Saturday, April 17, 2010

Volunteers walking backward the edge of a cliff!

I got a call Friday afternoon from ranger Daniel Camiccia, inviting me to join him in witnessing a training exercise by the park's climbing team above Christine Falls. One of the members of this year's team is Arlington Ashby, who has served for several years as a volunteer climbing ranger.

David Gottlieb, who was running the exercise, enthused about several other volunteers who will be joining the team later this summer, as part of a partnership with the Khumbu Climbing School in Phortse, Nepal. Last summer the climbing program hosted one such Nepali climber, and David is optimistic of working with several more this summer. Our rangers gain a lot from working alongside these expert Himalayan climbers, and they, in turn, get experience on our great northwest volcano.

David explained that today's exercise was a psychological one, as much as anything: the team had been practicing on 20-foot walls earlier in the week, and needed a reminder that 80 feet is, for all practical purposes, no different, despite looking more dramatic. The risks are the same, and the techniques for effecting a rescue safely are the same as well. If such a rescue is ever needed, it needs to feel familiar.

Meanwhile, our rangers were carefully roping up, setting up belays and other complicated spiderwebs of equipment that I don't have the vocabulary to describe. Arlington was designated the ranger who would go over the cliff, and another ranger volunteered to be the "victim," packaged into a litter to be lowered over the edge and hauled back up. I took up position on the other side of the canyon and watched as Arlington carefully backed off the edge, guiding the litter down the cliff as Van Trump Creek thundered below. To my right, I could see occasional visitors walking on the Christine Falls bridge, taking photos with the waterfall behind them, just out of sign of the climbers spidering down the precipice above.

Arlington reached the bottom of the cliff and turned to flash me a thumbs up; then, after a few minutes, began climbing back up the cliff again, as his teammates hauled on the rope above.

The whole exercise took about half an hour to set up, and less than that to carry out. As the rangers set about dismantling their ropes, I gave them a wave across the canyon and returned to my car at the trailhead. All in a day's work for our climbing rangers and volunteers. Here's hoping the summer is full of training and empty of practical application!

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