Weybridge, Vermont, USA – 8/6/2013
At about 17:30 on Tuesday, August 6, 2013, two 20-something men entered Weybridge Cave without ropes or harnesses, passing through about 120 feet of passage, including the narrow, sloped entrance side crawl, the 18 ft. nuisance drop and the 40 ft. drop into the main chamber.
On exiting, one slipped when free-climbing the bottom of the 40 ft. drop, and fell approximately 15 feet onto his feet and tailbone. He had a small head laceration, a broken ankle and could not feel or move his lower extremities (it was later determined that he had a spinal fracture).
His buddy climbed out and called 911 at approximately 19:00. The dispatcher notified Weybridge Fire Department and offered to notify Vermont Cave Rescue, but it was an unrecognized asset and the FD responded to the scene to assess the situation.
Upon arrival at the mouth of the cave, which is at the bottom of a 30 ft. depression in the woods and has an opening of less than 3 ft. diameter, the Chief realized that this was beyond the capabilities and training of his department. He had dispatch call out Middlebury Technical Rescue, New Haven Technical Rescue, Middlebury EMS, the VT Cave Rescue Network and Northern NY Life Flight out of Saranac Lake.
The VT Cave Rescue contact person, Steve Hazelton, called Scott Supernaw to respond, packed his gear, notified Rutland Regional Ambulance to ready the cave rescue cache, and then had his wife make the phone tree calls to the nearest and most proficient cavers.
I was called at 19:45 and said I would pack up and head out with an ETA of 21:15 – 21:45, but that I would probably not go underground.
I responded at 20:35 and arrived (after wasting time trying to find Cave Road) at about 22:00.
By that time, Steve Hazelton, who had also planned to take an above-ground command position, was underground with the patient and a hard-wired field phone, with another at the cave mouth and a third at the staging area in a corn field. Peter Grant, 76 years old and caving most of his life, was the first to arrive and tied off a dynamic rope to a dead tree at the mouth and entered to assess the patient. A couple other cavers were also below the 40′ drop and a high four-cam anchor was established a few feet back from the nuisance drop.
Technical Rescue re-rigged the rope’s anchor to a more secure tree, and set up a 600′ haul line and a 300′ belay line into the cave, anchored well back to secure trees with room for the haul and belay teams.
Scott Supernaw, assuming staging command, phoned into the cave and Rick Pingree, on commo duty at the patient, got Steve Hazelton on the phone, who advised that I was needed to rig the nuisance drop, since I was one of the four who had done a rescue preplan for this cave ten years earlier.
I suited up and entered the cave to the first drop, where Peter Gillette was stationed, lowering gear to the cavers below. I assessed the four-point high anchor, which was loaded on only two very small cams on one side of a vertical rock protrusion from the ceiling, while the two small cams on the other side of the same rock were unloaded and would have received a shock load after failure of the primary anchors, which might have shifted the rock and dislodged it from the ceiling over the heads of Peter and myself and potentially falling down the 18′ drop onto cavers below.
I re-rigged the high anchor so that all four cams were sharing the load, then investigated another high directional anchor point over the drop. I exited the cave to retrieve my artificial rock anchors and returned with what turned out to be perfect for the application: a #4 Camelot and a #5 Tricam, equalized to each other with the Tricam above and slightly to the right of the SLCD (spring-loaded camming device) as backup.
The Sked and OSS (Oregon spine splint) as well as patient packaging material were already in the cave upon my entrance, and additional vertical cavers arrived to assist with patient packaging, rigging and passage modification.
We had known that there were two pinches, one at each vertical drop, that would be impossible to move an immobilized patient through, with as little as 12″-14″ clearance in one dimension.
Technical Rescue sent in an air chisel modified to run off of SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) air bottles, and fire fighters began to shuttle in air bottles to the nuisance drop, where Peter and I lowered them to cavers below.
The 40′ drop required the most extensive modification, as the pinch was both narrow and S-shaped. The nuisance drop also had a narrow slot that had to be enlarged, and most of that was done with a sledge hammer. All told, twenty-five 2215 psi air bottles were moved in and out of the cave, each one lasting about 3 minutes in use.
