My Broken Leg in the Wilderness
In August 2000, Nancy T. and I were climbing Curtis Gilbert via the Klickton Divide (SE ridge) from a camp at Warm Lake. We had hiked in the day before from the Conrad Meadows trailhead. The approach was something of a letdown initially, as there is a mile or so of hiking through active cow pasture, but by the time you cross the river and start up the South Fork toward Surprise Lake, it feels a bit more like a wilderness.
Photo by Brian, who participated in my rescue. The accident site is on the ridge skyline directly above Brian's head.
Warm Lake sits on an alpine bluff, 900 vertical feet above the South Fork Tieton Trail, through a hanging meadow at head of the bowl that is the source of the South Fork, about 1-1/2 miles past Surprise Lake. Its a nice camp spot.
Sunday morning we scrambled up the 500 vertical feet to the ridge, and began working NW along the ridge crest toward Curtis Gilbert. It was a beautiful day, and my eyes wandered to either side, to the right (north) across the Tieton and Conrad drainages, and left (south) into the Yakima Indian Reservation and the source of the Klickitat River.
Suddenly I felt my left foot rotating awkwardly off of basketball-size boulder, and glanced down just in time to see my boot flipped out to the left, perpendicular to my chinbone -- not good! "Shxx!!" (The universal call of self-acknowledged stupidity.) Nancy, seeing me tumble to the ground called out "Are you alright, Rik!" "Shxx!!" I replied, a bit more emphatically, as it became obvious to me that I had just succeeded in getting us into a potentially very dangerous situation.
Initiating the Rescue
Nancy and I were both trained in MOFA - Mountaineering Oriented First Aid, and knew pretty much what to do. Throughout the experience, we remarked at how matter-of-fact we approached the situation. After determining that no bones were sticking out, no bleeding occuring, ("Are you sure its broken, Rik", "Ahh, Nancy, I saw my foot flipped out at right angles to my leg, and now its completely numb. Yup, it's broken!") we elected to leave my boot on, splint the leg with my ice axe, while we developed a plan for the rescue.
There was another tent at Warm Lake the night we were there, but we had not made contact with the other campers. We could see both tents from the accident site, a bit less than a mile and about an hour's scramble away. Nancy left me with all her food and water (we had more in the tent), descended to the other camp, and sent Brian up to me with a stove, one of our walkie-talkies (we'd left both in the tent, figuring we'd spend the day together!), and my sleeping bag. So I was only alone for a couple of hours, taking my Ibuprofen.
The plan was for Nancy to hike down to the horse camp at Surprise Lake, and get someone there to ride out to initiate a rescue, but before she got there, she came upon a group of college students with their counselor who had a cellular phone. After hiking to higher ground, they were able to make contact with the sheriff, and she radioed back to Brian and me that the rescue was underway.
Brian and I sat and talked about the mountains. The accident had occurred around 8 a.m. Around 2 or 3 o'clock we finally heard a helicopter in the distance.
Rik getting hoisted into the Blackhawk. Photo by Brian
I handed Brian my yellow insulated pad, and told him to wave it so they could spot us. The only time I got emotional during the whole affair was when the chopper flashed its landing lights several times in response. Six years later I still get goosebumps thinking of that moment.
The Blackhawk dropped its paramedic down the ridge about 150 yards, and then went into station-keeping mode while the paramedic hiked up to us, checked out and approved my splint and the other preparations we had made, and briefed us on the pickup procedures. When the chopper came over to drop the litter basket (!), the paramed's first aid kit was blown down the snowfield. The paramed communicated this to his crew with his helmet comm-system, and the Blackhawk went down the ridge to spot the errant kit while Brian and the paramed prepared me in the basket.
Blackhawk hovering. Photo by Brian.
As I was lifted from the ground, the experience was mostly one of noise and wind, until I came close to the door of the chopper. Not long after the picture was shot, the pick of my ice axe caught in the door track of the chopper. The winch man (really an 18 year old kid!) didn't notice my screaming, but the paramed on the ground told him what was happening, and they untangled me and got me aboard.
Paramedic being lifted back to Blackhawk with Rik's pack. Photo by Brian.
The paramed was winched aboard, then we went down to retrieve the first aid kit, and then sped off to the Yakima hospital.
The rescue crew was from the Yakima Army Training Center. They had been delayed in responding because they were involved in another rescue earlier in the day.
My injuries were spiral fractures of the tibia and fibula ("tib-fib") which required surgery to repair. The tibia got an "intermedulary nail" ("my rebar") through the entire length of the bone, held in place by screws. The fibula was shattered into numberous pieces, and was held together with two plates and 8 screws. 18 months later I demanded that my surgeon remove the plates, as they were very painful when side-hill cramponing or otherwise putting outward pressure on the ankle joint. Removal fixed the problem.
The only long-term effects of this experience were that I refer to Nancy as my angel. I still love the mountains.
Postscript - Return to Goat Rocks
Klickton Divide, from the summit of Curtis Gilbert
In August 2006 I returned to Curtis Gilbert. This time from the west (Cispus Basin) side. My report on the West Route
to Gilbert Peak (aka Curtis Gilbert) is posted. I honestly did not avoid the Klickton route because of the accident. In fact I originally planned to revist the site of this mis-adventure. However upon reflection, I recalled that the Snowgrass approach is much more pleasant than the Tieton approach -- the thought of leading a bunch of my friends through a cow pasture to the scene of my mountaineering accident turned me to the west side of the mountain -- and it was a good choice.
Random spire on the 7500 ft traverse of the Gilbert West Route - Adams in the background Photo credit: Andrew
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