Mission Summary: When Rigging Gets Real

By Matt Shargel

When the callout comes, you never know how it will turn out; we need to be prepared mentally, physically, and with gear and training at all times!  This year’s callout to Marin on New Year’s Eve was a reminder of this SAR truth.

Part 1 – The response to the subject
When the call came that the subject had been located and a carryout response was needed, CoCoSAR was first in line at the trailhead.  Team members opened the MRG truck and pulled out the gear.  The role of chief rigger was assigned and we grabbed the litter with backboard and straps, sleeping bag and blanket, the MRG rigging gear bag, and the two full-length rescue ropes.  Many hands made the work relatively light heading up the trail.  As the equipment and searchers reached the end of the path however, we realized the challenge we were facing.

The hike in consisted of 1) about a quarter mile of flat single-track pathway; 2) about a quarter of a mile of steeply off-angled dirt and rock-strewn stream bank; and 3) about a quarter mile of rocky, narrow, and flowing streambed.

Part 2 – Carryout along the streambed
Below you will find a description of the rigging for the middle, sloped stream bank section during the carryout.  To find out more about the first quarter mile of carryout through the flowing streambed you’ll need to talk with someone who was there; it is the stuff of legends and cannot be justly told on paper!

Part 3 – Rigging the traverse
Objective: Provide a running, belay-strength, hand line to protect the litter from a fall along a sloped side of a stream.  The line was rigged to guide pulleys attached to the upper hand rail of the litter.  Three rescuers, one at head, foot, and side, worked the litter down the steeply angled “pathway.”   And even these three had a hard time putting much force into the litter due to the steepness and narrowness of the terrain.

  1. One end of a 60m line was attached to a large tree growing in the middle of the stream, about 20 feet upstream of the litter.  A tensionless anchor clipped with a carabineer was used at about shoulder height. While we usually rig ropes lower to the ground for strength, the rope would be running up onto the stream’s hillside, so a higher anchor was needed.
  2. The rope was trailed down to the litter crew to rig the pulleys, then off the stream and up the bank a ways, heading downwards along the side-stream bank. 
  3. To protect against a fall down the bank and into the stream, several anchors were tied along the length of the rope.  Due to the limited and widely variable anchors, some rigging creativity was needed.  Several anchors were webbing wrapped around tree bases or thick branches.  A minimum diameter of four inches of healthy wood was a guiding principle when judgment of anchor strength became critical.   One anchor consisted of two lengths of webbing connected with a water knot in the middle.  The top was tied with a tensionless hitch around a tree about 40 feet above the hand-line rope.  The bottom had an overhand on a bight with a locking carabineer attached.  For one section particularly void of trees, a 4×4 wooden post and a piece of rebar were put into the system.  Clove hitches at the base of each gave them a combined strength.  A second 60m rope was tied in when the first ran out.  The terminus of the whole safety line, in an area again void of just the right tree, was the base of a large clump of what looked like elderberry and buck brush.  The difficulty in crawling around the base one time made the multiple wraps of a tensionless anchor prohibitive, so a bowline with its tail tied off would suffice. (“Better is the death of good enough!”)
  4. The traverse line also needed to be tensioned to minimize the fall distance in the event of a slip or drop of the litter team.  To provide this running tension, and to provide tied-off sections along the line, a munter hitch was used at many anchors.  Once tied, a few rescuers would haul on the running end of the rope, pulling slack out of the system.  The munter was then tied off, under tension, with a mule hitch, and backed up with a clipped carabineer.  In one or two spots, even this was not possible due to the combination of bushes and terrain so a simple butterfly knot sufficed.
  5. The last 100 feet of the side banked section involved a descent down to the waiting litter wheel.  This slope also had enough of an angle that we decided to include a second belay line, in addition to the first tensioned traversing rope.  Two riggers from Marin jumped in for the task, throwing a wrap three/pull two around a sturdy tree.  To the best of my foggy memory they used a scarab device for the lower … but that may have been just a dream …. In fact all of this record could fall into that category so you should probably fact-check it at our next team training with everyone else that was there!

