Rope Rescue in Strathcona


A mini-rack of sport gear for Rope Rescue. All fits into that 35L pack. For now.

Several weeks ago some friends were talking about doing a rope rescue course up at Crest Creek, a well-known climbing area in Strathcona Provincial Park. It’s been developed over the last several decades by the Heathens, a mountaineering and climbing club based out of Campbell River, BC. Being pretty close to broke and stuck with no fixed plans for Easter weekend, I naturally decided that the course was the thing to do.


I headed home Thursday night to pack my gear and once again realized that as a climber, camping trips are really quite difficult. Where a weekend camping trip requires only one pack, a climbing trip requires two. Per person. One pack is my life; tent, mat, sleeping bag, clothes, etc. The other is my gear. Climbing shoes, helmet, rope, draws, slings, carabiners, cordelette, webelette, water, belay devices, pulleys. This weekend packed twenty four meters more cordelette into my bag than I had previously ever carried. It’s a 35L bag with only three pockets. The time to upgrade is coming quickly.

IMG_5182_EDITI was picked up by my friend Rhea who had coordinated the weekend with Chris, one of the Heathens whom she’d met climbing in Crest Creek last year. We headed back to Rhea’s where the plan was to pack and be ready to get up and out first thing in the morning. Except that didn’t really pan out and we ended up going to bed pretty early. Rhea would have to do her packing in the morning. Which came way too soon but we got out of bed and had our coffee and packed up the stove and the wood and Celina made hummus and then we were on our way to pick up Natalie.

Turns out we really couldn’t navigate at all. First we didn’t take the right turn to Nat’s house, then we drove past her driveway twice. Once we finally pulled in it was time to rearrange the car again. This is where I’m pretty sure Rhea is a Tetris master. The amount of gear packed into the back of her Forrester is ridiculous. Once everyone’s gear was in, it was time to head out. And we were even on time!

I got us sort of lost on the way to The Garage in Duncan (my favorite cafe), then we got sort of lost in Campbell River trying to get out after lunch which took way too long. Then we were back on the highway just after one and on the final stretch to Crest Creek.

Pulling into the parking lot, we knew that Chris (our Guide) would be somewhere in the area since he was going to meet us up there, but we weren’t sure when. So we decided to head up the crag to climb. By the time we had decided what we wanted to climb, and all four of us had done so it was five pm and we were cold and wanted to find a camp and set up before full dark. So we headed back down to see if we could find Chris.

We did not.

Rhea leading our only climb of the weekend.

At this point I think it really began to sink in that not only did we not have cell service, but we had left the only person in our group who knew the camping spots back in Victoria with the flu. We’d planned to meet Chris and ask for his suggestion on a camping location. We decided to head into Gold River in hopes that we could find a payphone or wifi  to contact either our friend or our guide. Turns out the payphone didn’t work, and we used the phone in the gas station to call Chris and leave a message telling him when we’d be at the crag in the morning. Then we stumbled upon an open wifi connection and managed to get in touch with Jes who gave us camping advice. With her directions (and a little exploring) we found a beautiful campsite along a creek and set about getting camp ready.

IMG_5208_EDITFire and tents were a priority-and I always go for fire first-as we were cold and hungry. There was also a concern that it would rain. The forecast was pretty determined that we would have rain over the weekend and we wanted to be as dry as possible. Dinner came next; pasta with veggies is a staple camping meal for us as whatever we have leftover can come to the crag without having to worry about spoiling. There were no leftovers, of course. We spent some time around the fire before packing all the foodstuffs into the car and heading to bed for what we expected to be an early morning.

I always wake up around dawn when camping. This trip was no exception. Ten to seven in the morning I was awake and shortly thereafter we had all rolled out of bed and gotten dressed for our first day of Rope Rescue. We were at the parking lot at 8 am, and after an hour of waiting we decided to go explore the crags to see which were dry enough to climb if we simply could not find Chris at all. We actually got back to the car a few minutes past 10 am and finally found him! We talked a bit and pulled our gear out of the car, then headed up to Sunrise wall to start our lesson. Carrying not only my pack full of climbing gear but also my camera bag while hiking often makes my hips ache and reminds me that I really do need to do more yoga. Saturday was no exception.

