Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Endurance Caving

Saturday, December 2nd, I met Steve and Andrew at 9 am in the Books-A-Million parking lot off University and the Parkway. Steve drove his truck, and we were at the Johnston entrance of Fern maybe by 11:30. The 3 of us made our way through passage, along a wide, crumbly canyon and down a 100’+ pit (Coney’s Chasm) into the formation filled lower north section. We continued north along the canyon, up and down short climbs, down through a now empty crystal pool, past soda straws and walls dripping with formations. The speleothems started thinning out and we found ourselves in the land of breakdown canyons, which was right where we’d left off two weeks ago.

We started surveying at around 1 pm, and covered 302’ in eight hours of surveying, which is pretty good considering I’m new at the whole sketching bit. Previous trips had yielded a bit over 200’. We were able to get some nice long shots in, the second to last being more than 50’. Steve was lead tape, setting new stations, and doing instruments (back sites). Andrew did the other half of instruments (front sites), and sketched cross sections and running profile in between readings. I did the plan sketching. The area we’d finally come to was totally devoid of formations, had rather flaky walls, floors of breakdown opening into holes with more canyon below. We had already knocked a few flakes off the wall just by bumping them. Outcroppings of tiny gypsum crystal followed by larger gypsum flowers started to appear on the walls the further we surveyed.

The breakdown wasn’t limited to the floor. There were pieces that had wedged above in the canyon and become solid masses of ceiling. Entire walls had cracked and slumped down towards each other with more breakdown above. One of the new features added to the sketch of the lower north cave is the “Rock of Death.” Its a lovely little piece of breakdown the size of a VW beetle, suspended in the canyon about 4’ off the breakdown floor. You can quite clearly see above it, with no other pieces of breakdown on top of it. One corner is against one wall and the other lower end is propped up with some shoebox-sized rocks that are then propped up on top of some cracking flakes of the ever-crumbling wall. I scooted under it as quickly as I could, making sure I didn’t touch anything.

There were a few other sketchy climbs in and amongst loose breakdown but all went without incident as we set station after station. Steve, Andrew and I stopped surveying around 7 pm, and Steve took us back a slightly different route - a squeezy dug-out crawl - to avoid the very loose breakdown climb. I frogged up and out of Coney’s Chasm after Steve and Andrew. We scooted back along the wide canyon and were out of the cave at around 9:15 pm to slowly trudge down the mountain. I was kind of tired - but really happy because of how much the three of us had accomplished.

It was about 11 pm and I had just started stripping down to climb into the shower when I got a Huntsville Cave Rescue Unit (HCRU) call out page. It seemed to be a “for real” because the pages kept coming. I hadn’t even taken all of my caving clothes off, so I just doubled up with another layer of clean Chilliheads and a pair of camo pants, refilled the water bottles from earlier that day, packed some more food, and grabbed my muddy cave pack that was still stuffed with my even muddier vertical gear. I shoved my still sweaty knee pads and boots in a bag and loaded everything up. Paul and I hopped into the car. We met a handful of the HCRU team members (Ed, Randall, Derek, Nick H. and Dan being among them), and caravaned towards Grant. Paul had told Ed when we had met at the rescue station that I’d been in Fern for 10 hours that day, so Ed said that I could just cool my heals once we got there and rest up, that I’d be a possible secondary team only if they really needed me. That was music to my ears. Hopefully I’d be able to catch a quick nap before I might be needed.

While we drove, Saturday December 2nd turned into Sunday December 3rd. We were on site by about 1 am. By the time I had pulled my gear out of the trunk, I was already hearing my name being yelled down by the HCRU rescue trailer. I walked over and immediately learned that the cave was extremely tight and only 3 people had been able to squeeze through to reach the patient. Michelle E., Kevin from Brindlee Mtn. and an EMT (I think from a Marshall County Rescue Unit) whose name was also Kevin.

