Cave Rescue

Sometimes bad things happen to good people.

On January 26, 2013 we held a caving introductory class for our members interested in cave rescue.  The concept behind this training is to give interested members an idea of what cave environments are like and to initiate a discussion on the topic of cave rescue.  The members who attended had qualifications in urban search and rescue and some training in wilderness search and rescue.  The goal of this trip was by no means to make them proficient in cave rescue – there are a lot of specialized concepts applicable to caves that are pulled from many other disciplines, but the idea behind the training is to give them a flavor of what cave environments are like and pose questions about how certain things would work in said environments.

The trip was lead by two members of O.M.E.G.A. who have cave rescue training and by a member of the Colorado Cave Rescue Network.  Three members of O.M.E.G.A. came along to receive the exposure training.  Also on the trip were ten other individuals with a variety of caving experience, ranging from beginners to well experienced cavers.  They came from many walks of life, ranging from students to professionals and included members of the military and a political figure.  It was a very large and diversified group.  One member of O.M.E.G.A. stayed on the surface to provide any necessary logistical support.  Consistent with our policy, we will not disclose the names of the individuals on this trip due to the events that transpired on it and we will not name the cave or the area where it is located consistent with the caving community’s policy of protecting caves.

Cave Rescue

The training cave trip started out innocently enough… Photo by M Khaytsus.

The cave is in a wilderness area not far from a population center.  It is in a canyon with limited access and is in effect in a semi-remote wilderness area.  The cave itself is a limestone cave with a little less than a mile of passage.  It is normally accessed from the upper portion of the canyon along a hiking trail three quarters of a mile long.  There is another access point that is a fifth of a mile below the cave, but is harder to reach by vehicle.  The elevation drop from the upper access point to the lower access point is about 400 feet.  Most vehicles were left in a staging area further up the mountain, above the upper access point.

The group hiked down the canyon and entered the cave without any problems.  The cave entrance is a breakdown room with a fairly steep trail leading down and into the cave.  We followed the standard safety briefing when entering the cave.  Use bathrooms outside.  If you need to go in the cave, you are responsible for packing out what you bring in.  Stay on trail.  Wandering away from the group will result in you getting lost and possibly injured.  Know who is in front of you and who is behind you.  If the group starts to spread out too far, make sure that people are made aware.  When climbing always use three points of contact.  Pretty much any part of the body can be a contact point if it is solidly braced.  Don’t mess with any formations that you find.  Don’t use the ceiling to pull yourself up.  In weak areas you may end up pulling the ceiling down on yourself.  This is a fairly standard safety briefing.  The three trip leads then spread themselves to be in the front, middle and back of the group and relied on the assistance of the other experienced cavers in the group to help the newer party members navigate the cave.

The cave is a classic mix of diversified passage.  There is walking passage broken up by areas that require stooping, climbing, crawling and squeezing.  There are a lot of things to experience and a lot of opportunity for fun and challenging feats.  The experienced cavers found the cave to be fairly easy.  Those who were newer to caving found some portions of this cave to be a greater challenge, but in reality everything was well in scope of everyone’s skills.  And it was a great opportunity to discuss rescue tactics in a fairly complicated environment.

The group spent several hours in the cave.  We had a time that we had to be back by and that’s when things started to fall apart.  Everyone was tired from a hard day in the cave.  One of the members lost her footing on a hand line descent and even though she maintained her grip on the rope, she dropped about five feet and impacted the wall rather hard.  She was shaken up, but appeared to be okay to continue on her own.  This was the start of a chain of events that went downhill for the group.  We proceeded slowly towards the exit.  Those moving faster than others were allowed to scramble up the breakdown slope to exit the cave.  The more experienced cavers held back to get those needing a hand out of the cave before continuing out themselves.  We were, at this point, running late.  It was decided that two individuals should go up canyon to let our surface support know that the group was late exiting the cave.  There was no cause for alarm at this point.

The last individuals in the cave were the three trip leads, one of the well experienced cavers and the woman who slipped on the hand line.  She was exhausted and in pain, but determined to exit the cave under her own power.  One of the trip leads exited the cave to get a head count of the party outside.  It’s bad form to leave the cave with fewer people than you entered it with.  We had been doing head counts all day.