The lessons themselves were amazingly simple and fluid. We began with a discussion about traditional protection placement and were set free on the rock with all the nuts (a metal wedge threaded on a wire that is used by wedging it into a crack in the rock) and cams (spring-loaded camming device that consists of two, three or four cams mounted on a common axle or two adjacent axles so that pulling on the axle forces the cams to spread farther apart) available and placed piece after piece while Chris reviewed our placements and explained why they were good or bad. I learned that I’m not bad at placing nuts; need work placing cams.

One type of self-equalizing anchor

This led into anchor building; the master point of every belay, hauling system, and rescue. The anchor is our rest-point and everything branches out from this. We discussed the components of the anchor and how movement can affect it as well as how to mitigate the strain movement can place on it. Anchors led into escaping a top-belay, and how to make sure a fallen/injured climber is safe so you can go check on them. It’s easier than I thought.

Myself; working a block-and-tackle

From here we moved into the hauling systems themselves; how to raise a climber who is injured or unconscious and this was presented to us in a way that slid seamlessly into our existing knowledge. Chris knows his craft and is passionate about passing it on; it shows in the way he educates. We were not taught to perform on command but how to think through a situation to determine which system we should use. He encouraged us to come up with situations we might use them in, provided rational explanations for our concerns, and explained why we might choose one system over a different one. He gave us knowledge and asked for our input, encouraging us to evaluate the usefulness in a given situation. When should we use a block and tackle, and is the z-pulley the most efficient way to raise a climber.

We were all cold, and while the wind that blows through the valley did not touch us in our tree-protected camp we were exposed on the cliff face and were glad when we were able to tuck ourselves back into the trees to discuss some further knots and belay systems. Until, of course, sitting still sucked away the last of our body heat and we were all freezing.

The hike down was much nicer than he hike in (up is so hard) and we were honest when we told our guide that we felt like we had been stuffed full of information. Seven hours is a long time to absorb new information and even though it felt like a natural extension of what we had already known it was still very new. We needed to rest and warm up and process what we had done.

Birch logs drying and our makeshift stove!

On our way back to camp we found a bunch of large birch logs so naturally we pulled over and scavenged them for our fire. Maybe not so useful when you consider it had been raining for days. Still, they were ours and we figured we could at least try to dry them out and burn them. The first thing I did was get the fire going. We’d discovered in the morning that the camp stove seemed to be on its last legs, even though we had a new fuel canister. So we took the grill off it and put it on the fire and used that for all our cooking purposes. There was a bunch of ash in the cider. And in the pasta we made for dinner again. We responsibly ate it anyway. Camping.

Rhea gets cranky if she gets cold.

We have a new tradition since our last not-so-warm climbing adventure; Squamish in September taught us that nothing beats back the chill like mulled cider. The alcoholic kind, of course. So before food I made the cider; a 500mL can of Strongbow (you can use any dry cider) per person, and whichever mulling spices you prefer: ideally cinnamon, allspice, cloves, and nutmeg and ginger–though we have people in our group that do not like ginger so I don’t usually put it in. This time we used cinnamon, allspice and nutmeg which was ground in a burr grinder before we left. A re-usable cloth coffee filter makes a great mulling bag. Put the cider in a pot, heat until golden with spices saturating in it, and serve when hot. I think next time we should bring some honey. Most all of the alcohol and sugar burn away, leaving the drink extremely dry and a little bit bitter.

Shortly after we finished our dinner it started raining. A lot.

With our tarps set up we were actually pretty dry, and I’d made a second batch of cider but we did not want to go out into the woods to pop a squat with water pissing down our bare butts. Let alone digging a pit for more solid wastes. So we left Celina at camp and drove the five minutes to the outhouse in the park. Back-country camping is so glamorous.

Despite our intentions to stay up and burn all the wood we’d brought, we were all tired and ended up crawling into our sleeping bags just after 10 pm. All of us woke up before seven and I think we even all got up to go pee in the woods (I refused to get out of my tent in the middle of the night when it was pouring, even though I really had to go…) but I was the only one who did not crawl back into my sleeping bag. The sky had cleared, and I could see the moon setting through the trees. This also meant it was really quite cold and so I opted to start a fire.

