"Things didn't kill me, but I don't feel stronger." ~Frank Turner
The woman we rescued in the below story wrote a book about her experience. She asked me to write a chapter for her book, which I happily did. Sadly, it didn’t make the final cut, so I’m adding it here for your reading pleasure.
I was three quarters the way to the summit of Mt Morrison when the pager went off. I sighed. This was my umpteenth time trying to reach the top of this innocuous little hill, and I really did not want to turn around again. I pulled out the annoying device to shut it up. I read the message.
Request for assistance for a carry out in Park County.
That sounded promising. At least I would get to do something.
Search and rescue has been singularly the most frustrating endeavor of my life. I joined for a very simple reason. I had been rescued from Longs Peak after my climbing partner fell. We had spent a very long night high up on that fourteen thousand foot mountain. I was a novice and convinced I would die that night.
Actually, I had spent most of the day feeling that way. I was in way over my head. It was a typical mountaineering disaster story: Over ambitious boyfriend dragging along his clueless girlfriend on a route neither of us had the skill to be on. I had fortunately taken enough outdoor classes to at least have what I needed: food, water, warm clothes. Sadly, my expensive, thick, wool socks were sitting on the dash of his car. “Leave them. You won’t need them.” Not exactly the truest words spoken.
I remember believing for no logical reason that, if I saw the sunrise, I would live. There had been a full moon for part of the night, but it had set behind the mountain. I sat, looking at the lights of Estes Park with envy and despair, thinking of all those people in their warm, cozy beds, happily ignorant of the two hapless climbers on Longs Peak.
The sun brought with it twenty some guardian angels in the form of a search and rescue team. They took us under their wings and back safely to our car, thirty six hours after we had started. All I could think about the rest of that day was how selfless these individuals were and how I wanted to be just like that. I wanted to be the one to say, it’s going to be okay now.
An internet search turned up a local search and rescue organization : Alpine Rescue Team. The timing was almost eerie. They were recruiting for a new class, something that only happened once every two years. An application and an interview and I was accepted into the class. Six months of training and a team vote and I was officially a member.
That’s when the fun stopped. As a new member, I was an “unknown”, someone with an unknown skill set, so understandably not someone who was often put in the field. Together with numerous stand downs–missions where the subject walked out before we arrived–and I found myself with a large gas bill and not much to show for it.
But I was raised with strong ethics. I had committed to this and I would do this to the absolute best of my abilities. So I went to all the trainings and attended as many missions as my job and life would allow. I slowly got better. I hoped someone noticed.
I looked again at the pager. A carry out in February would be long and painful. Add to that the prediction of a blizzard and time was of the essence. I am an endurance athlete. This was my kind of mission. I put the pager away and turned back to my car.
I had worked my way up the ranks of the rescue team enough to earn a handheld radio. I turned it on in the car in a vain attempt to hear anything about this mission. I drove on in silence. Many team members talk about how they mentally prepare as they drive, deciding what will go into their pack, what they might encounter. I preferred to let my mind be blank. It was counterintuitive but it was how my mind worked. I had learned it when I was flying hang gliders. If I over thought the situation, it inevitably ended badly. So I learned to trust my subconscious.
That and I never took anything out of my pack anyway. I train to run a hundred miles. I hike every chance I get. Most missions did not tax me in the slightest, so carrying a heavy pack made up for any training I might be missing. It was a running joke on the team–I never knew if that was a good thing or not.
I was pleasantly surprised to be one of the first rescuers on scene–that greatly increased the odds I wouldn’t spend the day sitting around. One of my favorite mission leaders (MLs) was there already and he shouted to me to grab my pack as I stepped out of my car. I grabbed it and headed over. One of the MLs just looked at me and shook his head. “Light and fast” is all he said. I returned to my car and pulled a few items out. When he did not look convinced, I told him the bulk was from a down jacket. He, I, and one other ML, headed into the field for the carryout. It was about 4pm.
I was briefed on the way. A young lady had fallen and broken her femur. Another agency had already secured her, and we were there to pull her via sled over the snowy trails of Rosalie Peak. She was somewhere around 13,000ft. A helicopter had located her, but had to leave because of an impending blizzard. I could only imagine her despair. The same had happened on my rescue, but I knew I could walk out. She didn’t have that option.
One of the advantages to being fielded with an ML is their radios–they have access to information the rest of us don’t. The conversations were confusing, but it soon became apparent that the subject was not only not secured, she had not been located. The MLs discussed options. Darkness seemed to fall quickly. We continued on the assumption that we would be carrying out the subject, but the mood was decidedly more tense.
That assumption lasted until about 8 o’clock, when we heard singing. “This Little Light of Mine”. Both MLs muttered quietly then jumped into action. One turned, looked straight at me, and said, “You’re medical. Go.”
