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Rescue Rehearsal

When the rugged beauty of the outdoors becomes just plain rugged, rescue teams are ready for action.

By Kendal Hemphill
Photography By Earl Nottingham

The call comes at mid-morning on a gray, rainy Saturday. A group of hikers walking along the top of a cliff at Garner State Park have heard a faint cry for help. The plea sounded as if it originated somewhere on the face below, but the hikers disagree about the exact direction.

Less than an hour later, 10 members of a vertical rescue team from Austin are combing the ridge-top. These people have been through this before, and if necessary, they can do their jobs in the dark.

Unable to establish contact with the stranded climber by voice, the rescue chief sends a member down the cliff on a rope. Using special ascenders to climb the rope against the rain-slicked face, he is back in a few minutes. He has found a woman in her early 30s, alive, but injured and weak.

She had been climbing the rock face when the rain started. She lost her grip on a wet handhold and fell 30 feet onto a thin, protruding ledge. Now she lies on the rocky floor of a narrow crack in the face, somewhat sheltered from the rain and wind. She has a broken arm and a sprained ankle as well as numerous cuts and bruises. One side of her face is bloody, and she probably has a slight concussion.

Additional ropes are anchored, and another rescuer is lowered to the ledge, along with a mainstay of vertical rescue work, a Stokes Basket. This is a lightweight, rigid, stretcher into which a patient can be secured for transport. Although cramped in a tight space, the rescuer soon treats the climber’s injuries, ties her into the Stokes and hoists her to the top of the cliff. Working smoothly, the team carries her down the mountain.

If this had been an actual rescue, the team would have loaded her into a waiting ambulance. But once released from the basket, the “victim” walks to a screened shelter and removes the fake blood and theatrical makeup from her face and body.

She is a simulated patient, an essential part of the 26th Annual Texas Rescue Competition held at Garner State Park in October 2003. Fire departments, emergency medical service groups and search-and-rescue units send teams to Garner every year, where they renew friendships and sharpen their life-saving skills in some of the most rugged and beautiful country in the state.

To be effective, rescue training must resemble real rescue situations as closely as possible. Since hikers and climbers seldom need to be saved from smooth, easily accessible locations, rescue teams look for rough country in which to hone their techniques. That’s why Garner State Park has been the site of the competition for more than 20 years. The unforgiving terrain, with its thick cedar breaks, steep hills and granite outcroppings, is perfect for rescue training.

Rescue teams enter one or more of three categories of competition at the Texas Rescue Competition. In the Basic category, people must be rescued from terrain too steep to traverse without assistance. Advanced scenarios are set up on very steep slopes, and usually include some vertical sections. In the Vertical category, rescue teams compete on mountain faces and in caverns, such as those described above.

Each team is led to its starting point by a judge and given its scenario. The victim may be in sight, or the rescuers may be given an area to search. Since information is one of the vital elements of any rescue, the team captain must pump the judges for it. The captain is expected to know what questions to ask, and then assimilate the answers into usable facts. Victims must be found, bandaged, reassured and then transported to a finish line in a safe, efficient manner. The events are timed, so speed is also a factor in the competition.

The driving force behind the annual TRC is a quiet, articulate man named Stan Irwin. Chief of the Leon Valley Fire Department, Stan has been involved in rescue work for 30 years, 27 of them at Leon Valley. He was on the medical team put together to handle problems during the Branch Davidian standoff in Waco and he helped clean up after the space shuttle crash.

A few years ago, Irwin worked in a highly publicized rescue in the Lechuguilla Cave in Carlsbad, New Mexico. An experienced caver named Emily Mosley was working on a team that was mapping the cave when, 2 miles deep in the cavern, she fell 60 feet and broke her femur.

Mosley had to be carried out the entire 2 miles, starting from 2,000 vertical feet below ground level. Her rescue took four days and involved more than 60 rescuers. Stan estimates he was underground somewhere between 24 and 36 hours for it. He was named EMS Person of the Year for 2002 by the Texas Department of Health and remains one of the most active fire/rescue leaders in the state.

The judges, veteran rescue personnel with many years of experience in their respective areas of expertise, observe and grade the teams on their technical skills, problem solving abilities, medical prowess and teamwork. Since the competitors know they are being rated by some of the most highly qualified rescuers in the state, the judges’ decisions are never questioned.

One judge, with well more than 100 rescues under his belt, recalls a night several years ago when he and a partner were called to 350-foot Horse Collar Bluff, a popular scenic lookout point 13 miles north of Leakey. A couple of 12-year-old boys on a hike had decided to climb the face of the bluff, but soon found themselves trapped on a ledge with a sheer drop of 80 feet to the sharp rocks below. The rescuers arrived in the dark.

To avoid pelting the boys with dislodged rocks as they descended, the two rescuers rappelled down the cliff face about 50 feet north of the kids, then worked their way along the face, tying off to every bush and tree available. Reaching the tree, one rescuer had the first boy climb onto his back so that the other rescuer could get a harness onto him.

Just when things seemed to be going smoothly, it started to rain, making the face slippery and treacherous. The four on the cliff could hear rocks whistling by, evidently dislodged from above by the rain. In the pitch-dark night they could do nothing except hope they didn’t get hit by any of the falling stones.

Fortunately, the rescue was accomplished without incident. The boys were both lowered to the river below, and the rescuers rappelled down after them, going back later to retrieve the rope tied to the cliff face. Unfortunately, not all efforts end so happily, which is why Texas rescuers continue to train at Garner.

When they arrive at the staging area, teams must have everything they may need for a rescue, because a trip back to their vehicles could take an hour or more. And because they are not familiar with the exact scenario when they start out, the teams generally try to take as much gear as possible with them.

Rope, obviously, plays a large part of any vertical rescue, so each team must carry several ropes of varying sizes, lengths, and strength ratings. Rolls of nylon webbing, special stretchers and baskets for carrying patients, carabiners, pulleys, and plenty of bandages and other medical supplies must all be transported in packs and bags.

In addition, each team member carries personal items, consisting of a radio, rappelling harness, helmet, gloves, flashlight, controlled descent device, ascenders, personal carabiners, and whatever else might be needed during the operation. Most trained vertical rescue team members wear backpacks containing small medical kits stocked with items experience has taught them to always carry. Prussicks — short lengths of small-diameter rope — come in handy for all sorts of situations. And since rescuers never know how long a job will take, a water bottle or two and some snacks are always worth bringing.

As in any emergency situation, during the competition the team captain must assess the situation and decide how best to get the patient to the nearest hospital. Speed is essential, but it never supersedes safety. And the safety of the team members comes before that of the patient, because an injured rescuer would reduce the size of the team and increase the number of patients the team must treat.

Still, the team must act as quickly as possible. The goal is to accomplish as much as possible within the “Golden Hour,” the first hour after an accident occurs. Statistics show that severely injured victims who reach a medical facility within that hour generally have a good chance for full recovery. And the more of that hour remaining when patients arrive at the hospital, the better their prospects.

With nine national parks and more than 60 state parks, the Lone Star State is the land of opportunity for hikers, rock climbers, rappelling enthusiasts and canyoneers. Most people will never need rescue, but when a rescue team does become necessary, chances are good that it will have trained on Old Baldy, the main cliff face at Garner State Park.

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