Self Rescue From Lechuguilla

Lessons Learned

by Peter Jones
Copyright © 1998 Peter Jones. Used with permission.

In 1993, two years after Emily Davis Mobley broke her leg in the Fubar Passage of Lechuguilla Cave, I had the misfortune to break my ankle another half a mile further into the cave.  The accident was not some heroic event such as sliding off the end of a too-short rope or a failure in caving gear.  It was simply a matter of slipping while walking down a slope and twisting around on my ankle until it snapped.  Once I acknowledged the severe pain and twisted my ankle back into its normal position, my first thought was "Oh no, not another Emily rescue!"  My concern was based entirely on all the bad effects Emily's rescue had had on the cave and the attendant media circus.  Her rescue cost close to a quarter of a million dollars and led to cries of "close the cave" although they were short lived.  I did not want that responsibility on my shoulders.  I also felt I did not want to ruin other peoples' caving trips into Lech as they were few and far between.  (In Emily's defense, I will be the first to say that she could not have managed her own self-rescue under the circumstances.  She had broken her knee and would have been unable to crawl as I did to get out of the cave.  To suggest that she did not play a major role in her own rescue would be wrong and entirely unfair.  I know because I was part of her stretcher carrying team.)

One of the first thoughts I had beyond those above was to send for help from the other teams in the cave.  Two other teams were in the same underground camp we were in and I knew they were coming along to where we were.  In any case, I knew that more help would be needed.  I also made sure that the person I dispatched to notify the team brought back a foam pad and sleeping bag in the event that I would be staying in the location of the accident for any extended period of time.  Lechuguilla is fortunately a very warm cave, but hypothermia can still be a problem in it.  Hours of sitting on a cold rock waiting for a potential rescue team would have led to problems if warmth could not be assured.  Food and water were also brought along.

I also felt that it was not yet advisable to send someone off to the surface to notify the Park of the accident.  It would take awhile to assess the entire situation and I knew that if the Park were notified, they would have set in motion the start of a rescue regardless of how well I was doing.

I was fortunate also in that several of the team members were EMTs.  They were able to assess the damage and decided to piece together a splint by cutting the outside flaps of a plastic survey notebook.  Using a combination of foam rubber padding, gauze, the notebook covers and a bunch of duct tape, they made a great splint that held my ankle relatively immobile for the duration.

My first attempts at walking or hobbling with arms over a friend's shoulder were quickly abandoned.  Despite my ankle not being in a great deal of pain while at rest, I could not put any load on it whatsoever.  Not only was the fibula broken, but the ligaments and tendons had all been severely stretched and displaced by the twisting action.  As such, I realized that the only way for me to get out of there was to start crawling and that's exactly what I did.

At least the early part of my crawl was over relatively soft floor and a very gentle slope.  It was not long before I got into areas where I had to crawl over breakdown and my strategy had to change.  Crawling wasn't always the best option under the circumstances and I found that doing a crab walk was a good alternative.  As long as I could keep my ankle from hitting an object or dragging on the ground, I was fine.  Of course the eight other party members carried my gear and aided me in any way that they could.  I obviously set the pace myself.

In certain places, I felt that I was very exposed to the possibility of falling and the potential for doing far worse damage to myself.  There were several places where the slope was too steep or exposed and at those places I requested a belay.  In a couple of places I had to rappel down some slopes and I made sure that I was under complete control at all times.

We had reached our normal underground campsite late in the afternoon, but I felt that I still had enough energy and the desire to make it to a better place to bivouac that was closer to the entrance.  Two people continued the trip with me while the others gathered up all my camp gear amongst themselves and ferried the necessary gear forward to my night's resting place.  The stuff I needed included a camp stove and freeze-dried dinner, plenty of water, a pee bottle, pain killers and the sleeping bag and foam pad.  One other person stayed the night with me to attend to any of my needs, but I spent a fairly restful night in any case.  The rest of the team agreed to meet up with us at the bottom of the climb ahead of me at 9 AM the following day.

