Cave Rescue with CCRN

Every couple of years the Colorado Cave Rescue Network (CCRN) holds a two day long cave rescue seminar.  Technically, it’s a half day seminar, a half day workshop and a full day functional exercise.  Students come with some existing skill sets, but not all students have the same skill sets, which is both good and bad for the event.

The CCRN is a local representative of the National Speleological Society’s (NSS) rescue organization, the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC).  The NCRC teaches several week long classes where students come in with a certain common foundation, most notably vertical skills proficiency, and are taught an assortment of other cave rescue related skills including medical, confined space rescue, vertical rescue, incident command and other related elements.  Cave rescue is in many ways a special beast.  It combines elements from many different disciplines and utilizes them with the assumption that the rescuers have limited or no support from the outside world.

The April 2013 CCRN training was held in Glenwood Springs, Colorado and brought together some four dozen individuals representing local search and rescue teams and the local caving community.  This was my fourth go at a CCRN weekend seminar and I have to say that no two have been the same to date.  I’ve learned something new every time and experienced new challenges at every session.

Saturday mornings are lecture time.  The basics are covered and disclaimers are issued.  Students are taught about caving safety, rescue considerations, underground communications, medical issues.  One would say, “hey, you’re a SAR, you do this stuff all the time!”  Not really.  Caves really are different.  A dumb move on the surface generally ends up being an annoying (and possibly painful) inconvenience and maybe teammates poking fun at the unlucky responder for months to come.  Underground a goof could cost valuable time, create additional patients, severely impact limited resources and, in extreme cases, could be a life threatening incident.


Rick Speaect teaching the Incident Command System, an overview. Photo by M Khaytsus.

CaveSim at CCRN

A packaged patient entering the cave simulator. Photo by D Jackson.

Saturday afternoon the class continued into outdoor hands-on practice breakouts, including setup of communications lines from scratch, using military field phones, patient packaging and two patient carry simulations, one through a playground obstacle course and a second one through a confined space cave simulator where hitting faux formations would result in warning beeps and a rapidly diminishing score.

In the evening exhausted students and instructors gathered for dinner and talked about how the day went and what the day to come would bring.  All we knew was that there would be some lost cavers in Glenwood Caverns and that we would be rescuing them.  Not much more was known.  We did find out that Rick Speaect was going to be the incident commander and he had the night to figure out a plan, not really knowing what he was planning for.

Rick is a long time member of O.M.E.G.A., going back to the 2005 Operation Safe Haven (Hurricane Katrina) deployment.  He’s a big cave rescue guy and one of the most skilled climbers I know.  He, no doubt, was the right choice for this role, but having to sit at the command post in the in the Glenwood Caverns visitor center drove him nuts.  Rick is an action guy and driving a desk makes him very uncomfortable.

There was a hint that Rick had something special planned for me.  I figured that he’d make me a team lead for a search or an extraction and send me to some remote pain in the butt area like Jam Crack for a nasty, physically demanding exploration.  Jam Crack is well known caving challenge at Glenwood Caverns.  Those going through it have to decide if they will be facing right or left for the duration of the vertical trip, which has sections where you inhale to wedge yourself in and exhale to squeeze your way further through the passage.

Rick and I often have vigorous debates about various aspects of rescue.  We agree on the needs and the goals, but aren’t always on the same page when it comes to implementation.  The good news is that every time we’ve worked together, we’ve been very good about being on the same page and being consistent about how we do things.  And after we’re done, we’ll sit down and do a blow by blow analysis and focus on completely unrelated successes and failures and why things didn’t work the way we wanted them to.  With that in mind, I fully expected that Rick would throw me a devious challenge, not to be mean, but to say, “let’s see you do this”.

On Sunday morning I stood outside the Glenwood Caverns visitor center and watched the pandemonium unfold.  Rescue gear was trucked up and unloaded in a central staging location.  The incident command post was set up.  Most of the responders came up on the tram, limiting what they could individually bring with them.  We found out that there were four missing cavers.  We knew who we were looking for, but not where.  And at just over three miles in length, Glenwood Caverns is the state’s third longest cave.  We had a lot to get accomplished in limited time.

Rick pulled together a communications team and a hasty team before turning to me.  “How would you like to be the UC?”

That was the absolute last thing that I expected to hear.  In the cave rescue world the UC is an abbreviation for the underground coordinator.  It’s the underground rescue operations branch director, reporting to an operations section chief, who reports to the incident commander.  Sometimes the operations chief position is eliminated all together and the responsibilities of the job are split between the IC and the UC with the IC taking care of all operational needs above ground and the UC taking on the operational elements in the cave.  This was going to be a challenging job.

