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Thursday, February 7, 2013

Do you have enough Rope? A Lesson in Being Prepared

[Also available as a podcast]
Have you ever saved a life?

In an emergency, can you do what it takes to help someone? Could you rescue them from a life-or-death situation? Perhaps you might think I am being a bit dramatic, but it's a serious question.

Are you prepared

In July 1983, the 15th World Scouting Jamboree was held at Kananaskis, Alberta, in the shadow of the Canadian Rockies.  

In December 1981, several members of our Venturer company were selected to attend the HikeMaster training camp in July 1982. If we passed the tests - physical and written, we would be part of a dedicated group that would be leading scouts from around the world on hikes and camps in the Rockies at the World Jamboree the next year. We were given plenty of warning so that we had time to prepare - and prepare we did.

At 15 and 16, we were becoming reasonably experienced campers, and we all attended a St John's first aid course. We also had to do a weekend "solo" hiking pre-camp (no adult leaders), to help prepare us for being self-reliant and leading groups of scouts - including their adult leaders.

Little did we know we would be testing our skills, teamwork and those First-Aid lessons in earnest in only a few short months - in a real life-or-death situation.

Be Prepared

Sure, it's the Scouting motto, and it is repeated around the world every day- but what does it mean, exactly?

In order to prepare for HikeMaster training camp, we had to have a minimum number of weekends camping and hiking over the two years leading up to WJ'83. We applied for the HikeMaster program at the beginning of the scouting year in September 1981 - and we began preparing for it by doing camps, hikes and getting to know our equipment throughout the fall. By the time we were notified that we had been selected, we had begun to refine what we really needed to take hiking - for maximum utility and minimum weight.

We booked in for a full weekend of St John's Ambulance comprehensive First Aid training. Our instructor was great - he was a good teacher, knew it inside and out, and we were also very committed to passing the course. He was a grizzly old character - wiry, thin as a rake, and had interesting tales to tell whenever he called for breaks. As he told these tales we were also quite fascinated by his tooth - he had only the one tobacco stained one left, which he propped his cigarette on as he talked. He did not wear false teeth during the training.

We all passed the First Aid course, we had met our minimum camping/hiking nights, but we still had the "solo" (no leader) hike weekend to do. We planned our final pre-camp hike weekend with all of the gear we would be expecting to carry at HikeMaster camp and for the Jamboree. Of course, this included a freshly stocked first aid kit for each person, and we had also decided to carry 50 feet (15m) of good quality rope in each of our packs. We had been doing a number of lashing projects over the past year, and ropes were always useful. We expected to use them when setting up tarps at the camp that night.

So we packed up and drove out for our hiking/camping weekend (a couple were old enough to drive, and newly licensed). It was sunny, spring weather - a great weekend for hiking. The sun was warm but the wind still had an edge of ice blowing down from the glacier up the valley.

So there we were - all youths, no adults - practicing "for real", to see how we would be able to handle being on our own, as a lead-up to when we would be responsible for the safety of up to 12 youth and their adult leaders (16 people at a time).

April, 1982 - Silvertip near Sunshine Valley, British Columbia, Canada.

We drove partway up the logging road outside of Sunshine Valley in Manning Park. The logging road led up to Silvertip, a small ski hill that had closed for the season. We parked the car at a pull-off near the bottom of the valley, above the flood-plain. The creek was running high with glacial spring melt, but would slow to a trickle by mid-summer.

The five of us unloaded the car and checked our footwear, strapped on our packs and locked the car. We began our hike at an easy pace, on fairly level ground, about 10 feet (3 metres) above the level of the creek. After half an hour, we gradually rose higher and higher above the creek as the logging road climbed the ridge. After the first hour, the grade of the logging road increased sharply - and the fittest pair of our Venturer company walked out in front while the rest of us slogged on behind, making our way more slowly up the hill. I was mostly watching the ground in front of my feet as I trudged up the hill.

We were quite a ways above the creek by now - with a very steep slope of gravel and dirt falling away down to the creek on our right. I looked up every now and then to see how far it was before we would be able to take a break. I saw that two of our company had already stopped for a rest well ahead of us, and had taken their packs off to rest.

We were getting closer to where they were waiting at the first switch-back , when suddenly one of them came running back down the road towards us.

"Trevor went down to the creek! Trevor went down to the creek!"

 Okay, so what? I thought - and then I looked up.

Where Trevor had been standing, there was a dust cloud rising from the side of the hill.

We double-timed it up to the edge of the dust cloud and dropped our backpacks on the far side of the road, away from the edge. We carefully approached the lip and looked down.

