Climbing Versus Technical Rescue

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.

sarWhile 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.