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….”
By Wilma Murray
“The road is long, with many a winding turn, that leads us to who knows where, who knows where …”
It’s an old song, and familiarity with its lyrics no doubt dates me (and you). But it’s the song that comes to mind following what was a long, winding weekend for me as I tried to pocket another requirement on the way to Type-1dom: Basic Wilderness Search Tactics, or, BWST for short.
There’s something a little crazy about this journey for me. (Okay, a LOT crazy.) Despite being a longtime soccer player (30+ years) who loves to play sports, I am no outdoors aficionado. In fact, I’m the queen of comfort, always eschewing dirt and inconvenience if it isn’t attached to a competitive game. I’m most happy in a cozy chair with a good book.
And, frankly, I’m pretty creaky, with joints that could use a good dose of WD-40 every day (and ½ of one that’s made of spare parts). But in the almost-three years I’ve been on the CoCoSAR team, I’ve found myself drawn to doing things I never thought I could do – or wanted to do. Hiking, for starters.
The basic Type 3 hike was a slog for me; dragged down with my son’s metal weights in the bottom of a school backpack, I was anything but searcher-ready. But then I began to get the hang of it and by last year, I actually enjoyed proctoring Type 2 hikes.
Fast forward to this year: Here I was, heading out for my novice backpacking weekend with a group of die-hard outdoors persons (okay, except for Kristl), a borrowed backpack et al (thanks, Lauren) on my back. I had set up the tent once in my family room. Otherwise, this was all new. And, frankly, scary as all you-know-what.
Right off the bat, I needed special treatment. Can’t do winding roads, so I had to drive. But all were willing to accommodate, and this continued, every step of the way.
From that point on, my weekend was a team effort … from the beginning, when John Hubinger helped me fit my backpack properly; to the middle, when Chris Coelho and Robert Medearis helped me drive the stakes into the ground (and advised me on the finer tent details), and Banuelos walked me back to camp when others wanted to go the extra mile to watch another team; to the end, when my proctor Chris continued with welfare checks and offered to carry some of my stuff – fellow candidates and proctors were with me all the way. Encouragement and support were as high on the ingredients list as instruction.
And despite my – often comedic – lack of experience, nobody balked. Nobody tried to discourage me, except me, and I was truly excellent at that, if nothing else. My weekend mantra, peppered with innumerable four-letter words (mostly inside my head, but a few eked out), was “I am SO NOT Type 1. This is SO NOT for me.”
And yet …
There is something incredibly compelling about being in the midst of people willing to go that extra mile – and another extra mile, and still another extra mile – to be prepared to help someone in need.
Frankly, we have a whole team of folk like that, with people putting their energy full-force into all aspects of running the program. But the Type 1ers have a different kind of energy – not better, just different. They can admittedly be uber gung-ho, and for the neophyte, that can be intimidating. But they are also there, present, and ready to be of service, as was evidenced this weekend.
I will never, ever be able to say, as others did at the debriefing: “Wow, this was FUN!” Nope. This is not my idea of fun. And at that point, I was so tired and sore and discouraged by my lack of ability to keep up that I was struggling just to keep my emotions in check.
But I did it; I made it, thanks to all the hands and hearts that helped carry me along. I may not be able or willing to go on to the next step (Advanced Wilderness Search Tactics – a two-nighter event), or, if I do, I may not ever be on the Type-1 callout list. But to know that I was part of this intense process with such a strong and caring group of people made it all worth it.
The rest of that song stanza – slightly paraphrased – sums up this remarkable team effort:
“But we’re strong; strong enough to carry her; she ain't heavy, she's our sister.”
CoCoSAR Type 1 Candidates Steve Webber, Natalie Zensius, Wilma Murray (front row), Pat Dodson, Kristl Buluran, Phil Novak, Laura Carmody, Mikel Kinser, Don Kavanaugh, Micheal Riggs and John Hubinger relax after a challenging weekend. Team proctors: Chris Coelho, Tom McGee, Robert Medearis, Tim Murphy, John Banuelos, Reza Farsati and John Venturino.
