Our first day of climbing was at Pearly Gates, an area of Leavenworth with a relatively high concentration of routes in one small outcrop of beautiful granite. I had previously been to this area and was only too glad to return as it is such aesthetic climbing. Unfortunately I had misjudged the sun, and the crag didn't receive any direct sunlight the whole day. We spent a few climbs looking longingly over the valley at some of the other crags basking in the warm sun. Even at that though, the weather wasn't cold enough to temper our enjoyment, and we were additionally kept company most of the day by a mother goat and two kids. Goats in this area, as other areas, are keenly interested in salt by any means, whether from chewing on sweat soaked backpack straps or clothing, or by licking the ground after a climber urinates. The first time I camped in The Enchantments, just beyond Leavenworth, I awoke in the morning for a casual pee, strolled a few steps from the tent, and undid my pants zipper. The sound of the zipper must have been like a trumpet horn, as immediately a half dozen goats came running towards me from all directions!
The goats hung about almost all day, most of the time near us but later in the afternoon they climbed the cliffs above us and occasionally knocked down small rocks in their forays above. We took turns leading routes, and with no other people at the crag got in a fair bit of climbing in a short while. I was happy as I was able to do some routes this time that I hadn't been able to do on my last visit.
We returned to the car to an unexpected phone message; Susan was told that the course she had planned to observe was cancelled. Looking at her calendar, she realized the next option was in Boulder, CO—in four days! She put in calls there to see if there was a spot open, but as it was already late in the day had no replies. We decided to head to Bellingham, just three hours away, to visit some of my friends and await a reply.
Arriving in Bellingham Susan found out that the Boulder class was also cancelled, but then almost immediately received a call from another employer with an offer to go to Antarctica for two months, beginning as soon as possible. She decided to take this offer, but that meant heading home to Jackson. As we had already made plans to meet some Bellingham friends back in Leavenworth for the weekend, we headed there Thursday in order to get in a long route on Friday before everyone else arrived.
Our objective for Friday—my birthday!—was Outer Space, a six pitch moderate climb up a spectacular 800 foot face, about an hour and a half hike in from the trailhead. I had done this climb 2 ½ times previously: once with Sam; half a time with Brie when she had a freak fall halfway up the climb necessitating a long self-rescue; and once more with Brie to finish what we had once started. Today was my birthday, and after leading the first two easy approach pitches, turned over the leading to Susan. I had already led all the pitches on my last climb there, and wanted her to have the full enjoyment (she loved it!) of getting to head up first on the upper pitches.
The sun never came out as the forecast had promised, and we were a bit cold here and there on the climb but nothing could detract much from the spectacular climbing. There was one other party of two climbers just below us, and I chatted to Brian and Eric at a couple of belays, just soaking in all the scenery and the overall perfectness of the pitches. Unfortunately I didn't have my camera and kept forgetting to take Susan's so I could get pictures of the climb. The last two pitches are two full lengths of a perfect handcrack surrounded on both sides by chickenheads, some large enough to be tied off. What this means, for those non-climbers reading this, is about as enjoyable climbing as can be imagined.
We arrived at the top of the climb and slowly gathered our gear for the descent—it was such an enjoyable climb we wanted it to last forever. The descent consisted of a walk off down a circuitous and steep trail down the south side of the mountain. We would not be roped together, but we would be careful. The trail meandered back and forth over some exposed areas, and we were glad to be nearing the end of the day. Once back at our packs which we had stashed at the bottom of the climb, we would be able to eat and drink a little before the downhill hike back to the car, which we expected to reach just at dusk.
Nearing the very last steep and exposed section of rock at about 5:20 p.m., I was 10 feet in front of Susan and a little above the other two climbers, who had reached the top of the climb behind us but had, in the intervening 30 minutes, meandered down the trail slightly in front of us. Movement suddenly caught Susan's eye, and she immediately yelled “ROCK!” as an object came hurtling from above. It was indeed a soccer ball sized rock, dislodged from a couple of goats above us. Her yell was too late for me, as I neither remember hearing her yell or being struck on the back by the rock. The impact knocked me completely off my feet, and I began sliding down a scree-covered slab section of about 10 feet. Her yells changed to “HELP HIM!” as I disappeared down the slab and over a 20-25' drop-off, and landed amongst the rocks below. According to Susan, I never cried out after being hit, and the look on my face as I hit the ground and began sliding was simply one of wonderment and incomprehension. Brian, the climber closest to me, actually saw the fall and reacted immediately as a newly trained EMT, rushing to my side and cradling my head in a spine-neutral manner.
