I hike therefore I am.
I’ve also realised that challenging myself has become a recurring theme on my journey, with Peru offering progressively difficult tests of endurance as I travel further South. The hikes have gotten longer, the mountains higher and the air thinner. As a result my legs are stronger, my head is clearer and I’ve witnessed some of the most beautiful scenery this incredible country/continent/planet has to offer. I never thought ‘breathtaking’ was a literal adjective but I’ve been so taken aback at some of the views before me, I’ve had to force myself to draw air at times.
My mind can wander on these adventures, recalling events or people I’ve met and, although morbid, I do wonder what would happen in such remote regions when things go wrong.
I recall the conversation I had in Colombia during my first month whilst in the adventure capital of San Gil.
As I was lowered into a cave with a solitary guide and a single way out (our equipment was only capable of allowing us to enter, not exit at this point), I quizzed my guide on what would happen if either of us were injured:
‘Don’t worry, I would get help’ he reassured me.
‘Yes but what if you were injured?’ my voice quivering as the rocks narrowed and the light dimmed with my descent;
‘I won’t be – but I have my phone, I will call a friend’
‘A friend? Does anyone know we’re here? Do you have signal in the cave?’ becoming shrill, I felt the panic rise while trying to steady myself between the rocks, knowing that a neighbouring cave had been closed off during an earthquake following a cave-in.
‘Watch that snake by your hand…’
It was a good tactic, I stopped thinking about everything else as I came eye to eye with a long red, yellow and black snake, I later discovered was a Coral snake.
We then had a chat about snakes as I scrambled quickly through the pitch black caverns, squeezing through small gaps and wondering repeatedly why I had paid for this experience. Coral snake venom contains a strong neurotoxin, it affects the nervous system and can cause respiratory paralysis and suffocation. In Mexico, they are known as the ’20-minute snakes’ since victims are often dead within 20 minutes of being bitten. Lovely.
See how distracted you are?
I survived to tell the tale of course having being assured it was one of the ‘fake’ ones….but the issues surrounding search and rescue returned to the forefront of my mind.
The amazing K-9 team from Popayan fire brigade had taught me a lot about Search and Rescue (SAR) tactics and the value of using dogs to support a rescue mission. In the Galapagos however, I heard about two separate incidents of missing people on San Cristobal island. One was never found, and the other discovered but sadly deceased. With insufficient manpower, no search and rescue dogs and radios that don’t work, it highlighted the need for alternative tactics in places with limited resources and funding.
With a head full of questions, I have now arrived in Cusco, the region famed for Macchu Picchu, Rainbow Mountain, the Red Valley and a LOT of tourists, many being inexperienced trekkers and often lacking much in the way of common sense.
With this in mind, I met with Jimmy McSparron, known to some as ‘Jungle Jimmy’, the Bear Grylls of Peru; although running through his CV suggests Bear Grylls could learn a lot from him!
At 19 Jimmy decided that university wasn’t for him, dropped out and left the UK to begin a lifelong career as a professional adventurer. In 2009, whilst backpacking in Thailand, an earthquake struck in Indonesia prompting his first foray into disaster relief, working on the controlled demolition of dangerously damaged structures, building temporary housing and community engagement. Following this he joined an Indonesian NGO providing fresh water systems within Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps.
After a year training as an expedition leader in the jungles of Borneo in 2010 he remained there, living amongst the Penan, Kelabit and Iban tribes.
He helped the tribes secure land rights for their future survival and even wrote several phrase books to bridge the gap between indigenous languages and English. During this time he honed his jungle survival skills and developed his understanding of anthropology, becoming an honorary member of a number of indigenous groups.
On moving to Peru, Jimmy took part in some pretty insane expeditions and began providing bespoke training and location management solutions for TV companies in the Peruvian Amazon. Working with the BBC, Nat Geo and Discovery he was able to support obtaining permits, liaising with local communities, risk assessments, security plans, casualty evacuation and communications plans.
By 2016 he was conducting training operations for the Peruvian National Police as well as their special forces jungle patrol units. This included navigation, survival, reconnaissance and specialised jungle techniques.
He is now a Consular Agent for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, assisting in the welfare of distressed British nationals. He has continued training the Peruvian National Police in first aid and assisted in the creation of five new units and over 100 new rescue officers across the states of Cusco and Apurimac. For this, he has supported the production of a training package for rapid response to emergency situations ranging from road traffic accidents to natural disasters.
Jimmy is also a Senior Air Crew and Helicopter Search and Rescue Technician and Survival Trainer for ‘Black Wolf’ Helicopter Special Operations. Working as part of a specialist team he has been teaching jungle survival to members of Peru´s armed forces as well as flight nurses and paramedics from the USA. He also teaches helicopter rappelling operations and human external cargo for evacuation and SAR missions.
