Brent Jennings tells us all about Mountain Search and Rescue
“Rock is hard; people are soft”
Photos by Andy Nix
It’s a little funny, really. Your eyeball feels as though it’s going to pop out of your head. It’s focusing on a spot only a few centimetres away, where a #1 Rock just can’t find the sweet spot in the little crack. Your forearm (the one that’s holding the rock, not the Rock, that tiny little bit of alloy protection) starts up that familiar ache and judder.
It’s worth a humorous comment to your belayer, far below. You work the nut in, and it skates frustratingly out. Again. And yet again. You’d just leave it and crank on up to (what looks like) a good rail, but your previous piece is a rather sketchy cam a good way beneath your feet. You pause and think about running it out. More time wasted and another wisecrack to the belayer. You think about trying the #2 instead.
Stop wasting time dammit.
Shit. Try again. Maddeningly, it just won’t go in. Your fingers start to cramp up and open just a fraction.
Shit. There! It’s in!
Just as you clip the rope into the ‘biner on the little nut, it skips out again, and describes a menacing little spiral as it twists down the rope that snakes between your Elvis legs.
And suddenly, it’s not funny any more.
‘If you’re not falling, then you’re not trying hard enough‘, is an old climbing saying, and usually expressed in relation to sport climbing, a relatively safe environment in which to fall.
However, the truth is that at some stage or another, if you’re climbing a lot and pushing your grades, or really getting out there in the wilderness, hunting those remote, long, loose country routes, then you have a fairly good chance of experiencing some kind of mishap during the course of your mountaineering life.
Those who have never been in a situation where they’ve had to think of rescue, or stood shoulder to shoulder with sombre friends at yet another memorial service for a climbing buddy or acquaintance, often scoff quietly at the notion of getting into serious trouble on the mountain. It won’t happen to me , they may think. Well, it may indeed. And if it does, then it does not necessarily mean you’ve done something bone-headed. You’d be in good company, too. Many talented, skilled and experienced mountaineers and climbers have had their luck fail while out on the hill.
Dawn comes slowly, and you’re grateful for the shade in which a cool breeze drifts downward as you slog up the long slope of proteas, Leucadendrons and scree. The only sound is the crunch and rustle of last year’s foliage underfoot, and heavy breathing as you and your partner push quickly on up the approach. You’re feeling pretty fit, and have only a small day pack in which each of you carry half the rack and a rope, plus the usual personal gear and some food and water. Suddenly the sun crests over the ridge across the valley, and you feel the first nag of haste as you begin to sweat in earnest in its heat.
We have established the irrefutable fact that mishaps can happen to anyone in the mountains, whether just hiking, or while climbing sport or trad (or bouldering). What remains is to determine what is to be done about it, should one’s luck run out.
Self-rescue techniques are a valuable set of skills with which to arm oneself. Many climbing accident victims have, through their own ingenuity and that of their climbing partner/s, been able to affect their own rescue, or at least get themselves out of the worst part of their predicament.
This happens a lot more than one would think.
Most of these incidents go unreported, and are merely woven into colourful stories that are brought out (and usually embellished as the years go by) in the pub or around the braai. Reported incidents have many examples. Mountaineering: think Doug Scott on the Ogre; climbing: think Paul Pritchard on the Totem Pole (hell, think Paul Pritchard in any number of incidents). Joe Simpson (again, on more than one occasion). Then there’s the deft but rather horrifying bit of pen-knife handiwork of Aron Ralston.
But when self-rescue fails, or is not an option, then thoughts must turn to summoning help. There is no (or should be no) negative stigma attached to the notion of calling for a rescue. The only important concept is to get off the mountain. Safely.
You and your partner link up the first two pitches of the fourteen-pitch route. Those are easy, and you’re both feeling quite amped for the crux third pitch. So much so that when you get to the ledge and your partner says “your lead” you’re happy to take the rack and head out over the boulder and into the layback crack right away. And it’s all as perfect as they said it would be: you pass the old piton, and the crack is sucking up gear like you’re gonna be sucking up the cold beers that are waiting for you at the hut later. You finish it in style, and eat up the next set of pitches.
It’s going well, but you’re surprised at how it all just seems to keep coming. In the back of your mind is the thought of several grade 20 pitches, in succession, high above. All focus was on the grade 22 crux, but that was when you were psyched and fresh. Now, you’re feeling a little tired, and there seems like an awful lot of rock above you.
Many mountain users, especially ones who have a lot of friends in the climbing community, would first summon help by phoning a friend. Contrary to some (read ‘official’) opinion, this is actually a good way to go about it. This article accepts cellular ‘phones as the common means of incident reporting as they are ubiquitous and coverage good, but one should bear in mind that the old fall-back of sending a runner for help still has a place.
Calling a friend, especially one who has good mountain knowledge, means that you’ll get your message across properly the first time.
Key facets, such as: location, nature of the problem (injuries) and urgency are easily communicated. Bear in mind, like the proverbial police station call, you may only have one shot at it.
Once you’ve called a friend, you can then follow the recommended official line.
That is, contact one of the published Emergency Numbers: 107, 10177, or 021-9370300.
(if you don’t have these numbers already, consider putting them into your cellphone and helmet/bag)
The latter will get you directly to Metro Control, the main centre to which the other numbers will route the call anyway. Explain your problem in detail, clearly, slowly. Crucial is that if you think your rescue may be technical (ie it’s a climb, or someone’ll need ropes to get to you), then emphasise this fact.
