As an outdoors woman, I know well the dangers of some of the landscapes I journey through, over, around. We go into these places accepting a certain amount of risk and preparing as well as possible for the eventuality that we end up in that statistical unlikelihood. This is what makes the difference between a positive outcome and a potential catastrophe (in this case, the difference between a broken foot and death). Throughout the experience, dozens of split-second decisions and other more methodical ones were made based on experience, training, and evidence that were key in achieving the best possible outcome.
Firstly, I had gone into a potentially hazardous area with another experienced climber. If you take out inexperienced people, you need more than one experienced person to join because if your expert ropes man takes a hit the the head and someone is dangling on belay, you’re kinda screwed. So the fact that we were both emotionally, physically, and logistically prepared was invaluable to the situation. Now, not everyone knows a Wilderness First Aid Responder and EMT they can call their friend! But still, we should take someone with skills along. And if we’re alone, we better have those skills ourselves.
Midstokke was incredible grateful to Priest Lake Search and Rescue and asked that people donate to the organization at Plsar.com — “They need some new radios for exactly this kind of rescue!”
We had a successful and safe climb of Chimney Rock (it’s just more than 7,000 feet with a nice little technical climb at the top) and were descending. We had spoken on our way up about the dangers of crossing talus field – the only way to reach the routes for a summit. The talus is just a couple years old, so there is scree and loose rock everywhere. We really were picking our way carefully down the slide.
I was ahead of my climbing partner, Jason Luthy, and reached to step on a large boulder. The boulder was so ready to roll, just my test pressure flipped it. This was unexpected because it was so large and the movement so fast. I slid down the front side of the boulder as it rolled, resulting in the initial nose and cheek break.
I tried to scramble out of its path and said to Jason, “It got my face.” I didn’t realize how bad that impact was until much later, because I was too busy trying to get out of the way. Boulders don’t roll like a ball, they kind of rock and tip and thump their way down things, with an eery sound of rock on rock. But I was already below it and surrounded by other rocks and the first impact had knocked me down a bit.
I felt it roll onto my foot, outstretched behind me then. It was, obviously, a rather painful experience, slow and heavy and crushing. I was face down on a pile of granite and I immediately tried to tug and let out a scream. The foot and ankle were so twisted, contorted behind me, I felt as though it might just detach. I yelled back to Jason that the rock was on me and I was pinned.
Jason couldn’t immediately approach because the area was unstable. He took a long way around to assess the situation while I said lots of intelligent things like “this really hurts,” and “we need to get this rock off my foot.” And then I went into shock, which is a whole new spectrum of body bizarreness I’d never previously enjoyed.
Jason made a first attempt to just physically push the rock up, but the precarious way in which it was laying made this rather dangerous. A tumble forward or any shift in weight other than directly UP meant my ankle and leg would be crushed. Likely in slow motion.
Jason unpacked our climbing gear and used two larger boulders that were distant from our fall line to create anchors, then roped the boulder. Using caribiners he fashioned a pulley system but we didn’t have enough gear or rope to achieve more than a 2:1 ratio – meaning he needed to be able to lift 2000 pounds from up hill – a feat not exactly human. Also, climbing ropes are dynamic and have stretch, which makes them less effective at such tasks. We left the ropes on the rock as tight as possible, also just to keep it from rolling onto me. We had a single trekking pole with us, and he placed it under the rock to try to lever it, but the slight (millimeter) movement not only made me cry out in agony, but threatened to break the pole (which would result in the rock coming down again onto my foot, crushing it more).
After about 20 minutes I remember saying, “I think I might have to cry.” Jason told me it was totally appropriate to cry in this situation. We decided we needed aid and determined that he would make the call. Our phones were off as we’d had no signal during the climb. But the signal angels were with us and when he turned his phone on, he for right through to 911.
This is what you call quite serendipitous in wilderness accidents. Usually, someone needs to go get a signal or you’re alone. Knowing full well we were in Grizzly rehabilitation country, I did NOT want to be pinned under a rock by myself all night. Needless to say, I was beyond thrilled that this wouldn’t be necessary.
