If you’re a hiker needing rescue in Maine’s mountains, it’s comforting to know that the people sent to help you are trained and skilled. The Lincoln Search and Rescue unit out of Lincoln is one of several volunteer teams across the state that is a member of the Maine Association of Search and Rescue.
The association has developed statewide standards for search and rescue, which they train for regularly. Across the state, there are ground and water search teams, horse-mounted units, dog handlers and backcountry rescuers. Each unit specializes in one or more search types.
Lincoln’s teams focus on ground search, swift-water rescue and high-angle rescue. They are one of four units that have a trained team ready to rescue hikers and climbers from steep cliff faces or other steep, difficult-to-reach locations.
I caught up with five members of the high-angle team while they were training on Parks Pond Bluff in Clifton. By the time I arrived, the ropes already were anchored in preparation for the training exercise, which included lowering a victim off a cliff in a litter to waiting team members below.
Vern McMoarn greeted me at the top of the cliff and explained the sequence of events that determine how and where his team responds to a situation.
“The incident would go to the warden service, they would determine what resources they needed, and if it was high-angle resources, they have basically four teams across the state that they could call on, depending on where in the state it happened in. Those four teams are the ones with the high-angle skills,” McMoarn said.
“It depends on where the incident occurred. If it occurs in Baxter State Park,” he continued, “they have authority over the incident and the team would get called directly by the Baxter State Park. Ourselves, and two or three teams across the state have a unique relationship with them. Because of the high-angle skills, they will work directly with us. Anywhere else falls under the auspice of the warden service.”
He explained how the call-out system works with the warden service and how the Lincoln team gets their calls from them.
“We get our call through them, through our duty officer. The incident would go to the warden service, they would determine what resources they needed and if it was high-angle resources they have basically four teams, including ours, across the state that they can call on, depending on the location,” McMoarn said.
While the others worked on setting up the ropes farther down the steep face, McMoarn showed me the different rope and anchor safety systems they use to protect rescuers and move the victim.
“Each system has two lines. You have a main line that you do all your work on, then, you have a safety line that backs that up in case your main line breaks. Each line has redundant anchors, so if one anchor fails, there’s a back-up anchor, so you don’t lose the whole system. We try to put as much redundancy into the systems as we can,” he said.
McMoarn then pointed out the difficulty in setting up such technical rescue in remote locations.
“It becomes a trade-off, too, on time. The more equipment you’ve got to sack in, the more people you that need to operate it, the longer it takes to actually get to the victim and get set up. Sometimes we have light, fast teams that go in with just a minimal amount of equipment, stabilize the situation and maybe provide warmth, first aid and wait, if the situation calls for it, for additional resources to get the victim out. At least we get initial contact with the victim,” he explained.
I asked where the volunteers come from for their unit. “Some teams are more formal than others. With Lincoln, the way we constructed our team is, we recruit recreational climbers and we teach them rescue systems. So, the people we recruit can take care of themselves in the backcountry. They’re used to being on rock faces; they know their knots. So we only teach rescue systems,” he said.
You don’t have to be a technical climber to volunteer with the team, however. As he explained, “We can always use more volunteers. We’re pretty selective on who makes the high-angle team. But, you can start out basically as a pack mule, if you can hike, because there’s a lot of equipment that has to get packed in to the scene. Also once we get the person out of their situation, there’s usually a long walk out with them. So people that newly join the team, they’re the pack mules. They get the gear in and they get the victim out.”
He continued, “Then, the volunteer works their way up the chain. As they train with us, next, they’ll work on the top end, running a belay line or a main line, setting anchors.”
Soon, the rescuers from below came up to gather around for a quick break before the actual training exercise, in which they lower a victim using a litter from the cliff face. The ropes were in place and I met the other members of the team that day, Jim McInnis, Peter Goebel, Mike Avery and Carl Stewart. We chatted about how the weather cooperated for the training and someone asked for a volunteer to get in the litter and play the victim. I thought of a reason to leave at that point, before they volunteered me.
It wasn’t that I didn’t trust the systems and the team members’ skills, because if anyone could be successful in rescuing me, it would be these qualified, trained team members. It’s just that I didn’t want to tempt fate. You never know when you’ll need rescue. I want the only time that I’m in a litter to be for real. I hope that day never comes, but if it does, a team like Lincoln Search and Rescue will be ready.