"Charles" -- A Rescue Gone Wrong

(early July 2016)

Executive Summary

"Charles" is a 4 month old kitty who was stuck in a sweet gum tree for 3 days in Philadelphia MS before I rescued him. The rescue did not execute as planned; during rope installation he climbed to 55 feet and was far out at the end of a limb. During my attempt to reach him, the limb cracked, dumping Charles to the ground. Fortunately he was not injured (a phone call 2 days afterward verified that Charles was doing well).


This rescue was a mess, but fortunately everything turned out well in the end. It was mid-morning on a hot July day when I noticed a voice mail on the Kat Fone. It was from Debbie; her grand daughter's four month old kitty had been stuck for three days in a sweet gum tree in Philadelphia MS, could I help? I called Debbie back, and arranged to be there around 4:30 pm. Debbie related that the local Animal shelter had referred her to me.

When I arrived, Louis (Debbie's husband) was waiting for me under the tree in the front yard that was holding Charles prisoner. When I exited the truck, I immediately heard Charles crying for help. He was at about 30 feet, and Debbie said he was a very friendly kitty, so I thought this would be an easy rescue. I put a throwline around the limb that Charles was on, and started pulling up a rope. Charles watched with interest, but as the rope approached he became spooked and went to another limb around 10 feet further up. I pulled down my rope, and tried for the highest sturdy branch union, which was at about 55 feet. I hit it after a couple of tries and starting pulling up my rope. However, I could not get my rope over the limb -- the sewn eye on the end of the rope was hitting a small branch, preventing it from going higher. I lowered the rope, and tried my backup rope that did not have a sewn eye. I was eventually able to pull this rope over the limb. About this time I looked for Charles again, and found to my dismay that he had traveled all the way out to end of his limb (about 15 feet) and was swaying around in some small branches. I had no idea how I was going to reach him, but would figure something out once I climbed up there.

Debbie arrived home from work at this time. I introduced myself, and showed her where Charles was in the tree. I hoped that Debbie would be able to coax Charles back to the trunk once I climbed to his height. I started donning gear, but lightning flashed nearby, the wind picked up, and rain began to fall. We retreated to the porch, and then inside the house as a fierce thunderstorm rolled through. The storm passed after approximately 45 minutes. We went back outside, and Charles was still at his same location -- the storm had not forced him back to the trunk.

I put on my gear and started up. When I arrived at the limb where Charles was stuck, I assessed options. Charles was about 15 feet away from me, out of rescue pole range (I pulled up the rescue pole and checked, I could not reach him). The limb went up slightly for a couple of feet, then straight out for about 8 feet where it branched. The left branch went straight up for about 5 feet, with Charles perched in the very top of it. I sweet talked to him, and it seemed that he wanted to come to me, but he was tangled up in some small branches and could only make small movements. Limb walking was not an option, as my tie-in point on the main trunk was only about 8 feet above the limb and the trunk angled away from it, and there were no other limbs that I could use to steady myself. I finally decided to put a lanyard at the branching point of the limb, and then pull myself to that point where I would then be in rescue pole range. I left my climbing rope attached to the trunk and put one lanyard around the trunk as a backup. I then threw my second lanyard through the branch point and started trying to pull myself closer. This attempt failed miserably; I used my cinching lanyard instead of my climbing lanyard, so I could not make progress along the lanyard. During my struggles with this setup, I somehow captured both lanyards in my foot ascender, jamming it. I could only free it by cutting off one my sewn eyes (waaaahhh!!!) on a lanyard so that I could pull it free of the ascender. I finally realized during my struggles that I needed to switch lanyards. I pulled myself back to the trunk, and swapped lanyards.

My climbing lanyard was now on the branching point, and I felt confident that I would be able to reach it. I turned on my helmet camera and starting traversing towards the branching point. I loosened my trunk lanyard and safety lanyard to the point where I was hanging about 5 feet directly under the branching point, now all I needed to do was pull myself up to the union. I advanced about a 1 foot, rested, then tried advancing again. I heard a 'crack' -- the limb split about 2 feet out from the trunk, and angled down, causing Charles to fall off the limb and myself to swing back to the trunk supported by my climbing rope and safety lanyard.

Debbie yelled out the Charles was on the ground and had run to some nearby bushes. After a minute, she had coaxed him out and was cuddling with him -- he seemed ok (a phone call after two days had passed verified that Charles was doing fine, but somewhat more skittish than he had been prior to his ordeal). Charles was out of the tree, but not in the manner that I wanted. I descended, and then found out that my bad luck continued -- my climbing rope was stuck in the tree. I had used a canopy tie, and when I traversed towards Charles, I had pulled it to the opposite side of the trunk. This caused the rope to bind against the trunk when I attempted to pull it down with my retrieval line. It was nearly dark, and I was exhausted and did not feel up to climbing again the day. I returned the next day, climbed back up, put my rope on the correct side of the trunk, descended, and retrieved my gear. I hope that my next rescue is less error prone than this one!

The picture to the right shows Debbie comforting Charles immediately after the rescue.

In terms of lessons learned, I never expected the limb to split. In examining pictures afterwards, it appears that the place where it split was somewhat strange. It was two feet out from the trunk, at the point where the limb stopped going up and instead extended straight out. This bend in the limb could have been caused by some previous split there, weakening the limb at this point. In hindsight, I should have considered the possibility of the limb breaking, and should have managed my weight distribution between the ropes tied to the trunk and the lanyard at the branch point much more carefully, putting less stress at the branch union. Hopefully, I will not make this mistake again.