Hasty-1 was led by Kenny Headrick.  Kenny is a long time caver and an employee at Glenwood Caverns.  I’ve caved with him before and always had full faith in his skills and knowledge.  On the team Kenny had another strong caver, a solid vertical guy and an EMT.  I told him upfront that the hasty search was his show.  He knows the cave and can do things quickly in there.  I was just along for the ride until we established parameters.  My only instructions to him were that we hit the likeliest spots cavers could get into trouble first, then hit the other areas.  This is a standard principle of a hasty search and in a cave like this the likely places to get into trouble were the vertical sections where climbing is required.  Top to bottom Glenwood Caverns has about two hundred feet of vertical relief, so we could potentially be busy for a long time.

Rick was busy putting together a second hasty team to search other areas of the cave.  The communications team was already stringing cable from the command post to the cave entrance.  Hasty-1, with me in tow, headed into the cave.  In my mind I churned old fuzzy memories of my ICS, LUSAR and WAS training for situations such as this.  I did not care about the details.  I did not need to know the cave.  I didn’t even need to know who was on the teams.  I just needed to work with the unit leaders and marshal them to the appropriate tasks.  I had to trust that the people I had reporting to me knew their jobs and would do them well and this is probably the hardest thing for any manager to do.  Many years ago my boss in my real world job had a discussion with me about task delegation.  I dug my heels in on releasing some of the tasks I was responsible for and she reminded me that we were not going to make the deadlines unless I delegated and supervised.  “They won’t do it the way I’ll do it,” I said.  “They won’t,” she agreed.  “No one will ever do it the way you would, but you have to set aside your definition of perfect and accept a job sufficiently well done.  We just need this to work.”  That argument stayed with me for years now.  It’s a valid argument.  I have to trust the people I have working for me.  They know the job and they will do the job.  Maybe that was the lesson that Rick had for me, too.  He knew that underground I would not do things the way he would do them and I knew that the people working for me – and indirectly for Rick – would not do things the way either one of us would do them.  But Rick trusted me to get the job done and I needed to trust others to get the job done as well, just like I trusted Kenny to find the lost cavers.  That thought process made me feel good.  We had this.  The goal was simple.  Find the cavers, get them out.

Traditional SAR methods follow the LAST principles.  Locate, access, stabilize, transport.  Any single one of these could be a bear and we had to start with first thing first.  Kenny dove into the darkness, followed by his team and by me.  Over the last decade I’ve been to Glenwood Caverns three times.  I had a pretty good idea of the cave’s layout in my mind.  There were going to be tough spots and easy spots.  I remembered the first tough spot being a winding sloping off-trail passage called “Easy Out”.  It wasn’t called Easy Out because it was easy.  It was called Easy Out because other paths through the area, like the White Rabbit Hole and the Y2-Krawl, were infinitely nastier.  I stopped dead in my tracks.  Easy Out was a good six feet wide and at least ten feet tall.  It turns out that during the winter the owners of the cave made some passage modifications to introduce a complete loop that would allow easier passing for tour groups.  A section of the cave was modified with some old off-trail segments being enlarged to form the large circular loop.  I used to know this cave.  Now I really did have to trust Kenny to make this search perfect.

We checked out a bunch of alcoves and Kenny had a couple of the team members run the Darrow Tunnel to Exclamation Point to make sure no one was there.  Kenny made sure that side passages were managed until sections were explored and declared empty before we moved on, to make sure our subjects did not fall behind us.  We made progress through the cave until arriving at a breakdown section known as the Passport Room.  Here Kenny heard a voice and disappeared into the maze of boulders past the room.  We left a caver in the Passport Room and followed Kenny up.  The breakdown was fairly challenging and I couldn’t help but wonder how we could get an injured person out of this maze of rocks.  After some struggling we got to Caver Pete.  He was sitting in the dark on a sloping rock, his leg stretched out in front of him.  He said he hurt his ankle.  The team EMT immediately got to work.  “Where does it hurt?  How long ago did this happen?  When’s the last time you had something to eat or drink?”  While he was checking out the patient, I spoke with Kenny.  We needed to get an extraction team here.  They would need a vertical team to support them.  Kenny would get the word out and continue his search for the others without the medic.

