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Four Levels of Self-rescue
by John Gookin, NCRC Rocky Mountain Regional Coordinator
1997 John Gookin. Used with Permission.

This article first appeared in the May, 1997 edition of the NSS News

There are four levels of self-rescue that people were discussing at the NSS convention in Salida. I apologize to Cindy Heazlit and Chuck Hempel for not remembering who said what when, but those two helped bring a lot of this to the surface. We never all totally agreed on terms, so this is my spin on it mixed in with some terms I heard at convention.

Some background terms:
My dictionary says that rescue "implies" freeing from imminent danger by prompt or vigorous action. So self-rescue must be freeing yourself imminent danger.

My dictionary says improvise means "to fabricate out of what is conveniently on hand." In climbing and backpacking circles, effecting a rescue using whatever materials are on hand is often called "improvised rescue." most of us don't have many pulleys or air splints while we're caving, so you might improvise with a double carabiner for a pulley, or a stick for a splint.


  Personal troubleshooting is when you get yourself into a fix, then get yourself back out of it. It might include hobbling out of the cave on a sprained ankle, or getting your hair back out of your rappel rack. To many cavers, this may seem more like basic competence than a rescue technique, but it easily fits the above definition of rescue. It is also the first step in developing competence in self-rescue.

  "Immediate caving team" self-rescue means that your fellow cave travelers help you using whatever materials are on hand in the cave.

  "Extended group" self-rescue is when you go out to the surface, get other cavers to help, grab some of your camping gear (ensolite pads are great for some splints) and go drag your buddy out of the cave.

  An agency rescue is when you go call 911. Sometimes they will just totally take over and kick the original caving team out of the cave. Sometimes they will ask what you need. Usually the response is somewhere in between and it often depends on the County more than the type of incident.

So, why self-rescue? One reason to self rescue is because we need to take responsibility for our own problems. Another reason is that sometimes it is much faster to drag the hurt person out yourself. Another reason is that it lets government get smaller and less expensive. A self-rescue ought to cause less impact to the cave then a large agency rescue. In some cases, it may be the only reasonable option. A past national coordinator of the National Cave Rescue Commission chose to self-rescue (while he held that position): this wasn't a political statement, it was a necessity of the moment. Call 911 in some parts of my region, and you can expect firemen in big rubber boots to come into the cave with flashlights in their hands. I would generally opt for self-rescue in those areas.

Why not self rescue? In many situations, you are legally required to go and call 911 and let the managing agency perform the rescue. You need to know local laws like this before you go caving. In other situations, the medical complications may be well beyond your training. In other cases, the cavers just don't have the technical expertise or remaining endurance to pull off the rescue and guarantee safety and success.

These are issues to discuss in our grottoes and to discuss with local SAR teams. The theory of "Risk Homeostasis" says that people usually discuss these things immediately after they just need them.