Climbing safety tips from a rescue specialist

Jordy Shepherd is a Canmore-based mountain guide who has been on dozens of search and rescue calls over the years. His work experience includes positions as Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) Avalanche Search and Rescue Course Facilitator, Provincial Park Ranger, National Park Warden, Rescue Specialist mountain and industrial, heliski operations manager and much more.

What are the basics climbers need to know about rescue? Be prepared to be self-sufficient and to save yourself. Get the necessary equipment and training to save yourself and your companion and take a wilderness first aid course. At a minimum, be able to call for help (have one, or preferably two, reliable forms of communication) and remain comfortable for up to 48 hours if weather or other factors delay the rescue. If an accident occurs or you are going to be delayed on the road, let the local search and rescue group know where you are, even if it looks like you will probably be able to evacuate yourself. This will allow them to plan ahead in case you are unable to get out. It sucks to be rescued, but it’s even worse not to be rescued when you need to be rescued. File a travel plan with someone and ask them to send help if you are late. Bring extra food and water, a tarp for shelter, warm, waterproof clothing, and a first aid kit that can stop bleeding and stabilize traumatic injuries. Tie knots in the ends of your rope when rappelling with multiple steps to avoid hitting the end of your rope.

What should climbers do to prepare for rocky multi-pitch routes? Research the route: Bring a hard copy of the topo, including approach and descent. Make sure you have the right equipment (ropes, rack, emergency equipment). Know what is the best method of communication for this route (cell phone, satellite device, VHF radio with local frequencies, etc.). Make sure the route matches your technical abilities and experience. It’s best to start with easier, shorter and more accessible routes, to get your systems dialed in, then move on to longer, more difficult and more remote climbs.

What should climbers have on their rack for multi-terrain safety? Accumulate according to the route description. Long gliders are often very helpful in reducing rope drag. Bring a variety of protective pieces, specific to the type of route and rock you are climbing. Make sure you have the correct equipment sizes on your rack. If you are less experienced and less confident, take a little extra gear, but be careful not to take too much or it will slow you down. Bring suitable ropes for the ascent as well as the descent. You need ropes that will get you down the course in an emergency. Bring rescue items for yourself or your buddy, such as a prussik lanyard, extra carabiners, small pulleys and rope-holding devices to add mechanical advantage for ascent and descent, a device extra belay (in case you drop one) and learn how to use the equipment. Bring appropriate shoes. You won’t want your athletic shoes super tight on a multi-pitch climb. Wear helmets. Every climber should have a knife, so you can cut pieces of rope/webbing/rope to build anchors to descend in an emergency.

What are the best practices when cliff climbing? Be aware of others around you. It is a shared space. Take care of your human waste and garbage. Keep your gear tidy. Tie a knot at the end of your rope each time you climb, to ensure that your belayer cannot let the end of the rope pass through the belay device. Don’t let ropes hang over tracks you don’t ride. If you bring your dog, make sure he has food and water and is under control. Wear a helmet when you are on a cliff, even when you are not climbing. Falling trees and rocks of natural and human origin are always a potential.

What is RECCO technology? You wear a simple RECCO reflector in your clothing or equipment. If the searchers are looking for you, they use a RECCO search unit which sends out a signal. RECCO reflectors will send the search signal back to the search unit and searchers will hear a beep. They can then use the search unit to pinpoint your location.

Why is it important for climbers to wear RECCO? RECCO is inexpensive and very light. It does not replace wearing a transceiver when you are in avalanche terrain, but it works very well with the port of a transceiver. If you are not wearing a transceiver, having a RECCO reflector will help the SAR team find you faster and with less exposure time for searchers.

Jordy Berger

Is speed and lightness the best approach for alpine climbing? Fast and light is a good option for experienced mountaineers. It is better to progress to become a minimalist in the alpine. Start with shorter, easier and less distant goals to build your experience and get your systems dialed. Then you can start moving faster in the mountains on the longer routes. Always bring first aid and emergency bivouac equipment, in case of an emergency, as well as some form of emergency communication. Only go fast and light when the weather is very good and the conditions on the course are also very good. This will reduce your risk and discomfort in the event of a delay or injury. If you need to be evacuated, favorable weather conditions will help the SAR team help you.

What should new mountaineers know before venturing to higher altitudes? Get the necessary training and equipment and get ready to take on the alpine. There are plenty of ‘mini golf’ goals that have an alpine feel but aren’t very long or exposed. Bring your mountaineering gear on some of the most exposed “scrambling” routes to test your gear and systems and get faster on the transitions from hiking to climbing and back to hiking. Spend some time on low-angle glaciers and snow slopes before trying the steeper mixed alpine routes with complex glacier approaches and descents.

What does it mean when an alpine ascent is rated 5.7. Should a 5.7 gym/crag climber try it? Alpine 5.7 is very different from gym/crag 5.7. If you are a 5.7 gym/cliff climber and want to become a mountaineer, start by hiring a guide and taking a course. Or join the Alpine Club of Canada and sign up for climbs and introductory mountaineering courses. Go out with more experienced climbers and don’t mountaineer at the limit of your technical climbing abilities.

What do search and rescue technicians want everyday climbers to know? We want to know where you are, what the problem is and how serious it is. Any information on the patient’s condition, weather, access (by land and helicopter), your group’s preparedness, and any hazards in the area is very helpful. This helps us prioritize and prepare to come and help you.

Rescue training. Photo Jordy Berger