When you call for aid, it’s best to keep things brief and give them pertinent information: 36-year-old female, trapped under large boulder, appears in shock but not bleeding profusely, location and possible access route. Jason happens to BE on search and rescue, so this also aided in communications. He received messages from time to time about when the team was departing. These little updates were good for morale, but it’s hard to keep a high morale when you know your foot’s life is on a limited time schedule.
I am a nutritional therapist and work a lot with bodies in healing. I’m also an athlete. This was not my first barbecue. I knew damn well that the likelihood of my foot surviving blood loss for more than six hours was low. And that was without knowing the extent of the injuries.
After we placed the call, our job was to make THEIR job as easy as possible by stabilizing me and keeping ourselves warm. I was still going into shock and jittering like an epileptic clown. Our big concern at the time was the fact that I have Hashimoto’s – a thyroid disorder that means I run colder than most. We call these ‘anticipated events’ – things we are extra prepared for. I had already changed into dry layers and had several with me. We needed to stave off hypothermia and the sun was setting fast. At 6800 feet, it gets cold quickly.
We built up some rocks beneath my body, emptied our packs, and laid them under me as insulation and for comfort. I was pinned face down, so that my right knee to foot were immobile, but I could move onto my side or front (must have been that yoga class I took the week before!). We put all layers possible onto my body and wrapped me in an emergency blanket. Because we’re prepared – and ALWAYS have one with us.
Jason left me there to get firewood. This was a bit of a risk because it meant crossing the talus field, but it was a necessary one. He returned with wood and we waited to start a fire until it became dark. He cleaned my wounds (I had a smashed and bleeding finger, bleeding on my face, and a nose that was getting visibly larger!).
Our next job was to monitor my health and keep my temperature up. In less than an hour the shock symptoms wore off and my pulse began to drop. We made sure I was hydrated, which also meant I needed to figure out how to pee while pinned to the ground (again, yoga and squats made that possible without a mess – not that you even care when you’re stuck to a mountain side). Eating is really important too, just to keep the metabolism up and temperature high enough. But it was still cold and we were still worried.
Those are the logistics of such an experience, and much removed from the emotional aspects of such an incident. It is unimaginably uncomfortable to be that vulnerable. There is the pain of the injury to cope with, the fear of what is yet to come, the impatience with rescue, and the discomfort of being unable to move. I tried to remain calm but I often grew restless, parts of my body cramping in the cold, my foot screaming at me or going dead.
At one point Jason adjusted the blanket around my body and asked “Do you feel that?”
I said, “What?”
And then I knew, he was poking my foot … and I did not feel a thing. Many hours had passed and we had not talked about the loss of the foot. I would ask questions like “Do you think I’ll be okay?” and Jason would respond with a stoic “We’re going to do our best to get you out of here safely.”
Because the reality is, you just don’t know and there’s nothing you can do to change it. I had grand plans of walking off the mountain. The Search and Rescue people called us and mentioned a helicopter. I was very upset at the notion of all this effort, but moreso a the reality that this situation was probably much more serious than I was willing to accept. And I could not turn to see my foot. Perhaps this was better, because I saw some pictures of its mangled shape later and I suspect it would have hurt to see it then.
What I did not do was panic. The pain in my ankle was too great for me to try to pull on it anyway. I occasionally had tears and I often felt very sorry for all the trouble everyone was going through to help me. When you go out with a partner or group, you make sure you’re prepared and reliable – NOT a liability. I had much guilt – probably more guilt than concern for myself at that point. I knew I was going to be okay, but possibly without a foot.
I should also mention that I called my mom after we called 911. I am a single mother of a 7 year old daughter (also an avid mountaineer) and she was with my mother at the time. My mother is a midwife – medical emergency is something she is familiar with. I told her I was entrapped. I said “I’m calling and I just want you to know that I’m going to be alright, but I need you to tell me that I’m going to be alright.” She did, then she stayed up all night googling prosthetic feet.