The day has worn on, and you’re above half way on your country route. Fatigue is starting to set in. You have enough water, but your arms feel like overcooked spaghetti (why the hell does hauling up rope take so much effort??). Your feet are sore from those tight little Velcro slippers. You have sweat in your eyes, lichen down your butt crack and your idiot partner left the energy bars at the hut. But you don’t complain. You’re a nice guy. Besides, you’re the one who dropped the RD on pitch 8. You realise it’s pitch 11 (or thereabouts. You think) and you’d better get a move on. It’s a long one, but broken by rest ledges. You head up, achy hands grabbing for crimps that seem a little smaller than they should for grade 20. And why is the gear so damn thin up here? Above is what looks like a good rail, if you run it out a bit, you can get a good #1 nut in just before it…
There are many forks in Fate’s road. As you watch your nut spin down your lead rope your arms turn to jelly. One possibility has you downclimb a bit, and take a safe lob onto the dodgy cam, which holds. One has you run it out to the rail, which you may reach in a flood of sweat and curses and sweet Hail Mary’s. But another fork may have you – in that strange slow motion way in which falling is sometimes illuminated, like an old black and white newsreel movie – peeling away and backward, coils of slack rope between your thighs, towards the badly positioned ledge below.
Click here see more info and Route Descriptions on Yellowwood Amphitheatre
It is true that rescue is something you don’t really think about until you need it. You just assume that it’s there, and will perform the necessary when called upon to do so.
The Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) has been involved with rescue for over 110 years. For most of that time it was the sole organisation able to affect technical rescue in remote terrain. Things have changed somewhat, in recent years, with Wilderness Search and Rescue (WSAR) assuming ownership of rescue in the Western Cape.
However, the MCSA is still an active and key participant in WSAR, which functions as the umbrella body under the jurisdiction and control of Metro and the provincial Emergency Medical Services (EMS). A mountain rescue call that comes in via Metro control will be passed to a Metro manager, who will activate an SMS paging system notifying senior WSAR rescue team co-ordinators, whose job it is to activate suitably skilled members.
WSAR comprises many different teams from the Western Cape , including the police, military, SANParks, various hiking clubs, the Off-Road Rescue Unit, HAMNET, the caving club, High Angle and other technical teams, amongst others. It copes with the various mountain rescue calls here and sometimes further afield.
Within WSAR there are people whose skills and dedication to rescue have made them eligible to be part of a group that have been selected to participate in helicopter-based rescue and training. This group trains and works with the single-engined Agusta A119 helicopter of the Red Cross Air Mercy Services, as well as the twin-engined Oryx aircraft of 22 Sqn based at Ysterplaat Air Force base.
The Agusta flies only during daylight, and can deploy only one medic and one climber, but it is a very rapid response platform. The Oryx can deploy a team of eight to ten and operates day or night in much more adverse conditions. Its response time, however, is slower.
The amount of training that mountain rescuers undergo cannot be understated, especially the more technical members, and those involved with helicopter based rescue. Training is integral to honing and teaching skills, and helps to forge a bond amongst the rescuers, many of whom come from different teams. The MCSA teams are extremely effective because, amongst other reasons, many of their members climb together recreationally, and indeed many close friendships exist within the teams.
Rescue in the Western Cape is busy. Much more so even than the rest of the country combined. While climbing incidents make up a very small percentage of rescue activity, the SA Mountain Accidents Database (compiled and administered by Andrew Lewis) S.A. Mountain Accidents Database web site reveals that WSAR has fielded a total of 147 mountain calls in 2006, 130 in 2007, 113 in 2008 and have completed, at time of writing, 93 operations this year (with the busiest time of the year still to come).
Most of us are not paid to participate in mountain rescue. We give up our work time and our weekend time to train and to respond to real rescues (not to mention the horrors of admin and meetings). It may not be much fun to receive a call-out at 03:00 in winter for a climber who has fallen on a country route, but it is exhilarating. And at the completion of a successful operation, it can be deeply rewarding too.
There are many reasons why people become involved in mountain rescue. These reasons may range from the noble to the ridiculous. But for many of us it is very simple and almost goes without saying: because one day it may be a friend or climbing buddy who needs help.
It may even be me. Or it may be you.
About the Author:
Brent Jennings (right) is the senior technical trainer for the MCSA (CT) Search and Rescue team. He is also the co-ordinator for mountain rescue training between SAAF 22 Sqn and WSAR.
He represents both rescue and rock climbing on the MCSA CT section General Committee, and serves as a WSAR rescue manager, as well as being a member of the WSAR Air Support Working group, the Helicopter Technical group and the Technical Training Working group.
Brent also has a keen interest in search management and theory. He lives in Cape Town and, when he can find the time, enjoys both sport and trad climbing.
South Cape (Plettenberg Bay/Knysna/George):
Eastern Province (Port Elizabeth):
- 082 990 7626
Kwazulu Natal (Durban / Pietermartitzburg):
- 0800 005 133
Gauteng / Free State / North West / Limpopo / Mpumalanga:
Primary – 074 125 1385,
Secondary – 074 163 3952
Alternatively call Metro on – 011 315-0203
A big thank you to Brent Jennings for compiling the article and Andy Nix for use of her awesome ‘Search and Rescue’ photos!
Be sure sure to check out her blog site picoftheweek.andynix.co.za