The quiet achievers

By Flip Byrnes 11 February 2015
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Sometimes outdoor adventures don’t go to plan. That’s when you need to call on The A-Team.

Three friends standing on a rock, inside Thunder Canyon, unaware they’d be spending the night together, nursing one with a broken vertebrae and two broken ribs. It’s experiences like this that create the strongest bonds between us, and provide memories and stories to last a lifetime. Risk and reward, it’s a fine balance #friends #life #adventure.

Steve, the type who is born to climb, sent me this photo recently, along with what it means to him. The photo captures a moment, a mood in time. A spectacular day in the Blue Mountains canyons, green light filtering through sandstone rocks, small fingers of rays a salutation from land above. All was good, exploring the labyrinth of gorges that snake through gully floors. It’s otherworldly in there – and not for the faint hearted. There are technical abseils, frigid pools and slick boulders scattered as though flung from an angry giants’ hand.

In our quartet, I happily admit to being the weakest link, helmet akimbo, landing on my fellow climbers after rock sliding, more wobbly donkey than moves like Jagger. But no fear, as I’m surrounded by pros. Steve has climbed the Blue Mountains for years, Till just summited an 8000m Himalayan peak, and Kat is a supreme climbing and ski guiding machine. All marvelling at the delights Mother Nature has laid out for us at every canyon bend.

An unpleasant twist

But Mother Nature is a tempestuous woman. One moment offering waterfalls, glowworms and Caribbean coloured pools. The next, as unyielding and unfeeling as stone. For a brief but crucial moment, her relationship with Kat falls apart. Near Thunder Gorge’s exit, Kat abseils. It should be easy, but the rope swings at an odd angle, tossing her under an overhang.

The impact is audible – the thud of flesh meeting rock. She reappears in the pool below, gasping in agony, barely able to move. With no phone or satellite reception for the emergency beacon on the ravine floor, Steve acts quickly, leaving us the down jacket and emergency kit before hiking upwards to call for help.

There’s only one thing to do. Talk. And despite the circumstances we almost have fun on our small rock, Kat and I. Kat is what you could call a captive audience, desperate to be entertained. I’m desperate to keep her conscious. If this is Kat at her worst, it’s still more spirited and positive than many people’s best. For three hours she never complains, despite shivering with spasms of pain. But amidst chat of trash TV, skiing and boys, we’re both waiting for one thing. Help.

Suddenly, a branch like a javelin ricochets down the canyon and splits on a nearby rock. Wind wreaks havoc, helicopter rotor blades roar. Incoming! Kat and I exchange glances with saucer-wide eyes. It’s Vietnam! With Kat immobilized. I yell the surreal scene in her ear. “There’s a helicopter. A person is being winched down. They have antennas on their helmet. This could be an alien invasion, but let’s hope it’s a paramedic.”

And voila! Paula, the only female Special Casualty Access (SCAT) paramedic in Australia appears. A Superwoman-Ninja-Princess of Power all rolled into one, a member of an elite squad. And she’s carrying a backpack of drugs. Aaron joins her, and the silence is replaced with the squawk of radios, injecting of drugs and rapid-fire questions. The action is fast and furious as a stretcher is lowered, reminding me of the A-Team opening credits. “If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” Hired.

Further problems

But Mother Nature is at it again – she’s turning out the lights. Daylight is fading as the helicopter refuels and tries desperately again and again to move into position. Paula and Aaron work in quick choreographed partnership like Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire but finally the call is made – a night winch is too dangerous. No one will be leaving tonight.

And so comes the worst moment thus far. Paula breaks the news to Kat. For the first time, she cries. Kat will spend a total of 18 hours in the ravine. Watching from afar, in the circle of Paula’s headlamp, the two are frozen like Michelangelo’s Pieta. There’s a sense of intimacy in the tableau, and watching feels voyeuristic. Snatches of Paula’s words echo in the tomblike quiet created by the helicopter’s absence: “I’ll be with you all night… the chopper will be back at first light, and again, I’ll be with you all night.”

It isn’t only Paula and Aaron who’ll be with us. There’s nothing that lifts one’s spirits like seeing four men approaching in underpants, helmets and headlamps. Aaron has fully established Hotel Canyon with roaring campfire and hot tea when the hoots and hollers herald a foot team of two paramedics and two police rescue officers swimming through the nearby icy pool. Despite the odd setting and rather loose dress code, they courteously lean down, dripping, and offer their hands. “Hi, I’m Murray. Terry. Doug. Chris.”

Things are looking okay. We have glowworms. Tea. Six rescuers. A fire. Morphine. “If I wasn’t in pain, this could be really fun,” Kat slurs from her stretcher. A crack squad of MacGyvers has joined the A-Team. Murray saws a plastic bottle in half for two teacups. Terry quickly becomes au fait with Kat’s condition.

Hardhat angles

Sitting against the wall, there’s time to think. I listen to the campfire banter as the arrivals dry and dress fireside. Who are these people? I’m wearing six layers over and under my wetsuit. Surely they’re cold – it’s freezing. Aaron offers around food like a Business Class hostie. Noodles? Tea? Some nibblies? Lying to rest, something soft lands on me – a tarp. It’s done gently, wordlessly. We’re being held in the soft palms of hardhat angels.

Flames turn to embers. I’m vaguely cognoscente of Paula’s rustling movements tending to Kat, of stretching my legs intermittently on a rock (which unfortunately is Aarons’ head). Then, as the glimpse of sky above turns from inky black to pre-dawn slate, there’s the unmistakable sound of the helicopter.

Camp is packed in minutes – the A-Team/MacGyver well oiled machine is awake and at work. Kat’s stretcher is manoeuvered mid-canyon. The winch descends and Kat and Paula are lifted skywards. The helicopter hover is technical and risky, the stretcher dodging a falling tree before invisible hands reach out and draw them to safety.

The rest of us are winched out shortly after. Landing in Katoomba, we’re stunned by the work behind the rescue. Ambulances and police cars wait. We can finally thank the helicopter crew: Hugh, Brendan, Luke, Brad and Sgt Ian Colless of Blue Mountains Police Rescue. And Steve; after phoning in the alarm he was instructed to continue hiking out and has been waiting anxiously by the helipad all night. The band is back together.

In fact, this whole experience has me in awe of my mates. Of Kat’s irrepressible humour, bravery and ability to make friends even when broken on a canyon floor. Of Steve’s quick reactions, warmth and the gentle way he cared for Kat post accident. Of Till’s steadfast calmness. As Steve said, these experiences create bonds for life.

Is our love of the great outdoors dented? No. Is that foolish? With any undertaking, preparation, planning and experience are the keys to success. Even then, even if prepared, things go wrong.

It’s human to fail, but so is bouncing back, determination not to be a spectator, but continue to be engaged, be involved, to undertake challenges, to never stop exploring. The professionalism of the rescue was inspiring. Even in a dark night, light can be found in the perseverance and kindness of strangers.

Those strangers are the supreme quiet achievers to whom all praise is due. Not just our team, but all paramedics, police members, helicopter pilots and ambulance drivers… those who don’t work to a clock, have someone else tuck their kids in, break dinner plans, and then bring with them no resentment but good spirits, incredible skills and assistance.

When experience becomes irrelevant, when Mother Nature and Lady Luck run off into the distance together and you have a problem no one else can help with, you may find only the ones who can. The A-Team.