By PETER BUZZACOTT Ex-ASF member, now living in France
The Fédération Française De Spéléologie (FFS) celebrated their 50th anniversary last year (2013) and they are the French equivalent of the ASF.
Twice a year the six north-westernmost clubs hold weekend cave-rescue exercises, as do other regions right around the country.
Places are limited by logistics and so members of each club who apply are selected to attend. In November last year I was privileged to be accepted. Five per car, ten of us from the far west, arrived at the Grotte du Rey, just north of the village of St Georges sur Erve, in time for lunch. Old friendships were renewed over a crusty baguette, new faces were welcomed and each of us registered on the participant list in an abandoned stone cottage.
The fireplace inside radiated warmth while we changed into trogs and boots, before gathering for the safety briefing while my old cave diving buddy, Thierry, made his way into the cave to play victim.
Soon the 30 or so of us were divided into small groups, each with a specific task which was noted on the master register in the command post.
Each name is listed and, every time someone changes tasks their position and activity, is noted by colouring in the relevant box on each day’s activity sheet. Each activity had a different colour. Anyone arriving on site goes on the sheet and, once the landline had been established inside the cave anyone coming or going was also noted.
In this well-organised way the rescue coordinators could, at a single glance, tell if anyone should be relieved for a break.
I was in the stretcher party and advised that we wouldn’t be required till all else was prepared: the victim stabilised, re-warmed, extraction ropes in place and everyone ready. Only then would he be stretchered. Meanwhile I was invited to tour the cave and witness each party’s tasks.
Entry to the first chamber was through an unlocked iron door above a 10 m abseil. To reach the victim we negotiated some delightfully windy passages with low duck-unders through muddy puddles.
Upon arriving I could see the first-aid team patching up poor Thierry, who appeared to have broken his leg in a small side-passage off the large decorated chamber where the ‘hot room’ team was busily working.
Here my pal Christian was tightening 2.5 mm braided nylon cord that stretched across the room in two parallel lines. Next these lines were joined with two perpendicular cords to form a rectangle suspended over the flattest place in the room.
A clean tarp was spread here, then a foam mattress over that, followed by an MTDE brand rescue warming suit made from sleeping bag-type material and velcro fastening to wrap the sleeves and legs around an injured person.
Silver reflective sheets were hung for walls and and a fifth draped over the top to complete the ‘hot room’. Now all was ready, the first-aid team half-carried the victim to the tent where he was gently laid down, then two of the female cavers stripped down to their onesies and climbed in with him.
The caver next to me clarified. ‘It is for warmth. Next they will remove all his clothing till he is naked.’ I considered how wonderfully French this appeared; then he added, ‘soon it will be 20°C in there and when he is warm we will move him.’
Imagining hypothermia, I couldn’t resist. I had to ask, ‘Will they … hug him?’, trying unconvincingly not to smile. ‘No, no,’ said my pal, ‘you just need a couple of extra bodies in there and it warms up pretty quickly, plus they will do everything that needs to be done for him like giving fluids or whatever, so we don’t have people going in and out to let the heat escape.’
A short while later I was invited to peer down into the enclosure from a corner and it did indeed look warm and cosy in there. How absolutely practical!
After half an hour we readied the stretcher, the hot room was lifted away and four of us stood over the patient, removing our hardware to prevent slapping him with a Stop or whatever. I had the hips and faced the caver lifting the chest. In this way we could support each other, even when stepping over the victim.
I was super-impressed with how organised this rescue was. The guy on the land-line reported everyone’s coming and going, pairs of cavers quietly applied themselves to coordinated tasks and then the caver at the head gave the command to lift.
Thierry rose up from his mattress about 30 cm, the stretcher slid in underneath him from his feet to his head, hands reached in between our calves and the stretcher was unfurled, then on command we lowered him into it. The whole process took seconds. My opposite number and I held each other as we stepped over and away from the patient, then as a team we started strapping him into place.
By now he was wearing a set of goggles like you might use while grinding. A Petzl Meteor foam helmet was being gently fitted, his feet were placed in stirrups and everything was double-checked by a second caver. Lastly, he was wrapped in two layers of heavy-duty canvas and these were velcroed into place with his arms still free at the top.
This was it — we were going to stretcher him out. After five years in the Army I was prepared for some gut-busting work now and there were only four of us in the stretcher team, so I knew this was going to be a killer.
Zipping into action
But to my surprise everyone moved over to the first low, narrow section and with a bit of chatter a starting point was decided and then everyone sat down facing each other left and right like a zip.
The four of us lifted Thierry on the stretcher, carried him over to the human chain; they simply took the handles from us and he was passed from caver to caver through the low section. On the other side he was held by the last four cavers while the rest of us moved forward and then the process was repeated.
In just 15-20 minutes he was at the ropes getting ready to be lifted out and I must admit I was amazed at how smoothly it went. Even through the low sections and puddles of mud he simply floated along, buoyed by many helping hands.
At this stage Christine, the leader of the first-aid group, started ascending one of the four ropes now hanging down into the cave. A second rope was clipped to the lifting point at the head, another caver clipped on to a third rope while the fourth was held aside as a spare.
While all this was happening the stretcher was away to the side with a caver protecting the victim’s head in case a rope tail snaked over.
On command, we lifted the stretcher and tension was taken up from above. We moved over to below the entrance, lifted higher and then the stretcher became vertical.
We stepped away as it was lifted up, Christine travelling beside the patient and either holding his arm for reassurance or steadying the stretcher by a handle. At the top Christine dropped just below the stretcher, locked off her ascender, and as it was lifted out of the cave she pushed from below, then followed him out.
We packed up, pulled out the landline, exited the cave, leaving the ropes in place for some fun caving on Sunday. Once changed we drove to a nearby sports complex where we shared accommodation, five or six to a room filled with beds.
After dinner we gathered in a boardroom-type area, opened a few beers and spent the next couple of hours going over every aspect of the exercise.
The ambience was jovial but every possible small improvement was considered and minutes were taken for later circulation. Finally, the debrief concluded just after 10 pm and the Brest crew headed to the games room for snooker, MTV on the big screen and delightful red wine.
Vive la France!
My sincere thanks to GASPAR (my caving club) and the Spéléo Secours Français for an opportunity to participate.
Not speaking the language adds a small degree of risk to my attendance and I am grateful to Emilie, especially, for watching over me. The regional committee of Fédération Française de Spéléologie paid for the entire weekend, including food, drinks and accommodation, and they have my gratitude.
I thank the private owners of this marvellous cave for their hospitality, too. An English-language version of the book Cave Rescue is available here and I thoroughly recommend it for all rescue cavers.