By this time, additional cave rescue resources had arrived from New York state, as much as five hours away, including National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) instructors who checked and approved our rigging and patient packaging.
The in-cave rigging team used the main haul line as a static anchor and rigged a 4:1 jigger and belay line to move the patient in segments of about 10′ up the main drop, with three resets of the jigger. The extrication began probably about 03:30 and the patient was moved through the walking passage to the nuisance drop by about 05:00.
I passed the main haul line through a pulley at my high directional, and we were able to use a relay voice communication to the above-ground haul and belay teams to bring the patient up the drop. I had the outside teams tension the belay and slacken the haul line so that I could remove the haul line from the high pulley, and we were able to manhandle the patient over the lip to the one flat area large enough for the Sked-wrapped body.
Given the extreme narrowness of the entrance tunnel, the patient had to be rotated on his uninjured side, but it was nearly impossible for head and toe attendants to lift the litter while moving their own bodies to the entrance hole. We attempted using hand tethers to litter handles on one side of the Sked, but there was insufficient leverage.
Each movement was painful for the patient, who was experiencing extreme tenderness at the sacrum, and we had to move him backwards to the level area after getting him jammed in the narrow passage.
I passed the air chisel over the patient and, with a plastic shield on his face for protection, the head attendant broke away the one large sidewall protrusion that was preventing forward movement.
I suggested rigging a tensioned trolley line to the entrance and, after a little experimenting we decided to do that, sending one end of a 7/16″ static line that we had used to lower gear out to the mouth to be tensioned with a Z-rig, while I clipped the bitter end to the four-cam multi-point load-distributing anchor at the passage ceiling.
With two trolley pulleys, one for each end of the litter, we were still not able to get enough leverage to get sufficient weight off the rough cobbled tunnel floor. But, once we put the haul line through another pulley on the trolley line, each haul helped raise the patient and we were able to move him by inches and feet in a slow and tortuous movement to the surface.
The patient was sometimes screaming in pain, but exhibited inordinate patience as we modified and rigged and inched him outward.
The patient was successfully extricated 06:30 on 8/7/2013, in daylight, after 12 hours on his back in the cave, and carried up to the staging area where EMS assessed and repackaged him on a backboard. The patient was transported by pickup truck to the waiting ambulance at 07:00. Cleanup and gear swap concluded at 08:00.
The flight medic with Life Flight had left after perhaps four hours, but noted that this was one of the most organized rescues he’s ever seen.
Several dozen participants reconvened on Monday, August 12 at the Weybridge Fire Station for an incident debrief and critique. Opportunities for improvement were noted, but all agreed it was a well-performed and – eventually – successful operation.
On the weekend of September 28-29, an NCRC (National Cave Rescue Commission) OCR (Orientation to Cave Rescue) workshop was held at the Middlebury Fire House for Middlebury, Weybridge and New Haven emergency fire and EMS personnel and local cavers for an in-depth introduction to the organizational, logistical, environmental and technical knowledge and skill sets necessary for a typical Northeast cave rescue.
Though the standard OCR curriculum covers only horizontal cave extractions, we had the luxury of using the new rope tower on the front of the fire station to demonstrate and practice vertical rope skills, including ascending, descending and “hot” changeovers while on rope.
We also used the Weybridge Cave, with its two vertical sections, for a series of in-cave exercises on Sunday, including anchoring an in-cave 3:1 Z-rig to raise a tired caver up the 40′ drop, and setting up a tensioned trolley line to move a rescue dummy packaged in the Sked from the top of the nuisance drop to the surface.
The exercises gave all participants an opportunity to get into the cave, practice vertical technique in the uniquely challenging cave environment, and refine the extrication systems we used for the August rescue.
The twenty participants and six instructors agreed in a concluding debriefing that the weekend left us all more confident for the next inevitable rescue, both in technical capabilities and in the improved working relationships between emergency and caver resources.
