Friday, December 17, 2010

OMTRS: Florida Mountain Rescue Mission

This was an intense mission, so much so that I wrote a short novel on my experience. So here it is:

Introduction

Putting my son to bed Thursday night, we have a comfortable routine; Levin gets a warm bottle of

milk, and snuggles up with Mom in our bed, while I lay nearby and read from a book. Tonight we were

reading from The House on Pooh Corner, the chapter in which Pooh, Piglet and Rabbit get lost in the

misty forest.

A few hours later I was about ready for bed myself. I was finishing off a generous glass of cheap wine,

browsing the internet when the OMTRS auto dialer rings. There is a rescue mission in the Florida

Mountains near Demming, 4 hikers are stuck on some cliffs. I’m initially hesitant about going, I had work

responsibilities in the morning that I wasn’t keen on missing. But somehow I talked myself into thinking

that we’d be home before sun-up anyways. I told Liz, “3 to 1 we’ll get turned around by the time we

show up at incident base.” I go ahead and pack up some gear, just basic stuff like a harness and helmet,

and an extra layer of warm clothes. I put on the new long underwear my dad got me for my birthday,

and the bright orange mid-weight that Denise got me. I figure that we’ll be bashing through prickly

terrain, so I put on my trusty brown Carharts. This turns out not be such a hot idea…

We arrive at incident base around 11:15 pm. It is crowded with vehicles. We learn a little bit more

during the debrief; the subjects are in two groups, two “little girls” stuck up on a ledge near/on the

summit of a peak. Another two are lower down on an easier to reach ledge, but still unwilling/unable

to come down. Someone from Demming Fire was with them already and starting a fire, and we could

see a smidgeon of light up in the mountains. OMTRS has brought 9 members and one gets co-opted to

work base camp right off the bat. The rest of us are divided into two teams of four. I am teamed with

John (leader), Robert, and Ellie, we are Team 2. Team 1 consists of Grant County SAR members and had

already left as the hasty team. While John gets our team assignment we unload gear from the trailer,

each team took the following; 1 rope, 2 system bags, 2 spare harness and helmets. Both the OMTRS

teams were to follow the hasty team and reach the lower subjects first. Then we were to get to the

upper subjects, lower them down and we’d all be on our merry way. It is about midnight when we leave

incident command, the sky is still fairly clear and the moon is bright. I’m still thinking that this will be a

short mission.

Through the Mist

Instead of hiking up the canyon directly underneath where we could see the subjects, we were informed

that it might be better to follow the Lover’s Leap trail west first and then follow a ridge-line south/east

to the subjects. Only half-way up the trail and our team faces its first decision. Ellie is falling behind. I

guess that means we’re hiking too fast, I take the sweep and encourage her from below, but we’re on

the “easy” trail and our pace is dead-slow. This doesn’t bode well for us to make a rapid ascent through

the “cross-country” terrain. As we’re nearing the top of Lover’s Leap trail, Team 1 radios in that one

of their team members is not comfortable scrambling/bushwhacking off trail and he is going to stay

behind. A quick team meeting and Ellie opts to join him. So now we are three. We can see team 1 at

the top of the trail, and team 3 has passed them and is scrambling up the ridge line. Based upon what

the other teams were saying, the ridgeline sounded pretty hairy, so our team cuts south before the

ridgeline, taking a canyon instead. Going gets tougher but the bushwhacking isn’t that bad. What is

bad is that clouds are moving in. We’re socked in before we reach the top of the canyon, and Robert is

starting to have issues too. Again, are we going too fast? We’re going slow enough where I can’t keep

warm without putting on all my layers. While we stop to regroup, Robert throws up his dinner. Time for

another team meeting. We can see team 1 down below us, and Robert sees that John and I can move

fast and that the clouds/mist rolling in are going to put the stuck girls in even worse shape. We make

the difficult decision for Robert to fall back and join Team 1 who seem to be slower. John takes the

technical gear that Robert had, and we strike off.

