Probably my worst day in the mountains.
It all started normal enough. I was taking a friend out for his first day alpine climbing. Let's just call him Dave. Not his real name but for this account names don't matter. In reality it is a relatively easy outing. Maybe 8 miles roundtrip and less than 2000 ft elevation gain. It was thankfully going to be a beautiful weather day. Our goal was climbing a 50 degree snow couloir that tops out on the summit of a local 10,000 ft peak with great views. I never gave it much thought as being a tough day. The trailhead was almost crowded with other groups mostly going ski touring.
The hike in was uneventful and soon we were heading up steepening slopes below the couloir. Dave was beginning to lag farther behind. It's not uncommon to open the distance between partners on non-technical ground. We stopped at the base of the couloir below a rock band. I again asked how he was feeling and he indicated all was well. I started up the couloir first and was enjoying the easy albeit mildly steep climbing. I waited a few times for Dave to close the gap but eventually topped out well ahead. I waited on the summit and shot some photos of him coming up. After about 30 minutes I heard him calling me in what sounded like a somewhat desperate voice. He indicated he was cramping. I down climbed about 100 vertical feet and had him remove his pack and hand it to me. We were soon on the summit and he again said everything was OK and his cramps were gone.
We took a long break, then started down the easy west slopes of the mountain. Dave was moving well on the downward climb. Once we arrived back down to the lake at the base of the peak I could tell he was flagging. Still, it wasn't a long hike back and he still said he was doing fine. As we hiked out I kept the distance between us relatively short.
I stopped again in some trees to wait. Strange coughing/hacking sounds came from the trees behind. I waited...no one came. I walked back to see Dave completely laid out in the snow. I talked to him thinking he was just resting. Gurgling sounds was the response. I touched his shoulder and there was no reaction and he was completely limp. I removed his snowshoes and when I removed his sunglasses his eyes were completely rolled back in his head. Something was seriously wrong. I removed the pack straps from off his shoulders and tried to arrange him stably on top of his pack. I removed the contents of my pack and put the pack under his butt. I then put my jacket on him frontwards trying to ward off any chill. We were slightly off the popular route back to the trailhead so I began calling trying to attract attention. I could not leave him and go for help. As it turns out it was a good decision. After about 15 minutes I could see his body tensing up and going rigid. About that time the first passerby showed up. I asked him to get back to the trailhead as fast as he could and try to find cell phone reception and call 911. I also asked that he request a helicopter medi-vac. Right after he left, Dave went into serious full body convulsions. The jacket I put on him came off almost immediately but there was nothing I could do to try to get it back on. I was struggling trying to keep him in place and that soon failed too as he thrashed about wildly and moving inevitably downhill. He got tangled up in the trees and I got him out once but then he thrashed his way into another. He was yelling unintelligibly everytime he convulsed which was every couple of minutes. He was completely non-responsive to anything in between convulsions. I talked to him in as soothing a voice as I could muster and his yelling had now attracted another skier. He helped me pull Dave out of the trees and I positioned myself on the downhill side now to try to keep him from going any further back down the hill. It was a a pretty good wrestling match trying to control his flailing without hurting him or allowing him to hurt me or himself. He had opened some minor abrasions in the trees and now I was painted with blood as well. Shortly, another guy and gal came by and offered yet more help. They were able to get another call through to 911 from just up the hill. The guy who had helped me pull Dave out of the trees now skied off to the trailhead to help direct in any overland rescuers. Before long (it seemed an eternity) I heard a chopper coming. They made several passes without seeing us. I called to the couple who remained to wave the red clothing that I had removed from my pack to try to attract attention. Finally the helicopter saw us and we were again fortunate in that they were able to effect a landing only a couple hundred feet away. This whole time I had still been wrestling with Dave and talking to him, unable to leave his side. When the helicopter was passing over I would point and say help was almost here. Quite a few additional helpers had skied back in from the trailhead. After sedating Dave, myself and the medical team strapped him into the rescue basket and with some of the other helpers carried him back to the helicopter and loaded him in. Relief that he now had help flooded me, but also frankly the dread of calling his wife.
I took no pictures of the incident but several of those that had helped were snapping photos of the helicopter taking off. I was busy repacking Dave's and my pack. A couple guys rearranged their packs so one of them could carry Dave's out for me. The Sheriff met me at the trailhead and I gave him some details then headed toward home. Dave was flown to Reno and I talked to his wife who had already been notified and was on her way to Reno by the time I was able to contact her. Joannie and I visited him the next day and of course he recalled nothing of the episode. He was released after 2 days and recovered fully. I had asked the names of the folks who helped me with Dave, but my name recall is poor enough under normal circumstances and in this instance the names were gone the instant they were uttered. If any of you stumble across this blog please accept my apologies for not recalling you by name but be assured that both Dave and I are eternally grateful for your assistance.
This is one of those WTF episodes that gets you thinking. Not so much about what I would do if I got hurt. More like, I couldn't even stabilize the guy and go for help. What if we had been in a more remote area? What would be the result if it had happened during the first cramping episode? How do I now feel about a SPOT or InReach device? No resolution to these thoughts have been forthcoming.
|Break below the rock band|
|Entry to the couloir|
|On the hike out|