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SWAT team swarms over cliffs at Frazier Falls

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Members of the Capitol Protection Services California Highway Patrol SWAT team cross Frazier Creek bridge July 29 on the way to their training area on the cliffs adjacent to Frazier Falls. Photos by Laura Beaton
Laura Beaton
Staff Writer
8/13/2014

Rappelling hundreds of feet down the slippery rock face of a flowing waterfall was perhaps the most technical of the many activities that a Sacramento California Highway Patrol SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team conducted during a two-day training at Frazier Falls.
The high-angle apprehension unit specializes in removing protesters from trees, potential suicides from bridges and terrorists from tall buildings, and dealing with others who, either willingly or unwillingly, must be removed from high places.
When these subjects are armed, the situation becomes more dangerous and potentially volatile, making preparedness for such situations of paramount importance.

The high-angle ropes team from the downtown Sacramento-based Capitol Protection Services took advantage of a rare opportunity away from their usual urban environment to train in the rugged wilderness outside of Graeagle.

Quincy CHP Sgt. Austin Matulonis was the lead trainer of the Frazier Creek exercises. At the end of the first day of training, held Tuesday, July 29, Matulonis hefted a bag containing a 600-foot rope, weighing an estimated 60 – 70 pounds, onto his shoulders and began his descent down Frazier Falls.

His rope was securely anchored to a giant pine tree above the falls and he began his rappel with confidence. He said that feeling safe while rappelling has a lot to do with having confidence in your equipment and your teammates.

Matulonis has been part of the Capitol SWAT team for eight years and an obvious bond exists between the close-knit team of nine to 10 experienced men.

“I don’t fear the falling, it’s the sudden stop that I fear,” Matulonis said.

As he descended Frazier Creek’s 248-foot cascade with a vertical drop of 176 feet, Matulonis’ occasional whoops and exclamations could be heard from the team’s vantage point near the rope’s anchor.

Other team members followed his progress from the cliff near the top of the waterfall and one member viewed Matulonis’ rappel from across the canyon at the Frazier Falls observation deck. A signal system was in place to alert the next climber when Matulonis was off rope.

Even in midsummer, water flows down the narrow chute of Frazier Falls, created some 170,000 – 190,000 years ago through a glacial process called “frost wedging,” wherein, during warm periods, glacier ice melts and seeps into cracks in the bedrock. When temperatures fall and the water freezes, the rock splits apart, forming a series of steep steps through the granite cliffs over hundreds of millennia: Frazier Falls.

The water from Frazier Creek collects in pools, tumbles over sheer drops and sweeps debris into narrow crevices, making the descent by rope even more challenging.

The steep rappel down an active waterfall, in addition to precipitous cliffs, steep canyons and towering trees of the Frazier Creek area, offered prime wilderness for the ropes team to train in.

That’s why Matulonis, 41, chose it for the training exercise.

Matulonis said he used to be afraid of heights. But soon after getting on the SWAT team, knowing that he would have to rappel, he started climbing. About a year later, he climbed Yosemite’s El Capitan with world speed record holder Hans Florine and conquered his fear.

Now he’s a certified ropes trainer in high-angle apprehension and rough terrain access. Aside from providing continuing training for the Capitol SWAT team, another objective of the two-day training was to give an EMS (emergency medical systems) team the opportunity for rough terrain access training. Accordingly, a team of three EMTs hailing from the CHP Academy in West Sacramento joined in.

The focus of the two-day training included basic rappel, Australian rappel (facing forward), knot passing (getting past a knot in the rope), buddy pick-offs (using a second rope to “pick off” another climber onto the second climber’s rope), self-belay and high-line access (using a system of ropes and pulleys strung between two anchors to access a victim far below).

Climbing and rappelling has a language unto itself, and learning the names of the various knots, apparatuses, devices and individual items of gear as well as the terminology for specific techniques is critical for the team to operate effectively and efficiently.

Figure eight, carabiner, prussic, harness, three-in-one, pulley and many other terms are critical knowledge for the ropes SWAT team.

In the steep mountainous terrain of Plumas and surrounding counties, it is not unusual for vehicles to go over cliffs and land in the river. It could be a matter of life and death to have trained personnel with the right equipment available and capable of performing a rescue.

The Capitol Protection Services SWAT team might need to use their rope skills to apprehend armed intruders from tall buildings, but the needs here in Plumas County are different.

Thanks to men like Matulonis, the Capitol SWAT team and EMTs with rough terrain access, people in both urban and rural communities can rest easier at night.

About Matulonis

Sgt. Austin Matulonis has been stationed in Quincy since January, when he, his wife Dusti and their 2-year-old son Max moved to Clio. The family is familiar with Clio because Dusti’s grandfather had a cabin there.

Matulonis goes for training in Sacramento once a month to help hone his skills and stay connected to the high-angle SWAT team.

As a field sergeant in Quincy, his duties include overseeing day-to-day operations, supervising officers, reviewing reports and training.


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