Loc: Bishop, CA, United States
The wind had blasted for most of the night at the Portal. "I sure can pick the days, can't I," Len smiled as we hugged hello. Loading up, I couldn't help but smile also, knowing that Len could easily kick my ass but that there was no pressure to "perform". Solid and steady, our group of four, Bill, Mike, Len, and myself, shuffled up the trail to the north fork turnoff. Ice lined the familiar steep curves through the trees, and we emerged at the first creek crossing in the sun, the wind suddenly calm. Ahead, the guys started postholing to their thighs, and I instinctively dropped my pack to don snowshoes. Time to show these guys the meaning of "trenching".
We paused below the E-ledges, noting that the north wall seemed to have filled in well enough to mostly cover the willows, but a party just ahead of us chose to cross to the slabs above the south side of the drainage. A nice track wound its way up to the knoll above Lower Boy Scout Lake, where we paused to regroup and rest in the sun, bundling up against a cold breeze. As promised to friends, my gaze focused squarely on the falls below Girl Scout Lake, and I grinned at the thick, blue ice coating the wall in cascades. But my eyes also caught the blue glow resting on the slabs leading to Clyde Meadow, and I started searching for routes through the treacherous ice.
Ponderously, we traversed the slope and crept uphill, alternately kicking rocks and breaking crust as we leaned into the weight of our packs. Len and Mike gained ground, cresting beneath the large boulders marking the right-ish turn towards the slabs. The group of three ahead of us had paused to trade out snowshoes for crampons, and then gingerly picked their way up, kicking and front-pointing on the ice. I saw Lenny explore the spot, coming back to get Mike, a newbie to all things winter. I squinted as I saw them cross a ways while still in snowshoes, and, for a moment, regarded my own shoe and the strap that had broken on one posthole or another that morning.
When I raised my head, Len was falling.
His snowshoes still on, he reached for his pack as he gained speed on the slick slabs. His axe was still attached, and he had hoped to at least flip his pack over to attempt at arrest. He never had time. Hitting a thin snow patch, he slowed, ever so slightly, and I yelled out to him. But the next ice sent him spiraling around, faster and faster, the edge of the cliff. With a bounce, he was airborne, dropping over the side as I watched helplessly from just below. He hit the final rocky section, then the snow on the slope, his pack and other gear coming to rest about 50 feet below him near a large boulder.
"I'm OK," he shouted. "Don't move, Len, I'm coming to you!" I returned the call. I looked up at Mike, shouting for him to descend exactly as he had climbed. I turned to Bill, behind me, directing him to Len's pack and to pull out his sleeping bag and pad as soon as he could. Scanning the scene to make sure no further debris was headed my way, I dove down and across the slope. "I broke my arm," he called out.
A few drops of blood spattered on the snow next to Len. I grabbed my down jacket off my pack and shoved it under Len for some sort of insulation against the snow, knowing the cold and shock of the event would soon settle in. Mike had passed under the big boulders, and I remembered his cell phone and the spotty reception in this area. "Mike, get on the horn to 911. Start a SAR for above Lower Boy Scout Lake." "Did you hit your head?" I asked. With an affirmative response, I went to work checking his head after gently tucking his hand into his vest for some support. "I need to lie down," he said. I grabbed my rolled up pad and placed it under his head as he lay back, checking his pupils for dilation. "OK, buddie, I need to splint your arm." I separated my pole into pieces, ripping off the snow basket. "You know, there are easier ways to see me naked, my friend," I smiled as I took off my shirt and flipped it into a single strand to tie the poles in place. Bill tossed the sleeping bag to our feet, but Len had already started to shiver.
I was working fast, but Len's shivering was working faster. Gingerly, we scooted down to a flatter spot below the slope, Bill pulling the pad and bag along. Mike called down from his perch, on the phone with the Sherriff's office, and asked about Len's head. "He's conscious, alert, and oriented," I yelled back, then cradled Len's arm again as we continue to drag ourselves to the boulder. Bill helped me scoot Len onto the pad, clearing as much snow as we could, then tucked his legs, boots and all, into the bag and pulling it under his butt so I could zip him in. By now, Mike had dropped to us as well, and went to work pulling out his own bivy and sleeping bag while I locked Len's pad into position with our snowshoes and axes. I asked Bill and Mike for something easy for Len to eat and any water or Gatorade as I checked Len's pulse and his eyes again. The shivering was lessening, but the chances of shock and hypothermia after such an incident were still very real.
Mike, an MRI technician, quizzed Len about moving his fingers and toes as I stepped aside for a moment to layer up and grab my own food bag and sleeping pad. The sun was hiding behind Thor Peak and, while the wind had fortunately died down, the air was chilled. Bill kept Len talking as Mike fed him, and when I returned I asked them to break out their stoves to melt and boil water to get something warm into Len. I checked and rechecked the snowshoe stakes, gently lifted Len's feet up onto my stuffed sleeping bag, which reduced his chill somehow. Working together as a team, we kept him comfortable and settled in for the wait.
