Although cave rescues are not a common occurrence in Park County, it’s the duty of Search and Rescue members to be prepared for the unexpected. Cave rescues are especially intricate missions, requiring the ability to rig complex rope systems and perform missions that can last up to three weeks at a time.
“Even though those calls are very rare, they are absolutely still a possibility, and we’d like to be prepared for those eventualities,” SAR member Mike Poulsen said.
In early August, Poulsen and Bill Brown, Park County search and rescue coordinator, attended a three-day Orientation to Cave Rescue class taught by the National Cave Rescue Commission’s head instructor Eddy Cartaya. NCRC is charged with developing and maintaining the national curriculum for cave rescue operations.
“Critical thinking and decision making skills. Being able to identify obstacles that are possibly beyond your skill set and may require additional resources,” Poulsen said.
Poulsen, also an emergency medical services worker, said grounded decision-making is critical to avoiding reckless efforts that will endanger more than help in an emergency. It takes special skills to travel effectively within a cave, let alone perform a rescue with someone’s life on the line.
“Performing a rescue in a cave is extraordinarily difficult not only to maintain the safety of the patient but your own crew as well,” he said. “Cave rescues specifically, it requires so much manpower and the rescues take 2-3 times longer than your typical rescues in the backcountry or anywhere else.”
The training took them to the Fossil Mountain Ice Cave and Darby Wind Cave outside Jackson. The caves connect in the middle but have separate openings to the outside.
The class started with the students having to prove their single-rope abilities. By completing this challenge, the participants proved their ability to continue training over the next two days, spending 12 more hours in the caves.
Beautiful and strange
With no outside heat source the caves hover around 35 degrees, ice caking the surfaces year-round.
For some, working in a chilly, enclosed space while tying life-dependent knots might sound like a claustrophobic nightmare. For those with a search and rescue background, it is a more enthralling experience.
“It was a lot of fun,” Poulsen said with a laugh.
Grazing their hands against the icy rimed walls as they walked, their fingers stumbled upon fossils from millions of years ago.
One end of the cave greeted students with a massive ice floe projecting into a 60-70 foot drop; a requirement to descend in order to access the rest of the caves. Using crampons, ice axes and ice screws, they set anchors and made their descent over the precipice.
“It felt like a Jules Verne novel, kind of like ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth,’” Poulsen said. “It really did feel like we were on another planet because it’s so different than what you’re used to.”
In this spot they also practiced ascending and rappelling combined in a technique known as a change-over.
“To be able to move up and down the rope as needs arise is really essential,” Poulsen said.
At one point, the SAR members had to wade through icy standing water. Luckily, Poulsen came prepared with a wetsuit.
At another juncture, the students entered an opening so small they had to remove their backpacks, pushing their bags in front of them as they wormed on elbows and knees for 20 feet.
“The endurance needed for this training alone is astounding,” Brown said. “It’s an excellent start to providing more safety for the citizens of Park County and we were humbled to be introduced to such expert OCR training.”
The most prominent cave formation in the local area is the Spirit Mountain Caves inside Cedar Mountain. Brown said there have been no recent rescues there but a few have occurred in the past.
Poulsen said since cave training is a bit of a niche field, many smaller counties depend on SAR members statewide who have the skills to assist with rescues. He said this scenario would likely play out if a rescue were to occur at The Great Expectations Cave in the Bighorn Mountains east of Greybull, the second longest cave in Wyoming.
Poulsen said although they still aren’t considered cave specialists, they now have the necessary skills to perform a rescue.
“We know what’s beyond our level and we know what’s within our expertise,” he said.