As we get to the top of the ridge the wind is really picking up and the clouds are starting to severely

reduce visibility. Robert took our map with him, so we were relying fully on John’s GPS to guide us. At

incident base, we were given a set of approximate coordinates of the subjects, and we were trying to

make to them. Team 3’s lights were visible off to the east trying to get around some peaks. They were

having a tough time getting around some of the cliffs, so we decided to not follow them and instead try

to find a way around to the south of where they were. Once we crossed over the ridge-top on the south

(west?) side the wind was brutal. The terrain also worsened, becoming a series of rock fins that we were

trying to traverse over. We were able to get past a couple of these obstacles but not without class 4

scrambling, on wet scary rock. At one point we had no choice but to get out ropes to rappel, or back-
track. We opted to back-track, but now I was getting completely disoriented. The fog and clouds were

totally surrounding us now, visibility was reduced to 50ft or less. We would consult the GPS for a bearing

and stumble in that direction for 100 ft or so and then run into some cliff/obstacle which would throw

us off again. Still we were slowly making progress, the GPS slowly shrunk from .2 miles, to .13 miles and

we started taking hope.

Team 3 was closer to the subjects and we began hearing on the radio that they could hear voices and

were trying to locate the subjects, but that the wind/terrain made it hard to locate the noise. The

labyrinth of rock ridges bounced noises in weird directions, and the wind and fog seemed to dampen the

effectiveness of any noises made. We got Team 3’s GPS coordinates and started making for them. They

were much more east than I was thinking we needed to go, but I was also getting pretty disoriented.

Our progress was slow, we were again struggling with the terrain to try to go the direction that the GPS

was telling us. It seemed like it was about 3 in the morning when Team 3 radioed that they had made

contact with the lower subjects. They gave out new coordinates of the location. Our GPS was telling us

we were only 800 ft away and we were hoping we could get to them soon too. We started getting closer

to where the GPS was telling us but that’s when things started getting weird. We were on a steep slope

in the leeward side, it was relatively calm, and our GPS was claiming we were only 400 ft away, but none

of our shouting got a response, and we couldn’t see lights anywhere. We were also losing radio contact.

We kept going to where the GPS told us to, until it did an about face on us; after going a hundred feet

towards the bearing it gave us, it spit back at us a different bearing and told us we were further away. I

was seriously starting to lose faith in the GPS unit, which was making me worried. I started asking John

lots of questions about the GPS, probably annoying of me, but he was patient. We double-checked the

GPS datum, and it was correct. We double-checked the GPS coordinates that Team 3 gave us, and found

an error. Either we had jotted down a digit wrong, or it had been mistakenly entered into the unit. The

correct coordinates told us we were more like .1 mile away. Misery!

Did I mention that is was raining? It’s difficult to distinguish being wet from cloud moisture and wind,

and actual rain, but we were getting wet. My cotton Carharts did not seem like such a good idea

anymore. The terrain was wet and slick now, and there even seemed to be some signs of sleet or ice.

We were also getting tired. My legs started cramping up a little bit during some of our strenuous slope

climbs. John was always right behind me, providing bearings, but I could tell he was tired too. We closed

in on the new GPS coordinates but ran into huge rock walls again. At first we tried skirting around the

bottom of the rocks, but heading this way seemed to make us further away, so we about faced and

tried following the rock face up-slope. At one point there was a break in the wall that we could scramble

through, and once we did we were struck by the fury of the winds. On the other side of the rock we had

been skirting, the GPS point us down so we began following the rock wall down slope again. According

to the GPS we were only a few hundred feet away, but were still not seeing any signs of headlamps. We

definitely heard some voices at one point, but with the wind and rocks it was tough to tell where they

were coming from. We descended along the rock face for a few hundred feet and re-checked the GPS

only to find that it was point us back towards the other side of the rock formation that we had just come

from, and that we were further away again. When we could get a clear radio transmission, we could

hear that Team 3 was radioing for us to get there fast. We caught snippets of what they were trying to

do but it was hard to get a clear story. It sounded like Kenny had reached the subjects. It also sounded

like Marta had gone to the top to try to get above them, and a rappel had failed. They kept asking for us

to get there and our frustration level was climbing steadily.