There was a lot of silence and checking in on my pain levels occasionally. It was a long eight hours before we saw the headlamps of the search and rescue. They had a very technical climb with a lot of gear to reach us. Jason left me to go around the cliffs and show them the safest route. I spent that 40 minutes in a lot of fear about the pain and danger of removing the rock. I knew it was going to hurt – probably worse than anything I’d felt so far. I also knew that it might not be possible to move it without breaking my ankle.
The Priest Lake Search and Rescue had sent up a rather fortunate (for me) team of volunteers. Among them were two firemen, a ropes expert, several extremely fit outdoorsmen, and two well-stocked paramedics. In all, eight men arrived. The ropes work was done beautifully and they used a 7:1 pulley system and two large iron bars. They fashioned a ‘diaper’ around the boulder with webbing, centering the point of lift so that when it shifted, it would move straight up. Two men positioned themselves to my right and left with iron bars so that if the ropes gave a little, the boulder would not come back down on me. And then Jason and a paramedic prepared to pull me out once the boulder shifted.
I remember telling them I was quite scared but that I would not tell them to stop. I didn’t even feel the rock lift, I just remember all the arms pulling me away and shuffling my stiff, cold body over boulders until I was delivered onto (quite literally) the paramedic. I already liked him because he was pushing opiates up my nose upon arrival, so this just sealed my admiration.
I asked them to unlace (rather than cut) the shoe. They’re my favorite pair of mountain running shoes. I was optimistically planning on running in them again very soon. The shoe was removed and a very sad, cold, grey, and crushed foot was revealed. Some toes were black and the thing looked rather lifeless. They asked me to try to move my toes. I stared at them for a while because I wasn’t sure I could cope with the outcome. I took a deep breath and told them to move.
And they did!
Nothing ever in my life, from running miles on a broken leg, to childbirth, to dislocated rib replacements, to visits to the garage dentist in Patagonia ever came close to the pain I went through after that. When that damn foot came back to life, it was angry. And I was strapped into a litter, being schlepped across a talus field at 100 yards per hour, swearing like a drunken sailor between fits of sobbing. It wasn’t possible to run a morphine IV until we were stable off the rock. It took three hours to move the 300 yards.
The Search and Rescue group were amazing, from their technical skills to their compassion. They train as volunteers and often go on some excursions with the U.S. Air Force, which collaborate in creating winter survival courses and the like. Many of them have had Wilderness First Aid Responder training (indeed, Jason Luthy is the owner of Longleaf Wilderness Medicine – a company that provides such trainings and others). Bonner County EMS may also respond with paramedics if they have the resources – I was lucky enough to get two.
Most people who volunteer for search and rescue have outdoor skills, but not all of them have the mountaineering skills. When the call goes out for volunteers to respond to a rescue, they state the basics: Female entrapped on Chimney Rock. This means everyone knows it’s a technical rescue and when they meet at the headquarters, they determine which are the strongest and fittest to go on that particular rescue, which skills and tools are potentially needed, etc.
What was most impressive to me was how efficiently this group of collaborators worked. They don’t work together every day, they come from different organizations, with different skill sets. Yet they knew how to operate together, communicate effectively, and initiate a plan of action methodically. I spoke to the commissioner (who runs our SAR) who said this is exactly what they train for. It is seldom that every aspect of their training is required in a single rescue, but my particular circumstances demanded that and more. And they did a damn fine job.
The Air Force offered to fly me out at sunrise. I’m pretty sure all those SAR boys were jealous as can be about that free helicopter ride I got! I think the ride was pretty amazing, but I was hopped up on a lot of morphine by then and just wanting to get off the mountain.
The x-ray results showed a pretty clean couple of breaks in the foot and a rather spectacular crush wound. The verdict won’t be in for some time, but I am optimistic for a full recovery. Right now, I’m pretty fast on crutches. There is a lot of tissue and nerve damage, and they’ll take longer to heal. In any case, I can’t wait to get back out on the rock – though I’ll wait until I’m good and nimble before I cross any more talus fields.