Weekend at the Volcano: A Custom Course Focusing on High Angle Rigging Techniques

Written By: Jason Ilowite

This past weekend, Rigging Lab Academy was privileged to spend some time in the beautiful Washington State country with the Volcano Rescue Team; an MRA team responsible for rescues on Mt. Saint Helens. A few months ago the team reached out to RLA inquiring about our ability to deliver a three day course that was specific to their needs. They didn’t want a long drawn out seven day course, they didn’t want to be confined to someone else’s curriculum, and they wanted as many of their experienced team members to be able to attend as possible. For many training groups this simply was not possible. RLA gladly welcomed the opportunity to craft a class that followed their specific requests as closely as possible. To say we accomplished a lot is an understatement. Through beautiful rigging venues, and great weather this motivated group of experienced mountain rescuers ran through several high angle evolutions with a focus on high directional rigging, and horizontal rigging. Here is a snapshot in to our busy event.

Easing in to AHDs

Recently, Volcano Rescue Team had added an artificial high directional to their cache of equipment in the form on an Arizona Vortex. Like any progressive team they immediately sought training in the basic essentials of use for the vortex. After a bit of time in the classroom and conducting demonstrations, the first evolutions in the field would be steep angle based. This accomplished a few things; it allowed the vortex to be set up in its most basic form and it rehearsed what is likely every team’s most common rescues…Steep angle evacuations. The team practiced rigging the basket for a full litter team and exercising a two-tension rope system for lowering and hauling.


Starting to move up

The second day of training jumped right in to high angle evolutions at a fantastic site overlooking a waterfall. One of the factors that made this course successful was attributed to the fact that everyone in attendance had high angle experience and training. The team was simply looking for training to implement their new equipment and creative new tactics to solve common rescues they face. The Vortex was rigged as a sideways A-frame for the day and the team learned several different methods for guying schematics. Once again, a two-tension rope system was utilized for all operations. Throughout the day different offset operations were conducted, with the highlight being a large two rope offset from one side of the water fall, to the other. Allowing the team to learn and operate systems that would significantly aid in negotiating difficult edges, hard terrain, and raging rivers proved to be vital training for their future missions.

Getting Across the Canyon

The final day brought us to a very popular spot called Lava Canyon, affectionately named after the way the canyon was formed. This is a very popular tourist destination at Mt. Saint Helens as it offers exceptional views, beautiful waterfalls, and an easily accessible trail. All of those factors however seem to produce a good bit of rescue missions for the team. I watched in amazement as people left the trail, often steep and unsettled in spots to approach the edge of the canyons in search of the perfect waterfall “selfie”. It was clear to me that an effective way to mitigate a rescue here would be beneficial. In the past, the team had used highlines and other methods to navigate the canyon. A major factor to contend with is the fast-moving water below. Because of the narrow slot canyon nature of the environment, we elected to teach and operate a deflection or dynamic directional offset. It simply employs a pulley system on one side of the canyon that pulls the two tensioned ropes from the other side where ever they need to go. The system is much lower tension than a high line and requires much less time, and special knowledge to rig. The team was able to simulate moving the rescuer over the middle of the canyon with the dynamic directional, lowering the rescuer to right above the water in the event a rescue was needed for someone who washed up on a rock. The operation was extremely successful and became a viable option for the team to employ on their next mission at Lava Canyon.

Critical Thinking

One of the concepts RLA wanted to stress in the training was the vital ability to have a team full of “thinkers”. Too often there are teams and individuals who do what they do simply because someone told them to. We encouraged the team to critically analyze every system and come up with decisions not necessarily based on what they’ve heard in the past but rather what their logic told them. A perfect example would be putting both ropes through a double-sheeve pulley at the head of the high directional. There are many who would scoff at this practice for a variety of reasons. This team was able to move through a logical thought process saying things such as “both ropes are under tension and sharing the load, we are comfortable with calling our guyed high directional bomb proof and not worried about a failure of the Vortex, therefore we are comfortable running both ropes through a double pulley even though it can be considered a single point of failure.” Agree or disagree, this is what makes good technical rescuers. An entire team who can work through a decision like that and have good logic behind whatever they go with. This is especially true for a mountain rescue team who is always interested in saving a pulley or carabineer for another task.

Staying Focused

With the addition of a Vortex, and the desire to learn some offsets, there were a ton of options for this training. If we allowed it to, the training could have easily spanned over two weeks maybe more. There were a few important factors that kept this training pointed, focused and effective. As much as I love to go crazy with tools like the Vortex spending hours rigging elaborate operations, I question the practicality. By limiting the high directional instruction to the “meat and potatoes”, the team was able to walk away with a variety of fast, efficient, and practical options that would not be difficult to teach to the rest of their team and would be easily remembered. I believe there is something to be said for those who train well above what would be needed at a real rescue, but there is a line that must be toed in training between over the top rigging, and practicing like how we would play on a true rescue. The team was also able to get some really neat offset operations done because of the foundational knowledge of rope systems they already possessed. Every participant had a solid understanding of anchoring, lowering, and raising prior to the class. This is crucial in the ability to progress leaps and bounds through offsets over the course of the weekend. All in all, it was a tremendous training event shared amongst some great people in a perfect environment. If you’re reading this and thinking your team would benefit from similar training, I would encourage you to contact RLA!

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Peace on your days,


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