Tag: climbing

i still hate heights

Any official operation we do as members of search and rescue is run by the Sheriff up here, and as such I can’t really talk about specifics. Also when I’m touching a patient both out of HIPAA and general decency I can’t talk about the person(s) involved very much. You can read up on the official story  with officially release details, and the Sheriff released this video for public consumption. I’m down there on the bottom.

So this story really isn’t about the rescue as much as it’s about what it’s like for this particular guy to get a call on my phone and find myself in a world that I’m still coming to grips with.

For starters, the part you don’t see in the video is where my buddy and I got lowered out of that helicopter, by a little wire, with all our packs and gear, onto those rocks, a half hour before that.

So let’s backup a bit to the point where I found myself at a lonely municipal airport, geared up: harness, mountaineering boots, helmet, goggles, radio, full pack. The helicopter crews start to rip the gear off slowly but surely: all the excess weight must go. Seats, spares, everything. Hauling my teammate and I up into the mountains takes a lot of power and to carry us the rest must go.

I’m surrounded by paramedics, the CHP flight team, other SAR members, and law enforcement. Radios crackle with updates, and I’m noticing that this all seems totally normal to them.

A little voice gets into my head:

It’s time you come clean and tell these people that you have no business here.

I try to shake it off, just figuring it’s the jitters. The pilot does his last fuel calculation and we load in. Sitting on bare metal, clipped to a bolt on the flooring, and holding onto the back of the pilot’s seat (the only seat left), the blades start slowly whirring.

leavingearth
My buddy and I in the back, red helmets, taking off.

The voice comes back, trying to bargain with me:

You’re on the team and technically you’re trained for this but this is the real deal. The is the stuff you see on Youtube. You’re not that guy. You’ve managed to get here, but you’re not supposed to be. You better tell them they have the wrong guy.

A classic case of imposter syndrome, I was feeling it in earnest. Putting myself on the couch, was it actually imposter syndrome or was it my deathly fear of heights scrambling for leverage? I even got worried that my feet would fall asleep being crunched up on the chopper floor. Wouldn’t that be hilarious: rescuer tumbles out of helicopter because his foot fell asleep.

I first decided to get into search and rescue, bluntly, because my daughter’s life was saved by a team like that. Maybe knowing that I’ll never be in the incredible PJ squad has me always feeling like I’ll never really be “enough”, and that it’s a cast of heroes that do the real work and my place is more centered around getting them coffee than being on the the pointy edge of the spear.

laurelhill
This was the first fire truck I ever ran a call on. Laurel Hill, Norwich, CT.

The first time I ever responded to a 911 call I was 18 years old running code 3 to a motor vehicle accident (“mva, car vs motorcycle” in dispatch parlance). I distinctly remember the feeling of “Oh shit, there’s no one else coming, it’s just us.”

I think for the average Joe Citizen when you call 911 you imagine this Hollywood-esque crew of Dwayne Johnsons rushing towards you, equipped with everything and flawless. But when you’re the one getting the 911 call it’s a very different story. You’re aware of your shortcomings. You’re trying to remember everything from your training. You’re trying to be aware of the things that won’t let you stay focused. You’re trying not to get hurt yourself but really you know you took this job because you wanted to help people and a bit of risk is part of the package.

LeeViningFall
My team and I, doing our thing, in the middle of nowhere.

The voice kept talking to me, but I went back to that realization I had as a teenager: this is your job and people are relying on you. If you don’t want to do this, quit later, but for now do your f’n job kid. You trained, you have a solid team that will back you up. They’re relying on you. The patient is relying on you. He’s hurt, he needs your help.

The crew chief hooked me onto the hoist wire and unclipped my tether. The spitwadded toilet paper in my ears did its best to muffle the rotor noise. I don’t remember going over the edge, but I do remember looking up at the underside of the AStar helicopter, dangling from its hoist wire: RESCUE was written in large, bold letters underneath it.

Touching down on the ground, I unhooked the wire. Meeting up with my other teammates we got started on our jobs. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I belong in this work, serving with these amazing people. But I sure as hell will try to keep up with them, not let them down, and take care of my patients. The voice in my head can quiet down and take a number.

 

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i don’t like heights, just to be honest with you

There’s an inherent problem with fear-of-heights (acrophobia) and mountain rescue. Like a lifeguard who’s afraid of water, there exists a constant and underlying carrier signal that ranges from slight anxiety to full fledged terror. Interestingly enough I’ve met a lot of climbers who only got into vertical pursuits because they were afraid of heights.

Exposure therapy can be done in a clinical setting under the guidance of a skilled practitioner or you can just DIY the goddamn thing. Like home surgery it may not work out well all the time but you can’t knock the sense of accomplishment when you pull it off successfully. Chalk it up to the many cases of things that work out well for you but that you may not advise others to do themselves.

prussik
A view from my harness as I dangle on the edge of a cliff.

So when I got tapped in rescue training the other day for “edge”, I had the dueling voices in my head:

  • Voice A, my helpful voice, the angel on my shoulder: “This is great, you’re around expert climbers and riggers, you know all your system components yourself, and you’re going to get exposure and show yourself that you know how to do it.”
  • Voice B, my other-than-helpful-voice, the coward on my shoulder: “HOLY SHIT NO YOU’RE GOING TO DIE WTF ARE YOU THINKING!?!?!?!?!”

