Thursday, November 17, 2011

Start with the Simple Solution in Improvised Rescue

What do we truly need to know for Self-Rescue?
  • escaping the belay
  • munter-mule
  • rescue-spider
  • counter-balance rappel
These seldom used techniques are critical in self-rescue. Or are they? Are there self-rescue situations in which we don't need to know these skills? Absolutely. To go a step further, in a stressful self-rescue situation, it may be in our best interest to incorporate skills that we practice regularly. As an additional point, using the simplest of these solutions generally results in the fastest resolution. Extra care needs to be taken, as fewer sets of skills exposes us to additional
risk if we complicate our predicament. It is really important to do a thorough "Scene size-up" and try to anticipate any potential problems.

There is no doubt that improvised rescue is extremely demanding in a true high angle situation when the wall is vertical to overhanging, nearly devoid of holds, and your party is over a ropelength from the ground. But many of our climbs may be on terrain that is within a ropelength of the ground, or there are reasonable ledges, holds, and wall angles less than vertical. And it is likely that our partner will be able to assist to some degree with a rescue. All of these other factors allow us to use simpler methods, since we may be able to work around the fundamental concept of "load transfer".

Accurately assess your situation - are we seeing the easiest solution?
Much of the self-rescue literature covers more technical systems. A thorough understanding of these systems should allow most parties to self-rescue in nearly any situation. It sounds appealing to know all of these systems, doesn't it? It certainly gives me confidence to climb with others who really know these skills. Because it seems so desirable to know these systems, I think it leads more people towards using a more complex solution in some of the simpler rescue scenarios. These are cases of not seeing the forest for the trees. If your second is injured, you are within a ropelength of the base of the climb, and your rope will run clean and plumbline to a secure spot on the ground, why not transition to a lower? What about a partner who needs assistance, but is conscious and able to hold himself upright? With reasonable terrain, there are several solutions. The number of possible responses is certainly greater in these hypothetical circumstances.

Between collaborating with other guides, and teaching self-rescue clinics, it is always refreshing to see how quickly we can go through a self-rescue scenario when we really see the simplest solutions. Improving the shelter and security of an injured individual is our primary goal, and the speed at which we change the situation is an important factor to consider. When someone is immobile and exposed to the elements, minutes can feel like hours. As long as an injured individual remains exposed to the elements in a high-angle situation, our scenario can rapidly escalate. The concept of improvised rescue implies that we are in a first aid response, and we must weigh out all the factors, including exposure/security to improve our patient care.

Sometimes we can simplify a method - e.g. the tandem rappel
Here is one example of seeking simpler solutions: In a recent improvised rescue clinic, I focused on principles of rappel and toprope safety to introduce some solutions for a situation where a partner needs help descending. In this clinic, we did not discuss concepts of load transfer in this scenario, and instead directed our time gaining practice with the different solutions. Our solutions assumed that we were on moderate/intermediate terrain, on a route with no major traverses that had belay stations with decent stances, and within a few pitches of the ground. We assumed that our partner was able to hold himself upright, but was unreliable in managing his security on rappel or at a belay station. In this situation, it is unlikely that we would have to do a load transfer while on our descent. Of course, we need to be familiar enough with pitch lengths, rappel stations, and the nature of the terrain immediately surrounding our route if we decide to self-rescue without using any load transfers. Since we do not need load transfers, a simplified tandem rappel is a good option.

Often, a tandem rappel is taught using a rescue spider, a useful rigging tool tied using a cordelette. We skipped the spider. Instead, to simplify our rescue techniques, the injured climber and the rescuer both attached a tether/extension and locking carabiner to a single rappel device, so the rescuer could manage the rappel.  The rescuer can (and should) use a friction hitch backup in this scenario. Technically, using slings may not be that much simpler than the rescue spider. The key point is that climbers who are familiar with rappel safety (extensions and backups) will apply tools that they may use occasionally or regularly, unlike the rescue spider. For low angle rappels, like the east face routes on the Flatirons, lower angle Tuolumne domes, and other moderate areas, shoulder length runners could be an appropriate tether/extension for each person. For steeper routes, it is generally better to have different runner lengths for each climber, with the injured climber's tether/extension being shorter than the rescuer's, while ensuring that the rescuer can still effectively manage the rappel. Finally, if the injured climber is able to maintain some balance and use his feet effectively, a simple lower can be an option once the climbing party is close enough to a secure area at the base of the climb.

Using familiar skills can create some of the simplest solutions
The big take-away point is that most climbers have some technical knowledge of systems that can be applied to self-rescue. Sometimes there are solutions to our predicaments that do not require highly-technical self-rescue concepts. Rather, we can explore solutions that may combine techniques with which we are already familiar. An example of this at the simplest level is the rappel: a rappel combines the skills of a) lowering, and b) being lowered.

If we decide to self-rescue, we need to carefully assess our scenario to make sure that we have thought through the outcomes of our decisions. If we recognize that we can apply familiar systems with sufficient security and control, and we recognize that we are using the simplest solutions, we are generally on track to our most expedient improvised rescue.


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