Safety First


Laurel Rand-Lewis, Harvard-Westlake School

Wet, tired, and covered in mud, the whiteness of wind-blown rain obscuring my vision, I finally struggle up and over the ridge and break from the snow onto dark, solid rock. After nearly twelve hours of hiking, I’ve finally made it and finally understand what the staff was saying about the weather up here. Welcome to Cloud 17.

The next day, the weather breaks. It’s perfectly sunny as the remaining trail parties make their ascent, greeted by the weary yet somehow cheerful faces of those who ascended the day before. As soon as the whole group has coalesced, we are thrown headfirst into the meat of the week at Camp 17: safety. Safety training comes at us from all directions- lectures, practice on the Lemon Creek, and discussions over meals back at camp. Rain or shine, safety is our primary focus.

 We learn knots, pulleys, and anchors along with self-arrest and crevasse rescue. The theory morphs into muscle memory as we build 2:1 and 3:1 pulleys over and over and over again. We practice skiing on ropes, run through scenarios in real time and even compete against each other in one on one anchor-building contests to get our speed up. Safety leaders Ibai and Adam call it “character building.”

Students practice making pulleys and anchors on the Lemon Creek Glacier. Photo by Allie Strel.

Students practice making pulleys and anchors on the Lemon Creek Glacier. Photo by Allie Strel.

While practicing on a slope can help simulate a crevasse rescue, there’s nothing like someone falling over the edge of something to really put the pressure on your skills. A quick ski trip further down the Lemon Creek from camp brought us to our test site for the day: The Moat, which is an area of snow that has melted away from the nearby rock and left an overhang which is perfect for our purposes. Roped up into teams of three and four, we take turns falling over the ridge and into the pit, hoping that our team members will arrest our falls and not leave us there to freeze. 

Students hang into The Moat, waiting for their rope team members to pull them out. Photo by Isabel Suhr.

Students hang into The Moat, waiting for their rope team members to pull them out. Photo by Isabel Suhr.

To say that any confidence I had in my rescue skills flew out the window when we got there would not be an understatement, especially when my rope team was picked to be the example group. My position at the center of the rope would be to arrest the fall of the frontward person and hold their weight while the leader, positioned behind me, would build anchors onto which the load would be transferred. I was terrified. How could I, the smallest member of our rope team, be expected to stop the acceleration of my fallen companion and hold them steady for however long it took our leader to build a strong anchor?

 As everyone gathered around to have a good look at our setup, I grew increasingly worried. What if my skis slipped and I ended up dropping Allie into the pit, only to follow her in myself? What would Adrian do if I couldn’t self-arrest in time and ended up falling in too, leaving him as the sole member of our team outside the Moat? My anxious thoughts were stopped abruptly by the Field Staff announcing that we would start the simulation. The beginning went without a hitch- Allie skied straight into the Moat and I managed to stop her fall. My skis were not, however, in the best position, and I could feel all of her weight tugging at my harness. Ignoring Adrian’s frantic anchor building, I focused on keeping my center of balance from being pulled forward. After a minute or two of waiting, I felt a tug on the rope which nearly pulled me off balance. I could hear slight giggling from the surrounding crowd, but I thought nothing of it. The tug was followed in quick succession by more, forcing me to really pull my weight back and reposition myself, all while staying strong enough to not slip. When would Adrian be done with those anchors?

A few minutes and more tugs later, Adrian clipped the load rope into the anchors and I was free. Any anxiety I had about the situation melted away. I had done it! I had kept Allie from falling (further than she initially had, at least) and now all that was left was to help Adrian pull her up. Having my responsibilities lifted off my shoulders allowed me to see the humor in the situation- the Moat was only ten, fifteen feet at maximum, nothing that could really hurt someone if they fell all the way down. Allie was perched only a few feet from the top of it, close enough that Adrian threw her down a granola bar to eat while she was waiting (he missed her horribly). The bar found a new home at the base of the rocks). Once we pulled her out, Allie confided that the tugs I was feeling were her hauling on the rope from where she was positioned, trying to see if I would hold. I understood the laughter now- they must have seen her tugging at the rope and heard my startled yelp after the first jolt. The entire exercise was a success, and I felt like I had really learned something from it. I learned that no matter how terrified you may be by something, keeping a level head and approaching it piece by piece will allow you to not only accomplish your task, but also maybe find something entertaining from it.