Rescuing Mickey

For some reason, cave rescue has been on our minds recently, so we decided to attend another practice, this time of the Midlands Cave Rescue Team, at the delightfully named Snailbeach mine in Shropshire. The scenario was a casualty named Mickey, who was 83 years old and had been injured a few pitches below the entrance to the mine and needed recovering by stretcher. This would involve several vertical hauls up shafts, so was a bit more complex than the last rescue practice we’d attended.

Since I couldn’t go underground, I was assigned the job of keeping track of all the entries and exits of people from the mine, and relaying information from underground to the rescue controller in the village hall. Mostly this involved feeling important and talking on the radio, so I felt I was well qualified for the task. Initially it was all go at the entrance to Perkins Level, where I was stationed, but after a while all the teams had gone underground, and communications had been established between the mine and the surface, so I was left to listen to updates on the radio and chat to the occasional rescuer who popped outside for a break.

The rescue parties waiting to enter the mine. Note the important man with the clipboard!
The rescue parties waiting to enter the mine. Note the important man with the clipboard!

Meanwhile, underground, Rachel was helping out on the intermediate pitch. The job involved rigging the intermediate pitch so that the casualty could be hauled up to the level and onwards to the pitch above. Because the casualty is hauled and belayed on two entirely separate sets of gear, this operation required a lot of heavy kit. Each set of gear was arranged so that the rope, which was to be attached to the stretcher, was down the pitch, the top of this rope then passed through a pulley at the head of the pitch, then the rope came into the level and was attached to a locking pulley attached to a bolt in the wall. The rope then angled back on itself and was reattached to a pulley, that was in turn attached to a jammer on the rope, to create a Z-arrangement. When the hauling began, one of Rachel’s group was tasked with hauling the rope and the other with moving the jammer up the rope, while a third group member was taking in the safety rope on the belay.

Rachel was tasked with communicating with the group below, the casualty and the chap who was sitting in the rift below at a deviation. When the casualty arrived, he was hauled very smoothly, the only hiccup being when the bolt holding the deviation into the wall pinged out – thankfully the chap in the rift was safely attached to the SRT rope.

Soon enough the casualty was lifted onto Rachel’s mine level and they carried him up to the next pitch. Then they de-rigged and started to head out the cave. Unfortunately there were now about 16 people towards the bottom of the cave and only one SRT rope… so it took quite a while for everyone to exit.

The stretcher finally exits the mine.
The stretcher finally exits the mine.

Mickey exited the cave in one piece. Apparently he was quite cold and was feeling a little ropey, but was otherwise rock solid. My last job was to ensure all the rescuers we sent in also came back out before we locked the gate on the level.

The casualty had rather a stony expression when rescued.
The casualty had rather a stony expression when rescued.

On the way home, we spotted a delightful sign outside the local veterinary clinic.

Special offer: all three at once!
Special offer: all three at once!

Rescued from Daren Cilau

I got new wellies for this caving trip; maybe that was the problem. Whatever the reason, on the way back to the Daren entrance crawl just after coming through the boulder choke, I managed to slip on a rock and fall most of the way down a rocky slope, ending with a heavy blow to my shoulder.

After a couple of minutes, I attempted to continue, but it was obvious that arm was not going to be very useful, and that in particular I wasn’t going to be able to get through the entrance crawl itself. After a brief discussion and inspection of the injured area, we decided to send Rachel through the crawl to call out the cave rescue.

[Rachel hurried out as rapidly as possible, getting many bruises along the way. She slowed down through the vice, but still managed to get her knee jammed in the floor slot for about 5 minutes until it came free. Once out, Rachel ran (with wellies full of water no less) down the hill and found a passer-by with mobile phone and from there she called the police and then the cave rescue. It was 1815 ish]

Left to my own devices, I sat around for a bit, but started to get cold, so had to wander around. I rigged up an improvised sling with my belt and waited for the cavalry to arrive. I knew it was going to be a long wait.

[Within 20 minutes the police and ambulance arrived. The latter had never attended a cave rescue before, if they had, they wouldn’t have bothered with the flashing blue lights! Over the next hour or so, cave rescue members turned up, were fed, watered and assembled into groups focusing on communications (comms), first response, support, etc… First to go into the cave were the comms., followed shortly by the first responders, which included a medic and a couple of supporting people. After getting warm, Rachel moved to the entrance of the cave to hear the comms updates. She sat there for the next 6 hours!]

Eventually, after wearing a furrow in the floor by walking back and forth, and running out of songs to sing, the first of the cave rescue – Adrian – arrived about 2130. He got communications established with the surface and then we waited for the first aid. They arrived a few minutes later and after examining my shoulder, dosed me up with painkillers. We had to wait about 20 minutes for them to take effect, but the time was quickly taken up with discussing what the best way to get me out of the cave was, and how to truss me up to do it. Eventually we opted for a chest- and sit-harness, my sling to support my arm where possible and to go out through the entrance crawl – the alternative of going all the way around to Ogof Cnwc was too horrible to contemplate – I’d still be in the cave now if we’d gone that way!

At 2210 we set off into the crawl. The first obstacle was the calcite squeezes, which had me flat on my stomach. Fortunately the floor was smooth, so with a bit of pulling and pushing they managed to drag me through. The trickiest parts were where I had to go up above the floor. Normally you do a series of one-handed press-ups and jam your body into the passage, so that you can move your hand along. With my shoulder the way it was, I couldn’t jam my body so I needed supporting each time I moved forwards. Adrian did a brilliant job of this in the first section.

After what felt like forever, crawling and being pushed and pulled down the passage, we met the next group coming in to relieve the first responders. They were all fantastic, particularly Lisa the medic, and headed out to get warm and dry and recover. The second group fed me hot soup, cooled with Ribena, before we continued the struggle. The passage continued interminably and was so tight and narrow that the people in front and behind could give me little help in many places. Eventually after a few more stops and communications with the surface, we reached the last major obstacle – The Vice! By this stage, it had been 4 hours since the rescuers arrived, so Amy gave me another dose of painkillers.

The Vice is a section where you have to go up over a narrow slot in the floor, so we did a bit of planning before getting me into there. John behind me attached a rope so that he could try and lift me a little and Chris in front turned around to face me. They also tried to fill the slot with tackle bags, although that wasn’t entirely successful. A great deal of huffing and puffing commenced and I slowly inched over the slot. Things were going pretty well thanks to everyone’s help until Chris got himself jammed. There was no way I could move to help him so he had to squeeze underneath me temporarily until he could free himself. He’s probably the only person ever to go through the entrance crawl in reverse!

Chris dragging me out of the entrance

I finally exited the cave at 0230. I figure 4 hours for the entrance crawl with only one arm was a pretty good effort. Both the parties who helped me in the cave were absolutely brilliant and the organisation of the whole affair was excellent. I’d like to say a huge thanks to the South and Mid Wales Cave Rescue Organisation. Unlike Rachel’s practice rescue, this time it was for real and all ~24 people who turned out for the rescue were incredibly professional.

Freedom at last!

The rest is pretty dull: a trip in an ambulance to Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny; x-rays revealing that I’d fractured my humerus, more drugs and then sent home to catch a bit of sleep. By the time we got back to Whitewalls any trace of the rescue had vanished.

Wounded, but walking.