Accidents Happen: Rescue on Washington Pass
It's the weekend and it's time to climb! After a week of working long hours, and a disappointing Spring, the weather was finally warm and dry and it was time to go and have some fun up in Washington Pass. I have climbed here many times before, but I had a plan to come and climb all the Early Winter Spires in a day. So when the opportunity presented itself to spend a weekend with a climbing partner who had not climbed here before, I jumped at the chance to explore each of the routes and get the approaches and gear dialed in, so that when I came back in a couple of weeks I would have a good chance of success.
Leaving Vancouver BC and driving down across the border to Washington after work on Friday night, we took our time. After all, we only had a few hours drive to Washington Pass, where we would car camp in order to get an early start on Saturday, and cruise some cool routes.
In the morning we were not the first horse out of the gate, but we made good time up the trail and up to the notch between Concord Tower and Liberty Bell. We geared up and some nice folks in a group of four let us push in and climb in front of them. We started on Beckey's Route on Liberty Bell to get a warm up before we went to find something a little harder.
Racing up the three pitches and scrambling to the summit, we soaked up the view and celebrated one of the first alpine technical peaks that my climbing partner had climbed successfully. By now it was around 11am. It was time to get down and get on another route, so we made the down climb and two raps to the notch.
The routes on Concord Tower were the natural next choice but they were packed with teams, so we stopped and had a quick snack. We decided to bail back down the gully and travel across to the South Early Winter Spire, then work our way back towards the North. To make travel easier, we packed away the harnesses and the rest of the gear, then headed back down the gully. It is mainly 3rd class, but it is really loose; and when loose rocks start rolling they can make it all the way to the bottom, so it is best to keep to the sides and try not to knock anything down. I was using hiking poles and traveling pretty quickly and smoothly. Then it happened. I stepped, slipped, corrected, then "CRACK!" and I went down. I knew my leg was broken before I even hit the ground. What the hell was I going to do now?
Flashback - It's Thursday night and I'm packing for the weekend. Rope, rack, harness, helmet. What can I leave behind to save a few grams and take the strain off my wobbly old knees? Maybe I could wear approach shoes rather than light mountaineering boots? They are lighter and grip really well. But with all that loose rock in the gully, I probably want something that will support my ankles. The last thing I need is another twisted ankle! I did that a few years ago, after making the running shoe choice over boots, and spent hours hobbling back out to the trail head. OK, so boots it is. SAM splint? Errr, I guess if I find someone with a twisted ankle, they will thank me for having a splint. Climber’s tape, very basic first aid kit, Advil, super light silo tarp (just in case the headlamp goes flat). Don't need warm clothing, we won't be stopping for too long; we will be moving quickly all day, so that will keep us warm. OK, all packed. Bag is light, I'm ready to go.
So here I lie. It's 12:30pm. I'm on a steep, very loose, rocky gully and anyone coming down from above is likely to kick big rocks down on me. My leg is completely flexible between the ankle and the knee. I know both bones are broken and I presume there is more than one break. I do my best to straighten my leg and turn my foot back in the right direction, then place the SAM splint under my floppy leg. I use climber’s tape to try and support the leg between my knee and boot. By this time, a young climber who was just starting up a route, had heard me swear and called out to see if we were OK. I told him I had broken my leg, so he made his way down to us and offered to let me use his SPOT device to send an SOS. At this point I would like to apologize to his mother, because she would have received a call at the same time as Search and Rescue, to say her son was in a potentially life threatening position.
As the shock settled in, I was getting really cold. I put on all my clothes, all my partner’s clothes (I wish she was not such a small woman), put the tarp over myself, and tried to just shiver quietly. Todd, the young guy with the SPOT, helped me to move back up the hill a little, to a flatter spot, then build a platform to allow me to lie flat and raise my leg above the level of my heart. While this was going on, I gave my car keys to my climbing partner, told her where in the car I had hidden my phone, and gave her instructions to get back to the car then drive towards Winthrop until she got phone service; then to call 911 and give them full details of the injury, location, terrain, etc and ask for a helicopter evacuation, due to the location of the accident. Evacuation by ground would take all night and put many people in danger.
It is now just before 1 pm. My partner has gone for help. Todd's girlfriend has come down to join us while we settle down to wait. Just a few minutes later we heard "bop, bop, bop" in the distance. My spirits soared. I thought, “That was quick!’ But then, as they got closer, I realized it was just groups of Harleys coming up the highway below us.
I was taking Advil every hour and trying to keep hydrated, but I avoided eating anything, even though I was a little hungry, because I figured they would want to operate when they got me out of here; and that would be an issue if I had eaten.
