Stranded on a Cliff

A few weeks ago three young boys went out on a day hike to Black Cap Mountain. Initially they followed a trail but near the top they lost track of the trail. They chose to go down the east side of the mountain. Soon the terrain became steeper and more icy. They had a throw rope with them and utilized it to get themselves down a bit further by going from tree to tree but soon found themselves above an ice and rock cliff face that they could not get down. The icy slope above precluded going back up and they were stranded. When they did not return in the late afternoon, adults went out to find them and located them on a ledge but they also became stranded by the same terrain. They were able to request help and soon the local fire department and Maine Warden Service arrived on the scene. Both organizations made a wise choice that rescuing the group was above their skill level and so they called two of Maine’s volunteer high angle rescue groups for additional help. In the meantime, I received a call from a local fire captain to see if I could come out and help.

I gathered a couple climbing ropes, my ice tools and crampons, a few pieces of additional climbing gear, a bivouac sack, medical kit, some extra clothing and a headlamp and headed out to the location. I arrived at the incident command post just behind a few members from the MDI SAR team who were friends of mine. Expecting this to be a rather simple rescue I suggested that I go in first to assess the situation and that they follow with additional resources.

Maine Wardens and the firefighters had tracked out a good trail in the snow to the base of the cliff and a couple wardens had been able to scramble to the ledge from the side.

I chose to climb up the relatively easy ice climb to the first boy who was a little chilly and scared but otherwise okay. After placing him in a harness I rappelled down about 60′ with him to the ground and the arriving rescue team members. I then climbed back up to the next two boys who were a bit further up and to the side. Reaching them brought them down on rappel in similar fashion to the first boy. I made another trip up the ice and then lowered the two adults to the rescuers down on the ground below. The wardens were able to scramble out to safety on their own. All in all it took about forty minutes to get the five stranded hikers to the ground.

Over the past few weeks several people have asked me about the nature of the rescue and how I orchestrated it in such a timely and efficient manner. They wondered why the fire department or warden service couldn’t do it earlier in the day. The answer lies in the level of expertise I brought to the situation. That expertise was gained over a span of three decades and combined multiple skill sets that include 30+ years of recreational rock and ice climbing, 25 years of mountain guiding, several seasons of working in a busy mountain rescue arena and a solid understanding of emergency medicine.

Ultimately it was the blending of these skills and experience that allowed this rescue to be performed so efficiently. The “climber” is what allowed me to easily climb to the ledge. However, most climbers, while they would have eventually gotten the folks out, would have probably belayed each person down as they typically lack familiarity with multi-person rappels, efficient lowers and similar skills that are used almost daily by professional mountain guides. Similarly, many technical rescue team members, who usually have great rope skills frequently lack the climbing movement skills. In this situation, they also would have successfully evacuated the hikers but it would have taken them quite a bit longer as they would have to access them from above. Finally, having an emergency medical background usually helps to de-escalate a problem either through seeing there isn’t a significant medical concern or by treating it.

The expectation placed upon those in public service roles is sometimes unrealistic. Wardens and firefighters are very good at what they do but like all of us, they can’t be good at solving every problem they encounter. In this case they made a good decision to seek out a subject matter expert. By doing so they ultimately solved the problem faster and put far less people at risk.

And the boys well I am sure they learned a valuable lesson in decision making that will benefit them throughout life. It reminded me a bit of my own childhood and the misadventures I learned so much from.

Jon Tierney

About Jon Tierney

Internationally licensed IFMGA Mountain Guide, owner of Acadia Mountain Guides Climbing School and Alpenglow Adventure Sports Flight Paramedic, Lifeflight of Maine