I nodded. Medical is something I knew. Something I was good at. I had taken my first first-aid course at least fifteen years prior. Six months before that, I had found myself dangling from a tree, blood everywhere, unable to breath. I had crashed my hang glider into a tree. My friends were standing there, staring at me. All I could think was, “I am going to die while they watch.” A nurse who happened to live nearby was soon there, took control, got me out of the tree and I was able to breath again.
As the ambulance drove me to the local hospital, I vowed I would never be in that position, watching a friend die and powerless to help. I’ve taken countless CPR and first aid courses, before becoming an instructor myself. I moved to Colorado, fell in love with the mountains, and became a Wilderness First Aid instructor.
Now, I was facing my first, real, medical crisis. Everything I’d taught for twenty years seemed to desert me. I hurried over to the subject. I put on a positive cheery attitude. As I kneeled beside her, it all came flooding back
Scene safety. The blizzard arrived at the same time as we did. We built a shelter out of a single tarp. She and her friend were on the saddle and in the brunt of the weather. With no way to move her, it was the best I could do.
Subject rapid assessment. Broken femur. I knew that. Hypothermia. That was obvious. Vitals. She was so bundled up and so cold, I was afraid to expose any part of her to take a pulse. There was no way to see her breathing. She was alert and oriented. And terrified.
“It’s all okay now, right?”
It was the moment I had dreamed of for three years. My chance to say “It is all okay now.”
Except that it wasn’t. Not even close.
We had come under the assumption that she was packaged and ready to go. That was not the case. If it had been, her leg would be secured, she’d be in a “beanbag” to stabilize her, a thick sleeping bag, and a litter–a titanium, full body carrying device. She would have been warm and somewhat stable, and, while not the most fun she’d ever had, it wouldn’t have been too bad a ride out.
We had a beanbag and that was it. She was about to face the most excruciating experience of her life. Having broken seven bones in my life, I felt my nerves and skin rebel just at the thought of what lay ahead. I glanced down the trail I’d come up. I could feel the indescribable pain of bone against bone. It was four miles back to the trailhead. I had no idea where the litter was.
I took a breath. I had been trying to keep it upbeat, but I couldn’t lie.
“Actually, the next bit is going to really suck. But I promise, you will get through that, and then it will get better.”
Her friend, helping me out, said, “Oh don’t worry about her. She can do it. She runs 50 miles for fun.”
I looked up. A fellow runner. Suddenly there was a bit of brightness. Suddenly, I wasn’t lead medic in a blizzard in the middle of the night with a subject with the only kind of bone break that could kill you.
“Me too! I ran Leadville last year! Doing it again this year.”
“OMG! Can I pace you?”
I laughed. “Well, let’s get you outta here first, then, yes, definitely.”
The beanbag was laid out beside her. It was time for the torture. I explained what was going to happen. Her eyes were covered by goggles, but I could feel them widen. I took her head as lead medic. Other teams had arrived by this time, and there were four others, ready to move her.
For the next hour, all I can remember is the screaming. It’s what I will always remember most from the experience. We got her into the beanbag, and began the descent to the litter and eventually the trailhead and ambulance, assuming it could even get there in the blizzard. She begged desperately for drugs. There was nothing I could do. I was helpless.
We went slowly, stopping often to give her a little break from the torture, and allow the litter to get closer. I stayed next to her, shouting encouragements over the wind. She and her friend had been imagining a beach in Mexico to escape the bitter cold. I shouted about the sun and the heat and the sand. I could tell it was doing absolutely no good, but there was nothing else I could do.
I was at my breaking point. This wasn’t what I had imagined. I couldn’t tell her it would all be okay. It wasn’t. It was so much worse. I could feel the tears welling, but I pushed them away angrily. I had no right to cry. I wasn’t the one in pain. At the end of seemingly endless night, I would go home, and collapse in my bed. She would be wheeled into an ER and all the torture that brought with it. I kept encouraging her, kept telling her she was doing great, telling her it was almost over.
Finally, finally, we were at the litter. More teams were there–a call had gone out, requesting assistance from other teams.. They loaded her and her relief was as palpable as mine. It was still slow going. The trail was packed, but the snow was soft and deep on either side. To keep the litter going in the right direction, rescuers were forced to post hole on the sides. Everyone was struggling. I at least had snowshoes–most had left them, thinking they would not be needed. A team had brought extra pairs, but still some went without.
As they pulled her down the trail, I kept up as best I could. The adrenaline was leaving my body. It was midnight already and we were still at least two miles out. Other medics were there and I was no longer needed. I dropped back. At a mile out, the snow machines were waiting. By the time I got there, she had already been pulled out by a machine.
There was one machine waiting. Ego kept others from getting a ride, but I was beyond that. I gratefully accepted a ride out. No one could question my strength and abilities. I had given my all.
I thanked the driver at the trailhead, checked out with the ML, and got in my car. An hour later, I was home. I crawled into bed. I squeezed my eyes shut and pulled the covers over my head.
But I could not block out the sounds of the screaming.