During a recent trip to the Dolomites in Italy I found myself in a rescue situation with an injured climbing partner. We were climbing as a team of three, and one of the seconders pulled off a large block which fell down onto the third member of our team. I thought sharing a few tips on how to manage the situation and how to haul an injured climber could be useful for someone else who might find themselves in a similar situation.
Note: This is not a comprehensive "how to set up a hauling system for rescue". This is just a basic look at how you could do it with the usual minimal gear you have when alpine climbing.
We were climbing the South Face of the Marmolada. A “classic” Dolomites wall. 29 pitches long. Several fixed belays and a huge amount of loose rock. While the scenery in the Dolomites is amazing, the rock quality is often fairly average (even by New Zealand choss standards). On the 25th pitch, one of the seconders pulled off a microwave sized block of limestone which fell down hitting Gemma square in the leg. The result was a huge gash straight across her quad just above the knee. Basically, it looked like a shark had decided to enjoy part of her leg for breakfast.
Make sure the people you climb with in the mountains have basic first aid training.
Dealing with a rescue situation actually starts before you even begin climbing. All climbers in the alpine or even for a day at the crag should have a first aid kit with them. The contents of a first aid kit will vary depending on the objective but it is important to not sell yourself short. In our situation we were carrying a variety of pain killers bandages of various sizes and a good amount of strapping tape and several sterile bandages. i.e we were well prepared for dealing with a large wound / broken bones and a climber in severe pain.
Carry Emergency Kit
We were also carrying enough emergency bivy kit and rescue equipment to be fully self-sufficient and able to enact a self rescue. This is despite the fact that rescue in the Alps is usually a simple phone call away. Important items we carried were: Waterproof rain jackets and pants, warm gloves, a down quilt, small foam bivy pads that form the back foam of our Macpac Pursuit packs. We were also carrying two essential rescue tools: a Petzl Microtraxion and a Petzl Tibloc. Along with enough cord and climbing equipment to set up anchors and hauling systems. The Microtraxion and Tibloc should come with you on any multi pitch route. They are excellent for simul-climbing by protecting the leader from a seconder falling. They also allow you to set up an efficient hauling system.
Being 25 pitches off the ground we had three options available to us. 1) Stabilise Gemma, then call a helicopter; 2) Descend down the face; 3) Continue up four easy pitches of climbing and carry Gemma over to the chair lift on the top of the Marmolada.
First and foremost we conducted a full assessment of her injuries. We dressed and bandaged her wound, dressed her in warm clothing, administered some pain medication. Once we had her in a stable condition we then assessed our options. We were in a very deep chimney. This had cut off our cell phone reception. It was also void of reliable fixed anchors and due to the depth of the chimney we were not in a good position for a long line helicopter rescue. We had to therefore go up or down to put ourselves in the best position to call in a helicopter rescue or get Gemma to a position where we could move her ourselves off the mountain and to hospital.
Practice on Big Walls
One of the best ways to learn the skills needed to rescue someone in technical terrain is to go big wall climbing with a large haul bag. Once you have efficiently learnt how to descend with a big haul bag, haul it up a wall and dock it at a belay, you actually have all the skills needed for managing an incapacitated climbing on a steep mountain face. This is one of the reasons we take our young team members from the NZAT to Yosemite for several weeks of big wall climbing. You need to practice these skills allot before trying to apply them effectively in a rescue situation. Most are not intuitive and being skilled in their application will make your life a lot easier, should you ever need to apply them under the pressure of a real life rescue.
Due to the loose rock around us, multiple teams above us on the mountain, rappelling under them would have added extra risk. Also considering that we were 25 pitches off the ground, we decided the safest and best option was to continue upwards. Four more easy pitches, then we would have an hour long walk with Gemma over to the chair lift.
In our scenario we had two climbing ropes. Both were skinny triple rated single ropes, 8.9mm diameter. This was not ideal for hauling but it is much better than a half rope (<8.6mm). It is worth considering using the modern skinny single ropes instead of half ropes for summer alpine climbing. They last longer and give you more options when your ropes get cut.
