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Wilderness First Responders come to the rescue

Published: Jul. 1, 2021 at 2:29 PM EDT
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LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - It draws climbers and hikers from across the country.

This holiday weekend, people will pack the Red River Gorge, and the odds are someone will get lost or stumble off a cliff.

Who comes to their rescue? We went along for a peek at the training and dedication of these Wilderness First Responders.

Just an hour’s drive from Lexington. Climbing guide Erik Kloeker describes it as, " we have Corbin Sandstone cliffs down here that form to be perfect for rock climbing, it’s one of the top rock climbing areas in the country.”

Stunning vistas appear along narrow ridges.

“So, you can go really anywhere you want. I mean, on the trail, you can travel off-trail if you want to,” said Drew Stevens. Public Information Officer for the Wolfe County Search and Rescue team.

40,000 acres open to everyone, with no gates or fences, even along the most scenic ledges and cliffs, some 200 feet high.

Each year dozens of people become lost or injured in this wilderness.

Stevens says, “‘so first what you want to do, is you want to put on this bottom part of the harness like a pair of pants.”

He fits me and videographer Darnell Crenshaw with a safety harness and helmet.

“You’re ready to go man.”

Stevens takes out a large map showing the Gorge.

We are here to watch them train for a high cliff, rope rescue.

“We’re out near here, Double Arch, and so we’re actually going to head out on top of the ridge, and we’re gonna head to this cliff here, and that’s where you’re going to go off with John May.”

By day Stevens is an environmental educator and runs a pub trivia company. His second job is here, deep in the gorge as a Wilderness First Responder. Bringing out a victim is called a carryout.

“So, even on a carryout, you’re looking at to get it done, at least a dozen folks or so.”

Stevens is one of the dozens of members of the Wolfe County Search and Rescue team. Becky Brewer works at Toyota Motor Manufacturing.

“I love the gorge and I love to help people, so I can get a little of both this way.”

They are all volunteers, not paid a cent.

Brewer says, “everybody on here is like your family. Not only do we train hard together and we deal with difficult situations together, we also hang out together.”

Team members train hundreds of hours a year. John May, who works with an electric utility co-op, is a 20-year veteran with the team.

“You have to stay sharp on that because you want to be able to come out, and be as efficient as you can, and get the job done, as quickly and as safely as you can, and that requires a lot of training every year.”

The nearest hospital is thirty minutes away, and the team often hikes several miles out with the victim.

After hiking for a half-mile, Stevens points at a cliff in the distance. “Sam that’s the cliff you are going off.”

It looks very high. This is where about two dozen team members have gathered to practice a fairly typical rope rescue. I’m going to be the victim. They’re going to put me in a basket, lower me down about 200-feet, and then bring me back up. I am not fond of heights, especially looking over high ledges.

At the top of a ridge, the team begins attaching clips and ropes to me. “That’s a safety, yea. This is gonna be your main attachment point.”

On a ledge Jim May and two assistants will strap me in tightly.

“When we’re putting someone over a cliff, or up a cliff, we actually tie in the restraint, it’s the high angle straps, it puts you in the basket more secure. That way if you were to get nauseous, you’ve been injured, and we have to flip you upside down, in case you’re about to vomit, or something along those lines, there’s no way you can come out of the basket.”

A supervisor will double-check their straps. Above us a half dozen people will lower and lift hundreds of feet of rope. There are no engines or winches doing the work.

“I’m nervous, a little anxious, but I trust these guys totally.”

The call goes out, “downslope.”

Jim will ride down with me outside the basket, and guide us. We have two ledges to slide over before reaching open air.

“Down”. I feel the basket scrape against the rock as we slide down and out away from the ledge. “Slow.”

I focus looking straight up into the sky. I hear the buzz of a drone above. Jim keeps up the conversation in a calming voice and explains what we are doing. It keeps me calm.

He says, “We’re going over the big one now.”

We now are suspended in free air. The rock is next to me, and Jim is on the other side as we descend about 100-feet. I refuse to look over the side and down.

Jim guides the basket. He says, “this is a bit of a workout like for me...because I’m trying to keep you off the cliff, so I’m having to pull you out.”

The Wolfe County Search and Rescue team are on call 24-7. Remember they don’t get paid.

We lower to about 75- feet off the ground and then go back up.

Within minutes we are back up on the top ridge, and two assistants help pull me and the basket to safer ground.

Videographer Darnell Crenshaw calls out to me, “Sam how does it feel to be a victim?”

“I felt very taken care of, almost like being in the hospital, getting ready to go into surgery, is how I could compare it. Where you’re in the bed and you’re wrapped in warm clothes, and you know you’ve just gotta let go and trust.”

The Wolfe County team averages fifty to sixty rescues a year.

Fortunately, almost all the victims they find and rescue make it out alive. Like two young boys they found after a night in the gorge.

“It was the most ecstatic moment you could have. I remember Drew and I, we both went down on our knee and just cried like little babies...when those two little kids were found, working all night. "

But they spend a lot of time training.

" We train, and train, and train to go where people can’t. That’s what we do. We’ll come and get you.”

What’s the biggest mistake people make when they get lost or become injured? Team members say be prepared. Be prepared to stay the night at the gorge. Let other people know exactly where you will be. Bring water, and don’t get too close to the edge of a cliff.

The Wolfe County Search and Rescue team is funded by donations and grants, and some county support.

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