| SAR on Ellingwood Point
SAR Incident on Ellingwood Point
Note: I had removed this report previously. I have since changed my mind as it contains a few lessons and is a pretty awesome story.
Date of incident: 8/07/10-8/08/10
Party: tridehiker, monster5, rachel, Jane (alias)
Injury-extraction time: ~23 hours
I decided to climb the Blanca group this weekend since the weather looked decent and two 14er.com members, Tridehiker and Rachel, asked for partners. I planned to meet them at Lake Como around 21:00 Fri (left work in Denver at 14:00). The plan was to climb Ellingwood and traverse to Blanca on Saturday and I would solo Little Bear on Sunday. The girls called me Thursday and told me that a third, Jane (not her real name), joined and she would like to climb LB with me on Sunday.
After the 5 mile hike up Como Rd, I arrive at their camp at 20:30, exchange pleasantries, and we promptly go to sleep.
We begin hiking at 6am for the ~6 mile hike. Jane stops to use the bathroom after we leave tree line and the rest of us continue up a bench with a waterfall in order to give her privacy. Jane pushes hard to catch up to us while we are waiting on a rock rib overlooking the trail. About 50 yards below us, Jane calls out, slows down, stumbles to a grass patch and falls down. I ran/climbed down to her and saw that she was having a seizure. I cushioned her head as Tridehiker/Rachel caught up and Jane came out of her ~4 min seizure.
I found out ten minutes prior to the seizure, and Tridehiker and Rachel found out a couple days earlier in a similar surprised fashion, that Jane is epileptic and prolonged physical exertion causes her to have seizures. Apparently, she had a seizure (~6 min) on Challenger’s steep gulley a couple days before (telling the girls only a few minutes beforehand about her condition) and also on Como Road (~3.5 min) on Friday. After the Challenger incident, she continued on to Kit Carson during a lightning storm despite the insistence of the girls (who refused to join her) not to continue. Now, I am in no way attacking Jane’s character since I found her to be a very driven, enthusiastic person with an obvious love for the outdoors, but I do question her decision not to tell us prior to hiking about her medical condition.
We ask her to go back to camp, rest for a day (her goal was to climb all the 14ers this summer and she hadn't given herself much of a break) and try again the next day with more rest. This would also allow me to climb LB without a seizure-prone climber putting herself/anybody below her at risk. Jane was used to the seizures and appeared to recover fully after each episode, albeit in a physical and mental daze; hence, we were comfortable with having her return the half mile alone (which we knew she would just ignore, given her earlier decisions on Challenger), though we tried to escort her as well. The three of us continue on and see that Jane ignored our advice and caught up after a section of cliff-bands around 13k. Nothing we can do.
The trail is extremely hard to follow in this part (rock talus) and we separate - I head for a fun looking "Notch" to climb the class 3 ridge to Ellingwood while they start following a class 2 trail aiming for Ellingwood. Their trail takes them to Blanca while I climb to the top of the notch (13650) and climb up a wall to the left (class 3/4) and do the knife-edge scramble to Ellingwood. Apparently, there was a ledge leading toward Ellingwood out of the Notch at 13600 that kept the section at upper class 2 (becomes important later). I summit Ellingwood, down climb back to the Notch and find the southern ledge system leading to Blanca - the same ledge system that leads up Ellingwood on the north side of the notch but I still didn't know about that. I pass the girls about 200' below Blanca as they are descending. They've already recognized the first ledge system and begin the traverse while I head up Blanca and scope out the LB-Blanca traverse and take my lunch break.
As I began down Blanca around 9:30(?), the entire mountain echoed with Jane's screaming (seriously). I run/scramble down the ridge thinking that Jane had a seizure by the notch, fell, and broke something. I get back to the notch and start climbing up the wall I originally ascended. After I get around a rock rib, I see them 50 ft below me on the ledge trail (that I still didn't know about) and assume that she fell from somewhere higher. I down climb and find an army medic, DJ, arriving at the same time while a nurse and several others were already on scene. Apparently, she severely dislocated her arm enough where it couldn’t be re-set (the exact accident is a little bit unclear to me and I don’t know if it was related to her epilepsy).
In Jane’s state, there was no way we could get her down a class 2-3 down climb on very loose terrain and we notified SAR around 10am that we would need assistance. Everybody else leaves over the next few hours (including Tridehiker and Rachel – they had to get down the road before nightfall) and DJ, another nurse, nurse's boyfriend, and I (relatively useless compared to the medic and nurse at this point) stay and monitor Jane and prep flags for SAR.
It took SAR about 2 hours to get people to the bottom of Como Rd, 2 hours to ferry/heli-drop them to a landing zone at tree line, and another couple hours before their three strongest climbers can get to us. The time went by agonizingly slow and consisted of keeping Jane talking and as comfortable as possible. Jane goes in and out of shock (fainting/incoherent) from the pain and continues to have small seizures about every hour while DJ serves as the medic and keeps her stable. It took me by surprise how huge of an impact a patient's mental state has on everything - it was very important to keep her talking and warm so she didn't succumb further to shock. She was also developing altitude sickness.