Within minutes Dan and I had hopped into a 4x4 Gator with about 5 other rescue squad members from Marshall County in addition to a ton of HCRU gear and ropes, and were on our way down the mile and a half logging road to the entrance of what we would later find out to be Viking Cave (AL 1730). We passed various and sundry emergency vehicles along the way, rescue squad cars, ambulances, and fire trucks; Dan pointed out J. L.’s truck, and two different sets of TV camera men promptly blinded everyone in the Gator with their camera lights as we rode by. Three-quarters of the way up and then down the mountain the Gator bottomed out, so we had to bail and hike the rest of the way. I saw head lamps and commotion off to the right in the woods. Then I heard Jeff shouting for me. Dan and I headed for the entrance. While I was gearing up I learned that probably a dozen other rescuers, Jack amongst them, had already attempted to get down there to help, but had been too large to fit.

Dan and I made our way across a ladder with fire fighters holding either side into a small upper crawl way. The ladder was spanning another apparently even nastier lower entrance. It was around 1:30 am and I was going caving again. There were a handful of people lining the crawlway. Tommy M., rock hammer in hand, was standing in the first short drop of about 8’. He lent me his knee to step down on and then pointed down to a crack. The request that had brought me, “We need small people!” was definitely not unfounded, as I found myself looking down at a head first vertical S-crawl in the middle of a canyon. It definitely made me take pause - a “What? Are you kidding? You want me to go where?” moment. I removed my harness I’d put on at the entrance, took a deep breath and wiggled through the nasty little squeeze. Tommy handed me my harness and pack, which I passed down to Brian B. right before I had to stand on him to get down a 12’ drop.

I started putting my vertical gear back on; Brian started recounting the whole situation, clearing up the three other versions I’d heard already. He finished the explanation with, “This is bad, bad, bad, bad, BAD.” I nodded and mumbled something, trying to go faster. Dan climbed down with Brian’s help. I finally tightened up my D-ring and Brian pointed the way on. Stepping sideways, I squeezed through a short section of canyon passage, my back scraping one wall and my vertical gear the other. The passage was so tight I couldn’t turn my head around.

Squatting at the top of the 20’ drop, I could see the three rescuers (Michelle, Kevin and Kevin) making the final effort to haul the patient, up and over the edge of the lower 40’ drop and onto the safety of the ledge. They were calling my name to hurry as I threaded my rack. Michelle had apparently been the first and only person to get to the patient and had attempted a pick off in the waterfall, but there was no way to get his weight off the rope since he had lost all feeling in his legs and was so out of it. She started setting up a haul by herself until Kevin was able to make his way down, followed by the EMT, Kevin. Since then they’d been trying to haul him up and out of the waterfall.

Ethan (not Scarl!) and a friend of his had gone into the cave somewhere around midday, using dynamic rope, no rope pads, no racks, and as far as I know - no real organized climbing systems to speak of. When Michelle got to Ethan, he was hanging from a Petzl Traxion (a combo pulley/rope clamp - and I have no idea how you could use it to climb). Part of their rigging equipment consisted of plastic braided cord you’d buy from the hardware store. This was his second pit. Ethan was wearing jeans, leather cowboy boots and a shirt, and had no helmet. He was hypothermic from the waterfall trickling on him, couldn’t feel his legs from hanging in the harness for at least 4 hours and had gone into shock (Pretty much everything that could go wrong, had.) The buddy of Ethan’s that he’d been caving with had climbed out first and then Ethan had gotten stuck on rope 10’ into the 40’ waterfall climb. His friend had tried to help, but finally realized he had to go for more help and made his way out to call 911.

I rappelled down to the floor. Dan stayed at the top of the drop for some time to lower gear, blankets, medical equipment, heat packs and oxygen, etc. We relayed patient information and tried to rewarm him, piling on blanket and heat packs as they came down. The warm air inhalator never warmed up to be of any use. The EMT Kevin tried about 10 times to get an IV in to get him some fluids. No luck. He was just too cold and he couldn’t get a good vein. Ethan was barely responsive and it was very hard to understand him. Harness hang was the big concern, by taking the weight off the harness the bad blood that had been in the legs rushes back into circulation, shocking the system, blood clots might have developed and the outcome usually leads to death without immediate medical intervention by a doctor. Hard isn’t the word waiting for someone’s body to make up its mind - live or die. All of us were working on option #1.

