by Wagner Skis / Jan 23, 2022

Rescue Rigging


“Every theory has it’s holes when real life steps in…: ~ Jello Biafra/The Dead Kennedys


ski touring, rescue rigging, technical rescue, snow safety, ski mountaineering, wager skis, skiing, Colorado

I try to remind myself of this every time I tie a knot or clip a carabiner in preparation for some sort of load. From the simple to the complex, rigging in the mountains covers the gamut and requires high levels of technical knowledge and skill sets, as well as imagination and the ability to problem solve in a highly dynamic environment.

I never set out to be any sort of technical rescue specialist, it all just sort of fell into my lap. From my early days of rock climbing with a friend, we learned nearly everything from a few ratty old books and magazines and then applied it via trial and error. Lucky for us, only a few of those mistakes and mishaps ended in injury, but often involved more than one late return and a few full-blown epics.

At some point during my ski patrol life, I started getting more interested in the rope systems we deployed for lift evacuation and lowering of rescue sleds. I was fortunate in the mid-90s to start working in various capacities as a volunteer in Denali National Park. This is where I got exposed and trained in various high angle technical rope rescue systems. Back home, the resort grew and as we added more and more lifts, our evacuation systems started to evolve and I jumped in with both feet. I had the opportunity to test and implement new systems, and I took advantage of it.

rescue rigging, technical rope rescue, ski touring, Colorado, skiing

Fast forward to 2012 and I’m back volunteering on Denali. Storm bound in the NPS Weather port at 14,000 feet, Dave Weber and I began dreaming up a professional level avalanche rescue course. We decided a critical piece would be a module on snow anchors, lowering, and mechanical advantages. We had a few criteria:

• First it had to be safe – whatever we built had to meet the standard 10:1 safety factor used in mountain rescue.
• Second, it had to be simple – a system for people who were already carrying too much gear could reliably build from a minimal kit and build without much room for error or lots of second guessing.
• Third, it had to be efficient – mountain rescue often involves patients with time critical injuries, so being able to move quickly is paramount to having positive outcomes.
• Lastly, it had to be easily scalable –  from a quick lower of a single rescuer to a complex raise of a patient litter and attendants. 


After a summer of developing curriculum and schedules we launched the course the following winter. Now after 10 years it has evolved and we have put hundreds of students through the course. With each group we learn and grow as they bring us specific situations they have encountered and challenges to overcome. 

The classroom is great. We have the luxury of time, instructors looking over your shoulder, and the ability to call an "all-stop" to gather and discuss problems or questions. We can run exercises in a logical progression and prep folks for next steps. We can safely show why one system may work in one situation, but be less than ideal in another.  

In most of what I teach, I try to encourage the following progression for students:

  1. Learn the skill. By this I mean not only the how, but also the why and the where of each piece and component.
  2. Master the skill. We do this best in a controlled environment without real world stresses or dynamics. I believe this is the most critical step. If you jump to #3 without mastery, you may create bad habits, shortcuts, or completely apply the skill incorrectly.
  3. Practice the skill. Build muscle and mental memory, learn to tie knots wearing gloves, standardize your system, know where each piece is on your rig.Inoculate the skill. This is where you add stress into the equation. Even the most experienced rescuer will be affected by stress, adrenaline, weather and altitude.

By training a mastered skill in a high stress environment, we can more adequately predict how we will perform in the real world. Adding stress before the skill has been mastered and practiced, though, will almost always end poorly. There are a number of schools out there that teach longer, more formal courses, from basic rope skills to complex rescue team systems. I recommend taking the formal instruction path and leave the trial and error method to those of us who have been through it already.


Words & Photos by Jake Hutchinson