He’s suffered from jungle diseases, broken bones, been stabbed through his arm and bitten by a snake, which makes my little snake anecdote seem fairly pathetic! I also now realise that I can no longer claim to be an adventurer!
During our discussion, we delved into the intricacies of search and rescue in regions such as Cusco. As with much of Latin America and the rest of the world, value is rarely placed on anything unless it can be converted into money, which severely hampers the development of critical rescue services. However, eco-tourism is fast becoming a huge part of Peru’s economy and the influx of tourists has spurred a wider international emphasis on safety. The added benefit is that local people are engaging more in the welfare of the environment, protecting nature as well as those that visit. A single incident could lead to bad publicity adversely affecting the numbers flocking to an area. Jimmy is working on this basis to ensure that rescue teams are able to enter areas as quickly as possible to swiftly evacuate anyone who may need it.
The fire services in Peru are not well equipped to meet the unique needs of search and rescue. So Jimmy does not charge for his helicopter rescue missions, much like the volunteer fire fighters across the country. In recognition of his work and the support donated to the fire service, he was made an honorary firefighter in 2018.
Peru’s mining industry, in which the UK is the biggest investor, is another area of focus for Jimmy, as there have been a number of deaths or serious injuries among workers. Providing helicopter rescue to the mines could save lives since these areas are remote and road vehicle access can take hours.
As I wanted to delve deeper into how he conducts SAR missions, Jimmy introduced me to the ‘Missing Persons Behaviour Handbook’ to help me interpret the underlying psychology of the diverse characteristics of missing persons. The handbook begins with the following:
‘By analysing the behaviour of past lost persons in similar situations, it may be possible to “predict” what the subject now being sought might do, where he/she might go, or where he/she might be. This concept is a search-planning tool, dealing with generalities, and not absolutes’
The concept integrates the facts of the case with the historical statistical data on missing persons to determine a search area. The data was taken from research carried out in the UK and USA. I wondered if/how cultural differences could affect the results if a wider bracket of data from other countries was used.
The statistical data for where the missing person is found is recorded by the distances from the Initial Planning Point (IPP). I.e. where the person is known to have gone missing. The data is broken into 10% increments to focus the search ‘zones’ so investigators can figure out how far the missing person may have travelled. We’ve all seen the police dramas showing detectives drawing an area on a map where a criminal has likely escaped to – it’s a similar concept here.
Typical barriers to movement such as terrain or rivers are also assessed. Shelters, tracks, caves etc may be factored in particularly if the missing person’s characteristics determine they are likely to seek shelter.
A missing person is assigned to one of the following categories:
- Children (1 – 6 years)
- Children (7 – 12 years)
- Youths (13 – 15 years)
- Psychological Illness (Psychotics)
- Developmental Problems
- Miscellaneous Adults
- Fishermen, Climbers
- Skiers & Organised Groups
Characteristics/behaviour of the category:
- Are they aware of the concept of being lost?
- Do they have navigational skills and sense of direction? If so, how good are they
- Will they respond when called?
- Do they have survival skills?
- Do they want to be found?
- Are they likely to panic?
- Are they likely to stick to trails and tracks?
- How likely are they to travel long distances?
- Are there any unique movements the particular category may make?
- What is their potential mental state?
- Are they likely to have taken drugs or alcohol or are they on medication?
- Are they likely to be aggressive?
- Do they have any physical impairments?
- How likely is it that this will be a recovery mission?
Where the missing are found:
The handbook details where missing people were eventually found in order to understand key location draws known as ‘magnets’ for the missing persons character type.
- Water / Water’s Edge
- No Trace
- Open Ground
- Building / Shelter
- Path / Track
- Forest / Woodland
- Wall / Fence Line
- Forest Edge / Clearing
- Stream / Ditch
How to find them:
The handbook specifies several tips on how to find the missing person.
- What is the search urgency?
- Should containment occur? Containment being a way of limiting the search area by placing searchers at potential exit points and the borders of the estimated search area (determined by the likely speed of the missing person). This limits the area which needs to be searched.
- Should trackers/dogs be deployed?
- Once specific magnets are determined – should they be targeted by rapid response teams?
- Are investigation interviews required? This enables a profile of the missing person to be determined.
- Is terrain analysis needed and should an aerial survey be provided to be able to plot tracks, trails, forest roads and any clearings?
I plotted the statistical data to show visually how the various characteristic types differed in terms of distances found from the IPP. I should say I did this to support the content of the blog but actually I just really really miss a good spreadsheet…
Adopting the handbook principles Jimmy has been able to support search and rescue missions, even pin-pointing a missing person to within a few hundred metres. It’s fascinating stuff and I hope to learn more as the journey continues. Perhaps I will find my own jungle adventures – watch this space!