Southern Cave Rescue Exercise

Rescue exercises are always a chaotic but fun time. Unfortunately I’d missed out on the local cave rescue exercise for the last two years due to work commitments. As soon as the 2019 cave rescue operation date was set I put the weekend aside in my calendar and protected it diligently, much to the disappointment of the various people who wanted me to be working for them.

It was a very early start to the morning. I got my gear on the motorcycle and met up with with Stefan at 0700, and car pooled with him to the meeting point. With around 50 participants from all over the country, and a wide array of different rescue services it was your usual disorganised mess of people and vehicles everywhere. Alan Jackson, the main man in charge got everyone sorted and did a pre-trip briefing with us, warning as all about the perils of the dark and cold cave we were about to head in to.

I heading in with the first team in. Given my fitness and masochistic attitude I had been assigned rolling out the communications line ahead of everyone. True to form I got a bit excited and decided to go significantly further in to the cave than I needed to…

In the cave

With the communication line in place down to the deepest part of the cave, I worked my way back towards my team, passing a lot of confused cavers slowly working their way through the series of rigging challenges they were going to be facing.

On a rope in the cave
Where did we put the bolts again???

I made it back to my team and we had a chat about our plan. Essentially there were a bunch of different teams who are responsible for rigging each section of the cave and safely getting our casualty through that bit of the cave. Our section started with a 3 metre tall waterfall we had to get the stretcher up followed by a series of narrow paths and steep climbs. We decided to rig a counterweight system to get the stretcher up the waterfall followed by a series of Tyrolean Traverses in order to get the stretcher along the passageway. We all got together to make some anchors and tension our Tyroleans. This was a fairly time consuming process with lots of bolting, rigging and then readjusting. Finally we were ready to go!

In the cave
Deciding on solid anchor points is critical given the forces involved in what we were doing.

With everything set up we walked through out plan step by step. We needed to identify who would be where and doing what to figure out how we were going to get this stretcher through. With everyone on the same page in relation to the plan we left our station to start helping the stretcher up the lower reaches of the cave.

Several cavers at the bottom of a sheer wall
‘How on earth are we going to get it up here???’

Progress was brutally slow. Despite a highly experienced team, rescues never go as smoothly as one would hope. Lots of people were losing their voices from attempting to yell over the sound of the roaring water. Realising how far behind schedule we were going to be I pushed past the stretcher back to the deeper reaches of the cave to start helping with removing the ropes and equipment to speed up the later clean up efforts.

On ropes in the cave

Eventually the stretcher had arrived at our section and we all leapt in to action. My primary role was to stand at the base of the waterfall to get the stretcher attached to the ropes and make sure our casualty didn’t end up in the water. I then overtook the stretcher to become the counterweight to get it up on to one of the bug Tyroleans that we had rigged.

With plenty of hands on deck this all worked about as smoothly as we could have hoped and soon enough we were watching the stretcher moving onward as we removed all our gear, packing all the rope and carabiners in to packs.

Group of cavers in the cave

By the time we had caught up with the stretcher it had made it to the waterfall chamber. This was the largest of the chambers and a pretty epic challenge to get the stretcher up. Once again this went well albeit slowly and soon the stretcher was at the end of its journey. At this stage it was 12am (so much for getting out of the cave by 8pm…). It was slow getting everyone out, with plenty of newer cavers on board the climb out was quite slow. It’s a pretty scary climb for the uninitiated. By the time everyone was above ground and signing the log book it was 01:30.

Stretcher suspended by ropes in the cave

Overall definitely an epic mission, big thanks to all involved!

On ropes in the cave