Mountain rescue

2008-06-26 00:00

Johannri Engelbrecht is an experienced hiker who knows the Drakensberg. “I’ve been hiking there for years,” says the Johannesburg-based psychologist. On July 4 even experience wasn’t going to prevent an accident.

Engelbrecht was a member of a party of seven doing a five-day traverse along the escarpment from the Amphitheatre to Cathedral Peak. “It was during a very, very cold spell and there was a lot of snow in the Berg,” she recalls. “We were coming down Umlambonja Pass when it happened.”

“I’m not sure if I slipped or my foot came down the wrong way on some boulders,” says Engelbrecht. “But I knew I had broken my ankle because I heard it crack as I was falling.”

It was just after midday. Engelbrecht’s partner Aubrey Blecher together with Kobus du Preez, a friend and leader of the hike, stayed with her while the others walked down the mountain to where they could get cellphone reception and call for help.

Andy Wood, a rescue organiser with the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA) KwaZulu-Natal section, was contacted at about 4 pm. “That gave us about half an hour before dark to do anything,” he recalls, “so we organised a local helicopter from the Cathedral Peak Hotel to drop them some supplies and decided to effect the rescue in the morning.”

In the morning, the MCSA rescue team and a provincial Emergency Medical Rescue Service (EMRS) paramedic would be picked up at Oribi Airport and flown in by a South African Air Force (SAAF) 15 Squadron Oryx helicopter.

Meanwhile, Engelbrecht and her two companions spent the night in freezing conditions. “The water froze in the water bottles and we couldn’t pitch a tent because it was so steep. But we were equipped to keep warm, with good sleeping bags and thermal clothing gear.”

Thanks to the hotel helicopter they had food — “so we didn’t have to prepare anything to eat. They were really very kind and helped to make our night easier” — and painkillers. “I took the painkillers plus I have a high pain threshold, but it was still sore,” Engelbrecht remembers.

The Mountain Club’s main function is as a recreational organisation, says Gavin Raubenheimer, a professional mountaineer and the club’s rescue team convener. There are 13 sections of the MCSA although not all have rescue teams. “The main one is in Cape Town,” says Raubenheimer. “Then there is a combined Johannesburg and Pretoria team for the Magaliesberg, a small contingent in the Eastern Cape and us.”

Of the 340 members of the MCSA KZN section, 30 belong to the rescue team. “Members of the team are social climbers who have got rope skills and mountaineering skills, which are skills that easily transfer to rescue. We try not to be medical people. The provincial Emergency Medical Rescue Services supply paramedics.”

According to Wood, who is the public relations officer at Hilton College, the ideal candidate for the rescue team is an active, competent mountaineer, “people with enough expertise on the high Drakensberg on vertical cliffs in bad weather and who can take care of themselves.”

Rescue team members get further training on how to raise and lower a stretcher from an aircraft plus assorted skills involving getting into and out of planes and helicopters. Skills are maintained with a rescue practice every six weeks and occasional forays into the Berg to practise with the SAAF.

On average the rescue team is called out eight times a year. “Then there are stand-bys and alerts that come to nothing,” says Raubenheimer.

“The heavy times are the Easter and Christmas weekends,” he says, “the times when people are up in the Berg. And when the weather changes — especially if a cold front arrives halfway through a weekend or a long weekend. If it arrives on a Friday people hear about it and nobody goes up, but if it arrives halfway through they are already in the Berg.”

The great percentage of rescues are low-key affairs, says Raubenheimer. “The bad situations are the minority. But when they are bad, they are bad.” People who want to join the rescue team are advised that “in some cases members have to work with extremely gory injuries or corpses. Volunteers must be mentally able to cope with such scenes.”

Wood says a relatively low proportion of serious climbers get injured. “Day walkers going up the Tugela Gorge — that’s our bread and butter. We are also rescuing an increasing number of foreign tourists.”

As rescue convener, Raubenheimer makes sure that over long weekends there is a rescue organiser available. There are three in all, along with assistant organisers, the main rescue team and a technical team.

“Typically, if something happens, an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife ranger speaks to the provincial emergency control room in Natalia and they telephone one of us. We then speak to the ranger to get better information. Then we set up a three-way link with the control room to see what is the best thing to do.”

Only the provincial control room can request air force assistance or, if that is not available, a South African Police Services helicopter. All of this costs money which comes from an emergency rescue fund. “Every time you enter a game reserve, R1 of the fee goes into this fund,” says Raubenheimer. So when Engelbrecht entered the Royal Natal National Park a few days earlier, she contributed to her rescue. “They came at first light,” recalls Engelbrecht.

When the Oryx helicopter from SAAF 15 Squadron flew in, landing was not an option. “Because of the nature of the ground in this part of the Berg — steep, grassy slopes — there was nowhere to land,” says Wood, “so the rescue team were lowered with a stretcher and the Oryx flew out until we were ready.”

The paramedic, Malcom Pillay, stabilised Engelbrecht and then the rescue team strapped her to a stretcher. “What was really exceptional was the way they talked me through the process very carefully,” she says. “You knew exactly what to expect. They check you psychologically — to see if you are freaked out — and physically. It was the right combination of practicality and making you feel okay.”

Once everything was ready Wood called in the helicopter. “The medic was winched up first, then the patient, then the team,” he says. They went to a soccer field near the Cathedral Peak Hotel where Englebrecht was transferred to an air ambulance that took her to St Anne’s Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. The SAAF helicopter returned to Umlambonja Pass and picked up the remaining pair.

Engelbrecht made a full recovery and has since returned to hike in the Berg.

DO’s and DONT’S in the Berg

“In the mountains you are responsible for your own safety,” says Andy Wood, rescue organiser with the Mountain Club of South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal section rescue team. “Remember the basics: never walk alone and be prepared,” he says. “We are not sitting in the fire station itching for the opportunity to come and rescue you.”

Do sign the mountain register and fill it out properly, he emphasises. “Many people just fill it in half-heartedly or tongue-in-cheek,” says Wood, “and we end up trying to organise a rescue on the basis of a joke.”

Also make sure you know the rescue number 0800 005 133. If you have to call indicate that it is a mountain rescue that is being requested.

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