x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

UAE cavers get safety training

The challenge of rescue is not that straightforward because of the rough, challenging terrain of smooth and sharp rocks, water and pitch darkness.

Professional caver Philippe Bence, centre, explains cave rigging and rescue techniques.
Professional caver Philippe Bence, centre, explains cave rigging and rescue techniques.

Deep down in a dark cave, the simplest injury can lead to a rescue that can take hours, even days, and involve a large team to get that person out.

Members of the Middle East Caving Expeditionary Team (Mecet) are well aware of the need to train themselves to deal with an accident that could be several thousand metres below ground in the dark.

Phil Bence, a cave rescue expert and professional cave explorer, was invited to the UAE by TraksPro, a distributor for the caving gear maker Petzl, to pass on his knowledge to the voluntary group.

Mr Bence said cavers had to have a streak of masochism to go down in the first place.

"There's a unique and satisfying pleasure of discovering theses amazing landscapes but there has to be a link with the necessary support to get out of these hard conditions," he said. "We have to be prepared for the worst."

The challenge of rescue is not that straightforward because of the rough, challenging terrain of smooth and sharp rocks, water and pitch darkness.

"Progression through a cave is not so easy as there are boulders and you have to climb a lot," Mr Bence said. "It's never flat. If you don't take care down there, it's quite easy to get a twisted ankle and, on one leg, caving becomes a real challenge."

A team of 10 UAE-based cavers went down the Seventh Hole drop on the Selma Plateau in Oman to practise rescue last week.

Will Hardie, who has explored several of Oman's cave networks, said the caving community was relatively new in this region.

"It's important to us to support and grow that community in a way that ensures the cave resources are used in a safe and sustainable way," Mr Hardie said.

"Growing our own skills is part of that process. By training ourselves up as cave rescuers, we are available to help out if anyone else gets into trouble. We want to be a resource for the caving community."

Once down more than 200 metres, the team learnt a set of effective techniques for working as a unit to raise a casualty up a deep shaft, quickly and efficiently - using nothing other than ropes, pulleys and their own weight.

They acted out a scenario involving a victim who had to be brought out over horizontal and vertical parts of the cave with ropes.

"We used the weight of a rescuer to make the victim in the stretcher go up, a kind of home-made lift," Mr Bence said.

Mr Hardie added: "Unlike mountain or industrial rescue, you are almost always trying to get somebody up, rather than down. Gravity is not your friend."

He said the exercises in a real cave were a huge help, giving them a chance to put all of their theory into practice.

"We had already practised the techniques at the TraksPro rope-training centre in Dubai but there is no substitute for doing it in a real cave environment," he said.

"We set up counterbalance pulley systems to raise our casualty more than 50 metres up a shaft to a safe platform. We learnt a lot about teamwork and communication, as well as the technical skills involved."

They also upgraded and replaced the bolts used to hang ropes in the cave, which were installed there by the first explorers 25 years ago.

"These remain in the cave as a resource for future cavers," Mr Hardie said. "We re-equip new sections each time we go."

He said a trained paramedic or doctor would be of great benefit to Mecet.

Mr Bence said the exercises they tried out were just basics but it was great to practise.

"For them, as for me, we have to practise," he said. "We must train to be always more efficient because it's a friend in the stretcher."

Alan Goddard, 29, from Australia, was part of the exercise and said it would be beneficial for the future. "If you don't know the right techniques, you'll be scratching your head asking how you're going to get the person out. If you know the technique, you're going to use it," he said.

eharnan@thenational.ae