(Photo: Natalie Zensius)
CoCoSAR team members gathered at Shell Ridge May 18 for the first of the four-part summer rope-rescue training program jointly hosted by the USAR (Urban Search and Rescue) and MRG (Mountain Rescue Group) resources.
Rope-rescue skills are an important component of Mountain Rescue and USAR training but are also extremely useful for the whole team's knowledge base. The rope rescue trainings have been designed for multiple levels and are open to all team members – from those new to rope rescue to seasoned veterans.
The May training split the group into three parts, each designed to challenge and expand team members' skills: advanced for those with technical rope know-how; intermediate for those who have had some rope rescue experience and want to take their skills to the next level; and basic for novices.
Last week Type 1 Academy students began CoCoSAR’s two-evening Advanced Land Navigation class. In the classroom, students learned all the ins and outs of maps and compasses.
Today they were tasked with putting those skills to work as the class concluded with an all-day, solo field test at a secret location. This year, students were joined by current Type 1 team members who were conducting a simultaneous field exercise to refresh and maintain their navigation skills.
Mixed in with the inevitable excitement was some trepidation about what the field-test day might have in store for students; however, graduates of the class reported that it was a fun-filled day and an extremely useful experience.
Class instructors Dr. Mark Sembrat and Jack Peabody discuss the class and how they came to lead it in the following Q&A session.
How did each of you get so interested/passionate about navigation?
MS: I was involved with adventure racing in a former life and since the course is not marked, you’re very dependent on the efficiency of the navigator to get from point to point. I’ve seen teams lose races because of mistakes, so I took additional weekend classes to brush up on skills and learn new ones.
Historically, navigation was a weakness for our team. It was presented to me that I knew “just a bit more” about navigation and was asked to develop a navigation course for CoCoSAR. Then, with the depth of the team, suggestions by students and proctors, the class, and the result is that our collective skill as a team has just gotten better and better over the past five years.
JP: With a name like Search and Rescue, I always thought that after medical skills, your navigation skills had to be the second-most important item for a team member. My passion comes from many years as a Boy Scout leader and many more years of being in the wilderness with groups of people in which I learned that good navigation will make the trek more enjoyable and with less drama.
In your experience, are some people just inherently better at navigation than others? How do people who don’t have an inherent sense of direction overcome this?
MS: Some are naturally better navigators than others, but there are a few things to make it easier. Pay attention to the everyday navigation tasks. Learn what your tendencies are and if they are correct or need to be tweaked.
JP: I do not think anyone is inherently better at navigation, only that some people are paying more attention navigating through their day and have more current route-finding skills. The human brain is good at remembering a story and navigation is about the story of the trip you are about to take by reading a map. See Mark’s “The Six Steps to Becoming a Better Navigator.”
How has technology, like GPS, impacted our ability to navigate?
MS: GPS navigation is easy, plain and simple. We use it all the time in SAR work. GPS uses orbiting satellites to find your location on earth via calculating how long it takes for a radio signal to reach your receiver. You can carry a huge variety of maps in the palm of your hand. Whether you're hiking up a mountain or you're driving cross country with friends, it's much easier to look at a screen that shows exactly where you are than to puzzle out your course without technological aid. If you don’t understand the information it provides, it becomes only an expensive paperweight.
JP: GPS makes locating yourself and getting to locations much easier. This is all well and good until the GPS device fails, and then it compounds most people’s problems for they now don’t have a map or were not paying attention to how they got where they are and do not know the route to their destination. So orienteering skills are invaluable regardless of the tools you have.
What’s the biggest difference between CoCoSAR's basic and advanced land navigation classes?
