Hit the SOS button, who's coming to get you?
We’ve all been there, or perhaps know someone who has: climbing in a remote location and the weather takes a turn, someone gets injured, or conditions just become too dangerous to continue and you can’t self-extricate. For guides, we attempt to avoid this by making conservative decisions in order to keep clients safe. However, in the recreational world, we may try to push our limits to achieve the goals we had in mind. So, what happens when the worst-case scenario strikes and we hit the SOS button?
As a former guide and too-many-hobbies enthusiast, Matt Wentzell has now found himself in the world of technical rescue. Trading climbing lingo for medical jargon, and route finding for route tracking, he’s noticed a few similarities and nuances between the climbing world and the realm of mountain rescue.
Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time in the backcountry, and through this time I've noticed the changes in our technology and the vast differences in people’s perception of safety and individual knowledge base. It seems nowadays we rely so heavily on our GPS systems and tech that perhaps we go just a bit farther than we might have without them. A false sense of security giving us a reason to push beyond more practical decision making and a growing lack in teachings of the “old fashioned” map and compass. But regardless of the possible flaws or limitations in this equipment, it does allow for a greater margin of safety for anyone who decides to bring them into the backcountry. A simple press of a button and help is on the way. Local search and rescue teams, first responders, and law enforcement are notified, and the location of the device that sent the request is established. Modern day satellite devices even allow text messaging to provide more detail as to what situation has occurred. Whether it be a climbing accident, rafting, bicycling, or even just hiking and getting lost, all of this information can be relayed to the individuals requested for help.
Pairing with the outdoor community, there are specific teams for specific activities. A swift water rescue team, for instance, would respond to a river accident, whereas a K9 team might respond to a lost person. In Yosemite, they have technical rope teams that consist mostly of the same climbers that would find themselves on the walls there. Depending on the rescue that is requested, the appropriate team is dispatched. So any detailed information that can be provided while hitting that SOS button, the more efficient the rescue teams can be in their response.
Over the years of guiding I was taught crevasse rescue, belay rescue, patient pick-offs, mechanical advantage, and a myriad of different haul and lower systems. I never quite realized just how infatuated I would become with these systems until I found myself talking to people at dinner about a specific Kilonewton load one may have to account for when building a haul system, or the vector forces caused by a redirected anchor. Needless to say, there were a lot of awkward looks. Nowadays, it seems my entire group of friends are all working in the same field of rescue, whether paid or unpaid, and the conversations have only become more nerdy. The interesting thing I have found from all these chats are the similarities and, more importantly, differences between what we consider safe in the climbing or guiding world, and what is deemed appropriate in technical rope rescue.
If you’re a climber, I’m sure you have heard of buddy checking, dressing knots appropriately, and perhaps (at least I hope) creating your anchors using the ERNEST or SERENE acronyms. These topics allow you to adhere to a general guideline for personal safety when setting up ropes and devices that are meant to keep you out of trouble. It’s far too easy to set up all of this technical equipment improperly and defeat the safety that was designed for you and your partners. Thus, certain agencies and associations have created sets of standards for people and the ability to learn and be certified in this knowledge, such as the IFMGA for guides and the UIAA for equipment. With some of these agencies, knowledge of climbing equipment safety can be tested and developed for both climbers and guides alike. In technical rescue, we follow many of these same principles, however adhere to a few different standards.
For instance, when rock climbing we typically use one single-rated rope. We spend all this time learning and building anchors that are strong and redundant, a minimum of two points, only to put our lives on a single textile fail point!! Granted, in the world of ice climbing and alpinism you will see people using a pair of half or twin ropes, also seen frequently in European countries. And perhaps with the advancements in rope technologies, we may all switch to this method. But in the rescue world…we use two ropes at all times when going over an edge. Whether lowering or hauling a patient, rappelling or ascending, we try to stick to textile redundancy. Many agencies even use harnesses that have multiple belay loops. The idea here is that when you are climbing recreationally, you’re meant to stay on your feet, but if you fall, your rope is the backup. In rescue, there is no margin for failure as it could be the difference between someone’s life. So systems must adhere to far stricter standards of safety.
Speaking of which, another standard you might hear around the climbing community is a “safety factor” or “safety ratio”. Most technical rescue teams will try to stick to a 10:1 safety standard or higher. What this means is that for every one unit of force or load we have to rescue, our systems must be rated to ten times that force. So a 100kg person should be on a carabiner that is capable of holding 1,000kgs or more (we use Kilonewton or kN to measure the forces. A 100kg person is roughly equal to 1kN of force when hanging static so we’d be looking for ≥10kN strengths in this scenario). These forces change with dynamic movement, additional rescuers and equipment, as well as environmental changes, so it’s a lot of quick thinking math!
If I haven’t bored you to death so far then you’re doing great.
The reason I mention a few of these standards isn’t to get you to start searching for ridiculously strong equipment, although that’s not a bad idea😉. The intention is to try and get people to understand the complexities that go into the rescue that may inevitably happen if you frequent the outdoors. I have found a fascination for it and spend far too much of my time learning about rope systems, hauling physics, backcountry medicine, orienteering, swift water movement, heli operations, search techniques, mountain weather, terrain analysis, avalanches, snow science, the list goes on and on. Ideally, you as an avid outdoors person should be learning these things as well, but obviously it is more realistic to cater your knowledge base to the activities you partake in.
That being said, you don’t have to be a climber to understand what goes into rescue. As I mentioned before, there are many categories of rescue other than technical mountain stuff. In fact, one could argue that the majority of your local SAR team may even be your retired neighbors, helping hands in whatever facet and knowledge base they have. A lot goes into the simple act of searching for a lost hiker. I would argue it's even more intensive than a technical rescue given the amount of personnel, time, and resources that are required to comb the earth for a person lost in the wilderness.
However, the big takeaway is to consider that the reason we as rescuers adhere to such strict safety standards, ones greater than those of the average climber or hiker, is because of the harsh reality that in a rescue situation, the rescuer's safety comes first. If rescuers were to become entrapped or injured during a rescue, it defeats the purpose of the mission and we now have multiple patients to take care of, decreasing our effectiveness in saving the person who initially needed us. So when you hit that SOS button, you should remember that you are requesting people to come and put their lives in harm's way in order to get you out of the situation you found yourself in.
I have found that with the combination of an increase in high tech equipment, affordability and accessibility, people have forgotten the basics. Therefore, I strongly recommend that all people, whatever the outdoor activity you decide to partake in, try to focus more on knowledge first, equipment second, in order to keep yourselves from having to use the all-hands-on-deck button. A brand new, beautiful 9.4 mm Ion R rope with super cool XEROS dry technology is useless if you don’t know how to tie knots or what the heck a GriGri is. The right type of hiking boots don’t matter if your phone’s dead, you can’t find your way out of the forest, and you decided blue jeans were appropriate for a rainy day. Knowledge is power and knowledge is safety.
So the next time you’re planning a sweet multi-day big wall excursion, pushing the limits in the alpine during a tiny weather window, or trying to get the vanlife photo without noticing the “flood-zone” sign, consider whether you have all the information and skills required so that you don’t have to rely on that cool new piece of tech that brings people into the same danger you’re in. And remember, most of these rescue folk volunteer their time away from family and friends to risk their well being and save your keister! Help them help you by proper planning, preparation, and familiarizing yourself with all the technical information that may aid in the event of a potential rescue, then get out there and crush it.