I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville



Apr 19, 2015

Save lives in the Himalaya – Search And Rescue at NIM

The Outdoor Journal's web reporter enrolled in India's Nehru Institute of Mountaineering Search And Rescue (SAR) 21-day course, critical skills-building program for saving lives on high mountains.


Yogesh Kumar

This is what he learned.

Life and death are closely linked in the mountain world. Most experienced climbers have had a few close calls, and know that saving a life on a climb is of much greater importance than summiting a peak.

However, despite the popularity of high-altitude trekking, mountaineering and climbing in India, only one out of six government-run mountaineering institutes open to civilians in the country teaches critical high-altitude search and rescue skills.

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering’s (NIM) 21-day course is an exhaustive program that teaches rescue techniques on rock face, cliff face, snow field, post-avalanche, ice, crevasse as well as map reading, GPS handling and more outdoor survival skills.

However, getting into the course is only possible with an ‘A’ grade in the Basic and Advanced Mountaineering courses in any of the institutes. Luckily, our own mountain reporter Yogesh Kumar had his ‘A’, and spent the spring of 2015 learning to become a SAR expert. along with 29 others from 15 states across the country – including two women. Here is the first of his two-part report from NIM.

Day 1:

An exercise routine at 6:30 am kicks off the day that includes downhill running and uphill walking around the NIM campus’ hilly terrain. This sounds more pleasant than it is in reality. After a light breakfast, the NIM stores issue the students gear for the duration of the course: carabiners, ropes, slings, two ice-axes, a down jacket, mountaineering boots, rock climbing shoes and more, filling our packs to the brim and leaving little space for anything personal to be carried up into the Himalayas.

After lunch, a map-reading session was later put to test when trainees were asked to find the NIM institute’s coordinates. Confusion broke loose in the class and a few resorted to their smart phone’s GPS. Each rope team (a group of six students) got a map to revise at night as homework. A basic first-aid lecture at 6pm that evening covered the rudimentary knowledge of stabilizing and evacuating a victim from the danger zone, before the arrival of any professional medical help.

Day 2:

Two more trainees joined the group today, taking the total to 30. The day started with a steep uphill jaunt almost 450 vertical metres uphill from the institute to 1589m, with a fully-loaded pack at 6:30 am. The idea was to identify any issues in the pack and loading, that could otherwise create problems in the high mountains. Today’s classes started with revision of rope knots, radio communication procedures, and how to communicate using a satellite phone. This took up the morning, and a quick lunch later, we had a lecture on CPR (Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation) and general first-aid. The evening was a bit more relaxed with a film on the history of Himalayan mountaineering, and the origin of the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF).

NIM courses are fairly tightly regulated, run mostly by the Indian military, and there isn’t much free time outside the tight structure of the classes. But that evening, we got an outing to the Uttarkashi market for two hours, where the students binged on the basic junk food this holy town had on offer, knowing well that we would be at the mercy of the canteen chef once we left for the high Himalayas.

Day 3:

We woke up again bright and early to the infamous NIM instructors’ whistle. A 7-km trek with loaded rucksacks to the nearby Tekhla rock-climbing area roused weary muscles, though light stretching exercises along the way helped tide over the pain. After a quick breakfast at Tekhla, we tackled a couple of boulders and did a single-pitch climb. The idea was to get our hands acquainted with rock with the perspective to learn and practice rescue techniques on rock faces. The rescuer may have to carry out a one-man rescue, or a group rescue, perhaps rig a Tyrolean rescue, or use techniques where the expert has to jumar with the victim’s body tied on an improvised stretcher.

Day 4:

It was helicopter rescue day. The trainees were taken to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP) station in Matli,  15 kms from the institute, where an Indian Air Force (IAF) helicopter would come. We pounded the ITBP Commanding Officer (CO) with questions on the life of the para-military force personnel and he patiently helped as much as he could.

Two hours later, the distinctive sound of an incoming helicopter from indicated its arrival from the south-west. The IAF’s ‘Dhruv’ helicopter with three personnel demonstrated rescue techniques: winching up a casualty, their method of conducting high altitude rescues and their individual roles in it. The IAF instructors gave recent examples of rescues conducted during the 2013 floods in Uttarakhand. We returned to the institute and after lunch, sat through a class on how to use GPS device for rescues and how not to get ourselves lost in the wilderness!

