Rescue at the Rock
By Austin R. Eck— When the harsh Texas sun beats down on the dusty red granite rock, it gets hot, and when the occasional shower wanders through the Texas Hill Country, the rock gets slippery.
Those factors and others make the climb to the summit challenging for some, and somewhere during the 425-foot climb or in the 1,600 acres of Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, visitors will get into trouble.
“Most of our incidents are broken ankles, twisted ankles and fall-on-their-head injuries,” said Scott Whitener, Enchanted Rock park ranger.
When park visitors are hurt, lost or dehydrated, it is up to park rangers and law enforcement agencies from both Gillespie and Llano counties to help assist in the process.
Typically, it starts with a phone call to 911, Doug Cochran, park superintendent said.
“People are used to calling 911, and they’ll either reach Llano or Fredericksburg,” Cochran said. “More times than not, depending on the situation, Llano might respond.”
After the call is placed to either Gillespie or Llano first responders, the park is alerted to the situation in the park.
“If they’re just missing, that’s a little bit easier,” Cochran said. “We’ll tell Llano or Fredericksburg, ‘Hold on, don’t respond just yet.’”
If the location of the person is known, the park will dispatch all available rangers to the area to assist in the rescue.
Depending on the type of issue or injury, park rangers can either release first responders from assisting and take care of the issue themselves or begin to stabilize the victim and wait for EMS to assist.
“There are a lot of different scenarios we have to go through,” Cochran said, “and our staff is trained to recognize a lot of these.”
Enchanted Rock employs a total of five park rangers that are trained in first aid, CPR and automated external defibrillator who provide initial care during rescues.
“That’s what our job is, making sure they’re comfortable and stabilized until Fredericksburg EMS responds,” Cochran said.
If the person needs to be carried down Enchanted Rock, Cochran will ask for help from Fredericksburg EMS and Willow City Volunteer Fire Department.
To carry a hiker down in a Stokes basket takes a minimum of six people. This allows tired rangers, paramedics and firefighters to rotate out when they get tired, Cochran said.
If the person is on one of the trails opposed to on one of the peaks, it is easier for park personnel to reach them because all terrain vehicles or utility task vehicles can be used.
After hours, most of the responsibility falls to Cochran, who receives phone calls from emergency dispatch.
Once the sun goes down, the process for helping people is the same as during the day except he will enlist someone to go with him into the park, Cochran said.
When Cochran has to find someone at night, he talks to the lost hiker on the phone to get a general location of the person. He goes into the park, and as he approaches the location, Cochran begins to flash his flashlight to get the lost hiker’s attention.
After Cochran and the lost hiker have found each other, Cochran will guide the hiker using his flashlight back to him. Then they walk back together.
If a person is lost after dark and cannot communicate by cell phone, Cochran calls Willow City Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department and Fredericksburg first responders for a full search and rescue.
In the park
Many hikers do not know about Enchanted Rock’s social trail problems. Social trails, unauthorized paths that are created by repeated use kills the grass to give the illusion of a trail, can lead hikers astray while hiking through the park.
“There are social trails on the backside of Enchanted Rock that people go down and get lost,” Whitener said. “They think they’re on the right trail.”
But locating someone who is lost on a social trail complicates matters.
Whitener has seen people get lost because they thought they were on a trail that was not an official trail.
A woman started walking down the creek because she thought that was a trail, and ended up at the fence on the backside of the property, and she didn’t have any water and did not know where she was, he said.
Whitener started taking fallen limbs and brush from elsewhere in the park and covering social trails with the limbs to discourage traffic. When traffic is reduced, natural grasses have an opportunity to grow back and the limbs naturally decay.
Laying down brush is one way to keep people off the wrong tails, but Cochran is working to have a new trail system installed that will make navigating trails easier.
Cochran wants to color coordinate the trails and add numbered sign posts to trails to make it easier to locate people who are missing.
“That will tell us exactly where someone is, and we can get to them in 10 minutes,” Cochran said.