Part 4 – The thank you’s
In the midst of the emergency there is such an awe-inspiring but often invisible chain of hands.  When the need arose for more webbing, or carabineers — poof!  They would appear.  When the litter had passed by a section — poof!  The ropes were derigged almost by magic.  When my footing was poor as I was tying a critical knot — poof!  Hands from below steadied me (their footing must have been even more unstable).  Snacks were shared – helmets, gloves, and goggles passed to those in need … poof, poof, poof.  And how much more goes unnoticed!   The honor of occasionally being the tip of the SAR spear requires reflection and recognition of the TEAM who puts us there.  Don’t we all hope to be those mysterious steadying hands, standing ankle deep in the stream holding someone else up?

Packing Lite

One of the many challenges for SAR members is figuring out how much (and what) to carry in a pack. One objective is to reduce the burden of the weight carried. Another is to make sure everything that might possibly be needed is taken along. It can be a difficult balance.

Despite the fitness hike requirement to carry a 20-lb pack, it isn't necessary to carry that much weight on every search. So what's the answer- how does a searcher know what to bring without lugging around unnecessary poundage?

Type I searchers Matt Shargel and Michael Boyce are both experts at packing "ultralight." Matt, for instance, claims he can take a three-day backpacking trip with a five-pound pack, but for the team as a whole, that's not recommended . . . and even Matt would never pack that light for a search.

Ultimately, it's up to the individual to figure out what works for them, but it doesn't hurt to ask the experts how they hone down the weight. Type I team members and those who have been on the team a long time are good resources to ask.

"Every mission is different," Matt says. "Experience-20 searches or so-is the best way to learn how to pack. That's good reason to participate in team, resource, and personal trainings every chance you get."

Certain purchases can also help lighten the load. Michael, for instance, uses Gossamer Gear equipment for shelter and stuff bags. They offer distinct advantages in terms of weight, but can be pricey. Ziplock bags, on the other hand, are a simple, inexpensive way to divide necessities. Taking things out of their packages, or off their spools, can also help. Case in point: use a Sharpie, trekking pole, or Nalgene bottle as a wrap for duct tape.

Start your packing by going through the gear list with an eye toward what items are always necessary: water, snacks, pen, notebook, cell phone, latex or nitrile gloves, and so on. These are the musts that should be with you on every callout. Then go through the list and see what items are mostly seasonal. For instance, rain gear, warm gloves, and woolen hats can all be set aside during the warm months.

Finally, think about the search at hand. It isn't necessary to carry a tarp on an urban search. Nor will you need a fire starter or Tecnu. If you're just going door-to-door, you may even get by with just a fanny pack or shoulder harness. On the other hand, a callout to wooded or mountainous areas may require everything in your 24-hour pack, and maybe more-especially if it's out of county. The needs of a rural callout will be somewhere in between.

The mission will always dictate the priorities. Experienced searchers go through their pack and pull out any gear that isn't typically needed for every search. Those items are often kept in a separate satchel, but brought to the search so last-minute packing can be done for the specific assignment the searcher is given. Different field assignments throughout the day may mean swapping out certain items as needed. Checklists can help, so that in the hurried moments of a callout, a critical piece of gear isn't forgotten.

Talk to your teammates. See how they pack, what they pack, and what they've learned about what they need most and least. Before you spend money on highend gear, ask around to see if someone doesn't have a tip for a simpler solution or less expensive item. You can also learn from mistakes others have made-like buying a heavy first-aid kit when items from the Dollar Store carried in plastic bags would suffice.

Extra weight makes for slower and less-efficient searchers, which leads to decreased performance and reduced effectiveness. So make an effort to lighten up. Like Matt say, "Safety and the mission are first. These objectives can be supported by the informed and experienced selection of needed gear-with efficiency in mind."