National Search & Rescue Week75 Search and Rescue Stories, available from ucssar.org/search-and-rescue/rescue-stories.
May 16-22, 2010 was declared the first ever National Search and Rescue Week by the US Senate to recognize the thousands of volunteers and professional rescuers across the country and all they accomplish.
Utah County SAR kicked off the week quickly Sunday night with an exciting rescue in American Fork Canyon.
Three men in their 20’s hiked up the old trail near Timpanogos Cave National Monument. The old trail has been out of use for fifty years and for the most part is barely visible as it climbs the vertigo-inducing canyon walls.
TICA’s current asphalt trail is not much better. It’s about five feet wide and climbs over 1,000’ elevation in 1.5 miles between the visitor’s center and the cave entrance. Many sections of trail are marked with a thick red stripe down the center - this marks spots where hikers should not pause to catch their breath because rock fall could come cascading down at virtually any moment. Walking down the trail in the evening, you can often spot rocks along the pavement that weren’t there in the morning. When the monsoon rains arrive in August, it’s not uncommon to find several feet of gravel and broken limestone piled across the trail.
This speaks to the precipitously precarious geology of AF Canyon.
This particular evening, the three men decided to skip the trail on the way down. The trail wasn’t much to begin with, so why not just bushwhack and make their own way?
Eventually, they encountered a cliff, and their inexperience and lack of judgment began to show. Rather than hike horizontally to seek a passage around the precipice, they chose to downclimb a nearly-vertical 250’ drop. A large crack made the passage possible, but the exposure was frightening.
Once they all miraculously reached the bottom of the cliff safely, they encountered another hitch in their plan. Another 200’ cliff separated them from the slope below, and this time no sloped crack offered access.
For once they employed better judgment and dialed 911 rather than attempt to climb back up the way they came. We appreciated their decision as it’s much easier to walk people out than carry them in a stretcher.
Having worked as a park ranger the summer before, I was excited to see a rescue at the cave show up on my pager. I said goodbye to the friends I was spending the evening with and headed for the canyon, hoping to arrive in time to get a good assignment.
Greg was running Command Post and I pulled off the road and hopped out of my car to talk with him. He pointed to a cliff high on the canyon wall where our victims were ledged out and had lit a fire, and I shared my opinion about the best way to approach it. Greg then expressed his doubts that we would be able to reach them tonight. There were simply too many cliffs, and in the dark and from the highway, it was impossible to tell for sure how to get there.
Greg assigned me as team leader for Team One and asked me who I wanted on my team. I wanted people I knew I could trust in steep terrain and chose Olin first, but CP wanted to keep him around for Team Two. Instead I chose David, Bryan, and Jake, and from that moment on, everything seemed to go our way. Even things that turned against us, we managed to twist again to our favor.
"Time is of the essence," we all said, and the bikes would shave half an hour of hiking off our approach time and spare our energy for the dangerous route finding that would come once we left the pavement behind and struck out into the cliffs and scree.
All last summer, I dreamed of riding a bike up this trail. Every morning, I would hike the path in the cool air, taking at least twenty minutes to reach the cave entrance where I would begin my tours. I always enjoyed the fresh air, friendly conversations with visitors and other rangers, and magnificent views; but watching the maintenance crew zip by on their way to some task still made me a bit envious.
Now it was my turn and I enjoyed every moment. The little bikes with 110cc engines didn’t have much power and we rarely got into third gear, but that was just as well. Riding off the edge of the trail would pretty well guarantee a long tumble down the steep canyon wall before being able to stop. Besides, the little bikes could maneuver well, which meant that a small tug on the handlebars sent the front wheel veering a foot or two to one side. Going too fast was not a good idea.
We rode around corners, through brief cave-like passages, through the gate which Jake unlocked, past Kodachrome, Lightning Point, Soda Pop, up through the W’s, and eventually arrived at Dead Dog point, our jumping off place four turns before the cave entrance. We parked the bikes and traded motorcycle helmets for climbing ones.
Olin appeared then, hovering nearby in a Life Flight helicopter. He had been sent up to scout a route through the cliffs. It was difficult to see in the failing light, but he told us by radio that it looked like we may be able to cut more or less straight across, then drop down right on top of them. We thanked him for the information and started on our way.
It felt strange, after so many months of making kids walk and not run, ordering them not to throw rocks, and keeping them on the pavement, to hike off it myself. Strange, but good. Exciting. Purposeful and important.
We walked down a steep dirt slope and reached a snowfield. The snow was soft enough and we walked through it rather than dropping down and passing its lower edge which would place us on loose scree within ten feet of a sixty foot drop.
We made our way through thick trees and bushes, and found passages through cliffs running down precarious ridgelines. We climbed up and down steep dirt and scree, up and down cliff bands, and finally, guided by teams on the road and across the canyon who could see our lights and our victim’s firelight, we passed by above our victims.
