Cave rescue is a tricky area, but an important one. There is one inherent difference that puts it apart from rescue in ANY other sport. That is there is no easy access (usually) to the victim. In rock climbing, surfing, bushwalking, and about any other sport, an ambulance or failing that a helicopter can evacuate you to the nearest hospital. But not caving.
Caving has the disadvantage of victims being difficult to access. They can take days…..
Here is an illustration of a typical serious cave rescue when one member cannot self rescue, due to a broken bone or unconsciousness.
1) Party is 5 hours into the cave when one caver slips on a climb and breaks his femur. Walking is impossible.
2) Two members of party immediately turn around and leave the cave. That’s the first 5 hours.
3) They get to a phone. Potentially another hour to drive back to phone reception if remote, or to a phone booth, house, or other place to make a call. That’s now 6 hours
4) 000 is called, and the emergency system for cave accidents starts. The local leader of that state’s cave rescue organisation is contacted by the police. He has to then contact the other members of the crew. A team is assembled involving Cave Rescue Squad, Police, SES, Paramedics, and a medical officer of some type. Phoning for manpower, and phoning to organise transport and rescue gear takes abother hour. That’s 7 hours.
5) An initial crew of a dozen rescuers make their way to the caving area where the accident happened. More rescuers are dispatched and arrive sporadically. Lets be conservative and pretend that the cave area is 3.5 hours drive away from the capital city where the club is based. We’re up to 10.5 hours
6) Rescue team number one gets dressed, assembles gear, makes plan of action, sets individual roles, and generally gets organised on the surface. Another half hour if not more. 11 Hours
7) A team of 5 or more rescuers, carring a stretcher and a MASSIVE amount of other gear enters the cave. The accident happened 5 hours in, but those cavers did not have such gear (and such large gear) so the going is painfully slow, and tiring. At least 7 hours. Total now 18 hours
8) Victim is reached. Make shift medical treatment is delivered, pain relief and bandaging. Victim is put on stretcher, strapped in, and party starts to head out. THIS IS THE TOUGH BIT. Caving involves climbing, squeezing, crawling and all sorts of weird contortions. With a stretcher this becomes nearly impossible, and if its not a large open cave, rock will often have to be chipped away or attacked with explosives. Stretchers do NOT like 90 degree bends, or tight passage. What took 5 hours to get in, will take 24 hours to get out, with different teams taking turns around the clock. A recent rescue in New Zealand following the above scenario took 3 days to get the victim out, with significant need for explosives. So now we are up to 42 hours since the accident.
9) Victim reaches the surface where chopper is waiting and he is evacuated. Dozens of tired, sore, and heroic rescuers pack up and leave. All up nearly 2 days, and they can take even longer.
Cave Rescues in Victoria?
There has been one serious rescue in Victoria. This occurred on December 8th, 1995 in Hades Cave in Buchan when student Jason Lau apparently was given bad directions and strayed off on his own just a few metres too far, falling approximately 10 metres and sustaining serious fractures. The rescue took 17 hours involving local VLCT cavers and other cavers from Melbourne. But it went smoothly and luckily the cave is not extensive compared to others in the area.
The curse of Labertouche!
There have been countless other ‘rescues’ of cavers becoming lost, especially in Labertouche Cave. A minor rescue occurred in Honeycomb Cave in Buchan many years ago, and the cavers were found 5 metres away (via a hard to see squeeze) from the bottom of the entrance pitch. They said they could hear birds chirping and that there was obvious debris from the surface, but they just couldn’t find the squeeze. Those cavers were never seen in Buchan again.
Another ‘rescue’ occurred in Buchan in the entrance squeeze to Centipede Cave. It is an incredibly tight entrance made difficult because there are NO foot holds or hand holds to drag yourself out. The caver in question was stuck for several hours while the rescue team (a couple of locals) chiselled enough rock around him to get him out. Very embarrassing!
Cave Rescue Victoria (Now deceased)
In Victoria at the moment sadly there is NO active or organised Cave Rescue squad. There was one for many years but its members dwindled and due to the fact that not much caving was going on, and the leaving of its participants, it died a slow death. However the police DO have a list of names of individuals they know who either were in the cave rescue squad, or have rescue ability and have volunteered their names informally for such events.
If there was another serious rescue a team would be assembled, but part of it would probably come from NSW where there is a highly trained, resourced and active Cave Rescue Squad, who have mock rescues regularly and are the most prepared for any situation. If the rescue happened in Buchan there are a number of locals from the VLCT who would be able to attend within a VERY short time, know exactly where you are, who also happen to be paramedics, which is comforting. This is one reason the author would like to see the VSA and the VLCT mend burnt bridges and start working together on things like rescue practice. Sorry – thats another issue entirely.
Caving, statistically, is VERY safe.
I don’t want to scare you from caving. Serious rescues are VERY rare. Caving statistically is a very safe sport. In fact the stats interntionally indicate that the most common cause of death in caves is drowing when cavers enter a cave in bad weather, or from exposure being hypothermic. See the menu on Statistics under the advanced caving menu. Some caves flood dramatically and quickly, whereas others flood gradually. Many caves in the United Kingdom flood badly, and there have been quite a few incidents. When I was living and caving over there, there were whole weekends when we had to stay on the surface due to heavy rain.
None of the Buchan caves, or any caves in Victoria are prone to IMMEDIATE SEVERE flooding, but some of them can flood. Probably the most likely to flood most quickly are Stormwater Tunnel, Scrubby Creek and Dalleys. A flood in Scrubby Creek would be serious as it would sump off the roof sniff, trapping you in the cave until the water level receaded.
The main danger – Water.
Some caves in Tasmania flood dramatically, and there have been deaths recorded. The rule of thumb is that if you find yourself in a rapidly flooding cave, just get as high up in the cave as you possible can and just stay there, for as long as it takes. Even if it is days! The deaths are almost ALWAYS a caver who has decided the water has gone down enough and he should be fine. DON’T GET BACK IN THE WATER UNTIL IT IS NEARLY AT ITS NORMAL DEPTH! Eventually the water will recede, and the chances are you can hopefully exist on the water you brought and snacks, or even carefully get water out of the flooding streamway. You can survive a long time without food as long as you have water, so just be patient and wait.
And most importantly do your research. Does the cave flood? TALK TO A LOCAL TO FIND OUT! If so, what is the weather forecast today? There is no such thing as ‘she’ll be right.. im sure it wont rain heavily’. This attitude may kill you. If it is a floodable cave and rain is forcast, then just go and see a movie, or find a cliff to do some SRT practice in the rain. The cave will be there on a day with better weather, some time in the future!
Cave rescue is an art form and a unique challenge. Lets hope it doesn’t get used too often.