The group of four inside was about a hundred feet in.  That’s not a great distance, but they had to negotiate some challenging breakdown terrain and were effectively in the process of an assisted self-rescue.  The trip lead who exited the cave told the nine cavers gathered on the surface that anyone who wanted to head up to clean up and warm up should feel free to do so.  It was about 45ºF outside with a steady light breeze and the sun had already set.  It would only get colder and it already started to drizzle.  There was a three quarter mile hike ahead of the group with an elevation gain of about four hundred feet, a hike better completed while there was still some ambient light.  The group inside was coming out, but it would be slow progress.  Five individuals headed up the canyon.  They were also to deliver a status update.

And that’s when we experienced the second accident.  The woman who was already injured slipped a second time and either pulled or sprained the already injured shoulder.  She was on the last pitch just inside the cave entrance.  Additional individuals had to go back in to the cave to render assistance to get her out of the cave.  This was a fairly lengthy process and it was twilight by the time she was standing on the canyon floor.

The nine individuals outside the cave had some hard decisions to make.  The woman was very much exhausted and in a lot of pain.  Having her walk broken terrain up the canyon was not practical and possibly not even realistic.  We needed to get her to a safe area in as short a time as we could.  A fifth of a mile of downhill broken terrain was infinitely preferred to three quarters of a mile of an uphill push.  It was decided that three individuals, including two of the trip leads, would take the woman down canyon.  The rest of the group would go back up canyon and have one of the four-by-fours drive down and pick up the group at the lower access point.

What the group outside the cave did not know at the time was that the second group to head up canyon to the vehicles did deliver their report that there was an injury causing the delays.  It was immediately decided that a vehicle would drive down to the lower access point in the canyon to render aid and get the injured party out.  It was completely dark by the time the SUV made it down with two O.M.E.G.A. members on board.  One headed up the trail while the other one waited with the vehicle.  The one heading up the trail made it to the cave just in time to meet the group heading to the lower access point.  It took a while to get down to the waiting vehicle and by then it was fully dark.

While the vehicle could take the entire group back up to the staging area at the upper access point, one of the trip leads decided to hike back up the canyon.  There was a concern as to what the third group to go up would do when they reached the upper canyon access point and found the logistics support vehicle gone.  The staging area with all the vehicles was another fifth of a mile and a hundred feet higher on the mountain.  The trip lead would sweep the canyon floor between the lower access point and the upper access point to make sure that no one attempted to come back to mount a rescue.  He would need to negotiate the canyon in the dark, using only his caving headlamp.  It may sound unpleasantly dangerous, but it’s fundamentally no different from spending the day in a dark cave and arguably the canyon terrain was significantly less broken than that of the cave.  He arrived at the upper access point in short time and was picked up by one of the O.M.E.G.A. members to be taken up to the staging area.

In analysis of the incident, the root cause of the accident leading to the assisted self-rescue was exhaustion, resulting in diminished ability to perform required tasks.  It could potentially have been mitigated through early use of granola or power bars or other energy boosting snacks and energy supplementing hydration such as Gatorade or PowerAde.  Support and physical spotting were offered to the injured party early and quickly escalated from hands-off assistance to full support.  After completion of the rescue and some rest, the injured party refused further assistance or medical attention and was able to drive herself home later in the evening.  A final sweep of the canyon was a good idea, but in retrospect should not have been performed by a single individual due to safety concerns of a lone traveler in the dark in a remote wilderness area.  Radios were not used in the rescue because propagation of the signal is very limited in caves and no one considered the potential need for rescue coordination outside of the cave.  This is a practice that we will reevaluate for future training events.

The injured individual was doing much better the following day and the incident turned out to be a minor rescue.  Bad things happen to good people often due to no fault of their own.  It is important to remember that safety should be a primary concern in all outdoor activities and contingency plans are very important.  When going out to take advantage of outdoor recreation it is always important to understand the terrain challenges that you will be facing and the level of complexity that you will have to deal with.  Always let someone know where you are going and how long you intend to be out.  Make sure that they are not afraid to make a call for help in the event you do not return on time, given an appropriate margin for delays.  Search and rescue in Colorado and most other areas across the United States is free of charge and available by dialing 911.

No formations were damaged in the performance of this rescue.

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