Injuries usually happen upon descent. So it was on Sunday, 9/4/16 at the 4,420 foot level of Mt. Pilchuck. Five of us, all co-workers at A-1 Builders and Adaptations Design Studio, on a company dayhike, heard someone screaming in pain from above; close by. In moments we reached Patricia, a fit 59 year old Peruvian child psychologist visiting her daughter, Cynthia, an aerospace tech in the Everett area. The two of them, along with Cynthia’s friend, Emily, were descending on the trail, winding through a large boulder field. Perfect ankle twisting terrain; here’s what the trail looked like. The terrain won.
Let’s first put the hike in perspective: access to the trailhead is via the Mountain Loop Highway east of Burlington; 5.4 miles round trip; 2,300’ elevation gain; 5,327’ high point; the Washington Trails Association website rates it as ‘intermediate’: “Easily one of the most rewarding hikes in the area… gifts you 360-degree views of Mount Baker, Mount Rainier and the Olympics from its shelter lookout….”
Within seconds of reaching Patricia we knew her right ankle was broken; it was too deformed to be anything but. Check out the photo. Thankfully her skin wasn’t broken, but nearly so. In severe pain she was speaking Spanish with her daughter, reverting to the language she knew far better than English.
Although numerous people simply walked on by — although her distress was obvious — we didn’t. Looking back on the event it seemed almost intuitive and given: the 4 of us quite naturally went into rescue mode, instantly acting like a team. Why 4? Cathie, our 5th co-worker, was farther down the trail at the time, moving faster than the rest of us throughout the day. Being an avid runner, lean and very light weight, Cathie was chilling down quicker than the rest of us, so she kept a much steadier pace. She was long gone during the initial aspects of the rescue, probably at the car already.
We quickly determined that we had cell reception, so using our DeLorme ‘inReach’ satellite communicator was unnecessary. Justus reached 911 dispatch and they pretty quickly determined that it would be a chopper extraction. There was no place to land, and walking her out on a wheeled stretcher could take 4 hours. Not good.
Thankfully, Patricia hadn’t hit her head when she fell, and she complained of no other injuries. So we kept her stationary and scurried to get her… and keep her… warm. Soon we had her buried in a make-shift cocoon using every piece of clothing and mountaineering equipment you could imagine. Numerous hats, gloves, tops, pants, emergency blankets; chemical heat packs under her armpits. The cocoon also acted to visually shield her from view by the many through-hikers both ascending and descending. Although she had fallen, and remained, directly on the trail, we now looked more like a bunch of humans huddled around a pile of mountaineering gear at a garage sale! She was invisible now.
Still, she was shivering. As her ankle pain subsided it became pretty clear that our greatest challenges were hypothermia and shock: her stress was severe. Foreign country; foreign language; injured; lying on the ground in this cocoon, unable to see out; strangers coming and going…soon to be airlifted to some unknown destination. Scared is an under-statement.
Still, she continued in and out of shivering, as did Cynthia, later Emily, later many of us. The air was chilling down. If there was any positive aspect of the crowds on this popular trail on Labor Day weekend, it was this: lots of people were moving up ‘n down the trail through our clog, our cocoon. Sure, managing the foot traffic was an ongoing task, but these fellow hikers also had gear: chemical warmers, emergency blankets, extra food for those of us who stayed put. Nearly everyone offered up food and water but, thankfully, Justus knew we should keep her on an empty stomach and bladder in case she was to require surgery. Said congestion management included the erection of two barriers… ‘X’s’… composed of ski poles, just above and just below the accident scene: we had to eliminate the possibility of someone inadvertently walking right over us and striking Patricia’s leg. Indeed… a few close calls!
Through hikers included a nurse; then a doctor who stayed the course until Patricia was extracted; then Mike, who nonchalantly said… “Have you called search and rescue yet?”
“Yes”, we told him.
“Well, now they’re here. I’m a member of search and rescue. I just happen to be on this trail today!”
Mike whips out his search and rescue [SAR] radio. Dead battery. “Don’t worry; I’ve got a spare.” Whew! And as we watch Mike shift into gear we realize he has the full meal deal, including a high visibility, bright orange, full body emergency coverall. This dude was ready for this. Within seconds he was in touch with the sheriff’s dispatcher and the chopper pilot who was now, we were told, about 20 minutes away.
