Monday, February 18, 2013, 8:30pm. In the Dévouluy Mountains of France’s Hautes-Alpes department, GMSP 05’s (Hautes-Alpes Firefighter Mountain Rescue Group) red van comes to a halt in the Pic de Bure aerial tram parking lot. On board the search and rescue team is preparing to start a winter nighttime mountain rescue exercise. The goal is simple, simulate rescuing a skier who has fallen into Rocher de Corne’s Chourum cave and then transport the victim to the parking lot where an ambulance will be waiting with medical personnel.
Nighttime approach on skis
The nine rescuers unload their technical gear from the van, including skis, ropes and a fold-up rescue sled. By headlamp the team goes through the standard equipment check, places climbing skins on their skis, makes sure everyone's avalanche beacon functions properly, tightens their backpacks, and then heads off in a single-file line into the night. The choice of where to conduct the exercise is more than original: Chourum cave is a steep natural tunnel that cuts through a cliff to provide access to Rocher de Corne’s summit plateau, the high-point of what is commonly referred to as the “heroic traverse”. The tunnel’s lower entrance is located at the top of a snow-filled couloir. Benoit Caremel, who will oversee the exercise, chose this particular spot since any accident in the area at dusk and in poor weather means a grounded helicopter and a land-based rescue.
Everyone has their given role
The exercise is run by Lieutenant Benoit Caramel, professional firefighter and technical adviser for mountain rescue with the Hautes-Alpes Rescue and Fire Department.
The rescue team consists of professional firefighters, volunteers, an emergency nurse, as well as two firefighters in training. Jean Charles Bonsignore also joined the group; unit chief and former ski patroller in La Grave, he currently works as a trainer for Petzl Solutions. Before leaving, Benoit split the team into pairs, assigned everyone a task, and divided up the gear. In the event of a real rescue, the two fastest rescuers would be sent out immediately to make contact with the victim in order to conduct an assessment, apply first aid, and provide a status report to the team leader. For this exercise, the entire group remains together for the approach. Once at the base of the tunnel, four team members will climb to the top as quick as possible to build a rescue anchor, prepare and start lowering the victim. The others will organize transitional anchors in order to safely lower the stretcher.
A highly-technical exercise
A spectacular star-filled sky and a crescent moon escort the rescue convoy up Corne Valley, with the soft snow sparkling under foot. After a one-hour effort, the entire team begins the climb up through the tunnel, swapping skis for crampons. At this point, two rescuers dig out a platform in the snow and build an anchor (a deadman using skis). This anchor will later serve to lower the stretcher down the couloir. A roped-up pair starts ascending the tunnel, quickly dispatching with a section of mixed climbing, and installs a fixed rope to ensure a safe and easy ascent for the rest of the team. Maneuvers at Chourum’s summit begin. Sylvain is the first volunteer to play victim and lies down in the rescue litter. The three unit chiefs, Benoit, Jean Charles, and Michel spread out among the various anchors. They oversee operations and provide advice when needed.
The lead team needs to build a minimum three-piece rescue anchor, place and strap the victim into the stretcher, and install both a working rope and a belay rope that are each equipped with a weighted belay/lowering system. On each rope, with this particular setup, they use a Munter hitch to lower and a Valdotain knot as a safety backup. Two other team members, including the nurse, guide the stretcher along and keep a close eye on the victim. These two rescuers will stay with the stretcher throughout the entire descent. Forty meters lower, another pair steps into action by reinforcing their anchor with pitons and standing ready to take the stretcher. Twenty-five meters further down, another team does the same thing and installs an additional rope to guide the stretcher down and over the rocky headwall at the bottom.
The stretcher and the two rescuers continue the smooth descent, exit the cave, reach the top of the couloir and the deadman anchor. The time has come to change victims, and Laurent takes his turn lying in the rescue litter. From here he will be lowered down the entire couloir nonstop by using every rope available. To add rope the team will use a special technique for weighted ropes. Four team members ski down and position themselves at the bottom of the couloir. The second part of the exercise to descend the victim on a rescue sled starts here. The task is easier said than done since the four rescuers must guide the sled, ski at the same speed and maneuver over terrain changes all at the same time. To spice up the exercise even further, two stretches of ever-slightly ascending terrain require the rescuers to reposition themselves in order to pull the sled uphill. All during the descent, the four take turns guiding the sled and scouting out the terrain ahead. The exercise ends in the parking lot at four in the morning. Just a few hours of rest left before a new day begins.
The team and their functions
Benoit CAREMEL, SPP Unit Chief
Jean Charles BONSIGNORE, SPV Unit Chief
Michel SIMONET, SPV Unit Chief and High Mountain Guide
Vincent CROMBEZ, SPV team member and nurse
Sebastien MEFFRE, SPV Equipier
Nicolas JEAN, SPV Team member
Ulysse PERRIER, SPV Team member
Sylvain GUICHARD, SPP Level 1
Laurent BLANCHARD SPV, Level 1
SPP = professional firefighter
SPV = volunteer firefighter (firefighting is an extracurricular activity in addition to their day job and often done during their free time)
The two team level-1 team members are preparing for the remaining SMO2 training clinics that will make them official firefighters.
We asked Benoit CAREMEL about the number of rescues and training exercises conducted in the area.
"In 2012 we conducted 63 rescues in both the mountains and hazardous terrain. These interventions were led by GMSP (Firefighter Mountain Rescue Group) and GRIMP (Hazardous Environment Rescue Group). Our rescues vary from climbing, hiking, hang-gliding and paragliding accidents, to canyon and whitewater rescues, to lost-person searches and animal rescue [partial list].
We train as a group: a yearlong mountain rescue training program is set up on an annual basis. We conduct three training sessions per month including one nighttime exercise. For each exercise we try to combine both rescue and moving over terrain. The topic and the location are determined by the conditions in the mountains at the time, where participants are travelling from, and the techniques that we need to continue to perfect year in and year out.
In addition to the group training sessions organized by the Hautes Alpes Rescue and Fire Departement, team members continue training on their own to stay in great shape and to maintain their detailed knowledge of the geographic area where we intervene."
-- Benoit CAREMEL
For more information
During the training exercise, rescuers were able to test the latest ULTRA VARIO headlamps, which provide both close-range proximity lighting as well as a bright spot beam for long-distance visibility. The ULTRA VARIO is extremely well-suited for this type of activity.