Trapped in Thunder Canyon
by Luca Chiarabini
(San Diego, CA)
Brent is Finally Free!!!
THE CAVING TRIP:
On May 3rd a party of 7 went to Thunder Canyon cave: Ben and Brian (the newbies) and Heather, Steve, Brent, Jim and Luca who were all experienced cavers that had done this cave before.
When we got to the entrance we could hear the water flowing. The plan was to go to the middle entrance and then decide if we exited there or continued down to the most challenging part of the cave.
We went into the cave aprox 11am rappeling down 45ft into a pool. The water was flowing mildly cold. We navigated through the cave and reached the middle entrance about 1pm with no incidents. When I asked the team if they were ok proceeding down to the rest of the cave everyone said "Let's do it!" so down we went to the second rappel.
At the top of the 80ft rappel it took me 10-15 minutes to set up the anchor. I went down the rappel first. Steve came down after me because he was cold and wanted to move on quickly. But he got soaked at the bottom of the rappel and then had to wait. By the time all the team had descended Steve was shaking and acting a bit erratically, a sign of hypothermia. I started to worry about him but we were moving fast through the rest of the cave. We did two more rappels and we reached the crevasse traverse around 3pm with no incident.
This spot is called the "Terrible Traverse". It's a 9 inch crack in granite that you have to traverse sideways. It's so tight that once into it you can't even turn your head. They installed a wood board some years ago to prevent people sliding down and jaming themselves into the crevasse. It helps a lot, but it's still a challenging technical squeeze! I had done the traverse at least 10 times before and I had only a couple of minor incidents, everyone was always able to go through or go back. The crevasse is at the end of the cave, less than 5 minutes from the exit, so there's a high motivation to go through it rather than back.
Once at the crevasse we took off harnesses and packs and prepared to go through the crack. I went in first to assist people from the other side. Steve was now really cold and rushed into the crevasse head first without much thinking and disregarding my recommendations.
He got stuck half way and started to yell to be pulled out. It took 10 minutes of pulling and fiddling and he got exhausted but he got out. Heather came through next with no problems. Then we assisted Brian and Ben (the newbies) to go through and they made it through without problems.
At this point Steve was shaking and desperately asking to get out. Heather could not find the exit on her own so I opted to take them out myself. I did not expect Jim and Brent to have any problems because I knew they were experienced cavers and they had done this cave before. But Brent had done only half of the cave… little did I know this was the first time he was going to traverse the crevasse.
After taking Heather and Steve out I went back and found Brent stuck. He had taken off the wetsuit to fit better and at the second attempt could not make it through and got stuck. Then after a while his arm got tired of holding up and his body slipped down and jammed into the crevasse resting on the wooden board. His chest was pinched among two granite walls and there was no way for us to pull him out. I asked Jim to get into the crevasse behind Brent and raise Brent's chest with his knee, but it was impossible. After 30 minutes of failed attempts Brent was exhausted and going nowhere. Jim couldn't go through the crack because Brent was blocking it. He could have gone back through the cave and up the ropes. But Brent needed to have someone at each side of the crevasse to assist him, and since Brent lost his helmet light, if Jim did not stay with him he would have been in the dark. So Jim decided to stay with Brent, despite the risk of getting trapped in the cave with him.
It was 4pm and the situation was serious. Brent was stuck with no wetsuit between two cold walls in a chilly wind passage inside a 60F wet cave in a remote location. I knew the walls would drain his body heat more quickly than he could produce it and he would go into deep hypothermia.
We needed to raise his body to pull him out but we did not have the equipment… we needed help.
I took Heather and Steve back to the cave entrance and tried to use my cell phone but there was no cell signal. I gave my phone to Heather along with my car keys and asked her to run back to my car, connect my phone to the charger there and start calling for help. I told her to call 911 but also call the San Bernardino Cave Rescue Team members that live in San Diego: Tad, Mark, etc.
Then I took the rope out of the first rappel and headed down to the crevasse to try to use it on Brent. Ben and Brian (the newbies) had already covered Brent with wetsuits and jackets and we proceeded to cover him with everything we had: trash bags, space blanket, coveralls, etc. We had a rope but we could not find any viable anchors, so we
used it to put a wind barrier under the board to keep Brent warm while waiting for rescue.
