A few days after getting back from Denali I was due to leave for New Mexico to complete the summer semester of University of New Mexico’s Diploma in Mountain Medicine. I had completed the winter semester back in February. The trip was a two day drive to get to Albuquerque.
I spent the night in a grove of juniper just off of Highway 6 before heading down to Moab. Unable to pass through Moab without biking, I stopped at the Klondike Bluff TH and spent about an hour and a half on my mountain bike before heading on to Albuquerque, arriving around 6 that evening. I had a great time catching up with two of my roommates for the class, Hill and Patrick.
Wednesday morning the class met at a local restaurant for breakfast where we oriented and headed out south of town into the Cibola NF. We spent the day reviewing personal rope skills and starting on pick offs, the method for rescuing an injured climber who is hanging on a rope. The day was finished up with an injured climber scenario in which we had to lower a rescuer who rendered medical care and then set up a rescue haul system on twin tensioned lines to bring them up. Our fourth roommate, Ellen, joined us at the house and once again we all enjoyed hanging out again.
Thursday was up on a face on the north side of the Sandias. The day was spent with high angle rescue scenarios, litter tending, pike and pivots with another injured climber scenario. I played the role of victim at one point, getting lowered and raised in a Stokes litter. I discovered that it is a lot more fun to rescue than be rescued!
We had enough time to grab some dinner and switch out gear before heading out to Double Eagle Airport where we rendezvoused with Albuquerque Mountain Rescue Council and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department for some helicopter training. We started off with a didactic portion before gearing up and tying in to an open Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey”. Six of us at a time would lift off into the New Mexico desert under the night sky where we would work on egress/ingress skills, communication with inbound aircraft, and landing area construction. We also worked on pinnacle landings as well. Being tied in by my climbing harness into an open door Huey, feeling the wash of the rotors scented by the acrid smell of sagebrush, and the green interior glow of the cabin from night vision goggles while the unseen desert floor rushes by is not a memory I’m soon to forget.
Friday was working on skills to move a group through vertical terrain. We headed into the Sandias to climb a three pitch route, “Flake and Bake”. While not technically challenging, the route was a good primer on multi pitch transitions, anchors, tandem rappels, and just plain fun in a beautiful setting.
The class shifted from the Sandias into the desert outside of Cabezon Peak. We spent time on land navigation skills, utilizing UTM coordinates to communicate locations. Around lunch time the Bernalillo Sheriff’s Department came back out bringing two helicopters this time. They brought their Huey as well as their Astar, a much quicker and more maneuverable platform. The sheriff’s department generously spent around four hours or so instructing us on hoisting operations with both Stokes litters and screamer suits as well as short hauls (suspending rescuers or victims from beneath a helicopter for quick transport). In fact, each of us got a chance to be hoisted and to man a belay line during a hoist, as well as to experience the incredible sensation of being short hauled, flying over the desert suspended from our harness.
Saturday night we fixed kabobs that Patrick, Ellen, Hill, and I had worked on prepping the night before and then worked on ultrasound skills using a sonosite while watching lightning dance on the desert horizon.
Sunday morning was spent with a review of desert survival skills, shelter building, fire building, food and water acquisition, and more land navigation. We finished the afternoon using map and compass to bushwhack to local water sources by coordinates.
Monday was a much more relaxed day. The group who I had climbed with on Friday headed to a city park in Albuquerque to practice our pick offs. We enjoyed the solar eclipse as well as we made a spectacle of ourselves for the local residents as we hung from ropes looped around tree branches. The afternoon was free time, so while Patrick went for a run Hill and I headed into the foothills for an afternoon of mountain biking.
Tuesday the whole group headed up to Taos Ski Valley where we transitioned to low angle rescue on the slopes of the Sangre de Cristos. Despite a cold rain we ran low angle iterations before a patient scenario involving a search, medical care, and evacuation. Monsoonal thunderstorms caused us to turn in early for an appropriate lecture on lightning before retiring for the evening.
Wednesday morning we headed out onto some alpine cliffs for a multi victim climber rescue. We split into teams, one rappelled down to the victims with a lowering team on top and a receiving team on the bottom of the cliff to perform a low angle lower on a Stokes litter. The afternoon was spent on a timed test of our pick offs followed by an evening lecture by Jason Williams about a National Geographic expedition he had accompanied into Mexico’s Crystal Cave some years earlier. It was at this lecture that we found out there had been a call for volunteers for a missing person search in the Pecos Wilderness. We were to have performed our final practical exam, but instead retooled for an early morning trip down into the Pecos to participate in the search.
Early Thursday morning we headed down to the Serpent Lake TH on the north end of the Pecos, a place I had backpacked in to several times when I lived in Texas. At Incident Command we found out that our victim was in her early 60’s, experienced, but inadequately equipped. She had been out for three nights with rain at night and temperatures dipping into the upper 30’s and low 40’s. The search had been hampered by the rough terrain and large distances. We split into three teams as we combed different drainages in the area. Remarkably, the victim managed to walk out on her own that day, having survived highly adverse conditions in remarkable shape. It was on this high note that we concluded the summer semester of the DIMM course.
Jen had been in Texas visiting our daughter and met me in Santa Fe at the conclusion of the course. The two of us drove up to Park City to enjoy some mountain biking before heading back to Idaho to get the rest of the kids.
The DIMM course with University of New Mexico’s International Mountain Medical Center was a fantastic experience and I look forward to implementing the skill set that I learned locally as well as continuing to expand my knowledge base in alpine rescue.