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Today is:March 16, 2017

More Thinking About Rescue

Author: jmaher
Date: September 08, 2004
Since we seem to be spending a lot of time talking about rescues, let me introduce you to a situation that came very close to requiring a hard rescue. This rescue would have been a very complicated process and I would like to solicit everyone's thoughts about this particular scenario. This occasion is not a figment of my imagination but is one that came very close to necessitating a real rescue.

Tree climbs were being offered to the public at a small-town annual festival. A tree had been rigged on one corner along the edge of the town's main street. The drip line of the tree had been roped off and twelve ropes placed in the tree. Eleven of those ropes were to be used for climbing. The twelfth rope, the highest in the tree, was the designated "rescue rope" and kept open in case it was necessary for one of us to go into the tree to help a climber. There were three very experienced climbers present to run the event, plus a volunteer to sign up the climbers and take care of the business end of things.

When a person comes to climb, the normal process begins with him/her, or a parent, doing the paperwork and taking care of business. The climber is then handed off to whichever one of the three veteran climbers is available at the moment. The climber is then gotten into a harness (we use the New Tribe Ness saddles) and fitted with a helmet. The climber is then told to pick a rope, any rope that they wish to climb that is not already occupied. The climber is attached to the rope by the climbing instructor (we do not allow the climbers to attach themselves; that is a no-no!) and then given a short lesson on how to climb and descend. All climbing is DRT. The climbing bridge will always consist of a 5/3 Blake's hitch, a figure-eight in the center of the bridge, and a figure- eight-on-a-bight as the connection to a carabiner on the harness. Footloops utilizing a double-wrap prussik are placed on the down rope beneath the Blake's hitch. The instructor will stay with the climber until the climber is off the ground and climbing. Before leaving, the veteran will place a safety knot (a slip knot) in the rope beneath the climber to prevent the climber from hitting the ground in the event of an uncontrolled or unplanned descent.

The climbing lesson that is given to each climber before the climber leaves the ground begins with the climber being attached to the climbing rope. We talk about the carabiner, demonstrate the closed position, and show the climber how to perform a "gate check" or "squeeze check" and emphasize the importance of the gate being closed and locked at all times during the climb. The climbing lesson then covers the idea that all climbing is to be done "on rope". We also let them know that climbing above their anchor limb is another no-no and is not acceptable. After talking about these things we then show them the process involved in going up the rope. The most important part of the lesson is to emphasize the idea that they are never to touch the top of their Blake's hitch, or even have a hand on the rope above their Blake's hitch, unless the other hand is gripping the downrope. We then let them climb upwards a few feet. When they are off the ground, but still within our reach, we go into the process of "How to come down".

We have a four-step procedure for climbers about to come down. Number one is a rule, and that is that climbers will not descend until they have called one of us veteran climbers and one of us is at the base of their rope with a hand on their rope. Secondly, they remove their foot from their footloop and loosen the prussik hitch. The footloop remains on the climbing rope. Thirdly they grip the downrope with both hands. Fourthly, after looking over their shoulder to be sure that the veteran climber on the ground has a hand on their rope, they are to reach up with one hand, place two fingers above their Blake's hitch and begin the descent by pulling downward on the hitch. The hand not on the Blake's hitch is to maintain a grip on the downrope.

The instructors are constantly keeping an eye on things up in the tree. Each climber has had a safety knot placed in their rope as they began their climb and as the climbs proceed more safety knots are placed in the ropes. The general rule that we follow is that a new safety knot will be tied in the climber's rope as soon as the exisiting knot reaches the ground. Remember that as the climbers ascend, the downropes will come down. Anytime that we see a downrope with a safety knot resting on the ground, we will go to that rope and tie a new safety knot.

As climbers descend the instructor monitoring the descent will remove the safety knots from the rope as the rope passes through the instructor's hands. Once the climber is on the ground the instructor will detach her/him from the rope and hand the climber back to the volunteer who will relieve the climber of his/her harness and helmet and send the climber away.

Now, to the situation that could have resulted in a rescue: A young man, about eleven years old, had already climbed with us several times over the course of the weekend. He had been really enjoying himself and was hooked on tree climbing. His parents had been quite happy about everything because his tree climbing had taken him off their hands and kept him occupied.

