Mike Leum, a search and rescue member, said the goal of the exercise was for the response team to cut down on response time to hikers that find themselves in trouble while in an icy area.
“We regularly go to areas like Mt. Baldy with ice shoots that can be 1,500 feet long,” he said. “Hikers will fall down the ice shoots. We can cover the top and bottom [of the shoot], but we didn’t have the expertise to cover the middle.”
Leum started V.I.R.T. three years ago so the team could learn how to cover this “middle” area rescue. Other search and rescue agencies in the area may perform ice rescues, but Leum was not aware of any that had formal structured training. Instructors from the American Alpine Institute trained the team members.
They travel to Lee Vining once a year for the training. The frozen waterfall ascent is about 150 to 200 feet. The team regularly practices mountain climbing techniques, but climbing a wall of ice utilizes different equipment and a different mindset.
“I guess the toughest thing is that it is physically demanding and mentally, it is a challenge,” Leum said. “You realize that your entire body weight is being supported by millimeters of ice clamps and [climbing rope]. There is not a lot holding you up on this water fall.”
Leum added that it is only through extensive training that the team becomes confident in its ice climbing abilities. Those skills have been used several times in the past.
“About two years ago we used it to access a [woman] whose hiking companion had fallen to his death in the Angeles National Forest. She was clinging to a tree,” he said. “We were able to get to her in minutes. [Search and rescue member] Robert [Sheedy] lowered me to her and then to Angeles Crest below.”
Leum added that this technique allows rescuers to reduce the time it takes to get to a victim.
The training also helps emergency response actions to become second nature. This was evident two years ago when Leum and Sheedy were climbing Mt. Rainier. Sheedy lost his footing and fell into a crevasse.
He was hanging between two ice walls. Leum, who was roped to Sheedy, stopped his fall by driving his ax into the ice and wrapped the rope around his boot to steady Sheedy.
“You perform how you were trained,” Leum said. “In my office I have posted ‘Train like your life depends on it.’ That is true advice.”