Which was fine, except I used up the last three matches because the first two blew out on me. Once the fire was going I realized that I had used up the last three matches so trying to start the stove again was probably a waste of time and I might as well put water on the fire to boil and have oatmeal for breakfast. I wasn’t going to try to find or make the coffee until everyone else was up but it was nice to have a hot meal while I waited for them to get out of bed. Once they did it was time for me to start packing up, and man is it ever fun to pack up a wet tent!

I’m lying. It sucks.

We did find elk prints in our campsite though; it seems they wandered through while we were sleeping. We found out later that they’d wandered into Chris’ campsite as well and had woken him up with their chewing. He’d looked out his tent and seen their legs outside.

Sunday was the Scenario day. This would be where we demonstrated our ability to assess the situation and determine the best way to do the rescue. We headed out to meet Chris with our gear packed up and hiked into the crag on the other side of the road from the lake. Setting our stuff down we talked about the day before and asked the questions we had come up with. then he gave us our scenario.

Three pitches up a five-pitch climb (a pitch is the length between belay stations) we have come across two climbers who are struggling. An older climber has taken a young, inexperienced person out to teach them to multi-pitch. They were doing okay for the first three pitches but now the older climber is unwell. They are pale and weak. Disoriented but capable of stumbling. They are not able to climb. The young climber is in good shape and still feeling strong. The younger climber is physically able to continue but does not have the experience or skill set to assist their partner. The older climber is in no state to direct the younger in their own rescue. We are probably five hundred feet up. Lowering a disabled climber is faster but with four people and three pitches to go plus a hike to get back to the road we have to consider how much time we have to get the ailing climber out. Alternatively we can go up; two short pitches and the road is there.

Rhea and Celina working a z-pulley system

A quick discussion between us and we decided that the time we’ll lose climbing and hauling the injured climber will make up for the hike to the road after lowering four people three pitches. Our able climbing team headed to the top of the pitch to set up while Nat and I played the injured team down below.

It took time.

Setting up the anchor, setting up the haul system, and actually hauling the climber up a few feet at a time until they reached the top took a lot of time. It was effective and there were obvious gains, but it just takes so much time. When we swapped out and Nat and I became the rescuers Chris had declared both climbers now required a rescue; our strong young climber had hurt a leg and pulled their shoulder and we were going to have to get them out as well. Nat and I made a plan, and she set up off the bolts and started hauling Celina while I set up the z-pulley to haul Rhea. By the time I was done I had three climbers up top and we started hauling.

The system I set up had a throw that was nearly fifteen feet long; and it gave us massive advantage; I think we had only had to reset four or five times before our climber was recoverable. Even better, when asked how much Rhea had dropped as we reset her answer was only a few inches.

It can be hard to tell I’m afraid of heights

What surprised me most about the scenario is how long everything took. When factoring in how long it would have taken us to lead the pitches, second the pitches, gear up, set up our anchors and the haul system and get our victims up two pitches we’d been on the crag for five hours. A recent issue of Climbing Magazine had presented me with five stories of “Everyday Heroes” who had risen to the occasion and saved their climbers. Since the class I have read several more online and the thing I understand much better now is how long it can take to save someone’s life on the crag. Reading rescue stories also gives me real-life scenarios to consider and helps me understand the real risks of the sport.

Heading home is always a bittersweet moment. We were leaving Strathcona earlier in the day than expected but did have to pack Chris and all his gear into the car. He took one look at it and said it wouldn’t fit.

Challenge accepted.

So with everything packed in we headed back toward Campbell River to drop him off. Plans were tentatively made for Glacier Travel lessons and we discussed the possibility of learning Aid Climbing over the winter and maybe a few other things for the future with a guide who’s teaching style makes learning feel fluid and natural. We finished the weekend feeling confident in our skills and determined to practice and get better.

Of course we also agreed that we all need more gear. Really I should stop trying to learn new outdoor skills. Every time I do it costs me more money.

But I love every minute of it.

Not Lost Girl

Happy Climber Girls after an awesome weekend! (L to R: Natalie, Celina, Me, Rhea)

What skills do you think you could expand on? What outdoor skills would you like to learn or have you begun pursuing? Have you used them in a real-world situation? Leave a comment below and tell me about it!


2 thoughts on “Rope Rescue in Strathcona

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