We nearly downclimbed too far as we found a better route down than they had, but spotting teams across the canyon stopped us and sent us back up. This played to our advantage when we backtracked and found an ideal spot to rappel from. A slot divided the cliff and by downclimbing the crevice and a ten foot cliff below that and tying a webbing anchor with a rappel ring to a large pine, we got within 200 feet of the hikers. This allowed us to rappel and pull our ropes more easily than if we had rappelled their same route, which would have forced us to rappel past a knot and pull that knot through our anchor in order to retrieve the ropes after rappelling because a single rope wouldn’t have been long enough.
One kick was all it took. The boulder rotated sideways and slid down the dirt, then went airborne for two hundred feet, smashing onto the ledge below. It didn’t stop there, but continued downward, and judging from the crashing sounds that echoed throughout the canyon, it entrained additional rocks and logs along the way.
With the route clear, I fed the line through my rappel device and slid down the rope, bouncing away from the cliff and swinging back against it as I went. Dangling from my harness was another 75’ rope, just in case the 200 footer ran out before the cliff did, but I didn’t need it.
“How are you guys doing?” I asked as I approached the three men gathered around their fire. They were fine, though a bit chilled.
We experienced a minor hitch when I discovered that we had only brought one 200’ rope. I had tied my 200’er to the pine tree to rappel down, but if we wanted to pull the ropes after us, the last one down would have to rappel on two lines doubled over at the top. When they reached knots tied in the 75’ers, they would have to stop, attach another rappel device below the knot, then detach the upper device and continue down.
Doing so wasn’t a serious problem, but would take an additional five minutes or so, so someone had a brilliant idea to avoid the whole hassle. We tied one end of the rope to a tree at the base of the cliff - the side with the 75’ers. The 200’er then ran through the rappel ring and all the way down the cliff. The last one down would rappel on a single line and not need to deal with passing knots.
The rest of my team came down and we dug extra jackets, harnesses, helmets, and headlamps from our packs for our victims to wear. We passed around water and asked if they needed food, but they assured us they had enough and were fine.
The next hitch came when we tried to pull the ropes. Inexplicably, it had gotten stuck. We knew that all the knots were clear and the remaining rope simply ran through the steel rappel ring, but it must have gotten shoved into a narrow crevice, because no matter how hard we pulled, it wouldn’t budge.
If we couldn’t break the rope free, we’d be in big trouble. We’d probably end up waiting till morning for another team to trace our steps and drop in from above to fix the glitch. Without knowing what the rope was caught on, without knowing how dependably it was caught, we couldn’t ascend back up to fix the situation. Without breaking it free, we wouldn’t have the lines needed to continue down, or even drop a line for lower teams to attach more ropes that we could pull up to escape on.
Jake and I set up a quick three-to-one mechanical advantage system by putting two 180 degree bends in the rope. The first bend turned around a pulley attached to a tree and had a prusik to capture any progress we made. The second bend attached to the rope itself, the part running uphill, with another prussik, then turned back downhill for us to pull against. Every foot of rope we pulled was divided by the three moving sections and translated into four inches of progress on the upper line. In effect, this tripled our strength.
We pulled several feet of rope through the system as the rope stretched and tightened, then let the first prussik hold the tension while resetting the second one farther up the rope to try again. We gave the system another tug and the line suddenly broke free of whatever had held it.
My team didn’t think much of it. Of course we would solve any problem that came up! Unbeknownst to us, everyone on the ground breathed a collective sigh of relief when we reported our success.
“That was cool,” one of the hikers said, and began to ask about various pieces of gear dangling from our harnesses. We explained their various uses and emphasized having the right gear for the job and knowing how to use it.
“We should probably get that stuff before we come back here,” one said.
“Actually,” I explained further, “you shouldn’t come back here. Real climbers don’t come places like this.” I explained that not only was this type of terrain uncontrollably dangerous, but that other areas had far superior climbing.
When Tom later interviewed the men, he discovered that they had gone to a hardware store before their hike and purchased a hundred feet of rope. Not only was it not climbing rope, but they cut it into three pieces, dividing it amongst themselves. It’s unclear what purpose three short rope lengths would serve, or what advantage it held over a single longer line. Tom managed to relay this information while standing in front of a news camera, and I admired his composure as he did so matter-of-factly without a trace of a smile on his lips.
A humorous comment on the news station’s web site thanked heaven that the three hadn’t gone skydiving instead. “Imagine what would happen if they each had 1/3 of a parachute!” it read.
The last of us got back down to the highway by 2:15 a.m. and received many compliments for a job well done.
“Was it hard?” Greg asked.
“No,” I replied. “Not really. We just got the job done one step at a time.”
“I think it went so well because of who we had up there,” he confided.
I thought through the terrain we crossed, my team’s stamina and speed, the outstanding teamwork in our route finding, the appropriate caution and problem solving that led to a perfect outcome, and had to agree.