By Mary O’KEEFE
Members of the Montrose Search and Rescue Team and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Air Five spent their weekend climbing a wall of ice.
This was the team’s annual pilgrimage to Lee Vining where they continue their training as a Vertical Ice Response Team.
“We are one of the few rescue teams trained in [vertical ice response],” said Mike Leum, member of Montrose Search and Rescue Team. “It is a highly specialized type of climbing.”
Six team members of Montrose Search and Rescue and four members of Air Five were among the team that went to Lee Vining for the training. There were two first time climbers from search and rescue and two from Air Five. Their guides were from American Alpine Institute.
Ice climbing is not your typical “grab a rope and climb that hill” kind of exercise. It requires a whole different set of skills and specialized tools. The team has been training in this type of rescue for five years and it has been valuable.
“Two years ago we rescued a woman who was clinging to a tree in [Angeles National Forest],” Leum said.
Rescuers went up a snow face rather than take the longer route to hike up to the top of the cliff, therefore getting help to the victim faster.
Despite how many times the team climbs, every experience is different and this time was no exception.
“We had one small incident that was unfortunate. I was climbing a column of ice,” Leum said. Ice climbing is usually up a sheet or column of ice.
The ice column Leum was climbing shattered and Leum dropped.
“I was dangling,” he added.
Luckily the one belaying was Kevin Hogan, a guide from American Alpine Institute.
Belaying is a process of holding the rope and the climber. The rope links both the climber and the belayer together.
Hogan was beneath Leum with the rope in his hands. When the column shattered, the ice showered down on Hogan. One of the pieces struck his hand hard and broke it, but he didn’t let go of the rope.
It wasn’t like he didn’t notice the injury.
“The pain was immense but the bottom line was if I dropped [the rope] Mike would fall 60 feet to the ground,” Hogan said.
This type of incident is exactly why Montrose Search and Rescue members train so often. Each climb, each rescue can present unexpected problems. The more you are trained the better it is to handle the unexpected.
“When Kevin got hit, [team members] responded immediately,” said Ian McEleney, an Alpine guide that was with the team. “They had an emergency room nurse [Janet Henderson] and other EMT’s (emergency medical technicians). That is one thing about training with these guys. I am not worried [when something happens] they are professionals.”
McEleney and Hogan are year-round professional guides. American Alpine Institute was established in 1975 and is “dedicated to helping climbers raise their skills, protect the environments in which they climb, develop good judgment, and safely gain access to the great mountains of the world,” according to their website, www.aai.cc
Guides work with climbers and hikers with various skill levels from those who have never climbed before to professionals who train like the search and rescue team.
“Some people will call and [tell us] they just saw a show on rock climbing and ask us what [type of trip] we would recommend,” McEleney said.
He added the basic skills are how to use the equipment. The company works with all ages.
“I just had a dad and his 12-year-old daughter on a four-day backpacking trip,” McEleney said.
Hogan said he had guided people from all levels of ability on vertical ice trips.
“The greatest challenge I think is dealing with the elements, the cold and deep snow,” he added.
Hogan said that ice climbing is not just physical but requires mental discipline as well. Because the Montrose Search and Rescue members were trained and fit, the challenge matched their skill.
“It is an inhospitable environment, not a comfortable place to put yourself in. You have to keep telling yourself you can do it,” Hogan added.
Leum said the training helps build the skills and confidence of the team.
“If you are comfortable climbing a wall of ice you will be comfortable in almost any scenario,” he said.
But climbing the wall of ice was just part of the training. First they had a long hike through a lot of snow to get there.
The team traveled through some difficult snow conditions to reach their destination, which reminded Leum of one other “incident.”
“On the first day on the way out we had to hike into the area. It is quite an effort to get there,” Leum said.
Later in the day they found there had been an avalanche in the area they had hiked through.
“We avoided the area on the way out,” he said.