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Chris Bennetts-Cash

Climber. Software engineer. Audio geek.

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I have been one of the not-quite-fifty NSW SES members accredited in Alpine Search and Rescue, and in early 2013 began looking for ways to improve my skills and increase the capability of the programme beyond what it currently held. With other operators having previously travelled to Canada to undertake advanced snowmobile training international travel was certainly feasible so my attention was naturally drawn to alpine offerings in New Zealand. This was both a professional and personal pursuit as a natural progression from my rock climbing and alpine hiking and, while I was prepared to pay for mountaineering-specific training myslf, I was able to secure funding for six alpine operators through a combination of the NSW SES Volunteers’ Association and the budget of the NSW SES Alpine programme itself.

Following the trip attendees prepared a trip report for publication in the quarterly Volunteer magazine outlining the activities and outcomes of the trip. This is a copy of the trip report.

NSW SES Alpine Search and Survival (ASAS) operators are tasked to assist police in searches and recoveries in Australian alpine areas. Such tasks are rarely on blue sky days, and more likely in challenging white out and blizzard conditions where one’s next step can result in being up to the waist in water or undergrowth, or skidding down a slope. In these conditions communication is sometimes only possible by hand signals and navigation a constant and difficult challenge. Keeping warm means avoiding sweating as well as not getting cold and enough equipment must be carried to survive a night in a possibly wet winter snow environment. It takes experience and training to function effectively as an ASAS team.

A ten day course in New Zealand was undertaken by ASAS operators in February-March 2014. Six members attended the course: 2 from Queanbeyan unit, 2 from Snowy River unit, 1 from Khancoban unit and 1 from Tumut unit. The overall purpose of the course was to increase skills in operating, traveling and rescue in alpine areas.

The course was organised through Adventure Consultants, a reputable company that organises many expeditions to all parts of the world. The ASAS party was assigned two instructors accredited with the International Federation of Mountain Guides Associations (IFMGA) who were to facilitate the course, do the training, assess risks and ensure safety.

The initial meeting in Wanaka on the first morning was to define the course goals:

  • Snow and ice personal and group skills

  • Group management skills

  • Vertical ice and climbing awareness

  • Personal safety and self-arrest on ice and snow

  • Maintaining physical capability in challenging environments

  • Environmental awareness

  • Low light and white out navigaion

  • Glacier travel, crevasse identification and crossing (being reuired for safe operation in our traiing area, and applicable to our creeks and rivers)

  • Avalanche threat identification

  • Rescue skills: formal and improvised, in particular, ice and snow anchors, rigging mechanical advantage, extracting oneself from a system under tension, crevasse and avalanche rescue techniques

Food and equipment were organised and in the early afternoon the group left Wanaka for the Aoraka (Mt. Cook) area. The group visited the search and rescue base at Aoraki, learnt about their call out and operational procedures, the gear they used and their emergency management protocols, which were not so different from a NSW SES operations centre. We left Mt. Cook Search And Rescue with some insights and ideas mostly related to cliff rescue and which the vertical rescue operators in the group are looking forward to bringing into the soon to be established NSW SES Vertical Rescue Capability Development Group.

The first night was spent at Unwin Lodge, near the Aoraki airport, with some initial familiarisation and skill checking, the guides and the group began to get each other’s measure.

The following morning the group was helicoptered to Plateau Hut, high on a prominence above the confluence of three glaciers, well away from avalanche risk and close under Aoraki and several other peaks, a location called “The Grand Plateau”. This was to be the base for the course. The hut is new since 2005, the third in that location, large and Spartan but comfortable with solar powered lights and propane gas stoves and a very large refrigerator anywhere you would care to look outside.

It was not the climbing season due largely to the danger of avalanches and uncovered crevasses, so the ASAS group had the hut to themselves for the duration of the course.

The vertical scale of the region is much greater than in Australia. Plateau Hut is at 2215m, with mountains towering above it; Mt. Kosciuszko by contrast is 2228m high. The glaciated environment is significantly different from the alpine areas in Australia, dangers and opportunities rare and distributed in Australia are concentrated here so it is an excellent training ground. Like the environment the weather was varied; some days of high wind and snow and cold, some with brilliant sunshine and summer heat.

