August began with the CoCoSAR Type 1 MRG Advanced Wilderness Search Tactics (AWST) training. Conducted once a year, this is one of the major training markers to qualify for MRG/Type 1, covering a period of three days and two nights in the mountains at altitudes above 7,000 feet.
This year, 12 candidates and six proctors traveled to Mammoth to train in the Thousand Island Lake area in the Ansel Adams Wilderness. Kristl Buluran was one of the candidates and this is her story.
I’m probably the most inexperienced candidate in this pool. I joined SAR last year with no backpacking or camping experience, so what was my rationale to continue through the Type 1 academy? I wanted to help people. But, truthfully, I also wanted to be badass.
What I lacked in skill and experience, I thought I could make up for in determination and heart, and I could learn the skills and gain the experience along the way.
Or, maybe not.
Three sheriff’s vehicles transported 18 people for the six-hour drive. Halfway through Yosemite, I started feeling tingling in my fingers and toes, lightheadedness, mild motion sickness, and just an overall feeling of unease. I hoped it would pass–I was determined and looking forward to beginning the hike.
At Mammoth, lead proctor Joe Keyser split us up into two teams to hike 9 miles to camp at Thousand Island Lake.
This turned out to be by far the most challenging and brutal hike I’ve ever done. I battled dizziness and lightheadedness the entire hike. I am a slow hiker even at best (Mikel Kinser anointed me “Stubby” for good reason). I also got a much-needed, but harsh lesson in the level of teamwork required for Type 1 when it became clear the team would not make it to camp before sunset at the pace I was setting; I would have to share some of my load with my teammates.
Oh, what a humbling experience. Yet, everyone was supportive and understanding, and, after eventually sucking up my pride, I was grateful my teammates absorbed some of my pack weight. We made it to camp with barely enough light to set up.
That evening, most felt okay, aside from the headache and slight nausea that is common while adjusting to high altitude. Some (including me) were a bit worse for wear… more nausea, more dizziness, more blech. I ate and drank what I could, then retired to my tent.
Sleep was not to be because I couldn’t breathe. And breathing was not to be because of the altitude. Plus, despite all my layers, I was freezing.
In the morning, Todd Rogers took over as lead proctor for a training-filled day, beginning with a lesson in using what was in our packs to create litters to carry a downed subject.
Proctors hammered us with questions: What if this person had a head injury? How would you hold C-spine? What about a broken leg — show me what you would use to splint it. What if he had both? Is your litter sturdy enough to support his entire body? What if you only had three people?
So many questions! But all of them were necessary to demonstrate possible dilemmas and solutions in a Type 1 rescue, and to illustrate the level of teamwork required to bring someone safely down a mountain.
After a few hours, we were split into two teams with Natalie Zensius and Laura Carmody as leads. The choice: a very challenging search area or a very, VERY challenging search area. Natalie’s team chose the latter, Laura’s the former. Guess which team I was on?
We were instructed to grid the area along the way to our search area. This exercise drove home the difficulties of searching an area of dense wilderness and uncharted terrain. It became clear that two things are musts for a Type 1: qualified and fit team members, and lots and lots of callouts.
In order to be a Type 1 searcher, one needs to be conditioned as well as fit. There is a difference and I, who have always considered myself fit, realized I was not conditioned.
As we climbed to over 10,000 feet, I immediately felt the effects of altitude and fell out. Everything began to spin. I fought hard against it as my team carried me to a rock under shade. Laura and Pat Dodson placed wet cloths over me while Micheal Riggs and Steve Webber took off my pack and fanned me down. In the meantime, John Banuelos and Mary Carreno decided I was done and Mary would walk me back to camp.
This time I did not protest. I wanted down … and out.
I did not complete this part of the training, but I later learned Banuelos became the subject who “fell while taking a bio break.” My team called the other team to assist in building a litter to carry him to a landing zone. (The other team also had to run uphill to make it to a “helicopter pickup” within 20 minutes. Hate to say it, but I was happy to not have been on that team.)
About five hours later, both teams returned, exhausted. I felt so much better (apparently the climb to over 10,000 feet is exactly what I needed to acclimate). I was glad to see everyone and anxious to hear their stories.
After dinner, Todd asked each team member three questions: What did you like about the training; what didn’t you like; and what have you learned? The responses helped give me perspective on training and preparation to be an effective and successful Type 1 member.
The second night was much more comfortable than the first thanks to acclimating. Next morning, coming “down” the mountain, we still did a lot of climbing. Although concerned because of my earlier difficulties, I felt much better and almost fully acclimated to the thin mountain air.
Once again we split into two groups: the fast group (Team 1), proctored by Banuelos and Andy Csepely, and the not-so-fast group (Team 2), proctored by Todd and led by Steve. Guess which group I was in?
Team 1 led the charge with about a 30-minute head start. I was asked to set the pace for Team 2. I was hesitant, but greatly encouraged by everyone on my team, especially Natalie, who said, “Don’t worry … I’m on her!”
And that she was. Thanks to tips Laura and Natalie gave me on how to maneuver over rough terrain, loose rock and shale, and how to use trekking poles, etc., my pace was soon both brisk and comfortable. In fact, I found myself hiking faster than I ever had before. Something about acclimating made me feel like Superwoman; blood flowing, oxygen filling my lungs, head clear … I had energy I hadn’t had in days … or maybe ever.
Throughout the hike we checked in with Team 1 and soon learned they weren’t far ahead. Team 1 had left sticks and branches spelling out “Team 1” (as if to mark their dominance), which only served to tickle my competitive streak.
“You know, we could actually catch up to them, Kristl,” my team said. “It would be awesome to see Banuelos’ face when he sees us passing them, Kristl.”
That did it; we were off. And when we caught up to Team 1 and Banuelos saw us coming, he yelled, “No way!” Team 1 parted a course for us to pass, exchanging high-fives and “good jobs!”
In the end, I found great satisfaction in knowing I made it through the weekend, as difficult and challenging as it was. Even though I failed AWST, I learned what it takes to be a Type 1 – the level of conditioning necessary to be an effective team member, and the seriousness of the training to match the seriousness of the search and rescue. I learned of my own limitations, and how being unprepared adversely affects a search when lack of skills creates a liability.
Moreover, I believe there is no such thing as failure; only opportunities, lessons learned, and good stories. I have much more to learn, but this weekend solidified my respect for the Type 1 team and increased my gratitude for teammates who were there for me.
Now the best part of this story is the ending, when I say, “So, while we were at the shuttle stop waiting for Team 1….”