Who Ya Gonna Call When Things Go Bad? Parks Host Cave Rescue Training

A "patient" is lowered through a narrow passage in Jewel Cave during mock rescue training. Photo by Anmar Mirza.

When emergencies occur, Americans take it for granted that trained help will arrived promptly. That doesn't happen by chance, however, and a recent training session will help prepare emergency responders in case things go wrong in some of the most challenging locations on earth: caves.

When someone is stranded, lost or injured—or sometimes all of the above—in a cave, a rescue involves a lot more than grabbing a flashlight and a first aid kit. It's a given that caves are dark, but they can also involve terrain that's often both wet and cold, with a confusing maze of routes, very tight passageways, steep cliffs and sudden drop-offs… and surprisingly long distances.

Two of the longest cave systems in the world are found in Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park. With more than 155 miles of passages, Jewel Cave is currently listed as the second longest cave in the world, and airflow indicates there is a lot of cave yet to be discovered. Wind Cave, where over 136 miles of passages have been mapped, is listed as fifth longest cave on earth.

Active exploration is ongoing in both caves, and their size alone creates extra challenges in case of emergencies underground, so it's fitting that the two sites joined forces to host a National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC) seminar. Twenty-five students and 9 instructors from South Dakota, Colorado, Utah, Indiana, California, and Nevada participated in the training, which was held in mid-September.

According to a park spokesperson, the seven-day course consisted of extensive classroom and field activities, including lectures, hands-on demonstrations, and cliff and cave exercises. The sessions culminated with a full-day mock rescue in Jewel Cave.

During the mock rescue, the students were challenged to respond to an overdue caving team incident on the Hub Loop, one of Jewel Cave's recreational caving routes. Once the overdue team was located, an "injured" patient was hauled out of the cave in a rescue litter through multiple obstacles, including small crawlways and vertical drops.

The mock rescue also included a "lost person" incident, which required the students to use skills learned throughout the week to carry out a search in Jewel Cave's maze of passages.

The National Park Service offered this training to their staff, volunteers, local cavers, and search and rescue team members, in order to build a resource base of trained individuals who can respond during an incident at either cave park.

"It is critical that the parks be prepared to respond to emergency situations underground, and hosting this NCRC training has helped us to attain a high level of preparedness," said Jewel Cave Superintendent Larry Johnson. "Cave rescue is a specialized activity which differs from surface rescue in many respects, and it is important for rescuers to have the skills necessary to work in the challenging cave environment."

NCRC, an internal organization of the National Speleological Society, provides cave rescue training and maintains resource lists of trained individuals throughout the United States, and I know from first-hand experience the importance of developing those lists.

About 25 years ago, I participated in a similar training session at the Buffalo National River, in the Ozarks of northwest Arkansas. On about the third day of the course, as we paused for a lunch break in a damp, chilly passageway, we had a discussion about the scarcity of trained cave rescuers anywhere in our vicinity. We had hopes the instructor could put us in contact with other groups and he promised to check his organization's database and give us a report.

The next day, our instructor said he'd checked his files, and had both good news and bad news. The good news: there was one organized cave rescue team in our area on his just-updated list. The bad news… we were it.

That certainly brought an added sense of urgency to the rest of the week's work!

Kudos to dedicated volunteers from groups such as the National Cave Rescue Commission and those who participated in the recent training sessions. While everyone hopes they don't have to put those newly-honed skills to use in a real emergency, it's good to know there are a few more names on that database... just in case.