A group of 16 students from the Adventure Tourism Leadership and Safety Academy (ATLAS) program at L.V. Rogers recently witnessed a horrible climbing accident near Penticton that put everything they’d learned to the test.
It was mid-afternoon on June 5 at a popular mountaineering area called Skaha Bluffs where the students witnessed a climber — not part of their group — fall about 20 metres to the rocky ground. ATLAS student Kirsten Douglas was nearby when the accident happened.
“I was on the wall about two feet away from him, as soon as he started falling he was screaming,” she said. “I knew what was happing but I couldn’t tell who it was. I thought, like most of us did that it was one of us.”
Teacher Graeme Marshall said, “It was pretty serious trauma to see this and then to step up… First and foremost they were calm, cool and collected.”
Teaching the students about safety and responding to emergencies is a core component of ATLAS. It is a “career prep” program for LVR students who are interested in a future in adventure recreation. It is hands-on instructed almost exclusively outdoors through all seasons and advanced wilderness first aid along with ground search and rescue are among what’s taught. The program is in its seventh year and this is the seventh time the class has visited Skaha Bluffs.
The cause of the accident wasn’t equipment failure, rather poor communication between the climber and the balayer. When he fell, the rope, borrowed from the ATLAS group, entangled him and so he had to be cut down.
The LVR crew quickly stepped in to offer first aid and arrange evacuation of the fallen climber. Marshall said the group was an asset to the rescue. While some students helped with first aid, others went to retrieve a structure to use as a spine board. Douglas was in that group.
“I remember leaving the group, still in a state of confusion and shock, to retrieve the spinal board and arriving back less than ten minutes later to the same group but now calm, professional, focused,” she said. “I remember being in awe of everyone’s ability to cope with their emotions, to focus on the task at hand while simultaneously supporting everyone around them whether it be with a few words of wisdom, a reminder to keep drinking water or a big hug.”
Students also worked to clear a helicopter landing area using a folding saw among their gear as others stayed composed on the line with 911. When BC Ambulance service arrived, students helped move the fallen climber onto the spine board and carry him to the helicopter.
“We also had students who supported other students which was really great,” Marshall said. “This far into the game with all the training and trips we’ve done, I had 16 resourceful people I could rely on. That was just fantastic.”
While the students handled the experience maturely, it did shake them up. The accident happened just a few days before the all-Grade 12 class came back to join other students in celebrating their graduation.
“They came back from this experience and stepped right into grad and their nice suits and beautiful dresses and put their best foot forward,” said Marshall. “I am just really proud of these kids. I feel they were just really remarkable.”
Marshall feels awful the students had to witness such a distressing event but said in the end, their abilities helped ease the suffering of the victim. Students also learned the value of using professional gear in top condition along with proper communication — something they’re taught in ATLAS because it minimizes risk.
“You would never wish this upon anyone, but this is also one of those great life lessons. They are never going to forget what they saw,” he said. “And it sends the message home that this is why we have safety protocols and there’s a reason we prepare for things like this.”
Douglas said that what she and her classmates learned kicked in at just the right time during this emergency. “Our amazing teachers that have taught us so thoroughly, our close knit team where we are all equally respected and our diligence in preparing for anything were the three main factors in the successful outcome of this incredible rescue.”
Penticton and Area Search and Rescue were initially dispatched to the scene but then were called off. A helicopter took the victim to Kelowna General Hospital.
The condition of the fallen climber has not been made public.