The pain was bearable as long as I stayed still. The human body has an amazing capacity to endure. I tried to focus only on the positive. It was sunny, there was only a light wind, and it was early in the day with eight hours of daylight remaining. I was probably a little too casual, because lots of people coming down off climbs didn't really believe I was hurt, because I was just lying there and cracking jokes. Some girls coming down actually gave me shit for lying in the middle of the gully, making it hard for them to get by on the loose rocks. They insisted on coming straight down from above me, so I was in the direct fall line of the rocks they were kicking off. Oh well, at least I didn't get hit.
After a couple of hours, another group of climbers turned up. They brought good news with them. They had met my climbing partner just as she was getting to the car. At least I knew she had made it back down safely by herself, with her heavy pack. And now the SAR people would get the additional information that they would need to make a successful evacuation.
The next few hours seemed to take forever to roll by, but finally we heard the thump of rotors and spotted the helicopter on the far horizon.
This was the point in time when it was hardest to keep my composure. I always knew I would be rescued but now it was just feeling like it was going to be immediate and that I would soon be in hospital and getting the care I needed. We waved at the chopper as they came by, and finally, after a couple of passes, they spotted us and started to wave back. OK, guys, I’m ready, let’s go!!!
It is always funny how the mind decides what is real, without any basis of fact. The helicopter kept on circling, going out far in to the valley, going up and down, then slowly coming back over me, each time a little lower. In my mind, I expected the helicopter to lower a guy or perhaps drop some guys off below me in the valley and have them come up to me. Then they’d put me in a litter and lift me out of there. But that didn’t happen. They just kept on circling.
After 30 minutes or so I was getting scared and I said to the people with me, “I don’t think they know how to get me out of here!” If they just kept flying around they would surely run low on fuel and have to abort the rescue. These were the facts, as far as I was concerned.
What was really happening? They had too much fuel on and were trying to use a bunch of fuel up so they could hover easier at that altitude and do the lift. They were also waiting for the Winthrop SAR team who had come up the hiker’s trail on a motorcycle to reach me and make sure I was safe to fly.
Once the two SAR people arrived, they put an additional splint on my leg to support it. Then they called the helicopter and Brent dropped from the sky to come and pick me up. The wind was incredible and the rocks and debris flying around was quite dangerous, so it was good that we were all still wearing helmets. Brent and one of the SAR guys helped me in to a full body harness and tried to be as gentle as they could be. Personally, I couldn’t care; I was just keen to get it done. To hell with the pain, it is short-lived. Lift that leg and strap that puppy down. Let's get out of here!
With a quick thumbs up, we were gone, swinging through the air as we climbed and circled out of the gully. Free!!! We flew out over the parking area and down the road. Brent and I were slowly winched up, in a series of short jerks. Once inside the chopper, the doors were closed, they put the nose down, and made a quick dash to the Omak Hospital 125 kms away, where doctors and nurses had been warned of my approach.
Seven hours had passed.
The staff at Omak hospital were great. Everyone cancelled their Sunday plans so they could operate on me and Phil the ER nurse gave me all the best beta I could wish for, he has climbed all the Spires in a day many times before. Three days later, I was sliding into the back seat of my car for the long drive home, with some additional body jewelry (15 screws and 2 plates). I never thought I would be so into piercings.
The Autopsy What did I have in my head? Some years of climbing experience, first aid courses, rope rescue courses, helicopter experience in the mountains, ACC mountain leadership course.
What was lacking in my head?I needed more first aid training. There were simple things that did not come to me right away. For example, it took a while before I remembered the simple things, like getting the leg raised. If it was a compound break with heavy bleeding, I would have had a serious lack of knowledge. And if I was unconscious, I don't know what the others would have done.
What was in my pack? Rope, rack, helmet, sunscreen, bug dope, basic first aid bandages, Advil, SAM splint, lots of climbers tape, Integral Designs tarp (grey; I must write to them and suggest they carry yellow, MEC does not carry this in yellow in Canada), emergency-type hard shell jacket made by OR which fits in your pocket, hiking poles, and headlamp.
What else could I have had in my pack? I had the standard SAM splint which weighs 4oz. There is a bigger one that weighs 6oz; but I think for the extra 2oz, I would in the future carry two standard splints. One was just nowhere near adequate to stabilize a lower leg break. With two splints, if the weather was bad and conditions were dangerous, I feel it would have been possible, with the assistance of the people there, to be able to move a short distance to a better location; or if the terrain was better, maybe even self-rescue. I needed more warm clothes and an emergency blanket. If I had to stay overnight, I would have been in real trouble. Buy and carry a SPOT. It may not have saved me, but it did initiate the first steps of the rescue two hours before we were able to call in the details of the accident. By the time they heard from us, they were already getting people and equipment mobilized. I would choose clothing and emergency tarps based on their visibility; from now on high visibility is my first choice, fashion a far second.
