Spanish tourist rescued during night helicopter operation on Drakensberg escarpment

MCSA Search and RescueReport by Dean Van Der Merwe

On the evening of 19 May 2011 a Spanish tourist hiking in the Northern Drakensberg was rescued at night after sustaining a fracture to his lower leg.

The man lost the trail on his way back from a hike to the top of the Tugela Falls. In a show of fine airmanship a South African Air Force (SAAF) 17 Squadron crew hovered an Oryx helicopter some 150 meters below the Drakensberg Escarpment in a steep sided valley surrounded on three sides by cliff faces. This allowed a Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue team to rescue the man.

The rescue was only made possible due to the three helicopter crew members (Pilot, Co-pilot and Flight Engineer) using Night Vision Goggles without which the rescue team would have taken many more hours to effect.  Other hikers in the area were not able to reach the man and to provide assistance as he was located lower down below some cliff bands.

Rescue Organiser Rob Thomas’ primary concern was the onset of severe hypothermia in the already sub-zero temperatures which can quickly turn lethal at this altitude (almost 3 000m above sea level) as the hiker was only dressed for a day hike with light rain gear to protect himself from the elements.

The man, a 52 year old Spanish citizen who asked not to be named, was returning from a popular hike near Phuthaditjhaba (formerly Witsieshoek) to the top of the Drakensberg Escarpment where the Tugela Falls cascades some 800 meters down the Drakensberg Amphitheatre towards the Royal Natal National Park in Kwazulu-Natal.

Night Rescue - Night vision Goggles

The Night vision Goggles (NVGs) pictured here worn by Lieutenant Corné Botha (co-pilot, SAAF 17 Squadron based at the Swartkop Air Force base) was crucial in rescuing a Spanish tourist at night from steep and inaccessible terrain just below the Drakensberg escarpment. All three Oryx helicopter crew members (pilot, co-pilot and flight engineer) wore similar goggles in the operation which was complicated by steep cliff faces being on three sides of where the man found as well as the altitude (approximately 2 900m above sea level). Photo: MCSA Search and Rescue

He tried to jump across a gap and fell fracturing his lower leg at approximately 14:30 on Thursday 19 May.  According to the man it took more than an hour for other hikers occasionally looking over the edge near the chain ladders to realise that the man was in trouble and in desperate need of help and that his waving gestures was more than a just friendly.

The alarm was raised by a mountain guide and his clients who were returning to the car park.  According to the Spanish man, he lost the trail that led back to the series of chain ladders that offers one of the few ways down – avoiding the near vertical cliff bands, which descends to a bridle path back to the parking area.

An Oryx helicopter which took off from the SAAF Swartkop Air Force base picked up a Mountain Club of South Africa Search and Rescue team and an extensive amount of mountain rescue equipment (including almost a half a kilometre of rope) in Johannesburg and arrived on scene at approximately 20:00.

In order to increase the safety margin of what was going to be a challenging task, most of the rescue team and weight of the additional technical equipment (catering for various scenarios which was fortunately not needed) was off-loaded on the escarpment and a two-man team comprising of a senior paramedic and a senior mountain rescue technician hoisted onto the steep slopes of the gulley in which the man fell.

Using Night Vision Goggles the crew of the Oryx had to position the helicopter as close as possible to the fallen man whilst maintaining sufficient distance from the dark cliff faces.  The man who was already showing signs of hypothermia in addition to a fracture to his lower leg was stabilised and warmed up before being lowered some 60m on the back of a rescuer, attached to a rope to where he and the rescuers could be hoisted into the aircraft.

Helicopter Night Rescue - Night vision Goggles

Caption: MCSA Search and Rescue team members hand over the patient to the care of casualty staff at Milpark Hospital. Photo: MCSA Search and Rescue

The hiker was given warm drinks, before the helicopter refuelled at midnight at an unmanned SAAF air field / fuel depot before flying him to the care of the Milpark Hospital in Johannesburg some 12 hours after his ordeal started.

The man, who was hiking solo, described himself as an experienced hiker who has hiked on five continents in all manner of conditions.

Up until now, he had not experienced any serious accident.  Commenting after his ordeal: the man explained that when he lost his way, he made the mistake of continuing down a gulley instead of turning back and up the slope again to find the correct way down.

The path leading to the top of the Tugela Falls is not marked and it is not uncommon for hikers to loose their way although they usually regain the path.

Related Article: Rock is hard; people are soft


9 Responses to Spanish tourist rescued during night helicopter operation on Drakensberg escarpment

  1. Craig May 23, 2011 at 10:20 am #

    Well done to everyone involved!! Great to hear the outcome was a happy one!

  2. Christie May 23, 2011 at 8:41 pm #

    Well done guys. It is reaaly great to know that there are vollenteers willing to give up there time and that have the technical skills to help othere when they need it. Makes us feel safer in the mountains .

  3. brandon May 24, 2011 at 3:21 pm #

    props to the pilots, i don’t think people realize how much skill is needed for a rescue of that nature

  4. Ansie May 26, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Rule nr 1 of the mountains. Don’t go hiking alone. Luckily we have top notch mountain rescue people and helicopter pilots in SA.