I nodded at my instructor, “Got it, edge.” For those not in the know, “edge” basically means you hang out near, on, and sort-of-but-not-really-over the cliff edge. Rarely are “edges” a clear delineating 90 degrees, hence the vagueness. People up higher who aren’t in the “hot” or “death” zone as it’s affectionately called can be unroped, but “edge” needs to be properly able to move around, securely, while ensuring a nice, happy, and safe environment in the aforementioned “death” or “hot” zone. Terms clearly used to remind you that a single careless act will, not could, result in your untimely expiration.

These days, I’ve found it best to not think about the scary stuff. The old expression of “don’t look down” is well intentioned but unrealistic. Better for me is “look at the task at hand and things you need to pay attention to.” That gives me a focal point and objectives so I keep my mind occupied in a constructive capacity.

Like telling someone to think of anything other than an elephant, instantly they think of an elephant. I’ve needed to scrape the whole concept of “down” out of my mind and fill it with anchors, edge protection, patient comfort and safety, and kilonewtons. Randomly tapping on my carabiner gates to ensure that yes, just like thirty seconds ago, they’re still locked.

ericsky1
Yeah, I really didn’t like doing this either. Solo skydiving is no longer an activity I voluntarily participate in.

I’m still a scaredy cat around heights and have very little desire to intentionally place myself in harm’s way. Gravity never sleeps and the minute you screw up Newtonian physics is there to turn you into a mushy pile of goo at the bottom of whatever you’re on top of. Ladders, roofs, mountains, ski lifts: we should all do these wide eyed, knowing that better people have died doing the same.

roofshovel
Shoveling the roof, thirty feet in the air, on top of snow and ice. Mid winter, 2016/2017.

But I’ve tried to replace that fear with more helpful things. The other day I tied some bowlines in an old 8mm rope and had some fun. Secure one end to a big rock and the other to my truck’s 8,000lb winch, I had a go at it. Then I did the same with a dynamic load by having it tied off to my truck’s rear bumper as I drove away. Faster and faster until eventually it broke. It might sound dumb, but now I know my properly-tied-tail-inside-double-bowline on 8mm from GM climbing will hold me. There’s more parts to the system to verify (anchors, harness, etc), but piece by piece we can build confidence.

In rescue world, we have dedicated safety officers who are inspecting all the equipment that you can’t see yourself, monitoring for loosening, chafe, and the such. Once you get to know the system, you can start drilling into the component parts a bit more. Coupling all that knowledge with the mental discipline to never even think of the “down” word, one can at least occupy their mind with other things. Things that are productive, helpful, and genuinely reduce the risk of you turning into a human pancake hundreds of feet below.

And then when on flat and wonderful ground again you can shake your head at all these stupid vertical objects on our world and go sit on the couch, where god intended us to be all along.

 

lots of sar training this spring

Every since joining the Mono County SAR team, I’ve been working closely with existing members and my 2017 cohort. In no particular order, here are the various skills we’ve been dialing in:

  • Ice and snow anchor use and placement. Flukes, pickets, and snow bollards.
  • Rock pro anchor use and placement (climber speak for “protection”). This is for 20 kilonewton (2.4 ton) rescue loads, typically consisting of at least two sets of three independent banks of protection. You should be able to hang a Honda Civic off our rescue rigs.
sarchopper
Rescue teams being able to radio a chopper in loaded with a paramedic and hoist should make you feel better about paying your state taxes.
  • Running top speed and jumping down Bluejay, landing on our back traveling head first, sliding to our doom. No worries, just use that ice axe and self arrest without piercing your femoral artery.
  • Helicopter insertion and patient hauling, courtesy of the awesome H40 crew at CHP’s Central Division. Popping smoke grenades, grabbing the hooks without getting zapped, rotor wash everywhere, and giving your patient a fastpass ride: it’s hard to not get stoked when you see that work out smoothly.
littercarry
San Diego Mountain Rescue, performing a litter carry. I’m in the back there somewhere.
  • Tracking training (which is nearly an art form), complete with sage-on-the-hill trackers who will track people in the woods just for fun and to see if they can. One guy on our team has a sandbox of sorts at his front door and asks everyone to leave an impression so he can keep seeing different tracks.
  • Blood borne pathogens and what they mean to a first responder. Want to catch some hep c? What about working on patient A, then going over to patient B without changing out your gloves, spreading whatever goo patient A has on patient B?
  • Radio training, to include all repeaters and frequencies used by air crews, law enforcement, and municipalities throughout the county.
  • Mountain navigation, chasing down small markers scribbled on small pieces of wood across a forest and scree field. As a Navy trained sailor with a USCG captain’s license, I had to work hard for this practical and written test.

Nevermind the examinations, gear signoffs, medical provider qualifications, immunizations, pack signoff, and take home tests.

And we’re not even close to halfway done with training at this point. Really it’s just enough to turn our 2017 cohort into a field effective team for the summer.

loadedup
The back of my truck is in go-mode for the summer. Pack, uniform, “maybe” gear. Even spare undies.

Then there are the self-study sessions groups of students will do for practicing various skills, typically high angle rope work and patient care.

July marks the typical beginning of rescue season. Right now the Lakes Basin is pretty inaccessible because of snow, PCT thru-hikers are skipping the High Sierra (my backyard), and major campgrounds are scheduled to only be open for two months this year.

So even though the backcountry is pretty treacherous right now, road closures and applaudable risk analysis have kept most folks from getting into trouble. That said, the sheriff could be getting ready to hit the call-out button right now.

*As a rule, I will not and cannot discuss any particulars of search and rescue operations that approach the realms of patient privacy and law enforcement.