Maintaining MRA Accreditation: Snow and Ice

By Joe Keyser

The CoCoSAR Mountain Rescue Group (MRG) participated in the annual Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) reaccreditation at June Mountain Ski Resort in the town of June Lake on March 2. (The MRA requires reaccreditation in one of three core skills every year; this year it was snow and ice rescue.)

Sixteen CoCoSAR team members gathered at the resort with the goal of maintaining CoCoSAR's MRA certification. They were among more than 20 teams from all over the California region seeking reaccreditation. 

CoCoSAR has been training since November on Mt. Diablo and at Donner Pass in order to perfect skills in the two disciplines the team was required to demonstrate at June Lake: avalanche rescue and technical snow and ice rescue systems. To test the team's ability with technical snow and ice rescue systems, two observers accompanied the team up a 35- to 40-degree snow slope to a GPS location. At this time, the observers designated a random team member as the subject to be lowered about 500 feet down to a road. The team quickly assessed snow conditions, built anchors (in terrible snow), assembled main and belay systems, and assessed and packaged the patient and lowered him down the slope.

Next the team was required to locate a buried avalanche beacon in a simulated avalanche area in 20 minutes or less. It took the team about 20 minutes to prove conclusively, using transceivers and a grid search, that there was no beacon buried in the assigned area. After event organizers did a quick huddle, they realized CoCoSAR's beacon was buried in a different avalanche zone. Once directed to the right avalanche zone, the team found its beacon (and a second buried for another team) in half the required time limit.

The two proctors assigned by the MRA to observe the team came away very impressed by the teamwork, knowledge, and skills displayed by CoCoSAR team members. The proctors passed the team on both stations. Overall the event was an excellent opportunity for the team to show off its technical rescue skills, network with other SAR teams from around the state, and certify its standing as one of the premier search and rescue teams in California.


Pictures courtesy of Karen Najarian:

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?

Looking Back, Looking Ahead–The Resource Year in Review

Bicycle Resource
The Bike Resource was involved in number of medical events throughout 2012 and participated in many aspects of team training, including UNO, as part of the Type 2 Academy. Most recently, the Bike Resource participated in team medical events for the Mount Diablo Challenge Bike race and the Lafayette Reservoir Run.

Primary goals for 2013
- Hold a Bike Resource Orientation Academy for new members
- Organize monthly training rides
- Organize optional weekly fitness rides for all members
- Participate in team medical events

 

Canine Resource
The Canine Resource had some significant accomplishments in 2012. They included certifying two trailing-dog teams and recertification of an area and an HRD (human remains detection) dog team. Also, the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) policies were revised and the resource added three trailing-dog teams and a new puppy (trailing and firearms) for a currently certified handler.

Primary goals for 2013
- Certify four trailing-dog teams
- Recertify an area-dog team
- Plan for water training, a trailing seminar, and to revise the SOP training manual

 

 

Equestrian Resource
The Equestrians are probably the smallest resource, with four current members. Meeting the rider / horse requirement has been the focus of 2012.  The resource is similar to the canine resource in that each member must practice more with his / her “partner” individually than during monthly trainings.

Primary goals for 2013
- Increase numbers.
- Research and develop ways to have those who do not ride or own horses participate

 

Explorers
The Explorers had a busy 2012 and added 12 new Explorer members to the team; getting them through the Type 3 Academy with six carrying on to Type 2. That took a lot of work with many experienced Explorers acting as coaches and proctors.

The Explorer rafting trip in August was a lot of fun, but also an excellent team-building training. Explorer Capt. Kevin Clark led one of the SAR-o-Rama trainings on patient assessment and this event provided an excellent leadership opportunity for him.

A “treasure chest” geocache hike was a big hit in November. The Explorers had to follow clues via a topographical map, a GPS waypoint, and a compass, among other clues, to lead to a chest full of treasures (movie items and chocolate) hidden at OES.

There were several fun trainings, as well, at the local climbing gym; PR events; and several Explorers went through the EMR class.

Primary goal for 2013
- Take a leadership role in some of the team’s trainings such as SAR-o-Rama

 

Metal Detector Resource
The Metal Detector Resource continues to be a valuable part of the team by assisting local law enforcement units recover evidence at crime scenes. The resource has a strong group of core members and several new Type 3 academy graduates. Many of our searches took place during regular business hours to meet the needs of the requesting agency. Fortunately, enough members were able to take the time mid-week to meet all metal detector callout requests.

During 2012, the resource was asked to locate (or eliminate the possibility of their location through due diligence) weapons and ammunition on several occasions, including an extensive search of a block-long juniper bush in Richmond’s Iron Triangle.

Primary goals for 2013
- Build the capabilities of its current members
- Increase the number of members who are well-trained enough to handle any callouts

 

Mountain Rescue Group (MRG)
The MRG held a successful academy with two new Type 1 members added to the callout roster in 2012. During the year there were also numerous Type 1 searches in a variety of terrain, from the coastal range to the high Sierra. The snow and ice re-accreditation team trained hard for its March 2013 test date.

 

 

Primary goals for 2013
- Pass another recertification effort in snow and ice
- Maintain continued readiness for challenging callouts in difficult Type 1 terrain
- Increase the Type 1 callout roster to 35 by the fall of 2013

 

Tracking Resource
The focus for 2012 was on building new skills so that at a moment’s notice, members could follow a subject’s trail without falter. However, just as importantly it has been about educating the full team on how to protect precious tracks, preserve clues that can aid in the discovery of a lost subject, and to teach a searcher how to raise his/her acuity as a ground-pounder.

Primary goals for 2013
- Continue to be an educational resource focused on teaching track awareness, clue protection, night-vision and thermal-vision tactics, etc.
- Continue to define and refine the resource’s collective tracking techniques so they can be taught to all team searchers
- Spread among the membership – during academies, full-team trainings and the 2013 Tracking Academy – the concepts and importance of tracking. Sign (or spoor) is everywhere – 25 percent of the team understands this; the tracking sergeant wants the other 75 percent

 

USAR Resource
During 2012, the USAR Resource successfully implemented a two-tier training program (one advanced and one basic); had a strong turnout and enthusiasm at all of its training events; added to the state USAR mutual-aid list; and grew its full-team USAR Type 4 readiness through team trainings and the SAR Type 3 Academy.

 

Primary goals for 2013
- Develop the USAR Ops Guide
- Expand USAR’s Type 3 numbers
- Develop strong Type 3 team leaders

 

USAR/MRG Joint Training

On Saturday, May 19th, the USAR Resource and Mountain Rescue Group had a joint training at Rock City on Mount Diablo. USAR had two teams working on low-angle rescue. An advanced group practiced more challenging scenarios, while those still learning urban search and rescue systems worked on basic skills. Meanwhile, qualified Type I personnel broke out the ropes and practiced techniques for ascending and rapelling with high-angle systems.

Joe Keyser named MRG Training Sergeant

Joe Keyser has has been promoted to the newly created position of Mountain Rescue Group Training Sergeant. Joe is an experienced backcountry guide and has been a regular participant on MRG trainings. He has a thorough understanding of the curriculum and field work candidates must complete to become Type I searchers. Joe joined CoCo SAR in 2009, and completed his Type I Training during the summer of 2010. Later that year Joe accepted the role of MRG logistics corporal, where he initiated best practices in setting up gear records (including rope logs critical to meeting safety standards), completed the MRG gear requisition, and rehabilitated the cache on the MRG truck