PUTTING IT ALL ON THE LINE
Six men are hiking purposefully along a dusty trail in the east end of Jasper National Park. Beads of sweat drip off their heads and onto the rocky slope. Coiled ropes dangle from the sides of their stuffed packs. But for their heavy breathing, the group is silent.
After 20 minutes of marching, as they gain a high ridge, the men stop and listen. Above them, silhouetted by the sun, a rock climber is shouting.
“Over here,” his voice can be heard, before a west wind whips it off the mountain and toward Highway 16’s slipstream of semi trucks and motorhomes below. The group advances towards the distressed climber, picking their footholds carefully on the steepening slope.
“Where’s your friend?” The leader of the group asks.
“Over there. I couldn’t see him, he fell,” says the climber.
As the men hurry to empty their bags, don their harnesses and helmets and secure their ropes to anchors in the rust-coloured rock, eventually rigging a rescue system and lowering a stretcher down the mountain, one member of the group stands alone. Instead of a rack of carabiners and prusik cords, the only implement he holds is a notepad. Next to him, the distressed rock climber has suddenly become calm. Both are watching the rescue unfold with a keen eye, but it has become apparent that there is no injured climber. This is a simulation.
“Green rope ready? Orange ready? Edge man ready? Attendant ready?”
Although it’s just a drill, the men involved are extremely focused. There may not be a life on the line, but there is potentially a career at stake. These five men are Search and Rescue Technicians with the Canadian Forces and are in the last week of an 11-month mountain skills course. Along with rock climbing, glacier travel, crevasse extrication and general mountaineering training, each member must demonstrate his capabilities in running a high angle rescue. To do so, they are thrown into a simulation which, in this case, has seen a lead climber take a serious fall on a local climbing crag. The group leader is told that the victim’s partner can’t get to him and as such, the operation calls for a rescue stretcher to be lowered down the steep face of a cliff. It’s a blind entrance into an unknown feature with hazardous rockfall. Tension is high, and not just on the ropes.
With precious minutes slipping away, suddenly, the leader decides to re-route his original rope system. Mid-rescue, he’s opting for a different anchor placement. As he does so, Sgt. Chris Lamonthe’s eyebrows arch. Lamonthe, a Comox-based instructor whose judgment will go a long way in determining the trajectory of these students’ careers, sees why the leader is changing the plan on the fly; he understands the rationale. He nods knowingly.
“That’s a smart call, good on him,” Lamonthe says.
Lamonthe has been a member of SAR Tech since 2004, before which he was in the armed forces. With tours in Croatia and Afghanistan under his belt, and many more rescue missions with the SAR Techs, he’s now a stage in his career where he can pass on what he’s learned.
“I miss flying and going out with the guys and doing all the cool stuff, but I love teaching, seeing the students learn,” he says.
A big part of the learning during the mountain component of SAR Tech’s training comes from local guides. Years ago, pioneer Jasper mountain guide Hans Schwarz trained the SAR Techs in mountaineering. These days, Edmonton-based ACMG Cyril Shokoples, along with Jasper guides Peter Amann and Matt Reynolds, put the SAR Techs through their paces in the mountains.
Reynolds, who was playing the part of the distressed rock climber before sitting down and taking his own evaluation notes, said it’s an honour working with the SAR Techs, who are hand picked for their leadership qualities.
“You can really tell they’re meant to be leaders,” Reynolds said. “The amount of control and direction they give and the coverall sense of command is something they’re very comfortable with. It’s impressive to watch them run a show.”
As he watches the remainder of the rescue unfold, he and Lamonthe share a glance. The look says it all: these guys just nailed it.