We spent about an hour with the GPS telling us we were 150-400 ft away, but giving us wildly varying

headings. We went up, we went back down. We looked up dead-end canyon. Eventually though we

were beat. I was convinced that our GPS had some kind of fatal flaw and that we could actually be miles

away but wouldn’t know it. Plus John and I were both getting sloppy-tired. There was a little sheltered

spot where we stopped to talk about our options. I thought we were lost and needed to gain some kind

of location information that didn’t depend on the GPS. Basically, drop elevation to where we could see

some of the terrain and try to figure out where the hell we actually were. Before doing this though,

John pointed out that we really wouldn’t be able to tell much until it got light out, and checking the time

this was only maybe an hour away (was it really 5:30 am already!). So we put on all our warm layers

and huddled under John’s reflective tarp/blanket. I doubt I was real comfortable, but the physical and

mental stress was enough where I think I fell asleep for a little bit, one of those sleepy states where

every time you blink your eyes, another 5 minutes has passed.

As it began, to get light I finally notice that it had been very quiet. I actually asked John if he had turned

off the radio, but we were just in a dead zone where we couldn’t get any radio signal. I powered up my

cell-phone and it had reception so I fired off a quick text to Liz, and left a message with my boss at work,

apologizing for not being able to get to work. We were on a serious mission! I knew he’d understand.

John used his cell to contact Incident Command, give them our status and plan. Again, we were told to

try to get to team 3 as quickly as possible, and that we must be close. I wanted to yell at them, “WHAT

DO YOU THINK WE”VE BEEN TRYING TO DO ALL FREAKING NIGHT!”. But so far yelling hadn’t yielded

much response, so I held my tongue. John was shivering cold, but once we got moving we started feeling

better. For once, we completely ignored the GPS and simply dropped in elevation and started skirting

east around the bottom of the rock formations that had been confounding us all night. The clouds

were lifting somewhat and we may have even been touched by some sun-light as we worked down

and across. We could see some ranches in a valley down below. After feeling lost and disoriented most

of the night, it’s heartening to see some kind of man-made structure, even if it doesn’t help you much

figure out where you are. We continued skirting around the bottom of the cliffs, eventually trending

north a bit, and as we rounded the next shoulder, Incident Command came into view. That was a relief!

We re-established radio communications with the other teams, and checked the GPS again to try to

see where they might be in relation to us, but I still didn’t want to rely on the GPS. So we asked them to

describe where they were. A very exasperated Marta exclaimed, “I’m in a cloud”. Someone else from

Team 3 said they were just below the clouds. We looked straight up the slope from where we were

standing at a massive rocky peak, whose summit was still shrouded in mist. I asked John if he’d let me

look at his GPS, and it also was pointing straight up to this peak. I didn’t really trust it, but we decided to

try heading that way.

The Rescue

We had only been going up the scree slope a little while when we started to smell camp-smoke. We

shouted out and heard a crystal clear response from right above us. Finally! This positive sign was

enough to give us new strength, and we powered up the scree slope. At the top Jim (one of the OMTRS

guys from Team 3) met us at a fire he had been tending in a small oak glade. Just above him in a shallow

bowl were two Border Patrol agents. The bowl they were in is where the lower subjects had been, but

they had already been taken down to incident command by the time we showed up. Jim pointed us to

where Kenny and the other two girls were stuck and we booked it over there.

The two girls and Kenny were perched on a ridiculously small ledge. Despite being three people, they

formed a tight huddled mass, wrapped up in a single small black jacket. I quickly got my pack in order; I

peeled off my OMTRS rescue jacket so that I could give it to one of the girls, John gave me an extra hat

and gloves and his emergency blanket, I made sure I had two harnesses and a system bag with me, I only

had one extra helmet but that would have to do for now. Pack check done I looked up at what I needed

to climb. The cliff was low-angle 5th

up to where they were. I shouted at Kenny for some beta about possible anchors and he said there was

nothing up there that we could anchor to. He asked if we had a rack, but we didn’t.

NOTE: I thought about this later, but we could have told Incident Command about needing our rack and

they probably could have had the helicopter drop it off where we were. I didn’t realize they’d be sending

the helicopter up soon anyways, and this would have improved our anchor building prospects.