"I know what I did wrong," Len offered. "I've been here too many times, trusted my being familiar with this place." His location for changing gear wasn't optimal, but with the crampons still attached to his pack, it was instinctive for him to grab for it as it started to slide. He said the fall wasn't in slow motion for him, that he could see everything he was hitting on the way down, when he would go airborne. "Where's my phone, anyway?" he asked. Good ol' Lenny: he wanted to turn on some blues while we waited.
"How's your pain, Len?" I asked. 4/10 was the reply, and he said he felt the splint growing a bit tighter on his arm. Probably swelling, I replied, and asked about his hand and fingers, which were fine. The familiar thwump, thwump, thwump of the approaching helo was a welcome sound against the silence of the canyon. Mike and Bill stowed gear in case of a basket drop to keep things from blowing away, but the chopper circled overhead twice before disappearing to the east face of Thor. An approach was attempted, but then diverted as adjustments had to be made to the craft to lighten weight and account for the downdraft. By this time, 3+ hours had passed and Len was suggesting that we start pitching our own bivies for the night.
We all looked up at the return of the pulsing rotors and saw the helo slowly entering the drainage and heading straight for Lower Boy Scout Lake. Mike and Bill, at the request of the Sherriff (intermittent calls on spotty service), headed downhill to help with hauling gear, while I stayed to keep an eye on Len. The chopper landed, then took off again and returned, dropping three Inyo SAR personnel and gear. Between 3:30 and 4, all had returned to the scene, and I was able to give report to Mike (EMT) and Julia (WFR). Paul arrived carrying the backboard and sled up the steep slopes, with our Mike hauling the oxygen and Bill the rope.
I gently removed my splint and assisted Mike2 with donning a SAM splint to Len's arm, then rolled Len to do a formal spine check, Julia at his head and protecting his cervical spine. Paul positioned the backboard as we held Len steady, and then lowered him into position. Lifting him into the sled, we covered Len with his bag again before strapping him in for a nice ride down to Lower Boy Scout Lake. Using a sort of running belay, they lowered the sled, winding between the rocks. Bill, Mike, and myself repacked our gear, having decided to hike out that night. Bill rigged a sling and 'biner to Len's pack and decided to try and drag it out. After over 5 hours in position, we slowly tromped down to Lower Boy Scout Lake, reaching the willows as the CHP helicopter lifted into the sky, taking Len to safety.
The trudge down the drainage had to have been one of the longest I've encountered. Mike and Bill alternated dragging Len's pack, even on the steep snow the covered the willows. Coverage was decent at best, and we slowly followed the snowshoe tracks of the SAR personnel along the northern wall. I was getting frustrated with the pace, even when I had Mike latch Len's pack to my own, but my mood started to lighten somewhat when we got back to below the E-ledges, and finally the lower creek crossing. I had been carrying Len's pack like a suitcase for a little while, so I cajoled the guys to strap it once more to my back for the final easy descent. In the dark, the ice on the trail reflected only the light of my lamp, and we picked our way down, at last, to the trail, and finally, the waiting trucks.
I led Bill and Mike down the Portal Road to Southern Inyo Hospital, where I found Len smiling away in the ER. With a deep breath of relief, I ran back out to the trucks to get Bill and Mike and some clothing for Lenny. A smile and a hug later, they were loaded for the long road home to San Diego, and I drove home to a hot shower and a fitful night's rest. I woke often, seeing Lenny falling over and over again.
Other reflections: 1) You may think you know an area, a mountain, conditions. You don't. Every time you go out, you will encounter something different. Once you are on your way, you need to be ON. A split second of loss of focus can mean your life, even "just on a trail". 2) Basic first aid skills could help save someone's life. 3) Before attempting to administer any sort of first aid, make sure the scene is safe. Mike was standing directly above Len after the fall, so I made sure to get him moving back down before approaching Len. Last thing we needed was another flying body. 4) It can't always happen this way, but try to ensure your spot for resting and possibly changing gear is safe and solid. If you don't feel right, find a better place. 5) Microspikes will NOT safely get you up the slabs to Clyde Meadow this year. Having so little snow has actually significantly increased the danger level on those slabs and will for yet some time this year. Also, the snow conditions are extremely variable: sugar to wind slab to breakable crust. Even in snowshoes, I wallowed a good bit up and down the route.
Many thanks to Bill and Mike for really following through with all my requests in a timely and efficient manner. It was because of solid teamwork that we got through this with a positive end result.
Thanks to Inyo SAR, specifically Mike, Julia, and Paul; Tim at the Sherriff's office; the amazing pilot of the CHP helo for some stellar flying.
