Rescues and recoveries on waterfalls

CarolinaFireJournal - Bob Twomey
Bob Twomey
10/14/2011 -

Rescuing a seriously injured fall victim, or worse, recovering a fatality in a waterfall setting is likely one of the most technically challenging rescues a rescuer will ever perform. If the victim has fallen and is caught in a crevasse, or is on a rock outcropping or in light blush on the face of the waterfall, without having fallen all the way to the bottom, the logistical challenges and technical skills needed to accomplish such a rescue — also used here for a body recovery — will call upon all the rope and rigging training you have ever learned.

Annually, we receive between two to four such calls in Transylvania County, with surrounding counties receiving their fair share of similar calls as well. It would seem that some people simply do NOT understand the extreme dangers associated with waterfalls.


Hiker approaching the right side of a waterfall for a picture.

All too often, seemingly benign rocks and water flows atop a set of falls lure folks closer and closer to the edge ... not realizing that one slip on the wet and slick rocks or streambed will likely be their last.

A couple of years ago I published an article in this paper describing the mechanics of hydrologic flows and physics as they relate to bodies in channel flow, be they human bodies, cars, logs, flood debris, rocks/boulders, or anything suspended and carried in a flow of water. The article described flow in cubic feet per second, the effects of weight relative to submersion in water, the effects of flow velocity in feet per second, and how easily moving water can be such a critical component when it comes carrying people in the flows and in performing rescues under such circumstances. The article was aimed at rescuers performing rescues primarily in rivers, atop waterfalls, in flash floods or sustained flood flows. Nothing has changed with respect to those laws of fluid dynamics and physics.

But what about the accidents that occur in the hot summer on streams and waterfalls in a nominal rainfall year, or even a “drier” year, where flows are at or below average (long-term) levels, and when you are NOT dealing with flash flood flows or high water flows? These too are times when people — and unfortunately, some rescuers — feel complacent about being on a waterfall or performing a rescue in conditions such as these. Very recently, we were faced with the recovery of a fall victim in a smaller stream that had a waterfall approximately 200 feet high, in below average stream flow due to below normal rainfall at the time of the rescue. However, it is the unusual site conditions of this particular set of falls that prompted me to prepare this article.

Steep shelved waterfall face where a victim can lodge, accessible only from the top.

We were faced with a vertical waterfall. The stream flow left the top edge of the rock stream bed, plummeting vertically 100 feet through the air to a narrowing crevasse approximately one half of the way down the waterfall.

From there, all of the stream flow entered this narrowing crevasse, which, at its outlet into a very small, deep pool, averaged only five feet wide. The total drop was approximately 200 feet.

The waterfall was bowl-shaped around the vertical drop with both sides of the falls vertical and very, very slick. The rescuers were barely able to attain any footing anywhere on this pristine, undisturbed set of falls. There was no way to ascend the crevasse due to rock shape, formation and slickness of the rock faces. The only suitable access was down from the top, under all of the descending water.  All rescue gear, ropes, clothing and radios were completely wet. It was hard to hear anything other than the water crashing down all around us. Truly, this has to have been one of, if not the most, inhospitable, difficult places I have ever been in during a 38 year career. The recovery ended up taking over five hours.

But, there were valuable lessons refreshed which, as they relate to training, I wish to pass on to you or, at the very least, reiterate to you as rescuers.

The first of these is this: expect the unexpected! All of us have — or will one day if you are into high angle rescues — rappelled off of a vertical or under-cut edge. Most likely, this was in a dry setting, or at least not a saturated, wet setting. Practice this skill often, to the point you feel very comfortable in performing this skill. And do this with full gear and your backpack on, like you will need to do in a real situation off of a waterfall. To go off of an undercut edge with extremely slick rocks and seven cubic feet/sec flow coming down on you is .... shall I say .... quite an experience. All I can say about this is: you had better have your stuff wired tight for this one! ALL of your skills and training will keep you safe IF you remember them; rappel with your control hand firmly on the rappel rope and in the right position, and use smooth rappel motions, no matter how wet the rope and your gear gets. And when you cannot see anything around you but the cascading water, keep your wits. You are in control on the rope. The skins you learned on dry rappels will serve you well in water rappels. Just use them, perform them smoothly, and trust them.

Second lesson: have the best high level rope and rescue hardware money can buy, and trust your equipment ... ALL of it. Besides your training, knowledge, skills, abilities, and experience, your equipment will keep you safe if you use it correctly. You must trust yourself and your gear. You must be able to know that the last time the rope and gear was used, that it was properly cleaned, inspected and stored. As I have told many departments in training, the next person whose life may hang on that gear may be YOU. What kind of shape do you want this equipment to be in then?

Third lesson: spend the money it takes to have highly water resistant radios.You never know when you will be in a situation where water, even from a heavy storm, may become a factor in your rescues. Just like with your high quality rescue hardware, you get what you pay for in radios. Do you want to be on a waterfall where you can barely hear yourself think, and not be able to communicate with your top riggers and belayers? Historically, what has been the number one cause of mishaps? A lack of communication. Carrier pigeons, smoke signals, nor hand signals will likely not work too well in settings like this.

Fourth lesson: Train, train some more ... and then train again, and keep training on lifesaving technical skills you and your team members will need in real world rescues or recoveries. When possible, train as a group or team, so that each of you knows the others skills, abilities, and yes, limitations. Not to sound melodramatic, but in technical rescue, we will hold each others lives in our hands. This alone, perhaps most importantly, is key to knowing you can trust your fellow rescuers. When the going gets so tough that you wonder why you’re even there, when you cannot see the other team members, or barely hear them, but the rescue must go on, it is THEN that you know all will be OK. They have your back. Can there be anything more meaningful to a rescuer?

Large waterfall with seemingly benign level top, but a slip here will likely be fatal.

Fifth lesson: Remember why you are there as a rescuer.
Ninety-eight percent of society isn’t there, so why are we? Because deep down inside, we know that we must “be there.” It is a calling only a rescuer can understand. It is hard to put into words, because words cannot describe it. Rescue has been described as “safe removal of a victim from a place of great peril to a place of safety.” Yes, this is rescue, but why us? Each rescuer, in his or her own way, has to find this out for themselves. We know why we are rescuers; the public will never know, but does that really matter?

While this article deals with waterfall settings, and with a recent recovery in a very dangerous situation, it is the “rescue reminders” that are important.

Participating in any kind of difficult or exceptionally dangerous rescue reminds us of how very easily life can be lost. It should remind us that our training must be paramount to being able to accomplish these rescues. Our gear must be the “right stuff” to make the rescue happen. We must know that we can trust this rescue gear when utilized correctly. Perhaps most important, though, is knowing we can trust our skills and ourselves, and that our team members will “have us covered.”

Bob Twomey is the current chief and founder of the North Carolina High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc., a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania county, N.C. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He also serves as Deputy Chief for Training in Brevard Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 37 years. Twomey can be reached at 828-884-7174 or [email protected]
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