Jim was the only person that Brent could see as he sank deeper into the crevice, and he was critical to provide Brent with water and energy bars.
It was now 6pm. Brian stayed at the crevasse and kept massaging Brent legs and feet, keeping him covered and making him move his limbs now and then.
Ben headed up the cliffs with a phone to look for signal and call for help while I stayed at the cave exit to mark the way for the rescue teams.
It was only around 8pm when a chopper finally spotted us, after 2 dramatic failed attempts to signal my location.
At 9pm a Sheriff Deputy appears over the ridge and climbs down to the cave entrance along with Ben. We inform the Deputy there are two men trapped and going hypothermic and that we need thermal patches to keep them warm while waiting for rescue. The deputy gives his jacket for Brent, but says that he's not going into the cave and that the paramedics will take at least 2 hours to arrive.
We ask about the Cave Rescue Team and the deputy tells us that the Cave Rescue team is in San Bernardino and that's too far. I insist with him that half the team lives in San Diego and that we really need them, and the deputy communicates this to the command post. We keep requesting to bring thermal patches and to deploy the cave team, but our requests are ignored. Then I hear from the deputy radio "Do we need EVAC tonight or can the victim camp out till tomorrow? ". The deputy answers with a vague "His condition is stable and he has no numbness" and I tell him "Sir, if we don't EVAC tonight they're dead!". At 11pm finally a couple of BorStar paramedics arrive. They brought a blanket and we quickly take one of them to see Brent. After assessing the situation the paramedic comments "This guy is toast!” He's losing it and the guy behind him is going to be next.". I hear him report to the deputy “This rescue is way beyond any training I have received, we need to call the Cave team!".
Depressed, I go see Brent and Jim, who have been trapped now for over 10h.
Ben and Brian (the newbies) have done an amazing job taking turns to keep the victims alive, talking to them to keep them awake and massaging Brent's legs and feet to avoid blood clogs. But even Ben and Brian are now loosing hope about the rescue. They tell me that the end is coming for the trapped guys and that they need a friend at their side, so I go to stay at the crevasse.
It looks like Brent and Jim are falling asleep, so I try to keep them awake. I tell them that our friend Tad and the Cave Rescue Team are on their way to rescue them… I ask them if they think he'll make it through the crack… they laugh… "He's too fat!" they say. And we keep talking while we wait endlessly for the Cave Rescue Team...
THE CAVALRY ARRIVES:
Finally, at 2am members of the Cave Rescue Team show up at the crevasse! We feel like the Cavalry has arrived!
They quickly cover the two victims with thermal patches and assess the situation. They decide that they need a jack to raise the board which Brent is lying on and they send a helicopter to get one. They try to have a skinny person go back through the crack to help from the other side, but it's too tight.
They ask me to lead 2 members down the other entrance so they can help from the other side. I take them up to the middle entrance and down through it. We reach the 80ft rappel and although exhausted I decide to go down with them. We rush through the rest of the cave and we finally get to the crevasse just in time to see Jim being rescued out.
I shout out asking for Brent, "I'm alive!" he answers. I never felt so happy to hear a manly voice in my life!
I was later told the Cave Team had used the jack to raise the wooden board under Brent to an angle where the crack was widest and then pulled on Brent like crazy till they got him out.
Jim was again critical assisting the rigging of the hoist because he was the only one at the other side of the crevasse at that moment.
THE HAPPY ENDING:
The Cave Rescue team really saved the day! It would have been nice to see them deployed earlier, and we're still waiting for those thermal patches we asked for 8 hours straight, but all is well what ends well… so thank you San Diego County Sheriff for commanding this successful rescue operation!
The two trapped guys ended up walking out of the cave on their own. They were then picked up by a helicopter, hanging from it at the end of a rope, and transported to a medical facility.
Luca, Ben and Brian watched a beautiful sunrise while helping Cave Rescue Team to haul out all their equipment all the way up the cliff.
We were brought to command post and when we reached my car at 7am we found Heather still there, she had been waiting for us all night long.
We finally took off our wetsuits after 20h of caving… This was a hell of a caving adventure with many dramatic moments… But Man! I loooooooove stories with happy endings!