Another fellow was able to make it past the squeeze, Brian, another EMT from another rescue squad. Now there were four of us to help. Kevin administered oral glucose to try to speed up Ethan’s metabolism and he’d been on oxygen for a while. We had Ethan sip some water. Tony appeared at the edge of the lip and continued lowering more equipment down to us. The tight passage in the cave was not going to allow us to package Ethan at all - no ferno - no sked - just a harness. His sopping wet clothes had to be replaced with warm dry polypros and boots before we could start thinking about moving him. I sent yet another request up to Tony and we kept waiting. Tony, deciding it had been long enough, took off his own heavy polypro shirt and his cap and tossed them down to me. The other EMT (Brian) had on some polypro pants under his camos, so he made a donation too. We had to wait on the size 12 boots though, but eventually they were lowered down. At 18, Ethan was a big guy - 210 pounds and around 6 feet tall. I was amazed he’d been able to squeeze down into the pit at all.

Ethan’s body had seemed to make up its mind and he slowly became more coherent. His core was getting warmer, more feeling came back into his arms and hands. The medic decided it was time to see if we could sit Ethan up. Michelle fed him some granola bars I had stowed in my pack and some more water, while Kevin, Brian and I took turns sitting back to back with Ethan to support his upper body. Time ticked on, all of us talked, Ethan even tried to crack a few jokes. Brian kept checking to see if any feeling had come back into Ethan’s legs and feet. Still nothing. We tried to move his legs for him and it was all pain and cramping.

For hours all of us could hear the clanking of the rock hammer and eventually the sound of a drill as efforts on widening the opening continued. At the very least, now that Ethan was a bit more coherent and he’d be able to help with his arms, but it still wasn’t going to be pretty - shoving and jerking him through the various squeezes with brute force. A haul line had been hard rigged outside and the line dropped down to us an hour ago. We were ready to try and get Ethan standing and into a full body harness. Kevin, Kevin and Brian hauled Ethan to his feet. I adjusted and tightened the harness, and we worked on walking him over to the bottom of the drop. Since Ethan couldn’t feel his feet and legs, I took hold of his boots and made his feet take the steps towards the bottom of the drop while the three guys held him upright. Michelle had climbed out to help at the top of the first squeeze and Kevin made ready to guide Ethan up the drop on another parallel rope.

Kevin made sure that Ethan understood that this process was not going to be pain free, but that there was nothing anyone could do about it (but try and make it speedy) until he was out of the cave. Everyone hauling outside was ready and the command “Haul Slow!” was given and passed up the line. We tethered the back of Ethan’s harness with webbing to be able to pull him out off the wall from below. It took us two tries to get him up that first drop. Kevin had to get under him and finally wrench him sideways to be able to shove him into the squeeze at the top of the lip. Kevin followed Ethan through the hole, shoving him onward, while others yanked from the other side of the squeeze. There was no room for a medic to go with him, and just the few people who’d been able to get past that first tight S-curve could help him now. The three of us left on the bottom could only sit and wait.

In the meantime, I bundled up with a couple of leftover blankets and sat on a pile of gear. Eventually all of us turned out our lights and I closed my eyes to try and rest. The dull roar of the little stream falling off the edge of the 40’ drop blurred with the commanding shouts, grunts and cries from the slow progress above. Even with two wool blankets I was starting to shiver, so I got up and got some water and a snack from my pack. The second time I got up for more water, a little pipistrelle bat had decided to visit us. He made a handful of very low passes, I was able to point him out to the two EMT’s and then he was gone, hopefully to find a quieter roost further in the cave where he could continue his long winter’s nap. Kevin made a comment about the bat getting in his hair and I chuckled, explaining that bats really don’t do things like that. He said he’d only been in two caves before this little jaunt, Cathedral being one of them, and they were by far very different. By the time we got word from above that they’d finally gotten Ethan out, even the other EMT, Brian, had said the cave had sucked the warmth from him. Michelle came back down with another climbing system. We only had one extra climbing system and needed two. We spent the next 30 minutes or so packing up all the gear that had been used along with our own packs, while Dan once again appeared at the edge of the lip and hauling items up.

