A common question from our students is “how many times have you had to perform a technical rope rescue?” Though technical rope rescue systems are rarely used by most recreational climbers, if you do find yourself faced with the task of assisting someone who is having challenges or is injured, knowing basic rescue systems will surely increase your safety and ability to deal with the situation. Also, an understanding of technical Rope Rescue skills helps in many of our daily climbing systems as well.
Let’s look at the principles of most Rope Rescue systems that we might find ourselves using in a Rock or Alpine climbing environment.
First, climbers need to be self reliant. We typically climb with teams of 2-3 people, so if one member of your rope-team gets in trouble, you may find yourself the only person responsible for all aspects of the rescue – even if you are the 2nd climber and the least experienced!
If you do find yourself in a situation where you want to use rope techniques to rescue one of your teammates, you need to be able to operate independently of the rescue system. In most climbing situations, when a climber fall you will already be part of the system at the moment the fall occurs. If you are part of the system (a belayer, in the middle of the rope on a glacier, etc) you need to – safely – get yourself out of the system so that you are free to carry out the rescue in whatever manner is needed based on the situation.
Following is a typical 6-step Rescue Procedure that can apply equally to falls on rock and falls into crevasses. The following steps are basic rescue principles only and do not include detailed technical explanations on how to achieve each step. This is not a substitute for an actual Rope Rescue course and practical training and experience.
6-step Rope Rescue initial response
- stop the fall. This is usually an automatic action that the belayer or ropeteam will perform as soon as a climber falls. The Rescuers priority here is to minimize the risk of injury to the fallen climber through whatever methods are appropriate, whether applying the correct technique to your belay or performing a self arrest on the snow.
- communicate with the fallen climber. This is a critical step as you need to know the situation in order to make an effective plan of action. The worst case scenario is that there is no response from the fallen climber, at which point you must assume they are injured and require urgent assistance. The best case scenario is that you can see and communicate with the fallen climber and he/she is not injured. You can relax a bit and work out your plan without too much stress.
- Build or locate an anchor. In order to do this, you will need to “tie-off” your belay so that your hands are free to work (without compromising the safety of the fallen climber!) In most rock climbing multi-pitch scenarios, the anchor will most likely be built already, but you may need to adjust or modify it to meet the needs of the new situation you are now in (new direction, added forces, etc). In a crevasse fall situation, you will need to build a solid snow or ice anchor. Remember that the anchors in a rescue system may be subject to higher loads than usual and possibly loaded in different directions as well.
- Transfer the load to the anchor. Up until this point, you have been holding the load in one manner or another – as a belayer, as a climber on a rope team in self-arrest, as a back-up, etc. Now you need to transfer all of the load (weight of fallen climber) to your anchor so that you can truly be free to complete the rescue of your partner.
- Escape the system. Often done as part of the previous step (Load Transfer), escaping the system means that you need to prepare the system so that you are no longer an integral part of it – if you walk away, nothing is compromised in the technical systems. Of course, you will need to ensure your own safety, based on the environment you are working in/around.
- Make a plan (and carry it through!). Once all of the above steps are completed, you can now focus on making the most effective plan to address the primary issues you are facing. This could be to go to the fallen climber to perform First Aid; it could be to set up a lowering system and help the climber down; you may decide that a raising system is required; or, often another roped party of climbers can come to your aid as well.
Many factors will influence the specific techniques that you use – is an anchor already built? Do you have teammates on hand to assist? Can the fallen climber assist in their own rescue? The steps outlined above are generic and some situations may not require all steps, or may require additional precautions.
Everyone hopes that our climbing adventures will always end safely, with nothing more than tired muscles and the odd scrape or two. Unfortunately, we cannot ignore the risks that we expose ourselves to, in the pursuit of our climbing objectives. As well as being trained in the art of avoiding accidents through good technique and decisions, it is still prudent to be prepared in case something does go awry.
Next time you are part of a rope team crossing the glacier, or belaying a lead climber on a multi-pitch rock climb, consider how you would handle an incident involving a fallen climber that needs assistance through use of rope systems.