Kenny suggested I try a ramp further to the right which would let me climb as high as their ledge, and

then traverse over. This would let me look for new anchor locations that he couldn’t see. I scrambled

over to the ramp and started to climb up it. It was on the corner of the face and the winds were 2-3

times stronger there. My nice 5.10 sticky rubber shoes were slipping on the rock as I started going up,

unusual for that kind of rock and slope (Marta told me later that there was even some ice in some places

out there). Before I got much higher I decided this way would not work and scrambled back down.

Climbing up directly under the girls was better, the rock was a little dryer, the wind was lighter and I felt

comfortable and in control. I reached the ledge, shucked my pack and began grabbing pieces of clothing

to put on them. I was on the left side of the ledge. The girl closest to me, Grace, was a Korean university

student in black jeans and a thin long-sleeved shirt. Her eyes and head seemed to roll around a lot.

Next to her was Brittany in short nylon shorts. Her legs were getting the worst of it, but she seemed

a little more alert. Kenny was huddled up to the side of her, trying to keep the one thin black jacket

around them. He was shivering too, and only in a base/mid-layer. I gave Grace my OMTRS jacket and

some fleece gloves. Brittany got my alpaca hat and John’s over-mitts (somehow I dropped the hat John

gave me, Jim recovered it down the mountain later) . I gave Kenny the emergency blanket which he

got around the three of them . I had a pair of light nylon wind-pants that I offered for Brittany, but she

wasn’t able to stand and get them on, so I stuffed them in my pocket for later.

Next we needed to get harness on them. All three of them actually, Kenny didn’t have a harness either.

I only had two extra harnesses, so we put these on the subjects. They are pretty simple harnesses, with

the benefit that the leg loops can be completely un-buckled, making it easier to get on the subjects legs

without them having to move them much. I was responsible for Grace’s harness, and she was groaning

as I put it on her,, especially when I shifted her around. She was thin as bones, and was holding her arms

awkwardly, probably unable to feel them and control them. Once they had harnesses on, I scrambled

over them to the right and took out the rope and system bag. I got my harness on, and Kenny tied a

harness with a piece of webbing for himself.

At about this time, Bob Cort appeared on a rope off to our left. He had rappelled down from an anchor

above and was only 20-30 ft away. It would have been great if we could have descended his rope, but

we learned later that he had already swung over quite a bit to get to that point, and we weren’t going to

be able to reach or use his rope safely. He disappeared from sight and I turned around to start scouring

the rock behind us for something, anything to anchor off of. There was one spot about 15 ft to the right

of the girls where a decent crack/boulder system had potential. There were some stuck chock-stones

in the crack already so I threaded a piece of 8mm safety line around one and bounced it a few times.

It held. Next I took one of the system-bag prussiks and used its big knot as a chock in the crack. It fit

snugly and I yanked on it a couple of times. It held too. The best “placement” came from a pinch point

near the bottom of the crack, where I was able to thread some tubular webbing behind and tie off. This

looked like the most solid piece of my anchor, but even it relied on the rock it was around to be solid. I

could see the outline all the way around some of these rocks, so it was hard to say if they were separate

rocks jammed into one-another, or part connected to the base-rock somewhere. Basically, I wasn’t too

confident in the anchor, and wasn’t about to try rappelling down off it with the extra weight of a subject

attached to me.

John was calling up to me while I was fiddling with this and when I said that the anchor prospects

sucked he mentioned something about a body belay. This actually struck me as a very good idea. While

the anchor I was building was on suspect rock, all three pieces felt firm to my tugs and would hold

something. There was also I nice stance just below where I could brace myself. I could anchor myself and

then lower the girls one by one, taking most of their weight myself and not stressing the anchor much

at all. It seemed desperate, but it also seemed like our only option. I finished my anchor by equalizing it

and tying it off so that if any one piece blew, there would be no extension.

NOTE: This is not something I usually do in my climbing anchors, and was drilled into me during last

week-ends training, and really makes sense in a non-climbing scenario. The advantage is clear, if any

piece “pops” the anchor doesn’t shift and shock-load the other points. The disadvantage is that the

direction of pull needs to stay pretty constant otherwise the pieces aren’t equalize anymore. In climbing,

the direction of pull is more likely to change, and thus the sliding-x makes more sense.