MS: I personally believe focus should be on map-reading skills. This is useful in maximizing both the GPS and compass. Unlike basic land navigation, advanced land navigation gives people the opportunity to get personal with primarily map and compass where detail is the key. Mostly what we use in SAR provides an exact location in a UTM format.
The GPS unit will let you know how much distance you've covered and how much further you have to go. It will even tell you your altitude.It can mark and retrieve location points or waypoints. This ease of use shouldn't be taken for granted, though, since if your GPS stops working you'll still be on the trail, road or out in the wilds. As such, you should have a back map or atlas and stay aware of your surroundings.
The downside of this is that these devices are still electronics, and as such are vulnerable to bad weather, rough handling and even electrical discharge, which can damage even the most modern system. They run on batteries (extra weight) and require good signal strength. GPS is a great tool, but it’s important to understand the strengths and weaknesses and compensate with other techniques.
JP: Basic land navigation is a team-building map exercise to navigate in a car using a Thomas Guide and on foot using topographic maps using the collective wisdom of the group. These are primary skills for searchers to get to the search and find a subject. Advanced land navigation is a simulated helicopter drop into the wilderness in which you are all alone with your map and compass skills to navigate a course. It is the only SAR training in which the individual is NOT part of a team but is on their own using their brain and refined orientation skills.
Why are advanced navigation skills important for the search and rescue team member?
MS: Using a compass is less expensive, does not require electricity, but often requires a map. You need to learn a few skills in order to read a compass properly. Most people know they should always carry a compass, but do they all know how to actually use it? In my pack I carry a Garman Map 60CsX, a Silva Ranger compass, map and grid reader tool for redundancy and to resolve all possible limitations.
JP: As noted above, advanced land navigation is a simulated helicopter drop into the wilderness, which is a real situation MRG searchers face on a regular basis; thus these are skills you must have mastered.
In your experience teaching this class, what do students seem to have the most trepidation and/or confusion about?
MS: The field portion of advanced land navigation because it’s the only time I know of that as a CoCoSAR team member you’re placed in situations alone, not in teams, not with a partner – no one! You are depending on your brain and skill to pass the class. This can be nerve-wracking for some students.
JP: Looking at a topographic map and visualizing what the terrain looks like and vice versa, seeing the terrain on the map to plan a route. They have the most confusion about how to operate a compass and GPS.
Which books or other resources do you recommend for team members to learn more/brush up on their skills?
MS: Resources are endless on the Internet. All you need to do is use Google and you can be overwhelmed with information. Admittedly, some is dry and hard to process. I lean more to videos for brushing up on skills. A good book is Wilderness Navigation by Burns and Burns.
JP: Mark did a good job addressing this already.
In your experience, how does navigation stack up as a perishable skill compared to, for instance, medical training?
MS: Learning to read maps is critical. Often a good map and the ability to read it is all you need. Build a tool kit of skills and techniques, so you can draw upon and apply more helpful skills for the situation you may find yourself in. Like all perishable skills, practice is the key.
JP: Navigation is about as perishable as medical skills, although ironically you use your navigation skills every,day, but you’re usually on auto pilot, so you are not aware of the process. The navigation machinery, such as topographic maps, compass use, and operating a GPS is like working with any software, i.e. if you don’t use it on a regular basis, you quickly forget how to make it work for you.
What are the 3-5 things that you'd like to see every team member know and be confident about?
JP: At Type 3, how to read a topo map to plan and follow a route off streets; at Type 2, how to operate a GPS to record tracks and get to locations or coordinates; and at Type 1, how to figure out where you are and navigate in any kind of conditions and terrain.
For those curious about what the advanced land navigation day entails, below is a video of the 2013 class, produced by Mark Sembrat.
The Hasty Squad had an excellent training on a beautiful Wednesday day and night in Danville. The training was a mock search for a missing at-risk autistic 16 year old. There were 33 searchers in the field, with another 12 as role players and proctors.