The evening turned out to be a cinematic treat from the institute with the screening of Everest – a film about the Everest summit of Jamling Norgay, the son of mountaineering legend Tenzing Norgay.

Day 5:

The walk to Tekhla was not as exhausting as the first time; my body was getting used to the battering of the course. After breakfast, we launched ourselves into what turned out to be to a very tiring day involving numerous rescue techniques on rock faces. This included things like “piggy-back rescue”,  one-man assisted rescue, chimney rescue, unconscious victim rescue among others. The methods were not only applicable in the mountains, but usable anywhere during various emergencies. Back at the institute, there was a lecture on International distress audio and visual signals for victims in the wilderness.

The days’ slogging must have burnt hundreds of calories and my muscles begged for rest. Both these issues were addressed with dinner and an early sleep  to wake up early for yet another walk to the Tekhla rock area.

Day 6:

Our last walk to Tekhla rock area was under a light rain, and after lunch, we ran to cover our rucksacks lest they get drenched in the downpour. We practiced techniques like rescuing an immobile victim from a rock face, and cliff rescues. On returning to the institute, the training focused on tripod rescues (used for confined spaces). Any day when classes ended early meant a dash to the canteen for the momos (Tibetan steamed dumplings at the only private cafe in the NIM campus) and shopping for mementos at NIM’s souvenir store.

Day 7:

Our day’s lesson began with a mock drill of evacuating a casualty from high in the mountain. A situation was given to us along with the co-ordinates which we had to de-plot on the map to find the casualty and bring down to safety. The situation required us to assess the possible reason of the accident and carry first-aid and medicine accordingly. The Institute’s height above sea level is nearly 1200 mtrs and the mock casualty was at 2056 mtrs. The route involved a rigorous trek which turned more difficult due to the overnight rain. A trainee was the dummy victim and the task was to transport the injured person on an improvised stretcher and carried turn by turn by each trainee. There were few slips and falls in carrying the victim down a very narrow steep trail but teamwork got the job done.

Day 8:

In the morning, we left by bus for a 10 km drive to the banks of the Bhagirathi River, to work on rescues across river crossings. After establishing a base and learning to secure and carry the victim through various methods, we jumped into the chilled glacial water, also a part of our training, to get to the other side of the river, secured with a rope.

It was our last day at the institute itself. The next day we were off to the mountains, to learn advance search and rescue in snow and ice, including crevasse rescue, avalanche rescue and medical emergencies among other aspects of this critical training.

The second part of this blog will feature SAR techniques for high-altitude mountaineering!

Featured Image: Aditya Kulkarni

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Feb 20, 2019

The Death Zone

World champion free-diver Pierre Frolla sinks without air to depths unreachable by most scuba divers. One day he nearly didn't make it back to the surface.



Pierre Frolla

This story originally featured in print, in the fall 2015 issue of The Outdoor Journal

Deep down under the sea, so far away from where you live, I have been through the last seconds of my life.

In 2005 or 2006 (oddly I don’t remember), I had the worst accident of my freediving career. After being world champion in variable weight apnea with a dive at 123 metres, where I used a weighted sled for descent and returned to the surface by pulling myself along a line and using my fins, I was training to go deeper.

“No matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.”

In my sport, risks are quite important. Imagine you’re running a 400-m race. You start way too fast, and after a few hundred meters you’re out of breath and you just can’t go anymore. What do you do? You just stop, walk a bit and slowly catch your breath again. When you’re free diving, no matter what happens to you, you’re stuck underwater. There’s nowhere else to go.

The basis of my sport is quite simple. Going beyond 100 meters is mythic. Only a few hardcore specialists, including the “no limit” guys can go beyond that. Athletes use a weighted sled to dive down and an inflatable bag to return to the surface. This means that the free diver reduces his energy loss to the max, and that’s exactly why he is able to go so deep. The world record is held by Austrian Herbert Nitsch: 249.5 metres on June 6, 2012, in Santorini, Greece. The problem is that at those depths, water pressure is unbelievable! At 100 m, for example, the pressure is about 11 kg per square centimeter of your skin. Consequently, the volume of air inside the human body is pressured and reduced too. Take an empty but sealed plastic bottle: If you get to this kind of depth, it’ll greatly deform. That plastic bottle is a metaphor for your body. This also means that if water manages to seep somewhere inside you through your mouth or nose, it will do so with such force that it’ll destroy everything in its path. Drowning is inevitable, and no Apneist can be saved in such case, even if experienced help quickly intervenes.

