ACADIA NATIONAL PARK, Maine — Dangling by a rope over the edge of a granite cliff by the edge of the sea, his feet planted firmly against the rock face, a man wearing a helmet and harness shouted up toward the trees above him.
“Up slow!” he yelled Thursday as dozens of people stood along the top of Otter Cliffs waiting for him to appear above the rocky lip. His mission: to guide up and safely to the top a litter carrying a coil of old firehose dressed in boots and a jacket.
The scene was repeated several times Thursday as people from eastern states participated in an intensive rope rescue training course in Acadia National Park. The weeklong program is one of two held in the United States each year to train National Park Service personnel and others involved in wilderness rescue missions.
About 60 people — 36 students and 24 instructors — have been on Mount Desert Island this week learning how to help rescue people from cliff faces or steep trails. They have had several long days of training, going over rappelling techniques on Tuesday at the Southwest Harbor Fire Department, practicing nonlitter rescues on Wednesday, and training to load and hoist litters to safety on Thursday.
The coils of firehose in the litters Thursday were stand-ins for people who, in real-life situations, would be injured or otherwise incapacitated and unable to maneuver themselves to safety.
Simeon Klebaner, acting deputy chief of emergency services for the National Park Service, said the course helps beginners learn how to safely conduct rescue missions in wilderness areas and helps the more experienced refresh their skills. Participants in this year’s session at Acadia include federal and state park rangers, volunteer rescue groups, wilderness expedition organizations, and U.S military members from as far away as Tennessee and Arkansas.
Rock climbing is becoming more popular in Acadia and other national parks, Klebaner said, but often it is not rock climbers who need rope rescues. Sometimes in mountainous areas a rope rescue is the best or only way to get a stranded or injured hiker back to safety.
“Acadia has a good record of climbing safety overall,” Klebaner said, wearing a helmet and harness as he stood at the top of Otter Cliffs. “At the end of the day, you want to train where you will be needed.”
Stuart West, chief ranger for Acadia, said Thursday that Acadia averages about 38 rescues per year, several of which involve rappelling or rope safety measures. This is the first year one of the semi-annual National Park Service rope rescue training sessions has been held at Acadia.
“It’s an intensive class, but it’s a really good class,” West said. “It’s important because the park service [conducts] a little over 3,000 rescue missions a year, which is about eight and a half a day, on average. In Acadia we‘ve had as many as three at one time going on. We have real rescues going on all the time in the park.”
Abby Seymour is a volunteer with Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue, a volunteer group that routinely assists Acadia rangers with rescues. She said Thursday that she works for the nonprofit group Friends of Acadia, often helping with field work in the park. She joined the search and rescue group last year so she could also help with technical rescues in Acadia.
Standing at the top of Otter Cliffs, Seymour said she has trained with Mount Desert Island Search and Rescue several times but still is a relative novice when it comes to rappelling or litter lifts.
“That’s been very new to me,” she said.
She added that though she still doesn’t have a lot of rope rescue experience, the class this week has made her better prepared for assisting park staff next time someone has to be lifted or lowered to safety.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “It’s been tiring, but I’ve learned a lot.”