What about giving her any meds for pain? I had some pharmaceuticals in my wilderness 1st aid kit, so I reviewed its contents with Tom, the doc. He leaned strongly towards Hydrocodone, a strong pain killer, but neither Mike nor Tom wanted to take responsibility for administering meds. So Mike checked in with the chopper team, soon to be told that no paramedic was coming. Hearing that he confidently said “… give her one Hydrocodone”. Done.
Then we began to prep for the chopper’s arrival: pack up anything that can’t sustain high rotor wind; manage the hikers walking up ‘n down the trail… as well as the onlookers; calm Patricia down, and warn her of the impending process: deafening chopper noise; probable splinting; loading her into a litter; then lifting her by cable into a hovering chopper. [In retrospect I wish I warned everyone to put on eye protection, even if they were sunglasses that weren’t needed in the low visibility day. The chopper’s rotor wash made seeing problematic. Flying particles proved threatening.]
In the meantime, awaiting the chopper, Cathie re-appeared, hiking back up to us, having heard about the ordeal from other hikers reaching the trailhead. She and Cynthia lied down on the ground right next to Patricia, adding body heat and mucho caring. Even so, Patricia’s anxiety kept growing and growing. Competing with her anxiety, though, was her gratitude for those caring for her… we 5, Mike the SAR dude, Tom the doc. Although a bit reluctantly Tom complied with Mike’s request: given that we had now administered a pharmaceutical, Mike wanted Tom to stay put.
We were now ready for the chopper. The rotor noise began from afar, rising rapidly; a foggy, chopper shape emerged from the mist we had dealt with all day. Here’s our first view of the rescue rangers!
Mike, in his bright orange SAR suit, walked up the trail some, perhaps fifty yards away, so that the initial work wouldn’t be directly overhead. The plan: drop a rescue tech first, then the litter, then the second tech… to Mike’s location; they would come over to the cocoon; get her ankle splinted; wrap her in some heated mountain rescue garb; get her in the litter. Only then would they move the hovering chopper directly overhead. Then extract tech 1; extract Patricia; extract tech 2.
Amidst pounding noise and intense wind they succeeded… with perfection. Teamwork and technology at its best. Caring at its best. The pilot’s prowess was impressive, hovering precisely. That said, I sensed the danger all of us were in, given the intensity of what was unfolding. Their team was impressive, but here’s this chopper directly overhead, perhaps 100’ above our heads.
Equally impressive, in retrospect, was our teamwork as five co-workers. An unspoken assumption filled the air from the very first moment we came upon Patricia: we were here to help this injured and frightened woman make the best of this ordeal. We just did it, no questions asked. We stayed put and each of us did what we could; doing what we knew; offering what we had on our backs.
Almost immediately after Patricia was hauled up, up ‘n away Emily and Cynthia hiked down to their car with us, exchanging contact information and immense thanks. Sure, there was a lot of anxiety on Mt. Pilchuck that day, but the amount of gratitude matched, if not surpassed, that anxiety. People helping people. What had begun as a team-building day hike for our company proved to be a team-affirming day hike. We already, naturally, beautifully, behaved as a team… chock full of caring, something that seems to bind us all together here at work as well. We care. It showed. It worked.
We were well prepared… and proud of it.
Patricia was flown to Providence Hospital in Everett and required surgery: a plate and 5 fasteners. We learned that one of the reasons she came to the states was to do a 5K race on Saturday, Sept. 10th. She had been training for this for 4 months.
Cynthia decided to attend the race and then decide whether she’d participate in her wheelchair! Clearly, this woman is a fighter!
The day after the 5K event I emailed Cynthia about Patricia’s resulting decision and she said that “… she did go, but did not participate. She didn’t want to hurt herself even more. Here is a picture before the race. This was her first weekend out, and she’s been doing great!”
What’s to be learned from this rescue regarding preparation and planning? After all, it was just an innocent summer day hike, right? Why do I carry a day pack that many hikers think is a multi-night pack? A 65 liter day pack? Carry extra clothing? A first aid kit? Pharmaceuticals? Flares and smoke bombs?
What is appropriate planning and preparation? And it’s not just about wilderness travel. What’s in your car, for example, should the big one shake our ground while you’re at work, taking out a section of I-5, so that getting home to the other side of town is impossible for a few days? Got milk? What do you got?
That’ll be the topic in my next blog post, so stay tuned. Let’s talk about preparation and planning; how and why we were ready… because, it seems to this writer and mountaineer, shit happens.
[Images were taken by Cynthia, Cindi Landreth and Rick Dubrow.]