Fallen, stranded and panicked: Inside Hamilton's waterfall rope rescues

It’s happening more and more at the city’s waterfalls, as the popularity of one Hamilton’s premiere attractions surges. But what actually happens during a rope rescue?

What actually happens when emergency crews rush to a scene where someone needs a rope rescue?

Rope rescues use a lot of resources and require specialized equipment and training. Rope rescue units are stationed at four fire halls in Hamilton. (Dave Ritchie/CBC)

Dozens of times each year, Hamilton firefighters hear their radios crackle to life, and through the static comes the same message: "Rope rescue required."

It's happening more and more at the city's waterfalls, as the popularity of Hamilton's premiere natural attractions surge. Rope rescue calls were at their highest number in a decade in 2016, and multiple people have fallen at waterfalls this year, too.

Things have gotten so bad that in an attempt to curb injuries and deaths, bylaw officers are now charging people who climb newly erected fences and ignore warning signs at Albion Falls.

Once you get below them and they think they can get out, they'll just jump on you. You're their way out.- Capt. Wayne Triemstra

With all these issues barreling to the forefront, what does it actually take for Hamilton's rescue crews to pluck someone off a rock face and get them back to safety?

It's a complex process, but something firefighters have become quite used to, says Capt. Wayne Triemstra of Hamilton fire.

Pulling people out of what can become deadly terrain requires specialized gear and training, and is physically demanding. Firefighters have to contend with trauma and heightened stress from those who need saving. Some rescues happen at night, while some are in adverse weather. 

Training and procedures leave little to chance: Ropes are colour-coded, specialized lighting is brought in, and low-tech whistles are used as they're more reliable communication tools than radios.

"When you're at work on a Saturday and it's a beautiful day, you're always thinking, 'We could be going to the Punchbowl today,'" Triemstra said.

The city has started ticketing people who venture off the path at Albion Falls. (Sheryl Nadler/CBC)

Multiple units for single rescue

There are multiple rope rescue teams stationed around Hamilton ready to jump in trucks at a moment's notice. Once an alarm comes in, at least six trucks, or units, are heading out the door — a senior officer, a safety officer, three units and a rescue unit.

In contrast, a normal alarm call for a fire is usually three units.

For each additional person who needs a rescue, more units are added. Many calls also include paramedics and police. 

Once on scene, the first need is obvious: track down the person or people who are trapped. But depending on the time of year and where they are, that can be difficult.

For serious injuries, rescue crews have to stretcher people out on a backboard. (American Alpine Institute)

"People often have their cell phones with them now, and that can be a saving grace," said Hamilton Fire Public Information Officer Claudio Mostacci. But even then, it can be difficult.

It's not like there are cross streets for beaten down pathways to help with directions.

If it's nighttime, crews will set up towers and a portable lighting system. Even when the sun is still lingering in the sky, more lights are often needed at the base of some of Hamilton's massive waterfalls, which can be shielded by trees and sheer rock walls.

"It might look sunny up top, but down below, it's pitch black," Triemstra said.

Finding an anchor

Once the person (or people) in distress are found, the next step is finding a place to set up a rope and pulley system to haul him or her out. For that, rescuers need an "anchor point" — basically, something to attach the rope and pulley system to for leverage.

They'll often use trees, or in a pinch, a guardrail from a roadway.

There's falling rocks, wet conditions. You get algae growing on everything — it's pretty slick.- Capt. Wayne Triemstra

Once that's set, firefighters then have to actually get down to the injured person.

For every person who is trapped, two firefighters go over the edge, using coloured ropes so the people at the top know which one to haul.

Depending on the terrain, the rescuer could walk down while attached to a rope, or fully rappel down the side of a cliff face.

On top of fire crews, rope rescues often include resources from Hamilton police and EMS. (Andrew Collins/CBC)

Most of the time, people in this situation are quite frightened, Triemstra said.

Some are in intense pain from a bone break or other serious injury, while others have been clinging to something for dear life. The rescuers have to proceed slowly, and calmly explain what's going to happen as to not freak them out.

One thing they never do on approach is get lower than the person who needs help, Triemstra says.

"Once you get below them and they think they can get out, they'll just jump on you. You're their way out," he said.

"You tell them 'You're in good hands, now.' That's all you can do."

Whistles blasting to give instructions

It's up to the firefighters to assess the person's injuries at that point.

For someone who is just stuck or stranded without serious injury, they can be placed into a type of basket and hauled up to the top, alongside both firefighters. Whistles are used to communicate with the people on top who are pulling — one blast means stop, two means give us some slack, and three means pull up.

The pulling is done by hand, by a team of usually four or five people. That number can grow depending on the situation and how many people need saving, Triemstra says.

Rescuers will guide a person up a sheer cliff face, to get them safely to the top. (American Alpine Institute)

If the injuries are serious, a basket might not be enough, and a person in distress may need to be put on a backboard and guided up the whole way. That's not an easy extraction, especially in rainy, slick, or icy conditions. A typical rescue under good conditions can take about 45 minutes, but there are many variables like weather that can add to that number.

"You're using your legs and your body weight to keep them off the cliff, and basically walk up the side," Triemstra said. "There's falling rocks, wet conditions. You get algae growing on everything — it's pretty slick.

"It's grueling. You're not coming up and then going back down again. It's physical for everyone. The haul team, the rescuer, everyone."

Wheelbarrows like this are used to move gear around rescue sites. (David Ritchie/CBC)

Once at the top, people can be placed into the care of paramedics, depending on the severity of their injuries. Some people are freaking out at that point, Triemstra said. "Then some get to the top, and they say it's not a big deal."

More than anything, Hamilton's firefighters are preaching caution around the area's waterfalls, and are asking people to stay on designated trails and pathways, Triemstra said.

"One good slip, and you're going over."



Adam Carter


Adam Carter is a Newfoundlander who now calls Toronto home. You can follow him on Twitter @AdamCarterCBC or drop him an email at adam.carter@cbc.ca.