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Local lifesavers complete week-long training

May 23, 2014

Ariana Wylie, in front, and Laura Lingeman near the bottom of Birdie Cracks with the rescue litter in tow on Wednesday during the Inyo County Search and Rescue Team’s week-long training effort. Photo by Deb Murphy

Last Wednesday, a group of Inyo County Search and Rescue members finished up a seven-day training exercise on the Birdie Cracks off Chalk Bluff Road north of Bishop. The task at hand: lowering a litter down the side of the mountain, with the help of ropes and guide lines.
The training session was step one in preparing SAR for re-accrediting with the Mountain Rescue Association in March 2015. The organization contracted with Rigging for Rescue out of Ouray, Colo. to customize its training course for Inyo County’s specific needs – in this case, preparation for the upcoming technical rock rescue test. By definition, any rescue that involves ropes is considered a technical rescue.
“The training was a progression,” said Victor Lawson, board member and one of the trainees. The week started with personal on-rope skills, maneuvering a litter with a relatively simple system of ropes and pick-offs, which Lawson described as carrying the rescuee out on the rescuer’s back.
Wednesday’s exercise put a lot of the practiced skills together. Lawson explained the team and trainer, Dave Schuman, were working with long stretches of rope and greater travel. “There was a lot going on,” he said, including what amounted to a controlled zip line.
Guide line ropes were stretched from the top of the grade to the base with the litter “hanging from a giant pulley,” Lawson explained.
What looks like a bowl of fat pasta at the base of the exercise actually constitutes the control factor over the litter, carefully guided down the slope by two members of the rescue team.
Set up similar to an actual rescue, Julie Vargo acted as the team leader on Wednesday, keeping an eye on the progress of the litter as well as the base set-up and the team members high above the site. The first run was a victim-less trial, followed by a rehash of issues that sprang up during the first descent and then a second descent.
The Inyo County SAR conducts as many as five roped rescues a year, one to three considered long, technical rescues, said Lawson. The process isn’t as simply as running ropes. “There’s a 10-1 safety factor,” Lawson explained. Rescuers have to set up a safety system that takes into consideration the steepness of the terrain as well as the consequences of a fall, the mass and force involved, then multiply all that by 10. It’s physics, said Lawson, or a very real application of the science.
“It’s a perishable skill,” he said of the training program. “It’s not like riding a bicycle.”
Lawson and the 11 SAR members will now take the knowledge acquired over the seven-day program and bring it back to the other, roughly 50 SAR volunteers. “It’s collaborative,” said Lawson. “We refine the systems and teach it to our other members.”
Beginning in September, SAR members will start monthly training sessions leading up to next March’s accreditation testing.
According to Lawson, the all-volunteer, non-profit organization receives between 40 and 50 rescue calls each year. Working in conjunction with the Sheriff’s Department which provides some funding, all the equipment and training required by SAR comes from donations.
Always looking for new recruits, the county’s SAR meets on the first Thursday of every month at the Posse Hut on Airport Road in Bishop. More information on the organization is available on its website,

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