Rocks, ropes, knots—there is a lot of overlap between climbing and technical rescue (SAR), yet the cultural gap between the two groups often feels unbridgeable. The gap generally boils down to both sides thinking the other has no idea what they’re doing. There’s a kernel of truth to this.
In many regions, climbing isn’t a prerequisite for joining a technical rescue team. This is true in Maine, where a growing number of rescuers have no experience with recreational climbing, never mind with guiding. As a climber, it’s unnerving to have someone who can’t onsight a 5.7 come to your aid. But just because rescuers aren’t climbers doesn’t mean they don’t know what they’re doing; SAR members spend hundreds of hours a year developing technical skills and training on varied terrain.
On the other end of the spectrum, climbers usually have some experience with rescues, whether it’s escaping a belay or accessing an injured second. Although the techniques seem similar, there are some important differences between the rescue skills climbers learn and employ and the skills needed for a technical rescue.
The biggest difference between climbing and SAR is the rigging. Compared to recreational climbing, technical rescue looks slow, cumbersome, and inanely redundant. Rather than a single rope, these rescues involve a mainline and a belay; multi-pitch anchors usually have three pieces of pro, while technical anchors have at least four; and rescuers get lowered, rather than rappelling. These differences are a reflection of the increased load size and the number of resources. In a technical rescue, you’re not moving one person—there’s a patient, a litter, and a rescuer to manage the litter. This creates a 150% increase in the weight of the load, hence the bulkier anchors and the redundancy of the systems.
While there are quite a bit of difference between SAR and recreational climbing, they also have their similarities. The first includes the gear. A common misconception about SAR is that it requires specialized hardware, but the basic gear is the same: harness, helmet, cordalettes, carabiners, and prusiks. Research by professional rescue organizations, like Rigging for Rescue, has shown that other pieces of climbing gear can be used safely in rescue situations. One example is using two plaquette devices (like ATCs) in place of the bulkier brake rack. Using climbing gear in place of rescue-specific hardware is growing in popularity because it makes the approaches easier; no one wants to carry unnecessarily heavy packs on a long hike to a rescue. This trend also makes SAR more accessible to climbers who aren’t interested in learning to use specialized gear that has no transference.
Another similarity is problem-solving. Neither climbing nor rescue are straightforward: whether it’s finding solid anchors in questionable terrain, rigging a system to fit a unique situation, or improvising with less-than optimal gear choices, there are always problems to solve. If this is a component of climbing that appeals to you, consider joining a SAR team. You may find yourself armed with new solutions to problems you’ve had climbing.
SAR teams benefit greatly from the participation of climbers, who bring numerous assets to technical teams: rope handling is second nature, they’re comfortable on rock, and they build solid anchors, but there are lots of reasons to not join a SAR team–training cuts into time for climbing, there’s a stigma attached to SAR membership, etc. It’s also easier to focus on the differences between climbing and technical rescue than the similarities, but this feeds the growing division between the two cultures. If there weren’t ample occasion for interactions between the two groups, than this would be less of a problem. Instead, climbers and SAR teams often find themselves involved in the same events because, if there’s a rescue of a climber, chances are good that the first person on the scene is also a climber. By recognizing the similarities between the two groups and the reasons for the differences, perhaps it’ll be easier to bridge the divide.