After the conventional OCR training program on Saturday, I offered an optional session on placing and equalizing artificial rock-climbing protection, since the Weybridge Cave required building an anchor where no reliable natural anchors – such as horns, chockstones or eyes – were available. And that anchor, at the top of the nuisance drop, had to serve triple duty: as rappel rope anchor, high directional pulley for the haul system, and tensioned trolley line anchor.
I gave a PowerPoint presentation on the history of artificial protection devices, the types of “pro”, their proper placement, and the several methods of creating both self-equalizing multi-point anchors and focused load-distributing multi-point anchors which are more suitable to static rescue systems.
Then I offered participants a chance to try out “pro” and equalizing systems on my home-made rock board.
As a result of the 8/16/2013 rescue in Weybridge Cave and the subsequent Orientation to Cave Rescue (OCR) training at the Middlebury Fire Department on the weekend of 9/28/2013, it was agreed that expansion bolts and hangers at the top of the first (so-called “nuisance”) drop of about 18′ would increase the safety of cave explorers as well as making the next rescue both more efficient and more secure.
On 6/21/2003, more than ten years prior to the recent rescue, Vermont Cavers Association members went to Weybridge Cave to pre-plan rescue rigging and patient transport systems for the cave we believed to be one of the most likely to cause injury and require a group rescue effort. Weybridge Cave, though more vertical than most Vermont caves, is easily accessed and close to population centers, including a college – so it is one of the more used caves for novice explorers, school groups and outdoor clubs. We believed it was only a matter of time before someone got themselves in trouble there. That time turned out to be ten years, but our pre-planning paid off.
I was somewhere near the top of the callout list for this cave, as I was about an hour and a quarter away, knew some of the challenges of this particular cave, and had a full set of rock-climbing artificial protection equipment that would be needed to improvise anchor points.
During the actual rescue, I set up a high anchor at the top of the nuisance drop with a #4 Camalot and a #5 Tricam, which served the purpose well, though placements in a muddy cave with crumbly rock are always a bit suspect.
During the following rescue training, I used a #3.5 Camalot, a #6 Tricam and backed them up with a #3 Big Bro tube chock (which the Vermont Cave Rescue Group had purchased specifically for this spot following the 2003 pre-plan). When we tensioned a trolley line from outside the cave entrance to this anchor, the Camalot blew out when soft rock on the right side of that slot sheared off. This is why a minimum of three artificial anchors are generally required for any load-sharing anchor point like this, so that redundancy won’t be lost with a partial failure. But three reliable points of anchorage are not often available in a cave setting.
It was for this reason, and the fact that responding emergency agencies don’t carry rock-climbing artificial protection gear, that the Vermont Cave Rescue personnel and New York Cave Rescue Instructors agreed that fixed protection would be the best option at this point in the cave. There were already a couple of new bolts installed above the main drop to replace the two old bolts on the left side of the drop – one rather rusty and the other with a home-made aluminum angle for a hanger (do NOT use those old bolts).
So, on 11/8/2013, I took a friend, who had never done any vertical caving but had considerable experience in concrete construction, to Weybridge Cave to install two 3/8″ Fixe stainless steel bolts with 44 kN (10,000 lb) hangers at about shoulder height on the left wall just above the nuisance drop, where two ¼” bolt sleeves were located for old, undersized bolts that someone had removed (one of the sleeves is visible in the picture).
I epoxied the nuts to the bolt threads to prevent removal or loosening and applied a little epoxy at the top of the hangers to prevent water infiltration (the bolts also have rubber washers against the rock to seal the holes). The first hanger is rotated toward the entrance so that it can be used for a tensioned trolley line for another rescue, while the second hanger is oriented in the normal vertical force direction. Each hanger is tight to a rock nubbin to prevent rotation. Any rappel rope should be anchored to both hangers for redundancy.
Our hope is that future visitors to Weybridge Cave, seeing the new bolts, will use them for either rappel or safety lines so that the likelihood of injury is reduced and we won’t have to return to the cave for another 12-hour rescue. But, if we do have to perform another rescue at Weybridge Cave, it will be quicker to rig and far safer to execute with these new additions to the cave environment.