Saturday, March 30, 2019

Cave Rescue Training in Texas

 In late February I jumped on an airplane and headed south to Texas for a week of teaching National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) training.

But before I started, I had half a day to spend with my friend Cassi. We headed over to the state capitol for a tour.

It was cool to hear about all the symbolism behind the shields. And guess which state capitol in the U.S. is the largest? Everything is biggest in Texas, right? 

The next day I slept in (oh, what a treat!), went for a run, and then Cassi dropped me off with a friend who took me up to Barefoot Lodge. We had our instructor's meeting, and then I gathered all the Small Party Assisted Rescue (SPAR) instructors so we could go over our class. We checked in students that evening.

The next morning we began with the whole group, Levels 1, 2, and SPAR under the watchful eyes of dead animals.

Our SPAR classroom is outside, and fortunately the weather cooperated. In fact, it was downright balmy early in the week, even reaching 80 degrees! Here's Kelby talking about pre-planning and decision making. (Hint: some pre-planning can go a long way. And having extra gear in your vehicle means that your gear cache is close by if something goes wrong.)
 Later DJ did an excellent talk about Frog system optimization. As Americans, we tend to want to set up our gear our way. But the more I (and several other instructors) tweak our systems, the more they tend to look like what the Europeans use. Extra tips here: keep everything to the left of the Croll, oval carabiners are awesome (they are compatible with all gear), using a carabiner to attach to your upper ascender gives you a lot more flexibility.

Carrey gave a talk about SPAR psychology. This talk was demo'ed during the weeklong SPAR in the summer. I liked it so much I wanted to have it included in our three-day class, and Carrey hit it out of the ballpark. I don't mind sharing some of it, because I think sharing things that makes cavers safer is good to do. You can avoid many accidents if you watch out for yourself and your team if they're having any of these symptoms that fit in the acronym HALTY: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, or hYpothermic. Best treatment: talking, a hug, and food. Aw, now we all want to go caving together. :)

If an accident does happen, we need to know some basic medical. Andy covered that, with the caveat that the best thing to do is get some wilderness first aid/first responder training.

Next it's time for some haul system/mechanical advantage review/overview. It's good to know your 1:1, 2:1, and 3:1 systems with progress capture.

Then we had afternoon and evening stations, and I was so busy I didn't get photos of any of those. 
Day 2 we headed to some awesome cliffs in Colorado Bend State Park. We had four stations next to each other, so traveling time between them was minimal. That meant we had 1.5 hours at each station, a luxury to have so much time. One of the stations was a Convert to Lower station with Tommy. That basically means if you come to a rope with someone stuck on it, how can you lower them quickly?

Another station was climbing and rappelling counterweights. You learn quickly that having some high help (anchor off the ground) makes a huge difference. Our other two stations were crack and crevice and stacked counterweights. Then we did some rappelling with a patient through a rebelay and traveling haul through a rebelay. After dinner we were back at our classroom for some more demos and practice time. These days are long, but the great weather made it easy!

The next day was scenario day, with four students and two instructors heading into a cave. The instructors tended to have a lot of problems caving that day!

 Even though I've taught this class a lot of times, I always learn something new. This time around I was working on perfecting my Portuguese bowline, helped by peanut butter and jelly.

After our three-day SPAR had ended, I was planning on jumping in with Level 2 and helping there. But we had a surplus of instructors, and I asked DJ, the lead for the event, what he thought about teaching some SPAR skills to instructors. He said yes, and that was how MicroSPAR was born. I spent the next two days giving a one-day version to instructors. We started with about half an hour lecture, half an hour of Frog System optimization, an hour+ of convert to lower and an hour+ of traveling haul. It was great to repeat some of these things over and over and see the tweaks to make them even better. 
In the afternoon we went out to a cave and practiced various rescue techniques like traveling hauls and diminishing loop, climbing, and rappelling counterweight systems and compared them all. MicroSPAR was a blast, I hope to teach it again. This version was aimed at instructors and specialists, all who had been through at least Level 3. Some had taken SPAR before, others were new to it.

The next day I took the instructor written test. We have to take it every so often to stay current as an NCRC instructor. (I passed.) Then I helped out with the mock walkthrough, which is basically a smaller version of the mock rescue with several repeats so that students can learn how a cave rescue is launched and how the Incident Command System works. For one of the evolutions, I volunteered to be a patient in the SKED, a burrito-type rescue litter, to go out a tiny entrance. My nose almost touched, but not quite. The students got me out successfully, and I reminded them not to stop in the really tight spots, just keep moving steadily and slowly. (Yes, I can get claustrophobic, especially when I'm tied up in a litter and the cave wall is right in front of my face. How do I deal with it? Close my eyes and pretend I'm somewhere else.)

With a recent reminder of how much I don't like to be in the litter, when the mock scenario was presented that night, I did not volunteer to be a patient, but rather an "angel" for my friend Les. We went into a cave we had never been in before, so we weren't sure how the rescue would go. The temperatures had plummeted into the 20s at night, so we were thinking that being in a 65-degree cave would be nice and cozy. It turned out we were under a skylight, and it started snowing on us in the cave! Time to go a little deeper!

Here's Les waiting to be rescued. He even brought his own lantern.

Eventually he was packaged up and they started moving him towards the entrance. 

Here's one of the tight spots he went through. It wasn't even the tightest! They eventually got him out, although with some modifications to the original plan.
You learn something from every mock rescue and training. I'm very thankful I could be part of the Texas training. Thanks to DJ for putting on another successful training and inviting me to come be part of it. Thanks to all the students who choose to attend--you're the reason we can have the trainings. Thanks to all the other instructors, it's always inspiring to be with you. And thanks so much to Megan and the food crew--the amazing food is a huge part of why I came back!

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