In an open field near Kokanee Creek Park, search and rescue volunteers practise getting in and out of a helicopter that is hovering a few feet in the air.
It doesn’t look easy, and Scott Spencer confirms it’s not.
“The challenge is that the helicopter is moving,” he says. “And you’re trying to balance, and it’s not an easy climb. You have to actually lift yourself up. You have to have the body strength and the flexibility to get your leg up onto the skid.”
In a search and rescue operation, a helicopter might not have the luxury of flat ground to drop people off or pick them up. So the pilot has to come as close as possible to sloped ground, and hover. This takes practice for the pilot as well.
The helicopter rescue practice was one of a dozen SAR training sessions and exercises held on Sept. 16 at Kokanee Creek Park. Spencer was one of the organizers.
In attendance were about 75 volunteers from across the Kootenays. Many of the workshops were held for different small groups several times during the day in various parts of the park.
Even though search and rescue work requires advanced skills, everyone in ground-based SAR in B.C. is a volunteer.
“These are people who dedicate their personal time to to help people out in distress in the backcountry,” says Spencer, a 25-year veteran of SAR work.
At a workshop held in a clearing in the park, groups of SAR volunteers met with a representative of the BC Coroners Service, who taught them what to do if they come across a dead body and how to preserve the scene and gather evidence.
There were sessions on how to interact with search dogs, on how to work with ambulance services, and on tracking.
“We were not teaching people to track,” Spencer says, “but how to watch for the obvious signs that then would trigger them to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got a good sign here. Let’s bring in a certified tracker.’”
There was a practice session on whitewater rescue, and another on high-angle rope rescue.
The rope session was set up on the edge of a steep drop into Kokanee Creek, up the canyon some distance from the park. About 10 participants, under the direction of trainer Adrian Huber, set up a complex arrangement known as a dual capability twin-tensioned rope system.
It consists of different kinds of ropes using a variety of knots, pulleys, carabiners, and other equipment, all of which was used, in this practice session, to lower volunteer Rosemarie Smith down into the creek.
The system took a long time to set up because this was both instruction for newcomers and practise for more experienced people.
“The main skills are deciding the way the rope is utilized, the way the system is utilized, to conduct an effective safe, vertical operation,” Huber said, adding that another important skill is hazard identification — knowing which rope system will reduce the risk to the rescuer, and be flexible enough to respond to unexpected events.
The person who descends on the rope, Smith says, has to be confident in the rope system and the people running things at the top. She seemed very calm about her descent down a vertical slope above Kokanee Creek.
Smith has been trained in rope rescue, and has been on the rope rescue team for three years.
“I’ve been down a fair number of cliffs,” she says, adding that the ability to stay calm under stress and to problem-solve on the fly are two of the most important rope rescue skills, as well as communication by radio because she often can’t see the people at the top.
“Sometimes we have a limited amount of gear to work with, and we have to make sure we keep the subject, as well as ourselves, safe.”
Smith, who grew up in Kaslo and now lives in Kimberley, is committed to search and rescue work.
“I really love search and rescue people,” she says, “because everyone is here for a similar reason. We all want to help out and serve our community. We like to be outside and spend time together. We’re the type of people who want to go and get things done.”