At the moment he was high in the tree, perched on a limb, enjoying his view of the crowd below as people walked up and down the street. It was late in the afternoon and some of the crowd had started to depart. His parents arrived at the edge of the roped-off area around the base of the tree and shouted up to him that it was time to leave and that he needed to come on down. They told him they would return in a few minutes and wandered off to look at a nearby exhibit. He showed no indication that he was about to come down so we three instructors continued to direct our attention toward other climbers needing our assistance. I looked up now and then, as part of the overall monitoring of the activity in the tree, but was not particularly concerned. The boy had climbed with us several times, knew the rules, and had not been a problem.

His parents returned to the edge of the area and "Dad" let him know real quick that he needed to get himself down out of the tree. All three instructors were busy elsewhere at the moment, monitoring the descents of other climbers, and I shouted up to let him know that I would be with him in a moment. My attention returned to the little girl above me who was on the way down. "In a moment", however, was not good enough for "Dad". I heard him order the kid out of the tree; "You get down now! It's time to go and we are tired of waiting on you! Now!"

It is a fact of life that orders from Dad usually have precedence over orders from others. This kid had been very good about following procedures up until this moment, but Dad was to be obeyed and it didn't matter if obeying Dad violated common sense.

Before I could say a word, the kid had grabbed his Blake's hitch--with both hands!--and was making an uncontrolled descent groundward. He came to a sudden halt, about twenty-five feet above the ground, when he encountered the safety knot in the rope. This was a good news/bad news situation; the knot had indeed halted his downward progress but as he had descended, one leg had inserted itself into the loop created by the safety knot. I now had a situation in which a kid was hanging in midair with his leg caught in a loop and the safety knot that created the loop was jammed up against his Blake's hitch, with a footloop prussik jammed between the two. He still had both hands on the Blake's hitch and as he pulled down, his weight on the safety knot was causing it to cinch itself even tighter, creating a tourniquet around his leg. He was yelling from the pain; both "Mom" and "Dad" were screaming at him;I was still holding on to a rope with a little girl on it. His body was all doubled up and he was jammed in position. He could not descend farther because of the safety knot against his Blake's hitch and the safety knot could not be pulled out because of the leg inserted into it. It took me several long seconds to get the little girl on the ground then head toward the emergency. The other two instructors, on the other side of the tree, were unaware that there was a problem and it was a moment before they realized what was going on and got involved. This was just as well because there were already too many people offering their two cents worth and it took me some time to let everybody know that they needed to shut up and let common sense take over.

The situation was resolved by the boy's ability to grab his rope above the Blake's hitch and pull himself upward, inch by inch, while sliding the Blake's hitch upward, until he was high enough to loosen the safety knot and remove his leg from the loop. Were it not for the fact that he had already climbed several times and was familiar with the system, this could have resulted in the necessity of a hard rescue.

I have replayed this incident in my mind several times and I am not exactly sure that I know how best to have made such a rescue, had a rescue become necessary. This might be one of those situations where the only option would have been to attach the boy to myself with a pickup strap then cut his rope. It is easy to think that all that would have been necessary would be to have raised him enough to loosen the safety/slip knot, but this invites a reality check. As Will Isaacson has pointed out, that would be awfully difficult while hanging suspended in mid-air.

For those of you who offer group climbs, this situation is a possibility that should be given serious thought. There are a lot of kids out there who will try to descend on their own even without a dad hollering at them to hurry up. I will also state that I have almost been the victim of this situation myself; I usually climb DRT with an ascender on my footloop instead of a prussik knot and this negates the necessity of safety knots because the ascender will act as the safety. Another climber, seeing that I did not have a safety knot in my rope, felt compelled to come along and tie one in my rope. I started my descent, unaware that there was a safety knot in my rope. My leg was all the way into the loop before I realized what was happening and removed it.

Situations that could result in the necessity of hard rescues are always around us. This is just one example. If any of you have ideas that could have facilitated a rescue in this particular situation I think that everyone would like to hear them.

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