15 September, 2011

Worse-case Scenario

Worse Case Scenario:    

I get a phone call:  "What are you doing for the next couple of days?"  "Well, I've got some plans … why?"  "Miles has taken a fall near the summit of Mt Stuart and is hurt."

My good friend (and summer sub-letter), a strong climber, and an all-around great person was climbing the West Ridge of Mt Stuart.  500ft from the summit he pulls a rock free and falls 70ft over ledges, suffering a concussion, broken shoulder, lacerations, and broken ribs.  His partner, Matt, ties him off but is unable to climb down to him, not having enough rope.

What would you do?  You are three thousand feet up.  The weather is stable; you have no cell phone. Your only rope is now damaged and securing your injured partner below.  There is an easy descent route, but you have never traveled it and navigation on Stuart can be a bear.  If you are Matt Hoffman, you downclimb the West Ridge.  This, my friends, is incredible.

Once safely down and after scavenging a cell phone from a hiker, Matt initiated the rescue by calling 911.  Chelan County was notified, then, after much cajoling, Matt was able to get the operator to connect him to Snohomish County—our county, Miles' county, and thereby initiate our response.


I hung up the phone with Oyvind.  He told me to meet at Taylor's Landing (headquarters) for a possible helicopter insertion.  Luckily, I was already packed as I was planning a trip to Forbidden Peak the next day.  Anne made me the two biggest burritos in three minutes I've ever seen.  She was concerned for Miles, sad to not be able to go herself, and nervous for me.  At this point, there was no telling what would happen.

I drove the van to Taylor's and met with some familiar and concerned faces.  Information was slowly trickling in from Matt and Chelan.  An airforce helicopter was going to be launched.  Sandeep, Miles' roommate was there as well. 

As we started briefing, Sandeep made it known that he had just climbed Stuart in the last couple of weeks, and even a time or two before that in the last year.  He knew the mountain well.  The Cascadian Couloir is the easiest route up and down the mountain.  (This was the same descent route Matt Hoffman had considered.)  It was immediately evident that this was an extremely complicated (or challenging) mission.  There was simply no good way to lower him via man-power and riggin all the way down the mountain.  He was on the north side; first he'd have to be raised to the summit ridge and then lowered down "some" route.  What route I still don't know.

It was apparent that it had to be a heli rescue.  But counting on a helo is risky: there are so many things that can go wrong.  But helo at dawn was Plan A.

This was Sandeep's proposal:  Let's climb the Cascadian Couloir tonight, fast.  So if there is any problem with the helo we are already there; we can assist.  Our friend Kevin and myself were interested.  What could we accomplish?  I thought, first we can find Miles.  His exact location was still quite vague.  Second, we could give him 1st Aid and an examination.  Currently he had nothing but a puffy jacket, gloves and a hat.  It was strangely warm out, but there was no telling how much wind was at 88ooft, where he was currently crouching.

These were valuable tasks.  We knew that Plan A needed to work, and the helo didn't need us to do their job.  But … we could climb fast, we could find Miles and give him care until he arrived, and, if they didn't arrive, we were in position to do … something.


It was 10pm; it was me, Sandeep, and Kevin; and it was a plan.  While the rest of Everett Mtn Rescue ralleyed for a 5:30am mustering at a nearby helipad, the three of us loaded up my van and drove to Cle Elum and the Ingalls trailhead.  It was a two hour drive.  We needed Red Bull and food.  We packed and re-orged gear in the back as we drove.  We discussed options and possible responses.  We worried.

The airforce had made several passes and had been unable to find Miles until they picked up Matt Hoffman.  When they finally located Miles, he seemed to be lying in the snow and was unresponsive.  This was dreadful news.  It is inconsistent with self-preservation to lie in the snow without a pad because you will become hypothermic.  We didn't want to discuss the news.  We knew that Miles had had a concussion.  Matt had said that Miles would repeat, "where are we? … I have a broken shoulder" every twenty seconds.  Matt was forced to leave Miles before Miles ever regained mental clarity.  Perhaps he hadn't.

We reached the trailhead and hit the ground running at 1am.  We were light.  And it's not that we are fast, we just don't stop plodding along.  Even in the dark Sandeep's navigation was sound.  Kevin kept him to it on the map.  We ate; we drank; and we kept heading up. 

On any other day we may have grumbled about the shitty trail.  It certainly wasn't something you'd climb for pleasure.  Sand and scree and small rubble—we'd slide down as far as we'd step up.  By the time there was light in the sky we were getting to better rock, at least scrambling and rock hopping now.  The red light cam up behind Sherpa Peak and the Enchantments.  The going was much easier now and the anticipation of the hours before us outweighted the exhaustion of the hours past.  We made the summit without ropes, but didn't pause long for celebration.  We knew the helo was short on our tails and we still needed to descent the West Ridge to locate Miles. 

After several repels and some traversing we reached the West Ridge Notch and quickly saw Miles' blue rope made fast around a large boulder.  Sandeep was ahead while Kevin and I managed our rope.  "Miles … Miles" Sandeep yelled.  "Hey buddy."  Miles would later say that he was sure he was hallucinating.  After all, how could he possibly hear his roommates voice from the top of the ridge!  Our eyes were bright, smiles were broad, and our hearts were bounding.  We set up another anchor and lowered Sandeep down.

It was just that moment that we heard the "pup-pup-pup-pup" of the distant helicopter.  As it approached we saw SnoHawk 10—OUR helicopter (as opposed to the air force chopper of the night before).  That meant that Richard and Andy were up there.  And they were right over our head, hovering. The cable came down with a bag and it reached Miles and he detatched it.  SnowHawk 10 then flew off.

On the radio we heard the traffic:  "Miles, how you doing, buddy?"   "I've been better,' said with a happy tone.  Richard, the medic, checked Miles' consciousness to be sure he would be able to strap himself into the Screamer—a harness that can be tied directly into the hoist cable for evacuation.  SnoHawk 10 circled back around, lowered the hoist, Sandeep checked Miles' connections, and they lifted him off of the north face of Mt Stuart.



After time to process what was a very successful completion to our mission, we ate, drank up, and contemplated our descent—which would be long.  We reclimbed the West Ridge, which was fun as these things go, stood on the summit of Stuart—again—with slightly more joyousness, and then began our long plod down the long mountain.

It is worth mentioning that the route to the mountain from the trailhead is not a direct one.  Once we made the bottom of Stuart, we had to cross Ingall's Creek and then reclimb Long's Pass, which was sort of a funny add-on to a long day.  The river wasn't as refreshing as I thought it should have been.  We skipped food on the ride home for fear of becoming to drowsy to drive.  Traffic on the 405 and 522 was awful, but we said heartfelt goodbyes at the park-n-ride all headed home to big meals.  Mine was a monstrous pile of pasta.  I slept.  End of story.


Miles is recovering well.  He is out of the hospital with minor surgeries to his leg and bleeding in a lung.  All else is beyond the scope of this story.






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