The first step was to build a new reinforced anchor suitable for hauling. Important factors to consider before hauling are: 1) Will the anchor location allow you somewhere to sit the injured climber? 2) Will the anchor position allow for easy hauling? Ideally it would be up high on a steep piece of rock, not down on a slab which would create extra friction, making hauling much more difficult.
Tip: Belay with a spare rope for backup
As we were hauling over loose rock with skinny ropes we had the risk of cutting the rope during the hauling process. Therefore we chose to haul Gemma with one rope and belay her on the other.
How to Set Up the Haul System
To rig our haul system we used a basic 3 – 1 set up. To do this you will need three items. Petzl Microtraxion, Petzl Tibloc, auto-locking belay device (i.e. BD ATC guide, Petzl Reverso)
Step 1) Build a good anchor in a suitable location. Build the anchor with 3 vertical masterpoints so there are different masterpoints for the microtraxion and climbers to clip into.
Step 2) Use one of your lead ropes as the haul line and one as the belay line
Step 3) Set up your hauling system. Run the haul line through the Microtraxion, connect the tibloc to this line as well then run that up through a separate carabiner then down to your belay device in guide mode - this allows you to apply full bodyweight in the downwards direction. Each time you stand back up, pull the slack through the belay device. This is a substitute for a jumar that one would typically use in a big-wall scenario.
Note: It is worth pointing out if your taking an injured person up or down who can’t use their hands or is unconscious then you must attach them with a munter mule (tied off Italian hitch).
Due to the poor quality of the rock where we were located I actually built for each haul two separate anchors. Each equalised together but in independent pieces of rock just encase the loose rock gave way during the hauling process. It is really important to not created yourself a second rescue situation while dealing with the first. Therefore everything you do in a rescue situation should have plenty of redundancy built into it.
Rescues usually take allot more time than you think. Be prepared, make sure everything is well fed, hydrated, keep spirits high with a bit of light banter. Continually talk with your injured party if possible to keep their mind off the injury. Stay positive and project that positive attitude to the others in the party.
Call for Rescue when possible
Once we had hauled Gemma several pitches and to within 70m of the top of the mountain we were able to get a call out to the Italian mountain rescue. Even though we were comfortably dealing with the situation it would have been selfish to take Gemma the last 70m to the top of the mountain and wait for the chair lift down in the morning. There was an immediate need to get to her hospital and deal with her wound. This would speed up her recovery time, lessen the risk of infection and ensure we got her to safety the fastest way possible.
It is important to note we did not stop our rescue efforts until we had confirmation that the helicopter was 15 minutes away. It is important to continue to rescue yourself as it is not a given that someone will come to get you. Weather can change, wind, snow etc can all stop a rescue team getting to you. You must be able to get yourself off the mountain in that event.
Preparing your belay for a helicopter rescue
Once we had confirmation the helicopter was about to arrive, we tidied up our equipment, packs, harnesses and belay. This was going to be a long-line rescue. To simplify things we needed to have everything in order and tidy for the rescue team to come in a take Gemma from our belay. We packed away all rack, coiled and untied from our ropes, removed all unnecessary items from harnesses.
We simplified our anchor down to the basics. We then set Gemma up on a simply snap lock carabiner and sling which would allow the rescue team to trip in, clip her to their long line and easily remove her from our system without the need to cut any ropes or slings to remove her. The actual pick-up happens quickly and you will not have time to muck around. The rescue is also dangerous for the rescue team so if they can not easily attach to you and fly they will do what ever they can to secure the climber and get moving i.e cut and leave your gear.
Also be prepared that they may not take your whole team in the chopper. In our case I flew with Gemma and we left Fred to finish the climb with our two friends Chris and Kristy from Australia. There was not enough room to add any more climbers into the chopper and the long line pick up had been a bit tricky in the chimney so it was clear they wanted to take the minimum people and get moving.
Practice the skills
It is important to get out and practice self-rescue skills so that when your find yourself in this situation you can enact the rescue intuitively. Big wall climbing is a perfect way to practice different systems. Safe climbing out there.