The first exercise was self arrest: The art, should one trip or fall, of stopping one’s accelerating progress towards oblivion, even downhill head first on one’s back, with presence of mind, quick reaction and an ice axe. The second exercise was an excursion into a crevasse field, appropriately roped up, to learn at close hand the pitfalls and their avoidance in such an adventure.

The weather closed in for a few days, allowing the group to experience low light, white out conditions, high wind and cold. The group trekked to the not so nearby Cinerama Coloir suparating the Anzac Peaks (appropriately named given our party) from Aoraki. It was a physically taxing trek involving pre-planned and in-the-field navigation mediated by the need to find safe routes amongst crevasses and the low light and low contrast conditions.

On another day, the group was introduced to the curious sport of lowering into a crevasse and then ascending using prusik cords to get out, passing several knots on the way. The guides thoughtfully selected a “bottomless” crevasse for this exercise. On the last afternoon of the trip we extended this experience: The group paired up, a rope joining each of the pair. Each of the pair in turn literally jumped into the pit on a rope, hoping to be arrested by their colleague at the other end of the rope. The person not dangling then had to construct a snow anchor while holding their colleague on the rope, release themselves from the system and rig a hauling system to extract their colleague.

Another exercise was a tour through a tumble of ice cliffs and crevasses on the Linda Glacier, a lesson on ice anchors using ice screws and Abalakov anchors, culminating in an ice climb. This provided insight into the equipment, techniques and challenges faced by the small community of our potential clients who congregate at Blue Lake in Kosciuszko National Park every Winter to partake in Australia’s ice climbing offerings.

One of the poor-weather days was put to good use in training for avalanche awareness, search and recovery. The group spent the morning covering avalanche theory: The different types of avalanche, the risk factors, and in-field identification of avalanches and avalanche terrain. There were not-infrequent reminders of the avalanche danger that could be heard and occasionally seen in the surrounding mountains. This was followed by practice locating avalanche transceivers, at first inside the hut and later competing for the fastest time to locate avalanche beacons buried in the snow. The day ended with a scenario involving three buried “victims” and requiring both a transceiver search and an avalanche probe line.

As a result of this training the ASAS programme will be stepping up its training in avalanche awareness and search and recovery in 2014, with avalanches being a rare but real risk in the Australian alps due to the increasing popularity of back country travel, in particular skiers, snowboarders and climbers seeking steep cliffs and cornices.

On the afternoon before the group was due to leave the weather cleared, and the challenge changed from staying warm to keeping cool. It is on this afternoon we did the crevasse rescues described earlier. The final morning dawned fine as well, the group was split into two sets of four, each comprising two pairs on one rope. There are two small peaks near to the hut, each group climbed both peaks in opposite order, which involved abseiling, ice and rock climbing, and lead climbing for some.

That afternoon we flew out from the hut for another night at Unwin Lodge and a celebratory dinner at the Aoraki Hermitage Hotel. The following day we returned to Wanaka. There, we had a lecture on avalanche-related issues and were all on a plane back to Australia the day after.

Each evening during the course and also during some days when we could not safely venture out the guides showed us an extensive variety of rope techniques useful for search and rescue parties carrying limited equipment, informed us on many subjects including weather theory, improvised shelters, first aid, improvised alpine harnesses and resources available that support alpine adventurers.

It was an intense course where each participant learnt a lot, was challenged to their limits regardless of the experience they brought to the course, and were affirmed in their existing skills. The participants are eager to pass on new knowledge and techniques acquired directly and to adapt techniques so they will have relevance in Australian alpine conditions. A good example of this is glacier travel and crevasse rescue: While we lack crevasses in Australia, we have an abundance of rock formations with caves and swiftly-flowing rivers and creeks that become covered by snow. These pose as much of a risk as crevasses and require a quick response by rescuers, so developing techniques and recommending equipment for safer travel and to mediate high risk situations in our alpine environment is a goal for this year.

Participants: Chris Bennetts-Cash, Dan Philippa, Brent Bowen, Simon McGinn, Yvette Amos, Bill Taylor

Guides: Andy Cole and Mark Austin