Kevin had never frogged before, Brian said he had - but long ago, so Michelle gave an impromptu frogging lesson and I climbed up to perch at the edge of the drop if Kevin had any problems at the lip. I gave him a few pointers coming over the lip, but he did just fine. I helped Dan coil some spaghetti rope after coming out of the first squeeze. Kevin made his way through the tight canyon. Brian followed and Michelle brought up the rear. Kevin and Brian climbed up the second short drop and squeezed their way back out to the crawl. Dan was down to a single QAS, so Michelle and I let him go ahead of us, giving him a boost where we could since there weren’t any hand holds. Michelle and I each took deep breaths and looked at each other. At this point deep breaths were taking some real effort. I told her to go first. She’d been the first on the scene and I wasn’t about to make her be the last to leave the cave.

At the top of the climb I derigged the pulley and omni sling that had been looped around a rock in the ceiling and hooked it to the carabiner that Brian B. dropped from above so they could haul it up. I could hear Michelle, Brian and Kevin S. excitedly talking above. I squeezed up into the canyon crawl. Tommy M. had given "Torosion" a run for its money. The S-squeeze was no more. All the hammering and drilling that we’d heard for all those hours had been worth it, making Ethan’s extrication and our exit much easier. Crouching in the crawl, Brian told us we’d done real well.

We crawled out into daylight. It was Sunday morning, around 10:30 am and Paul was waiting for me with my nice warm jacket and my pack. Paul, JL, Nick H., Randall, Jack, Derek, Jeff, Ed and all the other HCRU members had helped through the night with rigging, hauling, and the supply line. The crew from Chattanooga Cave Rescue had shown up to help too. And there were still about a dozen other various rescue personnel that had been standing around the cave entrance waiting for us to crawl out. To my delight, Nick handed me a cold sausage biscuit. All of us stood around talking for a while, then Paul and I hopped a ride on the next Gator for the main road. (My puppy dog had been locked up now for over 12 hours and we really needed to get back to the house before she decided to leave us a present.) Many smiling faces greeted us at the road. The whole rescue had been such a huge multi-person, multi-teamed effort. Ed told us Ethan had been taken by helicopter to the hospital and was going to be all right. We had all done very well indeed.

Paul and I said our good-byes to everyone and headed for home. My endurance caving marathon at a close, my second attempt at a shower thankfully went uninterrupted. Final tally of hours spent getting to and from caves: 5 for Fern and 4 1/2 for Viking for a total of 9 1/2 hours. Final tally of hours spent in cave: 10 in Fern, 9 in Viking for a total of 19 hours. Final tally of feet surveyed in Fern’s lower north: 302’. Final tally of people I’d helped get out of a very sticky situation: 1. (Mind you I was a very tiny spoke in the rescue wheel - we could have never done it without all of us involved giving our 120%. HCRU and the other teams involved worked so hard for a good outcome and thankfully, got one.) Total number of rocks found in my pack since it was sent out of the cave way ahead of me: 1 (Thanks Derek.) My personal endurance caving marathon record stands at 28 1/2 hours straight with 302’ of surveying, one life and one pack rocking vendetta. Can’t say that I have any goals for setting anything better, at least not in this lifetime.



At 6:59 PM, Blogger The Calvo Page said...

B... You are awesome!

At 10:56 PM, Anonymous Fred said...

Great report!! But when are you going to report on the attack rock in Fern?

At 5:25 AM, Blogger Laura said...

YOU ARE MY HERO BEANIE CAVEGIRL!!!!!! if i am ever trapped in a cave, i hope YOU are the one who comes to rescue me!!! (preferably on a little more sleep than that though!)

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Anne said...

Wow. That is just so amazing! I'm with Laura! :)


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