Every now and again I like to get out of the real world and venture into the world of Search and Rescue. A couple of weekends back I got out and trained with members from local fire departments and members of TEXSAR (Texas Search And Rescue). This was a Vertical Rope Technician Level 1 class put on by Rescue Training International based out of New Braunfels.
The aim of the VRT 1 class is to introduce students to the fundamentals of rope rescue techniques and equipment. This VRT 1 class was designed for wilderness rescue and was held over two days and one night on the Austin Greenbelt.
The class started with a lecture on the background and history of vertical rescue, and continued onto recognized standards, training, incident command, communication, rescue equipment, safety concerns, search elements, physical and technical risks, medical considerations for victim(s) and rescuer(s). Following the lecture, the class jumped into knot tying. Learning and understanding the basic knots in rescue (overhand, family of 8’s, clove hitch and water knot) and the application of each is essential. But to a rescuer, it is not only the ability to tie a knot, but also to be able to recognize the knot at a distance that is key. When you are getting ready to go over a cliff on a rope, you want to make sure the rigger has tied the proper knot, and has done so correctly. It is your life, literally, on the line.
Side note: For many rescuers and even experienced people, often the hardest is the most basic knot, the overhand. It’s always fun in the class to watch people needing several attempts to tie this basic knot. It took me more than once, too. We concentrate so hard on learning the more complex knots, we don’t practice the easy ones.
Throughout the class there are challenges, and knot tying is no different. In a real rescue, will you have the luxury of tying a knot with both hands in front of you? Probably not. We were challenged to tie the knots with one hand, then with our weak hand and finally we had to tie them behind our backs. Try it, it’s harder than you think. Results are interesting, and bring out a few laughs and the question, “What the hell have I just tied??”
The class is designed to build skill upon previous skills, so after knot tying came anchors. An anchor is the foundation of the whole ropes system. It is where we use those knots to tie our ropes securely before they can be used. The subject of anchors brings up its own set of challenges. What makes a good anchor in your surroundings? Where is that anchor is association to the victim and how can you set up the anchor and then redirect the rope to the victim? Here are a couple of tips when using a tree as an anchor:
1) make sure it is alive
2) make sure it is not hollow
3) make sure you can’t push it over
They seem obvious, but in a rescue situation, when the adrenaline kicks in, sometimes these things are missed. Haste makes waste!
Once we had the anchors in place and secure, we moved into the fundamentals of rappelling and belaying. A belay line is a back-up. It is a second independent rope connected to the rescuer and manned and monitored by a team member. If something causes you, the rescuer, to lose control of the rappel line, the belay line will be your safety. In that situation, a simple grab of the belay line by a team member essentially stops your movement immediately. As in real rescues, the rescuer will always be on a belay while they rappel. Again the team needs to make sure the rescuer can be rescued.
During the first day we trained on multiple rappel devices including a Rescue 8 with ears, and a Rescue Q 8. These are the most common devices used in ropes rescue. Having an understanding of each device, it’s uses and it’s limitations is essential. For example, the Rescue 8 is a fast device to rappel on, but when you add a second body weight, like a victim, it’s extremely hard to control your descent.
One of the essential skills needed during the rappel, is the ability to lock off the rappel device. This is necessary because once you reach the victim, you will need both hands to render aid. You must lock off your device, and lock the belay line for safety and stability.
The biggest challenge is trusting the equipment and trusting your team. This is especially difficult during the class because you are working with new people and new equipment, so you quickly develop a heightened sense of safety. Checking knots and equipment becomes second nature, even when you don’t think you are checking you are, in fact, subconsciously checking. This is a good thing. In Rescue the question always asked is “who is number 1?” Many students will say, “the victim.” But in fact, it is yourself. Always look out for yourself and your team. If you or your team become jeopardized, then noone can help the victim.
The night exercise is set up to add a different dimension to the class. No matter how familiar you are with a place during the day, at night with a headlight it takes on a whole new character, and those shadows like to mess with you. We take the skills learned during the day and execute them at night, but we add extra challenges. This class, the challenge was to rappel half way down, turn your headlight off and lock off your rappel device in darkness. Once locked off, the light was turned on to verify that the device had been locked correctly. Once verified, the light would go back off and the rescuer would be required to invert. This means that the rescuer had to turn themselves upside-down on the rope and hang there. This is a real test of trust in your team, your gear, and your skill at locking your rappel device off. Once inverted, your hands are off the rope, and you are relying solely on the equipment. In the dark. Upside-down.
On day 2, we continued with the rappelling and added a new rappel device to the mix, the Mini Rack.
This device is really slow to descend on, but once you have the added weight of a victim, it is good choice for a controlled descent. Once we had mastered the rappelling fundamentals, we began rappelling in pairs. This is to simulate two rescuers descending to a victim close together which can be awkward. It is important to make sure both are rappelling at same speed, so communication with each other with each rescuer’s belayer is critical. Like any task in this class, there is always a challenge and a twist added. This challenge was that once we reached the imaginary victim, we were required to lock off our rappel devices, invert, and find a length of rope that was hidden on the cliff face. Once found, we had to untie the knots in the rope and retie specific knots while inverted.
It was during this evolution that I decided to add a medical aspect. As I was rappelling, a large rock, about the size of my head, was dislodged above me and when it fell, it landed square on my shin. I continued a controlled rappel and once I reached the ground, and was safely disconnected from the rope, I examined the injury. There was a two inch long gash on my shin, with thick, dark red blood oozing out. I called for the medical kit. Because I was in a class full of EMTs and Paramedics, I was quickly bandaged. There were several enthusiastic offers to do some field stitches. I opted for a hospital visit, 3 stitches, and 2 hours later I was back to finish the class.
Once back to class, we continued the rappelling and then added the ascending evolution. This is an easy skill if you have your equipment set up well, and practice the proper technique. For many, it is difficult, but mostly because they lack practice and proper technique. Ascending is the ability to go up a rope using mechanical aids such as a handle ascender, a chest croil and foot stirrups. In rescue it is not used frequently, but is a skill a ropes rescuer must have.
These classes have a way of turning complete strangers into buddies. During the class, you’ve literally, put your life in the hands of these people. Trust turns people into friends, so at the end of the class, there’s always some good natured ribbing, laughs and banter.
These classes give me a break from the rat race, and help me learn and hone my skills outside in the fresh air with good people.