I told Kenny the plan and we started getting Grace ready to go down first. This was Kenny’s call, she was

in worse shape yes, but she was also further from the anchor, and would need to climb past Brittany

to get to a point where I could lower her down. We clipped Grace in to the rope and I put her on belay.

Kenny also put the spare helmet on her. Neither Brittany nor Kenny were tied off to anything. A horrible

scenario passed through my head, in which Grace knocked both Kenny and Brittany off the ledge. I was

nervous. Kenny coached Grace over, and she was wobbly. At one point he did a sort of bear hug on her

to keep her from toppling over, she moved like a zombie. Thankfully Kenny got her across to where I

could lower her down. This was one of the two scariest points of the rescue for me.

Lowering Grace down was like lowering dead-weight. She was able to make some slight movements,

but it was obvious she didn’t have much control of her body. She was moaning and her eyes seemed

to roll around with her head a lot. I slowly lowered her, yelling as much encouragement as I could. She

sort of hung up on rocks occasionally, and we needed to get her to shift around a little bit in order to

keep her moving down. John caught her in his arms once she got down the 50ft or so to the scree slope.

He initially wanted to keep belaying her down the scree slope, but she wasn’t able to move much and

he was going to need more help, so he settled her down right there and I hauled up the rope to lower

Brittany down.

Lowering Brittany down went much better, as she could keep her legs against the rock and walk down.

The problem was that we kept knocking loose rock off the cliff and they went whizzing down towards

Grace and John. John was sheltering Grace, and they both had helmets on, but there were still a couple

close calls. One rock whizzed by only a foot form John’s head as he crouched over Grace to protect her.

I lowered Kenny down next and he was careful not to send any more loose rock down. The Border Patrol

helicopter had also shown up again, and was hovering level with us. I thought they were just watching

our operation so that they could report back to Incident Command what was going on, but I found out

later that they were assessing options/locations for an emergency pick-up. Once Kenny was down, John

shouted up that he wanted me to continue belaying Brittany down the scree slope and he was going

to tie in too and help her down this section. I shouted back to him that I didn’t want two people’s body

weight on my anchor, I was worried it wouldn’t be strong enough. He assured me that the rope was

just for guidance/balance and that he’d use Kenny as a spotter as well to help support them down. I

asked them if it wouldn’t be better to build a stronger anchor down where they were, and Kenny looked

around a bit to see if that was feasible, but they said it wasn’t. So I kept Brittany on belay as John tied

into the rope next to her. He put one of her arms around her shoulder and I paid out rope as they made

their way down the scree slope and around the corner to the shallow bowl where I had originally seen

the Border Patrol Agents.

They disappeared from my sight, but then I heard the shout, “OFF BELAY”, and hauled up the rope to

prepare for getting Grace down the same scree section. John and Kenny came back up to Grace and

prepared to get her down. Grace wasn’t able to walk like Brittany had, so John did a sort-of fireman’s

carry for her. She was clipped into the rope, and he clipped in right next to her. He then threw her on his

back and bug climbed using his hands and feet , backwards down the scree. Kenny was right there with

them helping keep Grace on John’s back. Again, they disappeared from my sight around a corner, but

shortly after I got the all clear sign and hauled the rope back up.

Helicopters

Kenny came back up to help me tear everything down. I opted to down-climb instead of rappelling off

my anchor, so I tossed the rope down for Kenny to deal with and disassembled the anchor. The down-
climb went fine, it felt good to be moving again, I had gotten cold belaying and my hands were stiff from

holding the rope in the cold without any gloves. We scrambled down the scree and around the corner

and found John and Grace huddled on a broad ledge waiting for a belay down one last steep section.

Marta had an anchor set up higher up the bowl, and they had already finished lowering/belaying

Brittany down to the fire. John did the same kind of carry to get Grace down this section and I was his

spotter, basically scrambling down next to them, keeping a hand on Grace’s back and trying to be useful.

We got her down to the fire too.

