What a Colorado alpine rescue team can learn from CDS

The margin of error is 5 millimeters. “Five millimeters is big for us,” said Andrew Barrus, technical director of the Cirque du Soleil’s “Kooza” show. “It’s huge!” responded a volunteer from the Alpine Rescue Team, a three-county search and rescue organization based in Evergreen.

On Wednesday, eight volunteers from the Alpine Rescue Team arrived at the Cirque du Soleil’s temporary Denver big top in the parking lot of Ball Arena. They aren’t there to see the show (though some admit they’ll be back for it). They’ve been invited to tour the technical side of the circus, to see how “Kooza’s” ropes rigging systems might help with their own acrobatics — rescuing injured skiers, climbers, mountain bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts.

“Kooza” is one of Cirque du Soleil’s 11 touring shows. It arrived in Denver from Toronto in late June, and will pack up and head to Calgary later this month. The whole operation takes 10 days to set up and three to tear down.

By the time any performer actually touches the equipment, the setup crew, which includes the technical team, will have sunk 1,200 stakes into the ground and raised four 82-foot masts, hundreds of smaller poles and 84 grounding stakes in case of lightning.

“All of it has to be exactly laid out. A performer is a performer — they’re only thinking about performing,” Barrus said. “So you have to make sure everything is exact so that there is no question in their mind.”

This resonates with the rescuers, whose weekly training that night is about lowering a subject — what they call the injured person on a rescue — using pass-through knots, so that the subject “doesn’t feel anything,” Howard Paul, a rescue volunteer, said.

Though their daily efforts are wildly different, the Alpine Rescue Team and the Cirque du Soleil technical team speak the same language. Both crews operate under pressure in high-stakes environments. They both have training quotas and practice high-intensity situations, but they also spend a lot of time together outside of the job and call one another “family.” They are whizzes in geometry and can quickly calculate the safety factor of a rope passing through a pulley at a 90-degree angle, or dangling over the edge of a cliff.


The rescue team arrived during high wire practice, so Barrus took them to the big top — the circus’s main stage — where performers were laughing, dancing and jumping rope 30 feet off the ground.

“Is that steel? And he’s doing that with his bare hands?” rescue volunteer Shane O’Brien asked, as the crew gawked at a high wire acrobat, spinning his body like the hands of a clock around and around and around a cable. “How is he doing that?”

“He’s 62, that’s how,” Barrus answered. “He’s been doing that for a long time.”

The high wire is strung between two of the four masts, which also support the tent. Barrus launched into an explanation of torque and tension that the rescue volunteers nodded along to, peppering him with questions throughout.

How do the performers tell technicians the tension is wrong? Hand signals.

What happens if there’s lightning? A signal light turns red, the tech crew holds their arms across their chest in an “X,” and the performers get down.

Kooza has 22 variations of the same show, which they can toggle between if necessary to account for performer injuries, technical difficulties or inclement weather. Barrus said the most common reason they switch up a show is for weather. And by weather he means lightning.

“About two months ago we got a notification from our app that we were going to be struck by lightning, I didn’t believe it,” Barrus said. “But about 15 minutes later we got struck by lightning.”

“What’s the name of that app you’re using?” O’Brien asked, pulling out his phone. Half of the volunteers huddled around Barrus’ phone while he spelled out the app’s name, Sferic, and showed them the homescreen.

On his display was a map with concentric circles emanating from Ball Arena. He pointed to the innermost circle. “This one is 6 kilometers. If lightning strikes within 6 kilometers, we pause anything that’s in the air,” he said. They also send ushers to guard the masts from audience members. The team is trained to quickly bring the performer down and switch the act out for something on the ground. Like the contortionists, or the unicyclist, or the hoops.

“It’s interesting you talk about how there are so many ways to do a show,” Paul said. “For us, there are so many ways we can accomplish a task based upon terrain, where the subject is located — are they above us, below us, on the side of a creek or a river? There are six different ways to accomplish a task and we just fit it to the situation.”

The rescuers wanted to know who makes the call about whether to bring a performer down, whether to switch the set mid-show. “That’d be the technical manager,” Barrus said. “That’s our 601,” Paul responded, referring to the mission coordinator’s radio number.

Paul joined the Alpine Rescue Team in 1985. He knows everybody on his team’s strengths and weaknesses, and can quickly assess who plays what role on a rescue. They all can.

“We recreate together a lot — we climb, we ski, we snowmobile, we ATV, we hike and camp, we raft the river, so we know each other’s skills,” Paul said. According to Paul, being together in the outdoors, without the time constraints of a rescue, is the best way to get to learn how each person operates.

Alpine Rescue has about 65 field active members, and another 30 people or so associated with the team, according to Paul. Which means there’s always something to do on the weekend.

“If you think about it, it’s the only emergency service where you go out and do the same thing, but playing,” he said. “I mean firefighters don’t get together on the weekend and light a house on fire, but we get together and go backcountry skiing.”


Besides the technical banter, the rescue and circus teams had one other thing in common: consistency. On top of their recreating and rescues, the Alpine Rescue Team hosts 38 trainings per year, two in-field trainings per month — of the highest frequencies in the state, Paul suspects.

On the circus side of things, the technical team practices weekly rescue situations, and the performers have weekly training days written into their contract.

After about two hours, the highliners are done with practice. The rescue team gathered to watch the changeover. Half a dozen technical crew members paced around the circular stage, unclipping massive hooks from the masts and the ground, replacing them with cables connected to the “wheel of death,” a 1,600-pound rotating steel structure, suspended above the stage that two performers run on to make it spin.

The technicians hang massive tension meters on the cables and called out numbers. Men with clipboards circled the stage. The whole process took about 45 minutes, but during the show they’ll do it in four.

A technician ran over to a spot where the cables are connected to the ground in front of the rescuers, a wrench in each hand. “If you tighten this one here, do you have to tighten the cable opposite, too?” a rescuer asked.

“Of course,” the tech answered. “Balance is key with the wheel of death.”

{ SOURCE: Colorado Sun }