At great depths, nitrogen becomes narcotic and leads to what is called nitrogen narcosis. This kind of intoxication from staying in great depths for too long is the same as when you drink too much. In other words, you lose total control of your body and mind, and you become unaware of potential dangers. Acting like that underwater can kill you, as the slightest mistake will have incredible consequences. In my personal training, I mix apnea in variable weight and other constant weight dives, where I dive only with the force of my arms and legs.

Today, my team and I decide to put the weight to 118 m. I know I can go down 115 m, but we want to push a little, as it’s part of training. Once down, I’ll have no choice but to go back on my own. I also know there will be a small parachute and an oxygen tank hooked to the sled, but neither will be for me. The bottle empties very slowly and inflates the balloon. Both serve only to return equipment back to the surface. It’s easier for us to work like that rather than starting a counterweight system.

If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water?

I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material.

I begin my descent. I pass my midterm diver. Very soon, it gets dark. I do not have glasses because they would serve me for nothing in this environment. So I stand, with my eyes closed. I’m relaxed and sinking slowly in the water like I’m used to. I feel the pressure now, but I also suddenly feel the sledge slowing. Then it stops, softly. Usually it stops dead. When I realize that something is wrong, I feel my legs sinking knee-deep in a soft, thick and viscous material. It is almost as if moving sands are closing in on me at 112 meters below the surface. It is actually a mixture of clay and silt, a mound a few meters higher than the sonar onboard the boat. It wasn’t identified even though it stood in the stack axis of the descent of my sledge. It’s nobody’s fault; sonar is not so precise.

In no time, I understand what’s happening to me. I’m stuck. I cannot get my feet outside the box, and I know there’s no exit door. I simply do not have enough oxygen to both work my way out of this with strength and go up as I have expected, swimming, with my hands and fins. If I want to live, I have only four seconds to start my ascent. But I am stopped, stunned and unable to move. I think about my team: What will they do when they go down to find me, lifeless and filled with water? I’m dying; that’s it. Today is the day. In 15 seconds, I will have consumed all the remaining air I was keeping for my ascent. I am also a few seconds away from being caught by nitrogen narcosis. I will go crazy right before dying.

“Did I become a vegetable?”

Suddenly, I have an idea. The parachute. Yes! I trigger the opening of the small air valve, which then rushes into the parachute. It’s working but it’s slow and long. So I wait, very still, with my eyes closed. I have no other choice. I try to relax. Everything at 112 m is multiplied by 10. One consumed oxygen molecule at the surface is equal to 10 or 12 molecules consumed at that kind of depth. One second is equivalent to 10 seconds. Time and life are both very cruel at the bottom of an ocean. I am now barely conscious. Finally, I remember feeling the chute tearing me away from my trap like a champagne cork. The ascent back to the surface, back to life, is way too long. When I reach the surface, I have strangely not entirely lost consciousness, but my body no longer responds to my brain. Did I become a vegetable? My team, frightened, retrieves and saves me. If I had not been so well-trained, I would not have survived this scary adventure. Instead of the planned 2 minutes and 40 seconds that I went down under water for, I stayed 3 minutes and 50 seconds. In the boat, I gradually recover and quickly regain all my abilities.

Pierre Frolla reascending to the surface, following the guideline with the sled and parachute attached to it.

A few years later, I’m on a movie set doing 60-m free diving over and over all day long, and an air bubble is created in my brain on one of these repetitive dives. But instead of being redirected into my lungs, it remains stuck in my head. When ascending, inevitably, this tiny compressed air bubble suddenly decompresses and its size gets multiplied by six. I immediately lose consciousness. Later, I wake up in a hyperbaric chamber. I stay there for eight and a half hours. But when I wake up in that box, I cannot feel my body. I’m unable to move. For hours, I do not know if I will stay quadriplegic or not. This awakening in the box is one of my worst-ever memories of free diving. I do not understand what is happening to me. It takes me 30 minutes to remember that I was free diving and to deduce that I certainly had a bad accident.

Apnea is an extreme sport. I’ll remember it always. Yesterday I dived to 113 meters. I’ll do it again tomorrow.

Photos by Franck Seguin

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