One of the biggest obstacles for me was the various rope climbs I had to do to get out of the cave.  The climb up the Great White Way was a three hundred vertical foot climb up a slope of about 45 degrees.  In some parts it was a free climb, in others it was a sloped climb.  In several places there were no fixed ropes yet the exposure would have led to a major disaster if I had fallen.

Having only one good leg and foot to climb on, I had to re-rig my Mitchell System to accommodate my needs.  I was lucky to have a great amount of vertical experience and knowledge of various systems so that I was able to adapt to my new circumstances.  The hybrid system I created was to replace the lower foot ascender (the broken one) onto my seat harness, much like a Frog seat assembly.  I still kept my longer upper ascender in the same roller of my chest harness and also ran the climbing rope through the other roller for when I was climbing free, helping to keep myself upright.  When the climb switched over to a sloped one, I was able to remove the rope from the roller and also remove the upper ascender and attach a cow's tail to it.  In this manner, I could use the knee of my broken ankle side as a support and use the good foot for actually climbing on.  Later on when I was on the long free climbs of Boulder Falls (150') and the entrance drop (70'), I was able to keep myself upright using the double rollers of the Mitchell System chest box.  In places where I had to climb up exposed slopes with no fixed rope, I of course used a belay.

Some of the worst pain I experienced on the crawl out was not in my ankle but rather in my knees.  Even though I had knee pads on, the fact that I couldn't take a break from crawling led to a great deal of discomfort.  The worst problem was in the abrasion of the front of my knees themselves.  The constant rubbing of abrasive nylon actually wore some holes in my knees and made them bleed a bit.  At times I felt I had to crab walk to give my knees a break from wear and tear.  The binding and pinching on the backside of my knees from the elastic in them also was very uncomfortable for me.

As we neared the entrance of the cave with about four hours still ahead, I sent two cavers on ahead to notify the Park of my accident.  Without telling them to withhold any information, I did ask them to downplay the seriousness of the accident so as not to set off a major undertaking on their part.  They were obviously very concerned about my safety, but only two Park employees were dispatched with a rolling stretcher to my aid.  Several other cavers who were on the surface came along as well.  By the time they showed up at the cave entrance, I had managed to make it to the surface under my own power.  From there I gladly relinquished my crawling merit badge and got into the stretcher when we reached it.  In reality, the crawling on the surface would have been far worse than underground as the rocks were sharper, there were cactus and other nasties all about and maybe even a snake or scorpion.  Besides, by this time I'd had enough!

A few observations and suggestions:  Self-rescue may seem like a noble thing, but it is more so to those who have not done it than it is in reality when you've done it yourself.  Do it only if you feel that you are capable of doing so.  Do NOT undertake it if you feel incapable of doing so.  No one will think less of you if you have to be rescued by other helping hands.  I was very fortunate in that the injury I had was not a particularly painful one and I was still able to get by under my own power.  Had I not been, I would have gladly asked for and probably been willingly given the rescue I would have needed.  Do only what you feel safe doing since a further mishap could compound your troubles many fold.

I believe my knees might have suffered less if I had placed several strips of duct tape on them at the start of my crawl out.  This would have placed a layer of abrasion resistant material between my skin and the nylon of the pads.  It may have felt weird to place a piece of tape on them at first, but I believe if I had done so that I would have suffered less.  Bringing a few yards of duct tape along in your caving pack should be part of your standard equipment like spare batteries and bulbs.

Keep yourself warm and rest frequently during your self-rescue.  Drink plenty of liquids and eat regularly.  It may not seem like it, but you are burning up calories at a fairly high rate.  Always set the pace and don't feel guilty in any way if you are slower than the rest of the team.  What would you expect?  Let the others worry about the rest of the gear you were carrying.  Divided amongst a group, the burden is usually not that much.  Besides, it will help slow them down to your pace with the added weight!

If it gets to be too much, ask for help, even if it means abandoning the self-rescue and being carried out by others.  Everyone would agree that it is far worse for you to go beyond your limits and do potentially more harm to yourself than to accept a helping hand that is offered.