The teenager went missing after leaving his house for school in the early morning and it was reported that he never attended any of his classes. The search began at the subject’s house where team members met with a Danville PD IC officer and the subject’s mother, played by team member Nancy Hart. There they had a briefing from the IC, a search of the subject’s house,and interviews began. CP was set up at a nearby San Ramon High School and field and bike teams were soon sent out.
Information was discovered on the subject’s Facebook page that led searchers to his tutor and a friend at a nearby Yogurt Shack. From the tutor, it was learned that they both had an argument over test preparation that morning and the subject had a “stress” episode and left campus to head to an unknown location.
Soon thereafter, the father of the subject called from overseas and gave information of a past hike the two had taken on a nearby trail in Las Trampas. The missing subject was found by a bike team. He was injured, but in overall stable condition.
Thank you to our proctors and role players:
Nancy Hart, Patrick Walker, Daniel Rathert, Richard Najarian, Kang Lim, Steve Filippoff, Chris Young, Rick Kovar, Frank Moschetti, Dale Myer and Bryan Walley.
Thank you to our Hasty drivers:
Diane Blue, Jack Peabody, Ed Griffith and Patrick Dodson.
On Saturday, March 16th, 2013, the USAR resource conducted another challenging USAR training to help expand disaster response skills. At this training the team learned effective techniques for breaching through walls constructed of different home building materials and rescued a trapped/injured person on the other side.
Take a look at this video recap of the training:
Team members came together today for a beautiful and fun hike planned around the circumference of Mt. Diablo’s peak. This full-team training offered a one-time qualifying Type 2 fitness hike, while also giving team members the opportunity to socialize and enjoy Mt. Diablo’s splendid scenery.
Some team members used this to meet their Type 2 hike qualification for the year; some proctored; and others were just along for the experience. Some enjoyed the hike, whether qualifying or not, and others found it tested their mettle.
Those who were using the hike as a qualifier had their packs officially weighed (minimum 20 lbs.) and needed to finish approximately six miles in the 3.5-hour time limit.
Sweeps ensured everyone got safely off the trail at the end. The reward at the finish line was a lunch of chicken and veggie burgers served up with some hearty socialization in the Laurel Nook picnic area.
A description of the hike is as follows …
From the picnic area, the path ascends northeast over brushy slopes. After crossing paved Summit Road, the path climbs some more up to the lower summit parking lot. Plan to spend some time on the summit enjoying the view. A couple handy locator maps help identify cities and natural features near and far.
After you’ve enjoyed the view, join the trail heading east from the south side of the parking lot. The path parallels the road for a short distance, then reaches a junction. Summit Trail heads southwest down the mountain, but you join the eastward-trending trail to North Peak.
Enjoy the awesome view of the Central Valley as you march over a rocky, juniper-dotted slope. The red-brown rock formation above looks more than a little diabolical; the most prominent rock formation is known as Devil’s Pulpit. A half mile from the above-mentioned intersection, the trail, sometimes called Devil’s Elbow Trail, sometimes called North Peak Trail, angles north and descends to a distinct saddle, Prospectors Gap. At the gap is a junction with the rugged 0.75 mile long dirt road leading to North Peak.
Our path contours along the bald north slope of Diablo, passing junctions with Meridian Ridge Fire Road and Eagle Peak Trail, and arriving at Deer Flat, a pleasant rest stop shaded by blue oak.
Intersecting Deer Flat Trail, you’ll switchback up to Juniper Campground, then continue a short distance farther to Laurel Nook Picnic Area, where you began your hike.
EMR Instructors Chris Nichols, Ed Molascon and Larry Fong demonstrate the finer points of splinting. See more pictures on the CoCoSAR Facebook page.
(Photo: Rich Rose)
(L-R) Rick Kovar, Matt Shargel, Tom McGee and John Banuelos await breakfast in June Lake before CoCoSAR’s Mountain Rescue Group underwent its annual Mountain Rescue Association Snow and Ice Recertification.
(Photo: Mountain Rescue Association)