Incident Report 13th July 2019

Three cavers set off from the Loser carpark to go pushing in Homecoming Cave (HC, 2018-DM-07) in fairly inclement conditions, with rain forecast all day. The plan was to walk to top camp to collect kit then back to HC before returning top camp after the trip. However, part way into the walk they realised they had left the DistoX in the car. One caver returned to the car and was then to proceed directly to HC via a direct route from the car park, while the other two continued to top camp and then to HC as planned. This was to avoid delay to the trip.

When the individual caver got to HC, they waited for some time. However, the other two did not arrive in the timeframe expected by the individual caver. The individual caver therefore started towards top camp on the Fisch Gesicht (FG) path. It is inferred that this individual and pair of cavers missed each other somewhere on this section of path.

The individual caver continued to top camp, where they had some food, before returning to HC via FG.

Meanwhile the pair of cavers arrived at HC and finding no signs of the individual caver became concerned. They could find no evidence of the individual’s bag, but additionally went part way down the cave (twice) to check their missing colleague had not descended, taking the bag into the cave. The pair also searched the area surrounding the cave for the bag, before calling down to base to report the individual caver missing.

A search party was sent up from base and commenced walking to HC on the direct path from the car park. By this time the weather conditions had worsened and the visibility was very poor.

Meanwhile the pair of cavers commenced returning to the car park from HC, shouting for the missing individual caver as they went.

The individual caver arrived at HC and found no sign of the two other cavers or their bags and inferred that they must have set off back to the col. At some point on their walk back to the col, the individual caver got signal on their phone and picked up messages and missed calls from base and others, and realised that people were searching for them. Their return message to base of “I’m OK” was welcome, but also insufficient information to end the call out.

In the end the individual caver caught up the pair on the path, and the three cavers then intercepted the search party coming up from the car park. All then returned to base.

Lessons learnt:

There were poor communications within the cavers’ team regarding exactly what was the plan for rendezvous at the cave and whether or not cavers would descend the cave unless the whole group was present. The individual caver could have waited for longer at HC when they first arrived there as that was the agreed plan. After that they could have realised that something was going wrong sooner, e.g. when they got to top camp and the two cavers were not there.

During the search more precise information could have been provided at several stages, e.g. by the individual caver to confirm their location and fuller status/plans, and in the base camp control record which left it unclear whether the missing caver was conclusively not underground.

Careful consideration should be given to committing to spending significant time on the plateau in very inclement conditions. The seriousness of the mountain environment should not be underestimated.

Splitting teams down to the level of an individual should be carefully considered, especially in inclement conditions.

There was no grab bag for rescues at base camp and this needs to be prepared. In the past cave incidents would have entailed people form base going past top camp on route to the incident so this has not been needed.

Grab bags / first response kits need to include cave surveys and locations and/or this important information needs to be readily available in case of rescue.

Top camp grab bags and other rescue kit need to be checked, and expo members familiarise themselves with what is there.

Pencil and paper in first aid kits, and/or use of survey paper and pencils would have allowed notes to be left at the cave by the cavers so that both groups knew the others had been there and potentially resolved the misunderstandings.

A rescue dump at HC would be useful, in addition to individual trips carrying the appropriate survival equipment (at a very minimum every trip should take: a survival bag per person; a bothy bag per group).

The route marking between FG and HC should be improved.

The red reflective markers work well in bad visibility (in daylight), while the white ones do not.

Expo needs a better induction system so new members are more aware of local rescue procedures, what expo members can likely accomplish themselves and when external rescue organisations should be called. Some of these decisions (when to call for outside help) are difficult and subjective, and there will be differences year to year depending on the expertise on expo at any given time. This year the expedition is quite young compared to some previous years.

All expo members need to take responsibility for themselves, not to take on too ambitious trips, or feel they need to take on more than they may be capable of.

All expo members to make sure their insurance and NOK details are provided at base.

All expo members to add their mobile numbers to the bier book.

Full use to be made of base camp and top camp phones for communications. Update the callout holders if your plans change. Get in touch when things first do not go to plan. Be prepared to stop trips, rather than carrying on and allowing several minor issues to snowball to a more serious problem.

Expo members could make better use of GPS on their phones or other devices.