HARPERS FERRY — Fifteen hundred feet above the Potomac River, up where the turkey buzzards soar, Jeffrey Jarboe was harnessed to ropes at the top of a cliff, learning “edge transition.”
This is a nice way of describing how you begin rappelling down the gigantic stack of rock that overlooks the confluence of the Potomac and the Shenandoah rivers and the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia.
Jarboe, a member of the U.S. Park Police SWAT team, had his feet set against the cliff face, his hands around his descent rope and his back to the dizzying scenery below.
It was important to get this right. If his feet were set too far down, he risked slamming his face into the quartzite cliff. If they were set too far up, he risked flipping upside down and slipping out of his harness.
All around him Wednesday, other students and instructors were dangling from, or clinging to, the jagged gray cliffs of Maryland Heights as part of the National Park Service’s mountain rescue training.
The annual week-long program, called basic technical rescue training, teaches students how to reach and rescue victims who have fallen or are trapped in rugged terrain.
Many of the students and instructors were volunteers from the Park Service, the military services and fire departments. Two students were physicians.
“It’s kind of like sky-diving,” said Eric Bowman, 46, an emergency room doctor at York Hospital in York, Pa. “When you leave the plane, that first little step off.”
This was day three of the tuition-free program, where students were exposed to the reality, the height and the technical details of the work.
It was filled with talk of gri gri — rope braking devices — rope ascenders and “face negotiations.”
There was discussion of the “pickoff,” a maneuver done when a victim is stuck, or “ledged out,” on a cliff face.
There was explanation of an ingenious sliding friction knot called a Prusik, named for an Austrian mountaineer.
And one expert noted that a fall of just 10 feet can kill you.
Up top, instructor Jonathan Bankston, 28, a firefighter from Fauquier County, was advising Jarboe, a park police sergeant, to kneel on the rock face to ease the transition from “the horizontal to the vertical.”
Jarboe, who was hanging over the edge, squirmed. “Trying to fix my harness, to tell you the truth,” he said. “So I can save my kidney.”
Bankston warned him to watch his fingers: “That glove can get sucked in on that rope.”
Jarboe, who was wearing a helmet and laden with climbing gear, quickly got the hang of it and gradually vanished over the edge, grinning.
“We need two things to teach this class — cliffs and gravity,” joked Kevin Moses, the training commander and a park ranger at Buffalo National River, in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas. “If you give us a cliff, we can teach this.
“We’re trying to show the relevance of technical rescue,” he said. “Anywhere there’s cliffs, people have the potential to make a mistake . . . and fall. Whether it’s a climbing accident, . . . a hiker who got too close to the edge, a photographer who’s got to get that perfect shot.
“And when that happens, we need to scramble the crews and go get them,” Moses said.
The object of Wednesday’s training was to show students how to rappel to a victim. Training on how to extricate a patient was set for Thursday and Friday.
“If there’s a person on a ledge down there,” Moses, 44, said as he stood near the summit of the heights, “before we can get a litter to them and scoop them up, we’ve got to go get to them.”
Safety is paramount. “Rule number one in rescue work is ‘Don’t get injured yourself,’ ” he said.
Each climber had two ropes. One was the main climbing line, which, in this case, was anchored by a complicated rigging system to several trees. The other was a belaying, or safety, line anchored and manned by the climber’s partner.
Jarboe said later that he had rappelled out of helicopters many times but never off a daunting cliff.
“What I’m used to is dropping into nothing, dropping into space,” he said. “Going over [the cliff] edge is different, trying to figure out how you’re going to position your feet and adjust your vertical movement, walking down a wall backwards.”
Standing by and observing was one of the founding fathers of the 19-year-old program, Bill Cardwell, 60, a ranger in Shenandoah National Park.
A rope-rigging genius, according to his comrades, Cardwell sports a short white beard and wears at his waist a black bandana decorated with pictures of knots.
He recalled once saving a young climber.
“He was on a wall that he couldn’t go up, he couldn’t go down,” Cardwell said. “People get ‘ledged out.’ They climb up without gear, without ropes or anything. They think, ‘That would be a cool mountain to climb.’ And they don’t realize, quote, the gravity of the situation.”
He and his team executed a pickoff. He was lowered from the top of the cliff down to the victim’s perch. In such a situation, “they’re scared to death,” he said. “They think they’re going to fall.”
He said he tells them: “Don’t lunge for me. Don’t grab me. Don’t touch me. I’m going to come over and get you in a harness. Put this on. Don’t move. Move, and you fall.”
He said he has a technique where he can get a basic rescue harness around a victim in 10 seconds, and a full body harness in 30 or 40 seconds.
Asked if victims express gratitude, he said, “We usually get letters back.”
Later in the day, Jarboe was learning from instructor Chad Wilt, 34, how to man a belaying line for fellow student Kate Sargeant, 32, who was about to descend down a section of cliff.
Far below, a train rumbled across the Potomac River railroad bridge, blaring its horn.
“It’s neat as an instructor to watch the comfort of the students start to grow,” said Wilt, a master rigger and church pastor from Compton, Ark. “They just begin to feel more comfortable over the edge, and [you] watch them start to put things together.
“And maybe what you’re teaching them is going to save somebody’s life someday,” he said.