  5. ScottS May 26, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    Actually Rule No. 1 is – Don’t f&$k it up. All other precautionary “rules” are just special cases of Rule No. 1..

  6. Joshua Jun 12, 2011 at 9:09 pm #

    Just wanting to add my 2 cents…
    There were two other hikers who had gone up the ladders, who people in the group i was guiding spoke to at the falls. This couple said they has seen a man ‘rock climbing” – obviously the same man. It was those two who did not take any action to help the man, they would have seen him on their way up the ladders.
    I was guiding my group down from the escarpment towards the two chain ladders when i head this man crying for help. I thought it was odd to hear someone calling for help coming in that direction, so i walked over to the cliff edge where i saw a man waving his arms sitting on a rock in the sheer gully to the left of Elands Falls, immobile.
    As i came down towards the ladders from the escarpment (we had taken the route up the gully) I IMMEDIATELY called mountain rescue, as soon as i could get information about the man’s condition. I was told by KZN mountain rescue that a helicopter would be dispatched and be on the scene in a couple of hours, which i had to relay to the man in the gully. There was absolutely no way to get to him, he was 150m down a steep gully with no access to him from the top or bottom of the gully. I took photos and MMS’d the pictures to mountain rescue so they could see his location and predicament. There was no way to try to get to him on foot, that would have been suicidal and dangerous. I have no idea what crazy idea inspired him to take that route down -a man of that age and experience hiking on 5 continents around the world should know better!
    I was originally told that a helicopter would be on the scene in around 2 and a half hours. I relayed this information onto the Spanish guy. The only way to communicate with him was by shouting across a huge void of around 150m, there was an echo in the gully he was stuck in which made communication difficult.
    In the meantime i roped my group down the ladders who were nervous after seeing the a guy stranded with a broken leg down a sheer gully. Once they were all down, i described the route back to them and maintained cellphone contact with them. Luckily i was equipped with 4 head torches, i gave 3 to the group and kept one for myself as it was getting dark.
    I was worried about the man in the gully as it was getting colder and colder. It would have been especially cold in the gully he was trapped in which would not have has any sunlight since the early afternoon. He had no warm clothing or food with him and he must also have been in considerable pain. I must say i was impressed by his composure throughout the incident. He never panicked but did express alarm a couple of times when i informed him the helicopter would be there at 6pm, not 4.30pm as originally promised. The next delay being 7.15pm (after it was realised they would only be able to dispatch one from Pretoria) which only ended up arriving at 8pm. By that time he would have been alone in that gully with a broken leg and ankle suffering for almost 6 hours. I was really worried about the hypothermia, it is so lucky for him that it was such a mild winters evening, 3 days before it had been snowing on the escarpment!
    I spent the last couple of hours simple shouting his name and waiting for him to answer at 10 minute intervals so i knew he was conscious and that he knew i was still there even though we could not see each other.
    Eventually the oryx rescue helicopter arrived. I ran up the ladders to rendezvous with it, i had never been involved in a mountain rescue or been in a helicopter before. The rescue team looked like they had descended from outer space, equipped with all their infra red rescue gear. I went with them in the helicopter to assist in pointing out his location. They found him after a few minutes and once they had winched a guy down to him they dropped me off on the ridge above the car park.
    I heard they spent many hours getting him out of that gully and eventually managed to transport him safely back to Pretoria hospital where he was treated for a broken leg, ankle and hypothermia.
    Well done to the rescue team and the pilots for saving this man’s life – the location of the rescue was very difficult and they did an excellent job getting him out.

    I suppose the lesson of this story is never underestimate the mountain, no matter how much experience you have, and don’t go hiking alone!!

  7. Rob Jun 13, 2011 at 7:39 pm #

    Great narrative, Josh! Well done! He was lucky you came by – and stayed with him.

  8. Joshua Jun 15, 2011 at 8:05 am #

    Indeed, he owes me some beers!

  9. Ewa & Roman Jun 28, 2011 at 11:15 pm #

    We are 2 people, who, together with other 4 tourists, took part in the unforgetable hike to the Tugela falls, when the described accident had happened.
    We have read the article about the rescue action and we wondered, that there was no word saying, that only the determination and empathy of our guide, Joshua, enabled the rescue team to get to the injured man.
    Joshua, as he wrote it in his report, from the very beginning was absolutelly sure, that the Spanish man was in big trouble and, after all, neither of us thought he was “waving just friendly”. On oposite – it was for us quite obvious, that he could even lose his life because of hyphothermia if the rescue would not come quickly. That’s why Joshua had called for rescue again and again and decided at least, with our fully approval, to stay in the mouintain at night, knowing, that the contact to the injured, desperated man in such a situation is extremelly important.
    We found it’s a pity, that it wasn’t mentioned in the report, that even so well equiped team could’nt find the injured tourist without Joshua’s help (who has spent 5 hours – 2 in totally darkness – assisting Jose). By the way, 5 hours is a lot of time, much too much, if you are waiting for help.
    For us it was – and is – absolutelly obvious, that the Spanish man deserves his life first of all Joshua, then the rescue team. And we still could not believe, that he did not say: “thank you” to Josh.
    Yes, Josh, piss off on that beer – you will drink the whole see of beer in Poland – but we still hope, Jose will say it to you some time…

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