I thought maybe we would stop and try to warm them up for a bit, but Incident Command had declared

some sort of medical emergency evac was necessary. The Border Patrol agents were shouting at us

to get Grace onto a rock boulder 50 feet lower than the fire. The rock was maybe the size of John’s

hummer, maybe a little bigger, about 10 ft tall and with a relatively flat top. Things started happening

pretty fast now. John seemed to know what to do, “Get her to the top of that rock!” He still had her on

belay on the rope, but took her off his back and had one of the Border Patrol guys get under her other

shoulder so they could get her through the oak glade. I bashed down the slope in front of them, tearing

down branches as best I could and holding back trees. They got to the boulder and John ordered me to

the top of it to help hoist her up. John and I tugged and pulled Grace up to the top of the rock any way

we could. She was moaning and writhing, being pushed from below by the Border Patrol guys.

Once on top of the rock, John got Grace on his lap and laid down on the middle of the rock. We

unclipped Grace from the belay rope, and I frantically rummaged through my pack for the 8mm safety

line and clipped this to John as a safety line for him. He was yelling at me to get a piece of webbing but

there was no time (and I had already thrown my pack off the boulder), the helicopter was all of sudden

right there trying to hover down and place one ski on the edge of the rock. I half rolled/scrambled over

the edge of the boulder to try to get out of the way of the helicopter blades. They felt impossibly close

to our heads. I somehow quickly found a stance off the edge of the boulder, with my head just poking

up over the top so I could see John and Grace. I had the safety line around my waist as a sort of hip

belay, but it’s hard to say if it would have been much good. The helicopter succeeded in getting one

ski on the edge of the rock, and its doors flew open. John half-stood up and literally tossed Grace into

the helicopter. She was sort of crumpled on the seat and looking pathetic. From behind me, Brittany

appeared on the rock and was scooted into the helicopter as well, closely followed by on of the Border

Patrol agents. The door slammed shut and the helicopter fell away. The blades whipped over us and

I ducked back over the edge of the boulder. This was the second scary moment of the rescue for me. I

need restraint to keep from swearing here.

The whomping noise of the helicopter faded away. I felt still. A rush of adrenaline was still pulsing

through my body and I felt on the verge of tears. We got them down, we were all ok. It’s over. The rest

is just details (as if I haven’t written enough!). We were all on some kind of natural high, but eventually

we got our gear packed up. The helicopter offered us rides down to Incident Command if we could get

down to a lower saddle. We made haste to get to the rendez-vous point, eager for the ride. I had never

ridden in a helicopter before, and it was good fun and a welcome relief from having to trudge back

down the canyon. The pilot had a patch on the back of his helmet that read “Stop Screaming, I’m Scared

Too”, and seemed to enjoy tilting the helicopter at sharp angles and zooming down the canyon.

Debrief, congratulations all around, burritos and water, sorting gear, a sleepy ride back to Las Cruces.

That’s about it. There’s already talk among the members of this rescue operation of meeting up to

rehash events. Last I heard the girls were doing ok at the hospital, and we might even see them again.

This was a night that binds people together, a night that will live long in all of our memories, a night to

be proud of.

Overall route track John and I took

Route track when we were close to subjects

Me climbing up to subjects

7 comments:

Eugene Smith said...

Amazing account! Thanks for sharing.

Piseco said...

What a nerve wracking story. So happy everything turned out ok.

Avis said...

I really enjoyed reading you story! Thanks!

Avis said...

oops "you" = "your"

Robert said...

Good job Aron, i'll stay away from the smokes and keep up with ya next time! Robert Matulich

Kenny said...

as soon as i saw the helicopter door close behind grace, brittany and the border patrol agent, i couldn't help but start crying. my whole body was wrecked and at that point my emotions caught up to whole scenario. i really feel like everyone on this mission had a great attitude and it could not have happened without any one person. Aaron, thanks for being so freaking awesome.

katkar63 said...

You guys are the bomb! This is Brittney's aunt and we are so appreciative of each and every one of you guys!
Tomorrow is Christmas but we won't celebrate it until later. The girls are coming here to Las Cruces and we would like to come and see you guys if ya'll are around. Please let us know!!!