The Rope Litter

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Illustration by Chris Philpot

It’s a picture-perfect October day of climbing with a cool breeze and just enough sun filtering through the changing leaves to keep you warm while belaying. Perfect, that is, until your climbing partner takes a looping whipper that ends with a grunt, a snap, and a wail. You lower her to the deck and find her lower leg is obviously broken. Now what? The walk up the trail was easy, but a return trip is not happening on that leg. Here’s how you can create a litter out of just a climbing rope to evacuate an ailing partner.

Make sure your partner has no immediate life-threatening injuries; if you suspect spinal or head injuries, you may not want to move the patient. Splint any fracture against further damage.

(A) Coil your rope in a singlestrand butterfly or backpack coil with large loops (usually the full wingspan of the carrier or a tad longer). Do a tight finishing wrap several times around the center of the coils, tucking the tail back through these wraps to tighten and secure everything. Hint: To get the coils neat—and therefore more comfortable— place two rocks at the desired length and start coiling around them.

A 60-meter rope is the minimum needed to disperse the load evenly, but you can get by with a shorter rope in a pinch.

(B) The carrier should slip his arms through each set of loops so one end of the coil is wrapped around each shoulder, with the center knot sitting right around the middle of his butt.

Pad the coils around the shoulders for comfort with whatever clothing is available.

Use a sling and carabiner to secure the two sets of coils at your chest. Run the sling around each set of coils and clip the ends with the biner. This acts like the chest strap of a pack, taking pressure off the rescuer’s shoulders, and keeps the injured climber more secure.

(C) Hoist the injured climber carefully up on a rock or tree so she’s at a level where she can easily slide her legs through both sets of coils (front and back). The legs go to each side of the carrier, with the patient’s inner thighs directly against the carrier’s back, as if riding piggyback.

In cold conditions, the injured climber needs to be well insulated, as she will not be active during the evacuation.

You can also carry one patient with a single rope and two rescuers; this is called the two-person split-coil seat carry. Coil the same large loops in your rope (coil size depends on carriers’ heights); the finishing wrap in the middle is the patient’s “seat.” Have the carriers stand side-by-side with each set of coils slung over the outside shoulder and head of each person, leaving the “seat” hanging between them. The patient sits in the middle of the rope while the rescuers extend their inside arms and grasp each other’s elbows to form a seat back for the patient. Pad the coils for comfort with whatever is available.

Bryan Simon, a former Army Ranger, is a wilderness medicine instructor, Chair of the Appalachian Center for Wilderness Medicine, and serves on the membership committee of the Wilderness Medical Society.

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