Trevor had been standing on the edge of the valley side of the road, looking at the creek far below. What he had not realized was the dirt he was standing on was only a small triangle left by the grader some days before as it had attempted to level out the dirt road. The loose dirt had given way - and he slid down the very steep hill (nearly 75 degrees) on his hands, legs and rear end.

Fortunately, we could still see him - he had come to a precarious rest on a rock sticking out of the hillside, more than half way down to the creek below. We could hear him faintly - and he was in trouble.

Suddenly, our preparation camp had turned into a full-blown mountain rescue, with no-one to rely on but ourselves. We quickly pulled all five ropes out of our packs (including Trevor's), tied them together and checked that they were joined together securely. Kerry volunteered to go down the hill, with the rope tied around his waist and carrying a small bag containing several first-aid kits over his shoulder. The rest of of us anchored the rope around ourselves in a chain, and slowly lowered Kerry - but not until we had triple-checked the ropes were securely joined. It would be two people coming back up on the one rope - two people's lives would literally be in our hands.

Slowly, slowly we lowered Kerry down. We found out exactly how far Trevor had slid down the steep slope (over 200 feet/61 metres, equivalent to a 20-story building), because we almost ran out of rope. If we had one less section of rope, we would not have been able to reach him in time - and he would likely not be with us today.

Finally, Kerry reached Trevor and found another rock to rest on while he assessed Trevor's condition. Trevor was badly cut up, with many small rocks embedded in his hands. The backs of his running shoes had worn right through to his socks and skin. However, even with those injuries, he was extremely lucky. If he had not managed to stop on that rock, he would have slid straight off a vertical cliff a mere fifteen feet below him - and fallen a hundred feet (30 m) straight down into the shallow creek.

Kerry carefully wrapped up Trevor's hands with triangular bandages and secured the rope around both himself and Trevor so he could manage the climb back up. There was no question of doing it one at a time - Trevor could barely hold the rope and needed Kerry to support him. The three of us up top strained to pull the two of them back up the hill, slow and steady. Finally, Trevor appeared up over the lip, followed by Kerry. They moved well back from the edge and dropped to the ground to rest. 

While they recovered, two of us setup a small tarp as a sun shade. Our fastest runner grabbed the car keys and ran back down the hill to get the car so we could take Trevor for emergency medical treatment in the nearby town of Hope.

Once the tarp was ready,  we carefully moved Trevor into the shade so I could start working on his main injuries. I used up bandages from several of the first aid kits and clean water from our canteens to treat his wounds and remove the worst of the gravel embedded in his skin.


Our runner never made it all the way back to the car. Another vehicle was coming up the road so he flagged them down and they drove up to where we were waiting. We loaded Trevor into the car and they took him into Hope to be treated at the local clinic. Our runner went with Trevor while the rest of us walked back down to our own car, as there was only room for the two of them.

Trevor was checked out and bandaged up by the doctor at the Hope clinic. He was not only very lucky to to be alive - he ended up with mostly superficial wounds. However, he did not "sit easy" for a month or so, as there was very little left of his shorts (or underwear) from the slide down - it was one large abrasion.

It was also the end of our practice "solo" hiking weekend. 

Trevor recovered and we all went on to HikeMaster camp that July and passed the course. We participated in WJ'83 as HikeMasters, leading troops from countries all over the world through the eastern Rockies - with the banner "13th Cliffhangers" flying over our camp site.

Left to right: Trevor, Gary, Brian, Rob, Kerry

We learned many lessons from working together as Venturers, and some profound ones from that pivotal weekend. We went into HikeMasters knowing that we could respond in an emergency without panicking, and that we were capable of making decisions without relying on an adult. 

We formed a tight bond from that experience, and several of us went on into Rovers for many years, with the shared experiences forming deep levels of trust within the group. Several of us went to take on leadership roles within local scout groups and at the district level. A few of us developed lifelong friendships.

Here is Trevor in a recent photo (2012). But if we had one less length of rope (or our knots failed), he would probably not be alive today.

Name and photo used with permission.


Being prepared is important in all aspects of your life - at home, leisure and at work.

Are you ready to handle whatever comes at you? How about on your projects? People's lives may not be at stake with your project outcomes - but then again, they might. It all depends on the type of project. 

On your projects, the "rope" is usually not literal - it represents all of the planning and preparation that goes into your project, and the "knots" are the training and skills of your team that tie it all together.

Prepare for the unexpected - surprises do happen, and sometimes they end up being real-life emergencies.

I also recommend everyone attend a good First Aid Course - you will never regret it. Spend a weekend doing the course with your loved ones - don't skimp with just an afternoon on the basics.

And regularly ask yourself these questions:

Do we have enough rope

Are our knots secure?

Are we Prepared?

Good luck on your projects (and in life), and do whatever it takes to Be Prepared.