I'll keep an eye on the Inyo SAR webpage for when they post a report, and repost a link here.
Some conditions photos:
The first creek crossing up the North Fork:
Just above the E-ledges turn, staying on the north side before crossing:
E-ledges from the opposite side of the canyon:
Coverage on the south side slabs was good, even a nice track. It will get icy after sundown:
Looking up the slope from Lower Boy Scout Lake:
Good overall view of the ice headed up to Clyde Meadow:
A party of 3 ahead step onto the ice, in crampons. Len's position for changing gear was near where the lowest person is standing. His slide took him straight down and off the right side of the rocks below:
Len's tumble path (stopped at the top of the boot track, which was mine after bringing him down):
Bill and Mike with Len at the flat area above LBSL:
Snowshoe blockade to prevent him slipping further downhill:
Bill beginning the pack haul (chopper is below):
Even in pain and bundled up, Len still knows how to have fun:
From the luckiest girl in the world, And to all my fellow adventurers, Climb Hard. Be Safe.
Loc: Bishop, CA, United States
Thanks, all! Akichow, I have debated about taking a WFR course for a few years now, but I think at least having basic first aid is a great place to start.
Steve, it took us about 4 hours to descend to the Portal, arriving there at 2130. Len had been taken to Southern Inyo Hospital in LP, where we found him around 2200. By 2230, we had loaded him into Bill's truck and they were headed home to San Diego.
I talked to Len this morning, and he said he was sore but not in a ton of pain.
I don't even have a basic first aid class, though I've been meaning to sign up. So I just did. REI offers weekend Wilderness First Aid Classes with the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS (I think the Sierra Club does as well). REI has a bunch of classes coming up, so I registered for a class in mid-March. Here's the info, for anyone in the Bay Area who is interested. http://www.rei.com/class/5638/market/160/12312012.
Loc: Orange County, CA
Laura, you made the following comment: 5) Microspikes will NOT safely get you up the slabs to Clyde Meadow this year. Having so little snow has actually significantly increased the danger level on those slabs and will for yet some time this year.
I don't have good snow travel skills yet. (I tried to take a winter travel course with Kurt this February in So Cal, but mother nature didn't send enough snow ;-/ ) Am I correct that what you are saying is that the mixed ice and rock are more dangerous to travel on than a blanket of snow over the ice and rock?
Loc: Bishop, CA, United States
Hi, Brent! I would answer your question by saying, "it depends"!! I know, kind of worthless, but its mostly true. Immediate, onsight assessment is really the only way to know about conditions.
But, consider this: as the seasons shift, and ice starts to form, water continues to flow over the surface, creating thick and slick layers. Now, typically, the air is not quite as cold *during* a snowstorm, and snow itself is insulating, so the surface of the ice becomes slightly roughened and the snow sticks to it. This was exactly the condition I found on both Mirror and Lone Pine Lake last December when I attempted to skate on them. Now, this does NOT imply that the ice is no longer slick.
I primarily made the statement because I hear of more and more people trying to "save weight" by taking microspikes instead of crampons. If that's what people want to do, then fine, but I would hope that decision is coupled with good judgement of what the equipment limitations might be. The spikes are GREAT on level, flat ice when stepping extremely cautiously (my other friend Brent and I used them while on the trail to Pine Lake) or on well-packed snow (I used them with Betsy on the switchbacks when we climbed Mt. Muir in 2010). Hell, I've even used them on well-suncupped, steeper snow, which raised some eyebrows with my good friends.
If the snow is condolidated and has bound well to the underlying layers, then it can indeed be a bit more stable. But that takes digging to the bottom and (wait for it) *looking* at the conditions. Sorry if I sound facetious, it's not meant to be snide. I think the greater point is that we each really need to take responsibility for ourselves out there and know *exactly* what you're getting yourself into. Even as part of a group, each individual is responsible for talking with the other members about concerns and questions and observations.
Oh dear, I'm starting to babble...
Actually, I'm hoping to hear from Dustrunner on this, as an experienced SAR person.
Loc: Bishop, CA, USA
Excellent report, Laura! You did all the right things in caring for Len. Inyo SAR could use you for rescues (if my wife would let you off work...ha ha). It's a good thing those guys had a competent woman with them...otherwise...
Microspikes: great for strolling around the backyard or the icy streets of Chicago, but not in conditions where crampons are more appropriate. (This is certain to raise conflicting, emotional opinions regarding micro-nothings...oops, I mean microspikes.)
Hopefully, a lesson learned about making sure one is in a safe location (or at least anchored) before making a change into or out of crampons, snowshoes, underwear, or whatever.
On any steeper terrain a couple of snow anchors and an 8mm rope might have come in handy...eh?