What was my first mistake? I did not know the person I was climbing with, and yet we had more than 12 hours during our drive, dinner, camping, breakfast and approach to discuss what we should do in case of an emergency. We never had that conversation. The nearest we came to it was when I locked the car, and mentioned my car keys were in the top pocket of my pack.
What else could I have done? The obvious. I should have asked my climbing partner about her first aid training; asked about her rescue skills; asked about any allergies; and shared my details with her. Asked if she knew how to drive my car. Showed her where in the car I hide my wallet and phone when I am in the mountains and know I have no phone service. We could have written down contact numbers and taken notes on anything that we thought was relevant in case of emergency. I have gotten out of the habit of carrying a small write-in-the-rain notebook; it would have been very handy to have been able to make notes for when my partner went for help. She had to memorize everything under stress, including Todd's mother’s phone number, so she could call and let her know he was not injured.
Ideas? I wonder if it would make sense to standardize a location on jackets, or maybe inside a helmet, for a waterproof information card. It could include your name, DOB, contact numbers, allergies, organ donor status, whether you accept transfusions, your blood type, current medications, etc. Commercial vehicles have to carry a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher and there is a sign on the outside of the truck marking its location. Maybe a jacket sleeve pocket could be identified by a red zip, or some other markings? If it became an industry standard, it could save some lives. Or at least make emergency crews’ decision-making a little easier.
Talking to the US Navy Helicopter Rescue guys after the incident, this was their advice: Use a mirror or flashlight to signal the helicopter. (I had a headlamp, but I did not use it.) Protocols don’t allow for the use of your climbing harness to short haul but in a legitimate life-threatening situation that was time-critical they may use it. So if you have a harness on, keep it on. If you don’t have a harness on, let them fit you with their harness. If you have a non-life-threatening injury, why not pass the time preparing yourself for rescue? Remove the harness, and secure any loose objects, etc. Even your back pack is nothing but a nuisance to the rescue crews, so be ready to move when they are; and be ready to leave all your gear behind. Take your ID and yourself, everything else doesn’t matter. Be aware that in the rotor wash unsecured gear is dangerous.
Your Navy guys can drop in on you from up to 250’ in tight trees, so location isn’t a big deal; but try to think of their safety and get away from objective hazards if at all possible. Look around; are you under a cornice or something that could cause concern?
Biggest of all is, REMAIN CALM!!! Nothing will annoy your rescuer more than having you freaking out and fighting with them. Let’s face it, they train for this everyday and practice their skill often. They know what they are doing, so relax and enjoy the fact that now someone else is taking responsibility for you and is going to make the right decisions. Even if you feel they should make a different decision, shut up and do what they say. They have put themselves in harm’s way to save your life; the least you can do is show some respect. “Yes sir, whatever you say, sir” (Although if your saviour is a woman, calling her “Sir” could annoy her, so watch for that).
To quote Brent, the Navy guy who picked me up, “If the person is apprehensive about our rescue methods prior to us getting them into the helicopter, this can increase the effects of shock on the survivor, limiting our effective treatment time. Plus I don’t like it when people fight with me on the way up to the bird.” In a nutshell, you asked for help, let them do their job and help you.
Remember the Six P’s: Proper Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance
It’s true we all know we are mortal, but none of us really expect that anything bad will ever happen to us, and that we might die. However, when we leave the house, we should prepare ourselves for the worst so that we can enjoy ourselves the best. Take the training, take the gear, make a plan. All these things can make a huge difference to your comfort level, or the comfort of someone else, when things go wrong.
I was lucky:
- Early in the day, 8+ hours of daylight to work with.
- Clear weather, No wind, Warm temperatures.
- A helicopter was available.
- Someone (not from my group) had a SPOT.
- We were off the technical part of the climb
- SAR was only 100 kms away
- The break was not compound and bleeding
- My partner was not hurt
- I was conscious I had a SAM splint.
I can't imagine how much worse off I would have been without that 4oz piece of luxury! Now change any one thing on that list and the whole story would be very different! I took a casual approach to this day in the mountains. I had climbed there before and never had an accident, so there was no reason I couldn't do it again today.
Next time I head into the mountains, my decision making and planning process will be very different.
It is not that I made bad choices before, but if I can't learn from this warning then I might as well not have survived this lesson. The mountains can kill us at anytime with a simple shrug of its shoulders; so let's tread lightly and with respect for the environment that we choose to enjoy, understanding the danger and the complexity of the results of a simple slip.
Jason (and his OR family) offer special thanks to: Crystal, Todd, Veronica, Tim (thanks for the pics), Carmen, Twisp SAR, US Navy Widby Island, Omak Hospital staff.