additional sleeping bags. Using a backcountry shovel, they quickly carved from the snow a platform about five feet wide and 10 feet long. This was where the rangers had spotted him. The climbers then carved out a second bench below the platform to help move him and attend to him. After placing a tarp on the snow shelf, they lifted the patient, placed him in his sleeping bag, and then carefully lifted the sleeping bag onto the snow platform. Using their portable stove, they heated water and poured it into four water bottles, which were placed around the patient to keep him warm.
Making Contact & Establishing a Rescue Plan
To reach the patient, the rangers rigged the helo for short haul, and the climbing ranger clipped in to the short haul line. At 1630 HRS, he was inserted at the bench and established contact with the patient.
The patient was conscious, alert and oriented and knew what had happened. Despite a tremendous fall without a helmet, he was in surprisingly good shape. The ranger took vitals for a baseline so he could track them and assess patient stability. He recognized that the patient’s companions had taken good care of him and used their available equipment to protect him from the environment.
When the pilot returned to the LZ, the SAR coordinator attached to the haul line a two-part Cascade fiberglass litter, packaging gear, a Bauman bag and other medical equipment. At 1642 HRS, the pilot short-hauled the litter and packaging gear to the ranger stationed with the patient.
At about this time, the Airlift Northwest “Airlift 5,” a Eurocopter EC135, was on approach. The pilot was able to set down close to where the rescue helo had landed. They then shut down, and the rangers proceeded with their short-haul operation.
The challenge for the rescuers now was how to get the patient to Airlift 5. Because of weight limits, they were not carrying equipment for a ground lowering, and would have had to fly back to Marblemount to get additional rope and hardware—and there didn’t seem to be enough time for that. The patient had sustained head injuries and an arm fracture, along with possible internal injuries, so there didn’t appear to be enough time to do a steep-angle lowering to the flatter section. There also weren’t enough trained personnel to complete a ground lowering. The conclusion: When evaluating all the options, and considering patient condition, available resources and time of day, rescuers chose to short-haul the patient to Airlift 5.
The Short-Haul Operation
With assistance from the climbers, the ranger placed the patient on a backboard, providing full C-spine immobilization, and then packaged him in the litter, which they placed inside the Bauman bag. The Bauman bag has straps that come together to clip into the short-haul line. The slope was very steep, so to prevent losing the litter and patient down the snowy slope, the rescuer anchored the litter by cord to two ice axes. As a precaution, the ranger also anchored himself with an ice axe.
Now that they were ready for the short haul, they notified the pilot of the 500-D, to bring in the short haul line.
It was a little challenging for the pilot to see the end of the short-haul line. The combination of the steep slope and flat light of the snow made it difficult for him to get a vertical reference. So the ranger had to guide him by calling in estimated elevation distances.
The ranger then caught the short-haul line and went through the procedures for hooking in the victim and himself. The pilot smoothly lifted them off, cleared the trees and brought the short-haul package to the LZ. The second ranger was there to help receive the rescuer and victim.
Once the 500 D had landed, the victim was transferred to the care of the Airlift 5 crew. With the victim still on the backboard, the rescue personnel removed him from the Bauman bag and loaded him into the Airlift Northwest helo. The Airlift 5 crew initiated IVs and other patient care and began the flight to Seattle Harborview Medical, a level 1 trauma center, at 1735 HRS.
Upon arrival, physicians assessed the victim and treated him for his injuries, including scalp wounds and facial and shoulder fractures. At 1753 HRS, park personnel cleared the rescue site.
Sources: North Cascades Climbing Ranger Kevork Arackellian and SAR Coordinator Kelly Bush provided information for this report. Some additional details were taken from a report of the incident by Chris Robertson (one of the pair of climbers who assisted the rangers with the rescue) and from OregonLive.com.
Lessons Learned/Lessons Reinforced:
Rangers Arackellian and Bush provide the following observations:
“First, we are noticing an increased use of Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) in requesting rescues. This year, in both cases of PLB use, the party activating a beacon was NOT the injured one. This can create some confusion. In the Luna SAR, we flew to the GPS coordinates and located the PLB owners very quickly. Unable to land nearby, we could not communicate directly with the two climbers who kept hand-signaling that they were OK. Our initial thought was that perhaps there was an accident at one point, however, now they are OK and do not need rescue. However, some things did not fit so we kept circling and looking. That’s when the pilot noticed a flash from a signal mirror coming from approximately 1,000 feet lower in the basin. We had come close to leaving the area, so I would say a lesson learned would be to establish a clear and unambiguous way of communicating. One suggestion is to have a white board where we can write simple messages to ‘ask’ people on the ground.
“Also, current PLB technology does not provide additional information beyond a ‘Need Help!’ type of message. When we respond to a search and rescue based on PLB signal, we don’t know if we are dealing with a lost person, ‘simple’ injury or something that could be life-threatening. So we often have to go in with an open mind, ready for anything. New PLB technology may change this; however, it is still a one-way type of communication with lots of room for confusion.
“Since everyone working at North Cascades National Park uses the same radio frequencies (repeaters), we had some non-emergency radio traffic during the SAR operation. As a result, dispatch has developed a new protocol for announcing emergency traffic-only rules. Additional training will be provided to all radio users to ensure that in the future SAR traffic is not disrupted by non-critical radio use.
“Finally, obtaining contact information from the PLB company to communicate with friends and relatives can be very important. The SPOT beacon was owned and registered by a party that did not have an accident, and the SPOT company had called the registered owner number and had spoken with a family member about an emergency. Once we got back to our base, we realized that it was important to get the registered contact number of the SPOT owner and phone them to tell them that their family member was OK. The owner of the SPOT would be in the wilderness for another six days, and his family needed to be assured that he was OK. This was not critical to the rescue, but should be consideration with the increasing alerts by these beacons.”
Sidebar: Emergency Alert Beacons by Tom Vines
Emergency alert beacons like the one that triggered the North Cascades rescue are small devices designed to alert emergency responders when someone is in need of assistance. For backcountry use, there are two types:
#1. Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs), which work on the international governmental COSPAS-SARSAT satellite network, are maintained in the United States by NOAA. When activated, a PLB sends two signals—a 406 MHz signal, which carries the Unique Identifying Number (UIN) and GPS data to the satellites, and a 121.5 MHz signal, a homing frequency. Using a PLB without a GPS option, the 406 MHz signal from the satellite will get rescuers to within 2 miles of the beacon. Then rescuers can use a tracking device to home in on the 121.5 MHz frequency.
#2: The SPOT beacon, which was used in the North Cascades rescue, works on the private GEOS network.
Both are designed as a way to send out a call for help only in emergency situations; however, there have been reports of abuse and that the beacons may be encouraging individuals to put themselves in hazardous situations that they would not normally take on.
When buying a PLB, the owner is supposed to register it with NOAA, which will link their essential personal information (name, address, phone number and any medical condition) to a 15-character alpha-numeric code known as a Unique Identifying Number (UIN). Unfortunately, a number of PLB owners are not registering their devices, complicating rescue response. The SPOT will not work without first being activated and registered.
The SPOT does have a GPS, but it does not transmit a homing signal on 121.5 MHz. The SPOT RCC receives the signal, gathers as much information as possible, and then passes notification along to the local authority having jurisdiction (e.g., the county sheriff) for search and rescue.
While both PLBs and SPOTs have helped in rescue in cases of real distress, both have been misused, resulting in needless deployment of rescue resources. Unfortunately, some users expect that by simply pushing a button, rescuers can easily come and get then. But despite some misuse, emergency alert beacons have saved lives, as likely happened in the North Cascades case, and rescuers should expect more use of them in the future.
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