When I got the opportunity, I interviewed Caver Pete.  He said that he did not know the cave.  He was here with Jon, Mary and Kevin.  Jon got hurt in a fall, so they had Mary stay with him and Pete and Kevin went for help.  They got lost and Pete injured his ankle, leaving Kevin to continue looking for the way out on his own.  He had no idea of what the various areas of the cave were called and the story gave us little information, other than that Jon was injured about fourteen hours earlier and was with Mary and that Pete was hurt about nine hours before we found him.  Kevin was lost out there on his own.

I made sure that medic was set up and checked out a couple of alternative routes through the breakdown before heading out.  Traditionally we tell rescuers that no one is to be left alone.  The medic was okay.  He was there with Caver Pete.  Pete was coherent and functional, just unable to crawl.  The problem was me leaving on my own.  I knew it.  I thought about it.  I made a conscious decision to manage the risk.  The odds of me getting lost were slim.  Kenny made sure the passage was flagged and we had the communications team following us in.  The risk was slipping and becoming injured, not like Pete, but for real.  I knew that I was breaking a rule.  Slow and easy.  Three points of contact.

I made it to the Passport Room, to the main passage and followed the flagging back to the entrance.  The communications team was there, setting up.  They had no idea what happened to Kenny and the rest of the team and they knew nothing about Caver Pete.  They did know that Hasty-2 was in the cave and they went clockwise, opposite the counterclockwise route that Hasty-1 took.  For some reason communications to the command post was gone.  I told the communications unit leader to follow the flagging that Kenny left in place to get to the Passport Room and I would exit the cave and get things organized.  We had a solid start and I knew what resources would be needed for Pete.

A run up the hill got me up to a super busy staging area.  Rick and Dave Schmitz, the logistics section chief, were wrangling the resources.

“We found Pete,” I said.  “We need to talk.”

Rick immediately pulled away form the group to a quiet corner of the staging area and I told him the story.  We would need an extraction team and a vertical team to get the job done.  He immediately pulled me a three member rigging team, which I think he had pre-staged, and started working on the extraction team.  The lead for Vertical-1 was Tom Ice, a Garfield County Search and Rescue guy who I’ve known for a number of years.  Tom is a grizzled veteran of probably every cliff outcropping in the county and has a reputation that precedes him.  I briefed him on the challenge while his team gathered their equipment.  The challenge wasn’t so much a tall cliff, as it was a slippery sloping passage with a lot of rocks and short inconvenient drops that would hinder the transport of a patient.  I knew Tom had this one by the look in his eyes.

Followed by Vertical-1 and Evac-1 I headed back into the cave.  The communications team decided that they will string cable clockwise, following Hasty-2 because the passage on that side was friendlier.  Because the entire area was a loop, they would get to the Passport Room from the other side.  They did hear a rumor that Hasty-2 had found more of the cavers.  I told them to get communications up and running and headed along the original path blazed by Hasty-1 to the Passport Room.  This was a path I knew.

With Vertical-1 and Evac-1 in place, I headed further down the loop to find Hasty-2.  There were communications technicians stringing phone wire here now and I just needed to follow the line to the Register Room, further down the passage.  I came across Evac-2 staging in this area.  There was a claustrophobically small hole in the floor that a phone wire ran down into.  I confirmed that this was the right place and went in, followed by the Evac-2 team leader.  After some scrambling, I came across Caver Mary.  I’ve known her for many years.  The rescuer managing her told me that Jon was in “The Canyon” with a broken leg and that Mary was not cooperating and was somewhat drunk.  While we talked, Mary tried to run off on us.  We intercepted her and I sat down with her.

“Mary, you’re a lush.”  Probably not an opening line I’d use with someone I didn’t know for as many years.  That made her laugh and fall out of character.  “Where’s Kevin, Mary?”

She had no idea.  Leaving Mary in the hands of Hasty-2, I proceeded up to The Canyon, a rather deep rift where Vertical-2 was starting to set up.  Hasty-1 was down in The Canyon, too.  Jon was going to need to be hauled up and handed over to Evac-2 and while they got him through the passage, Vertical-2 would need to restage for another vertical lift.  And we needed to get Caver Mary out.  She was proving to be a lot of trouble.  I had a quick meeting with the leads of Hasty-2, Evac-2 and Vertical-2.  Hasty-1 and Hasty-2 would need to move on to look for Kevin.  Evac-2 would pull a couple of people to take Mary out and bring more supplies in.  And we had communications between the command post, cave entrance, Register Room, Passport Room and an in between area where the communications line split three ways in the cave.