Brian recalled hearing the sound of breath being pushed from my body, and that it took about 15-20 seconds for that breath to re-enter. Susan rushed down as quickly as safely possible, and they took turns in monitoring my vital signs. As for me, I remember nothing about the fall but for two ephemeral thoughts: Quit pushing me; and Can I stop at this level? Those thoughts were nothing but two frames stolen from a movie, without any other context. The next 20 minutes were also a blur—I remember seeing the outline of the mountains, and thinking that I must be in Japan. I don't remember seeing Brian or Eric's face, but I remember seeing Susan's face and distinctly not knowing who she was. The word “Leavenworth” kept coming into my thoughts, but I couldn't relate it to anything. I did know my name, and knew that it was my birthday, but other than that I was coming up pretty empty on information. My face was simply one of concentration as I tried to comprehend my surroundings. I asked where I was and what had happened, and Susan explained very carefully the where and what. I gave this answer grave consideration, then promptly asked the same question again. And again.
Realizing that I needed to be moved to a location more suitable for safety and for monitoring and hypothermia and/or shock prevention, they located a flat spot just below and to the left of me and laid down some empty backpacks for insulation. Susan did a careful evaluation of my spine, and with my consent decided to move me to the more safe and
secure location. The pain in my ribs was almost unbearable, but Susan said that I either needed to move myself or they would do it for me, which she assured me would hurt worse. With their help, I was able to gradually get into a better position onto the bed of packs. The goats remained above us and for the next several hours (even until the rescuers eventually arrived) the occasional small rock whistled down into the bushes around us. This new position was underneath a slight overhang and protected us from any more stray debris from above.
Eric had called 911 within 10-15 minutes of the fall, and he now called once again for an update. He was informed that there was already a search under way for a missing climber and additionally a motorcyclist had been hit just near the trailhead parking lot and other personnel were helping with that accident. Resources were being stretched thin. A helicopter had been briefly considered, but with no good landing zone and with the cliff being too close for a helicopter to hover for a winch effort, combined with the coming nightfall, an evacuation by land was the only real option.
With this knowledge, Brian and Eric volunteered to hike down to our vehicles and bring back sleeping bags and jackets for our group. I was already covered with all spare articles of clothing that we had, as well as the climbing ropes, slings, shoes, and anything else that an inventory of our combined resources had uncovered. I had also peed in a bottle and kept it close against my chest for warmth. But with the potential for an all-night vigil, more insulation became critical. At about 7:30, after some discussion, it was agreed that the best use of resources would be for both Brian and Eric to descend to our cars, leaving Susan and myself together for the next few hours.
A number of years ago I had been in a motorcycle accident and badly damaged my ribs. Twice during that incident, I started breathing too quickly for my own good and panicked as I realized the rib pain would not allow me to breathe as much as I wanted. Fortunately an oxygen mask was available to help calm my breathing. Recalling that panicked feeling and knowing no help was available this time, during this whole episode I concentrated on keeping my breathing as calm and steady as possible. The next few hours alone with Susan were rather uncomfortable and I just tried to find a balance between “letting go” yet still staying in contact with what was happening with my body. To this end I refused any ibuprofen, rather wanting to know if the pain was worsening, or any new pains were developing.
Brian and Eric returned at about 9:45 with both sleeping bags and jackets, and the news that the rescue team was assembling in the parking lot and should be about an hour behind. The sleeping bags made a huge difference, as can be imagined! Though still not exactly comfortable, I was at last warm and took additional comfort in the knowledge that the evacuation would soon begin.
The rescue team arrived as expected around 10:40. Dr. Mark was the head medic, an ER doctor and climber himself. He gave me another exam and then, mercifully, a small dose of morphine and an accompanying anti-nausea drug. Several Chelan County sheriff department members and several Chelan Search and Rescue volunteers made up the rest of the
crew; Susan, Brian, and Eric were also integrated into the team. Brian and Eric rigged up the first set of anchors for lowering the litter, a process that would be repeated 5 or 6 times throughout the rest of the night. Susan was primarily responsible for manning and managing the rope itself.
We had to descend a steep slope to a creek and then back up a short distance to the main trail. The descent was overall not excessively steep, excepting one short exposed traverse. But the main obstacles were the numerous boulders and downed logs
littering either side of the small climber's trail. Handling the litter through all of this was a brutish job, and the team did an outstanding job of limiting the amount of jostling to the litter. I was just a passive part of the rescue at this point, and again I took the opportunity to distance myself as much as possible from the events.