We place her in a litter and wait for the rest of the SAR members who were supposed to be carrying ropes/hardware. Unfortunately, the sky finally broke loose with lightning and hail right on top of us. We witnessed car-sized boulders and rocks flying down the gullies near us and visibility dropped considerably. A brief lull in the storm allowed us to see that 2 SAR members were smartly retreating down the mountain and the rest were still making their way up. The SAR leader, nurse’s boyfriend, and I climbed down the cliffs to 13k and caught up with the two retreating members and saw that they only had one 200 m rope and no hardware since they expected Jane to be capable of walking down. The 3 SAR guys headed back up to Jane while nurse’s boyfriend and I run/scramble 1.5 mi back to their jeep at tree line in order to retrieve more rope and hardware. On the way, I pass about 3 more SAR members who were not in the physical condition to get up to the girl but were extremely helpful nonetheless with other tasks. I climb back up with about 80 lbs worth of gear while nurse’s boyfriend musters volunteers, warm clothes, and shelter (the nurse also retreated by this time). The hike back up took me a little over an hour and a half since I had to navigate/climb the cliffs by headlamp in fog aiming for their lamps.
So here's our set-up: 5 SAR guys, DJ, and myself at 13500 (they had managed to move her down about 100 ft while I was gone) with Jane, 3 weary SAR guys maintaining a campfire fueled by an old mine shack on a bench about 13k, 3 volunteers making their way up from Lake Como with extra clothes/food, 1 older SAR guy at the jeeps/helicopter landing zone at tree line, 2 (?) SAR guys at their base headquarters at the bottom of Como Rd, and a helicopter on standby. About the bird: it was a Flight for Life ‘copter based out of Pueblo that only had the capability of landing at the spot near tree line during daylight (everywhere else was too rugged). We were hoping for a National Guard Chinook that could land at night and on the more rugged terrain at 13k but none were available (we didn’t know this until about 2am).
We continue lowering Jane safely down with the added hardware; 2 SAR guys managed the ropes up top while 3 of us stayed with the litter/stretcher guiding it straight down the slope (50 – 80 degrees) and DJ carried the medic pack down and monitored Jane’s condition from afar (we had to stay spread out because rocks were sliding everywhere and visibility remained about 30 ft with headlamps). I stayed at the foot of the litter (downhill side) acting as the scout during short breaks and lifting the bottom of the stretcher while down climbing facing in (Process: climb down a foot, find good footing/dislodge the loosest material, lift stretcher and allow the rope guys to lower a foot, repeat). Overall, the high-angle portion was very slow and tedious (maybe 2 ft per minute) down class 2-3 terrain with extremely wet, loose rock. We reached lower angle terrain at a bench above the cliff bands at about 13,300k, took her off the rope and began carrying the litter. Soon after, the volunteers reached us and the SAR guys managing the ropes were able to climb down and help us. We managed to navigate down the cliff maze with 6 people carrying the litter (stopping every 30 ft or so), one person in reserve trading out with the older guys, and 1-2 people scouting out the best path in the rain.
A note on Jane’s mental/physical state: absolute hell. The screaming/yelling/pleading would not end (except during short seizure/fainting lapses) and we couldn’t give her Vicodin because vicodin cannot be taken with morphine (much more effective), which we expected the non-existent Chinook to have. Also, Jane had Crohn’s Disease, meaning that taking Advil or other anti-inflammatories could have bad side-effects (DJ gave her some sparingly anyways since it seemed safe enough, given the circumstances). When we finally reached the fire around 13k at 2:30am, we found out that the Chinook wasn’t coming. After warming Jane (and ourselves) up at the fire and recuperating, the decision was made to wait the remainder of the night out at the fire and carry the litter down the remaining 1.5 miles down to the landing zone at dawn. DJ gave her the vicodin and Jane passed out for a couple hours and stopped pleading for us to shoot her.
SAR managed to get in touch with their HQ and we found out that several more SAR guys would be arriving in the morning to help carry her out. It was 3:15 am at this point and I was absolutely exhausted and cold in rain pants/jacket over my normal hiking attire so I, along with 5 others, needed to bail and get to a warmer location (my sleeping bag at Lake Como). The nurse’s boyfriend (plus other volunteers?) made a trip up to the fire while we were carrying the litter down and dropped off enough gear for a few people to spend the night. One SAR member even climbed down and back up with more sleeping bags. I got to my bag at 4:15, promptly passed out and slept through my 5:30 alarm to help with the remainder of the carry (not proud of that…). I awoke at 8:40 to the sound of the Flight for Life helicopter flying Jane out and found out that the several other fresh SAR guys did make it up at dawn to help with the carry.
I slowly packed up, stretched out several kinks/sore spots, talked with DJ to make sure Jane was okay, collected her remaining stuff that was being looked after by a few guys at the campsite (it was separated/unpacked when the volunteers brought her bivy up to the campfire), saw that it was moved for DJ to take down to her car on his ATV, and started the long hike back to my car. On the way down the road, I passed a few more SAR vehicles that were coming up to help ferry people/equipment down.
Overall, I would estimate a total SAR presence (by mid-day Sunday) at ~25 volunteers and maybe 6 - 4wd vehicles plus base headquarters and helicopter. And these were all unpaid volunteers (except for the heli pilot). Those guys, DJ (who stayed near her the entire time), the nurse and her boyfriend, and several others did an amazing job in getting her down safely.
I did not get to climb Little Bear but I was rewarded with Goldfish left by Tridehiker and Rachel. Overall, it was a successful weekend in that Jane was brought down safely and a few lessons were learned in the process.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):