The communications team proved to be fantastic.  They ran all traffic for us and helped get supplies and people in and out.  Each time I passed by a communications station, they would give me messages and patch me through to the right areas.  And the communications unit leader had two extra people, one of which he used to substitute and fill in where needed and one was assigned to me.  That, too, worked fantastically well.  I was never alone, which addressed a safety concern and I had a personal scribe who took notes and relayed messages and got me information on demand.  The only time I got on the phone at that point was when Rick wanted to talk directly with me.

The Evac and Vertical teams were on top of things.  There was some churn in their roles, but they needed very little direct supervision.  My primary concern was finding Kevin.  I had Hasty-1 and Hasty-2 sweep the main drag again and check the alcoves.  They did a detailed sweep of The Canyon and looked in Jam Crack.  Then we sat down to evaluate the options.  There was a mazy area past The Canyon called the Forbidden Zone.  It was a tough place to get to and a tough place to search and it was heading further in, not out.  There was a chance that Kevin was there, but it was very small.  We talked about this as an option earlier and now, having exhausted all our other options, Kenny brought it up again.  “Do it,” I said.

We returned to the Register Room where Caver Jon was being hauled down the slope.  It was a bit of an effort for us to navigate around Evac-2, when suddenly they presented us with Kevin.  They stumbled across him on the edge of The Canyon, in the transition to the Forbidden Zone.  The hasty teams took charge of Kevin to get him out.  I checked on the status of the teams taking Caver Jon out, then went across to the Passport Room and checked on how the teams with Caver Pete were doing.  It was now a competition to see which team would come out first.  I instructed Evac-1 to get Pete out clockwise on the loop and Evac-2 to get Jon out counterclockwise on the loop, opposite in the direction from which both teams came, so that they would not cross paths and interfere with one another.  Getting a packaged injured caver out would be a challenge without bumping into the bottleneck of a second rescue team.

Passport, please.

Extraction of Caver Pete from the breakdown in the Passport Room. Photo by D Bristol.

Caver Pete won the extraction race by about two minutes.  I stayed back with the communications team while they derigged the phone lines and assisted the returning members of Evac-1 and Evac-2 to carryout the personal packs and gear that could not be removed during the extraction.  Flagging and trash were picked up and hauled out.  I verified with entrance control that everyone else had checked out and that I was the last one to leave the cave.  Under ICS, as the incident throttles down and the response structure collapses, the lead for the area is always the last one out.  I then reported to Rick and he checked me out as well.

After the gear was packed away, everyone gathered to talk about what happened.  This was a fairly standard hotwash with teams sharing their own perspectives and discussing where they had succeeded and where they had failed.  Was it perfect?  No.  Nothing is ever perfect.  That’s why we practice – to avoid making mistakes.  Was it good enough?  Absolutely.  We located the missing cavers, managed their injuries and got them out.  From the standpoint of accomplishing the mission, we did exactly what we set out to do.  I said that very thing when it was my turn to talk about the incident.  A number of people told me that I did a great job, but I can’t take the credit for that.  I had some fantastic people supporting me and they made me look good.  They were the ones who did the work.  I read a long time ago that the secret to being a good manager is to find capable people and have them do the job they are best at.  That’s what happened this day.  I had a handful of rock stars assemble the puzzle, communicate with each other and come up with the best possible plan and pull off a very smooth rescue operation under some very difficult conditions.  My job was to make sure that they know the mission and my responsibility was to make sure they had all the tools that they needed to get the job done.

And the training?  As invaluable as ever.  Perhaps some of Saturday had been repetition, but Sunday was pushing new limits.  I’ve been the rescue branch operations director before.  I’ve never done it in a dark 50 degree cave, fully isolated from civilization with a bunch of people who never worked together before.  My own concepts about how a rescue works had to be stretched and I had to adjust my own knowledge and understanding on the fly, trying to stay a step ahead of the incident.

I would strongly recommend this training to anyone who caves on a regular basis and to those involved in the rescue community who have the potential to be involved in cave or confined space rescue.  You can’t beat the experience you walk away with.

Oh, and Rick and I still don’t see eye to eye on the dynamics of these things, but we know that when pressed, we will work with what we have and we will do a pretty good job.  It’s not about a cookie-cutter roadmap.  It’s about being flexible and getting the job done.  We are pretty good at that and in an emergency it’s the only thing that matters.

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