Hours passed, and eventually we arrived at the beginning of the hiker's trail. As Dr. Mark fixed me up with another pain shot, a wheel was attached to the litter and the ropes and gear were packed away. Everyone took turns handling the litter, which may have been even more cumbersome now. Two more hours passed, and at 6:30 a.m. with one last section of pure man-handling the litter up a steep stepped section, we arrived at the parking lot and awaiting ambulance. We said our good-byes and went our separate ways for the time-being; me on a 30 minute ride to the hospital in Wenatchee, Susan to the campsite to find our friends and pack up our gear, Brian and Eric back to their camp, and the rescue crew back to their lives and hopefully a well-deserved rest.
At the hospital I underwent a series of x-rays and c-scans to various body parts. The total damage was determined to be a broken ankle, fractured ribs, fractured jaw, broken molar, mild to moderate concussion, whiplash, and various cuts and bruises, including one just under the chin needing nine stitches. Later that day I underwent surgery to repair the ankle, and came out with some nice new hardware holding everything together. Other than the previously mentioned stitches, not much else could be done.
Knowing that we had been camping, a cot was brought in to my room for Susan to stay on; one of the rescue team members had also offered her a place to stay just a few minutes from the hospital, an extremely generous offer. I spent the next few days in the hospital either sleeping, just waking up, or just getting ready to sleep. It was about 24 hours until the
whiplash receded and I could hold my head up by myself. The ribs caused the most problems—I could not really move around much by myself. The nurses and assistants at the hospital, and of course Susan, did everything they could to help, and I was actually pretty comfortable most of the time. Eating remained a problem, as the jaw fracture prevented me from either opening my mouth very wide or from chewing. But at least I didn't need a straw for everything!
I was in amazingly capable hands from the time of the fall. I cannot fully express my gratitude to everyone along the way—Brian and Eric, Dr. Mark, the rescue team, the ambulance medics, the examining doctor at the hospital, Dr. Vejvoda who operated on my ankle, the nurses and assistants at the hospital, and of course Susan.
Susan and I have spent hours going over the details of the incident. Although we knew there were goats in the vicinity and of their tendency to knock down scree, there was no warning of goats above us either from sighting them or from rockfall previous to the one rock that hit me. Being hit by a goat trundled rock is an objective danger, but should not be viewed as a freak accident or one-time occurrence. There are too many goats and too many climbers sharing these areas for a similar incident not to have previously happened, or to not again occur. The only freak thing about this particular accident was the size of the rock.
There were two main lessons we, as climbers, took away from this accident. The first lesson is to wear a helmet whenever near the crags in this area where goats can be expected, generally anywhere on the east side of Icicle Creek. I was still wearing my helmet at the time of the accident; no helmet, and the outcome would have been catastrophic. Unlike goats in many other areas, the goats in this area are attracted to human activity. At Snow Creek Wall, this means donning a helmet as soon as the crag is approached. At Pearly Gates, this means also not taking helmets off while waiting around at the bottom of the crags, unless a sufficient overhang is present. In one of my previous visits to Pearly Gates, a rock whooshed by my partner and I on the second pitch of a climb, and landed in the midst of some climbers lunching below. They looked at us, and we pointed upwards to the offending goat. Most of them had taken their helmets off while resting.
The second lesson is the importance of first aid training. Susan's Wilderness First Responder (WFR) training was at least as important as more advanced EMT training, which by nature assumes that the EMT practitioner has advanced medical support tools at his or her disposal. WFR training assumes that little or no advanced tools are available, and focuses on assessment, stabilization, and treatment in a remote setting. A remote setting is, by definition, two hours away from advanced medical support. But it doesn't take much to exceed two hours. We were only an hour and a half walk in from the parking lot, but ended up 13 hours from the ambulance.
I don't really have an ending for this post. The accident continues to define my life on a day to day, minute by minute basis. It will be some time before I am back climbing, or even walking normally. My running career is likely over. My love for the mountains has not diminished, but my desire to be more prepared has increased. Even before leaving for the autumn portion of this trip, I had signed up for a WFR class at the end of November. I urge all my climbing friends reading this to at least sign up for a Wilderness First Aid class. Do this for yourself and do it for your partner. You never know when those skills may be called upon.