Weeks ago, Glenn Segrest was descending into a 750-foot Georgia cave with transfusion supplies, on his way to help save the life of a fallen caver.
“It was really the whole team that did it,” he said, “There were paramedics, a surgeon and a bunch of us cavers.”
For the unaware, caving is the sport of climbing into very deep caves with ropes and head lamps, then crawling back out again. Thousands practice the sport across the country. Most would say it’s not a dangerous pastime, but when things go wrong, rescues are difficult.
That Memorial Day in Georgia, Segrest and roughly 80 others got their man out in just 23 hours. The fallen caver had a fractured skull and left femur, but lived.
Tuesday afternoon, Segrest ate lunch with about a dozen other cavers in a mosquito-rich section of Schoharie County forest. They were just one of a few groups taking part in the National Cave Rescue Commission’s annual seminar, based at Schoharie Central School. Roughly 70 students and instructors from all over the country met up on July 6, and for the next seven days, each one is working from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., developing the skills Segrest used on Memorial Day.
“Without the training, without working as a team, we wouldn’t have gotten him out,” he said.
The dozen cavers were the most experienced at the seminar, practicing complicated rope rescues. They milled around a funnel-like hole in the ground, the mouth of a sinkhole locally known as Cave Disappointment.
Pennsylvania caver Terrence Lovell climbed a hefty tree, what he called a “bomb-proof anchor,” as did another student on the other side of the hole. Then he slid down the falling slope on one line, tossing another across.
The tackle, explained resident instructor Alan Staton, would be used in the field to lift stretcher-strapped individuals gently from the pit.
“We just want to float them out,” he said.
He led a unique group. Staton pointed out each member. Lovell is an electrical engineer. Kurt Waldron, who practiced leading Tuesday’s rope maneuver, is an aerospace engineer, advising Navy pilots in missile avoidance techniques. A few are physicians.
“And I’m a welder,” Staton said with a laugh. “There are all types, but you’ll never find a lazy caver.”
Most of the students were already very experienced. Waldron routinely goes underground, spending up to two days at a time navigating miles of unexplored cave systems. He’s from Maryland, but drives elsewhere for better caves.
“For $100 in food and gas, I can see places no other human has ever seen,” he said. “I know what Armstrong must have felt like. I understand Columbus.”
Even so, they all seemed to be learning from the drill.
“You lose it if you don’t practice,” said Emily Davis, who coordinated the climb sites for the seminar.
She said the event is held in a different place each year, from Colorado through the South and sometimes in Schoharie.
“We have a lot of good caves here,” she said, “They’ve held it here four times since the first one in 1979.”
Davis also runs the Albany Schoharie Cave Rescue Team, a group of about 50 experienced cavers who volunteer their time to get others out of trouble.
Since she joined the National Cave Rescue Commission in the late 1980s, she’s been part of 24 rescues in the area.
“A lot of them are just people that didn’t bring enough light and got lost in the dark,” she said. “Sometimes, if they don’t leave a note, they can be in there for days.”
Other times, it’s more serious. A dozen years ago, she helped rescue a young man with his leg stuck 150 feet underground. It took a full weekend and a rock drill to get him out.
In such circumstances, training comes in handy.
Kicking back between practice scenarios, the cavers tossed around stories of gear lost by airlines and deep earth rescues.
“It’s much harder,” said Joe Anderson, a Colorado firefighter with a linebacker’s shoulders. “In a fire, you’re always between five and 30 feet from the outside. Just getting to a person in a cave can take all day.”
Anderson oversees training for 10 fire departments in his home state. The cave training, he said, helps with mine rescues and eases jurisdiction coordination between his team and volunteer rescue cavers.
That, according to Davis, is one of the seminar’s main goals. Her local team works extensively with Albany County emergency response officials and Schoharie County Sheriff Tony Desmond.
Law enforcement and firefighters might have trauma experience and jurisdiction, but cavers know how to get to other cavers. Cooperation is necessary.