Lab caveman's tunnel vision leads to regional rescue efforts
Like most engineers and scientists working at the Lab, Mark Bowers spends a good deal of time "in the dark" before finding the right approach. But for Bowers, long hours inside a dark chamber are also a natural part of his off-duty hobby and passion — teaching and coordinating cave rescues.
Once admittedly suffering from fear of heights and enclosed spaces, Bowers never dreamed he would end up a national expert in cave rescues. He now volunteers as the western regional coordinator for the National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC), serving as the central contact for training of caving enthusiasts and liaison with emergency services throughout California, Nevada and southern Oregon.
"In 1984, a friend suggested we join a campus caving trip at Georgia Tech in Atlanta," he recalled. "I agreed. When we got there, it was just a hole in the ground. The first guy slithered in feet first, then disappeared. As I went in, I found a 30-foot mudslide that led to a huge open cave. On the very next trip, I had to rappel down a 75-foot cliff in a cave. After doing that, I had overcome my fears and I was hooked."
Bowers said that other than the amazing scenery, he enjoys caving most because of the connections he makes with the people involved. "Caving grottos are fun, trustworthy groups," Bowers said. "They place their lives in each other’s hand every time they go out."
After moving to Livermore in 1987 to begin working at the Lab, Bowers began to enjoy the many area caves with the East Bay’s Diablo Grotto (caving group), part of the National Speleological Society (NSS).
Then, on a grotto outing in 1991, Bowers and his fellow cavers began discussing a sobering topic. "We were over three miles from the nearest road, over two hours from the nearest paved road, and over four hours from the nearest town," Bowers said. "We started talking about what would happen if any of us became injured or sick, and how local emergency services seldom know the location of caves or how to properly conduct a cave rescue."
It was then that Bowers contacted the NSS’ National Cave Rescue Commission (NCRC), and began to receive and coordinate training through the western region for his own grotto and others in the area.
From 1992 to 1995, as a member of the Amador County sherrif’s department volunteer search and rescue team, Bowers found himself with the contacts to help establish and maintain links between the cave rescue experts and the Northern California search and rescue resources.
"After a few years," Bowers explained, "I had the training, the contacts and the experience to best serve as the regional coordinator. I’ve been in that job since 1999."
The NCRC is not itself a rescue team. Its national mission is to provide ongoing training to local grottos in the form of skills instruction and mock rescues, and to provide a register of trained cavers who can assist EMS when needed.
Bowers stressed the difference between cave rescue and underwater cave or mine rescue. "Those are entirely different areas of expertise," he emphasized.
Recalling his most difficult training exercise, Bowers said, "I sat with the ‘victim’ at the bottom of a 350-foot drop for 22 hours, deep inside a cave, while rescuers managed the necessary equipment to bring her out with a (simulated) broken femur."
Long hours, days and weeks can be typical for cave rescues, as rescuers must contend with maneuvering rescue equipment and victims through small spaces, cold temperatures, water and sheer cliffs. All this while maintaining the NCRC’s pledge to preserve caves in their original, pristine conditions.
Caving groups often recede so far back into a cave that they may spend the night there, making potential rescues long and difficult. In the case of severe injuries and the single-body size spaces often explored by cavers, "even one hour in could mean days to get them out," Bowers said.
Fortunately, Bowers and his qualified trainers do their jobs extremely well. Actual rescues are very rare in the West, as the grottos are so well trained.
"Also, the locations of most caves, and all technical caves, are kept very secret in the West," Bowers said. "The caves are cared for and overseen very protectively by the cavers. Most of our rescues are actually in public caves, like Lava Beds National Monument. A typical rescue would be taking in a team with a stretcher and bringing out a tourist with a twisted ankle."
Although, he added, rescues can be for any reason: cavers can become ill, injured, lost, stuck or just panicked.
The long after-work hours and numerous weekends spent on his NCRC duties are a labor of love, and a family affair for Bowers.
"I love technical caving, love mock rescues and even love those successful rescues that aren’t too difficult," he said. However, most of his volunteer hours are spent on the administrative details of running a tri-state operation.
"I maintain a register of trained people, do the training and know the location of all major caves," Bowers continued. "I am the contact for all emergency services, sheriff’s departments, fire departments, etc., for any cave rescue. Then I call the local team to deploy.
"I have to provide the leadership to keep a 700-member all-volunteer organization working the way it’s supposed to," said Bowers. "That can get tiring, but knowing we have the training, people and other resources to keep caving safe makes it worth it."
Bowers’ wife and two teenage children often accompany him on weekend training sessions. "My wife enjoys the easier ones, and as the kids get older, they are receiving more and more training, and are now able to enter some of the less technical caves with me," explained Bowers."But they’re not involved in rescue."
A minor downside of the job, Bowers related, is that it often proves quite thankless. "Victims and their families are typically very embarrassed after a rescue and just want to leave as soon as possible," he said as he rolled his eyes skyward. "But we know how much our work matters, and how important it really is."
Bowers is not the only active caver at the Lab. Jay Smart and Keith Burris, both engineers with Electronics Engineering Technologies, also participate with the Diablo Grotto.
Anyone interested in caving with a grotto can find out more at www.caves.org, the internet home of the NSS. The Western region’s groups are listed at www.caves.org/region/western/grottos.html .
"There are some wonderful caves around here," Bowers said. "But never go caving alone," he insisted. "There are so many grottos that are so friendly and so active. They’ll make sure you have the technical training and enough people along to do it right."