Rescue at Cradle

Graeme Brown, State Emergency Service
NW Search and Rescue Team Leader

As with most jobs you have easy days and some that are more taxing. Being a builder, 2 October 2012 was one of those a bit more taxing, spending the day up and down a ladder all day before knocking off around 6 pm. It was also a difficult day for some walkers who were starting a guided walk on the Overland Track (OLT) into Waterfall Valley. All but one made it there.

A welcome sight after a long night
Cynthia Schaap

Around 7.15 pm I received a call asking for the SES NW Search and Rescue (SAR) team to assist the Police SAR with a stretcher carry on the Cradle Plateau. A busy few hours later and a team of eight members arrived at Dove Lake at 10.45 pm to meet the Police team. The low cloud and windy conditions meant the rescue helicopter could not be used.

We set off at 11 pm with enough gear to camp out if necessary but planning to go in and out that night. A team of two police and a paramedic had left about an hour before us, so our job was to get in as quickly as we could, bringing the stretcher and wheel that sits under it, and to assist with the carry out.

The shortest way was straight up Marions Lookout, so with everyone lifting, pushing or towing we got up in good time: a surge of adrenalin made the job that much easier. From Marions we went south past Cradle and towards the junction of the Lake Rodway Track where at about 2 am we met the paramedic and two police who had gone ahead. They have our patient, a middle aged women from Hobart, wrapped in a sleeping bag and bivvy bag but she’s not in a good way after suffering from a heart attack late in the afternoon.

Our options are to go to Waterfall Valley and hope that the chopper can get in the next day, but with the heavy mist and no guarantee of the weather lifting it’s decided that we need to head for Dove Lake. We turned north, back on the OLT. The track is narrow - about the width of the stretcher - and with three on a rope at the front to tow the stretcher up the hills, 6-7 around the stretcher, and two on a rope at the back, teamwork is essential to avoid the worst of the obstacles.

It was tough going but we pushed on to Kitchen Hut to get our patient out of the mist and wind that has enveloped the mountain. We arrived around 4 am and our paramedic worked hard to get a drip into the patient to administer pain relief, with no success. Our patient was very cold and feeling very unwell so heat packs and an extra down jacket were used to warm her up.

Descent from Marions Lookout, 6.30 am by Cynthia Schaap

Calls were made for the chopper, but with the weather still poor we started walking across the plateau and into the rising sun. Muscles were aching so we regularly swapped from left to right side, back rope to front rope, one set of sore muscles to the next.

Finally we make it back to Marions Lookout, thankfully past the last of the snow but it’s time for the steep descent down the chained section towards Crater Lake. In the steeper sections we disconnected the wheel and the team carefully passed the stretcher hand to hand with a belay for safety. On the ridge above Crater Lake another call is made to the chopper. The team waited, blocking the wind to the stretcher, and watched as the helicopter flew up over Lake Lilla and into the wind that’s howling over our backs. The chopper came up, wobbled for a few seconds, and dropped down again. Tries again. And again. No third time lucky today.

So off we headed on our final leg. Lots of steps and plenty of scrub on the edge meant difficult conditions for the stretcher but by this time we’ve had plenty of practice. As we descend to Wombat Pools, all hats and any other loose items that could get drawn up into the helicopter blades were removed and we carried the stretcher the last 50 metres. Around 9.15 am, nearly11 hours after we arrived at Dove Lake, we handed over the stretcher to the waiting helicopter. We were all completely spent from our marathon effort but it was time for a debrief and more importantly, breakfast at Peppers.

Postscript: the patient made a full recovery and is now a passionate supporter of SES, Police Search and Rescue and the Westpac Rescue Helicopter Service.

The North-West Tasmania SES Search & Rescue Team are currently looking for new members. Training is on the Central Coast on the third Tuesday Night and the following weekend each month starting again next year. For more information, please contact Graeme Brown at jg.brown@bigpond.com and read here bushwalk.com

All hands on deck by Cynthia Schaap