Self Rescue – A Reminder

Rätikon, Switzerland – Performing a self rescue and a reminder on ethics of climbing and mountaineering.

Us, as adventurists (be it climber, mountaineer, skier, hiker etc.) have a responsibility to ourselves and our co-adventurists, friends and strangers alike, that we so often forget as a community. I am specifically referring to the ethics involved in a rescue.

Technology has advanced our comfort level to a false sense of security with helicopters and cell phones making it too easy to get bailed out of a sticky situation. As an adventurer, the rules of the game are that one must perform a self-rescue whenever possible. By opting for a third party rescue, you are putting the lives of rescuers at risk who are mostly volunteers. We have all heard countless stories of lost hikers and unprepared climbers demanding the support of rescue teams rather than attempting to solve the problem themselves or take precautions to avoid the problem from the get go. We as adventurers do what we do for the freedom it provides. We should be self sufficient and prepared for the unknown. After all, this is why we are out there – the thrill of exploring the “unknown”. We have a responsibility to ourselves, our climbing partners and the complete strangers that we share this outdoor playground with. I was reminded of these ethics in my own self-rescue this weekend and wanted to share the experience with my community and fellow adventurers.

The Back Story – Early Saturday morning, we set off on the approach to climb the South face of the 5th Kirchlispitze (2428 m) in Rätikon via the multi-pitch route Galadriel (8-). There was quite a bit of snow left on the approach and about 50 feet from the base of our climb I slipped while scrambling and went for an uncontrolled glissade of which I successfully self arrested but not without some collateral damage. Immediately, upon impact with the ground I broke my leg. My climbing partner quickly came to my aid while I took a second to let the shock of the accident pass and regathered my wits. Eric, my partner, treated me for shock and quickly administered a painkiller from his first aid kit. He then lowered me to flatter ground where he collected sticks to make a splint. During our descent we passed a climbing party, which to my surprise didn’t offer to help or even attempt communicating with Eric or myself to ensure we were ok. They had their own agenda, a climb that they had gotten a late start to. An all too familiar theme in the new age of mountaineering and one that I had been fortunate to not see its ugly face until this incident.

The rest of the story is very well documented in the letter I sent to my mother, breaking the news of my little accident. How to tell your mom you were involved in a self-rescue:


Eric and I are back from Switzerland a few days earlier than planned. Unfortunately, I had a slight accident near the base of our climb that resulted in a broken leg and a rather epic adventure getting down the mountain. I’m fine, besides the usual depression that follows an injury like this.

Upon arriving at Gruscher Alp, the start of our approach, there was a notable amount of snow left in the area which forced us to park a bit down trail from the standard parking area. No big deal, probably wished we brought more appropriate footwear though. We were very excited to see these breathtaking limestone alps surrounding us. It made even Yosemite look somewhat less impressive.

The approach - Rätikon, Switzerland

A few hours of hiking brought us about 50 feet from the base of our climb and then down I went. My foot slipped on some wet limestone while scrambling to the base and gravity took over from there. Thankfully I was able to arrest the unplanned glissade without any serious injuries and Eric quickly came to help. Naturally, the Nile River flowed down my face from the shock of it all. I got my minute of senseless crying out of the way and tried weighting my foot to see how bad this was going to be. It couldn’t bear weight, which left Eric and I looking down the mountain we had just trekked up – snow, talus, mud and steep. Now time to figure out how to get down. Eric kindly asked if we could get out on our own or if I wanted him to fetch a helicopter (a la rescue). I’ve flown enough in the past few months and opted for a leisurely scoot down the mountain as the better choice seeing that this was not life threatening, just painful and incredibly inconvenient. Eric stayed super calm and grabbed some Vicodin from our first aid kit so we could cut the edge off the pain as we romped down the mountain.

Here is the storyboard of our self rescue:

Self-rescue: Scenic Lowering, More Snow, Meds Working - Rätikon, Switzerland Self Rescue: Scooting on flatter ground - Rätikon, Switzerland
Self Rescue: Past the high angle snow fields and donning Stickagucci boot - Self-rescue: Scenic Lowering, More Snow, Meds Working - Rätikon, Switzerland Self Rescue: Refining my Alpine Pimp Strut - Rätikon, Switzerland
Self Rescue: The Final Leg (no pun intended) - 1+ Mile Buddy Sled Pulls - Self Rescue: Iditarod 2013? - Rätikon, Switzerland Self Rescue: Iditarod 2013? - Rätikon, Switzerland

About six hours of creative descending later, we reached the car. Eric didn’t complain once about the grueling crossfit workout from hell that he had just endured – between carrying me on his back in flatter sections, sleigh pulling me through snow fields for over a mile and tearing down branches to make a splint (even threatening to tear down a trail sign if he couldn’t find any sticks) he deserves a metal. He makes Bear Grylls look soft.

Eric drove the 500km back home and we went straight to the Hospital. They X-rayed the ankle and the lower part of the fibula is broken. The pain suggested a much worse break than it looks like in the X-ray, but we will know more when I see the specialist on Tuesday or Wednesday to get my new accessory for the next 4- 6 weeks – a hard cast.

Now that we have been back a day and I am adapting to being a helpless gimp, I thought I would share our little “adventure”. We plan on returning to Ratikon in August to climb all the routes we didn’t get to climb this weekend. I leave you with a picture of the mountain we did not climb, well NOT YET. I guess the saying goes, “Accidents Happen”. I hope you are enjoying your Memorial Day Weekend!

South Face of Kirchlispitzen - Rätikon, Switzerland

South Face of Kirchlispitzen – Rätikon, Switzerland


Educational Resources for Self Rescue Techniques

Read Up – You should already have read these cover to cover:

Take a Course - Various climbing outfitters in your area (REI included) offer climbing courses focusing on self-rescue. Google search “climbing self rescue class” and sign up. Want to expand on your knowledge? Take a Wilderness First Responder (WFR) course. I recommend NOLS, check out their website for more details.

You can never be over educated when it comes to techniques involved in extricating the wounded or incapacitated from a dangerous environment. I’m so thankful that my climbing partner was well educated in these techniques. His calm and strategic approach to my rescue resulted in an injury that was not exacerbated by my extrication and we both safely made it off the mountain without risking the lives of others.

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Ilana is a native of Southern California. She is an accomplished rock and ice climber and runs Thrillseekers Anonymous. She volunteers as a medical technician (EMT) and works as a climbing guide when she is not out leading her own adventures. She has been featured in various media outlets including the December 2013 issue of ‘Rock and Ice’ magazine, December/January 2013 issue of ‘Gripped Climbing’ magazine, Canyoneering: A Guide to Techniques for Wet and Dry Canyons (How To Climb Series) by Dave Black and Pasadena Magazine as well as a Climbing Expert on MTV’s Parental Control (Season 7 – “Heather”).

Ilana has written 78 articles for Thrillseekers Anonymous.

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