I wonder if I can make it down alone, I asked myself. Probably not. I watched the blood already dripping through the jacket that was tied around my badly broken leg. I pondered the rugged rock walls surrounding me. This could be worse, I thought—I was fortunate that I didn't hit my head or break my back; and that the rope caught my fall. But it also could be better.
To distract myself from the pain and anxiety about my sister's safety, I rustled in my pack. I found some alphabet cookies. C-R-A-P, I spelled out.
GENERAL OVERVIEW OF CLIMB
Note: I wrote this accident report while I was still in the hospital, where I stayed for two weeks after nearly losing my lower leg in the accident.
At 5am, I pulled up at my sister Jenny's house in Seattle. We were on our way to what we planned to be a fun and relatively mellow end-of-summer climb of the North Face of Vesper Peak. We were at the trailhead at 7am and at the saddle looking at the north face of Vesper at 9:20am. The moats did not look like they would be a problem on the glacier below, so we decided to cross the glacier and do the entire route (rather than the ledge bypass that cuts into the route halfway in and is probably the more popular choice these days.) Once off the glacier, we began to climb the north face route. It was a bit wet in areas so we had to bypass on the right of the actual route. This was taking quite a bit of time, but we saw a reasonable way up to where the bypass ledge hit the upper route.
The accident occurred at 1pm. I was about 20 feet above the belay, on 5.7-5.8 terrain; I had set 3 pieces of protection, and was roped on a doubled 8mm. Suddenly, a rock flake I was standing on broke loose. I felt my left foot rotate inwards, either as my foot was caught between some rocks or the foot was torqued out by the rockfall. As I fell, I remember thinking "My foot is hurt bad. This is not good." I fell cleanly about 15 feet before the rope caught on my highest piece, which had not pulled. I looked down and could see my left foot flopping and my splintered tibia poking out of my lower leg. Blood and yellowish-white fluid was flowing, but not spurting.
I immediately asked Jenny to lower me down to a stand of bushes we had passed about 20' below where I could be somewhat safe and comfortable. I clipped myself to a bush. After trying to retrieve as much gear as possible, Jenny lowered down, clipped herself to the bushes, pulled the rope, and wrapped it around a small tree she would eventually rappel off. I was already starting to shake with the initial stages of shock, so Jenny helped me put on a couple of insulated jackets, a hat, and some wool gloves.
We quickly turned our attention to the foot. We were not sure to what extent it was bleeding (I later found out one of my arteries had been severed by the broken bones), so we created a couple makeshift tourniquets around my thigh and upper calf with slings. We decided to use an ice axe as a splint. I rotated the foot into place and Jenny wrapped a fleece jacket tightly around the foot and ice axe splint. This was quite painful and I could hear the shattered bones grinding together as I told her to pull as tight as she could. We also used crampon straps to cinch the fleece even tighter against the leg. Initially I propped the foot against my other knee with the tip of the ice axe that was sticking out, but I later tied my foot to the tree above me in an attempt to minimize the bleeding, which was a worrisome constant drip. I draped my legs with my rain shell to keep them as warm as possible. We transferred all of the food and water into my backpack, and I gave her my car key.
We discussed what strategy would result in the quickest and safest rescue. Jenny had a cell phone, but there was no service where we were. We decided that she should descend to the glacier, taking with her the rope and the gear so she could set rappel anchors as she went. The knot I had fallen on was cinched so tightly we could not get it undone, but it would be sufficient for rappelling. We estimated it would take her 3-4 rappels to get to the glacier. She would then hike up to the saddle and try to make a phone call if she could find a signal; if she could not find a cell signal at the saddle, she could try from higher on the ridge or try to hike out and find a pay phone. Time was of the essence, as dusk would be around 7 pm, and it was 2 pm by the time Jenny left me. A rescue would be much more feasible in daylight. I was pretty sure my foot needed immediate attention.
After Jenny left, I felt quite alone and exposed on the mountain. (Jenny later told me that after she left me was one of the loneliest times of her life as well; but it was her willingness to go get help alone that saved my life.) To keep myself occupied, I made words with some alphabet cookies I had brought. I fiddled with my camera, took some photos of my foot tied to the bush, and rustled around in the backpack deciding what I didn't want to leave behind on the mountain (eventually I decided to strap on the entire backpack so they would have to pull it up with me). I also ate most of the energy bars Jenny had left me with, mainly because it was just another thing to do other than focusing on the pain. There was a very real possibility that Jenny would not be able to alert a rescue team for several hours (in which case it might be a ground rescue since poor weather was forecasted for the next day), so I knew it was important to keep my wits about me. I wondered how I would keep myself occupied when my alphabet cookies were gone.
Fortunately, Jenny could yell to me the entire time she was making her way to the glacier and the saddle. She reached the saddle at around 3pm. Her heart dropped when she could not get a cell signal. So she continued up the ridge towards the summit, checking her phone constantly. Not far up the ridge, her efforts were rewarded when her phone showed a couple of bars of service. Jenny immediately called 9-1-1. When she mentioned this was a mountain rescue, she was transferred to SAR/ASU Sergeant Daniel Wikstrom with the Snohomish County Sheriff's Office Air Operations Helicopter Rescue Team. She requested a short haul. Daniel told her to turn the cell phone back on when she heard the helicopter, in case they needed help locating my position. It turned out that the coordinates from her cell phone were coming off a cell tower west of Arlington north of the Stillaguamish River east of I-5 as opposed to her actual location, but her verbal description of my location was sufficient. The cell phone call had been vital to the success of the rescue, as the doctors later told me I probably would have lost my foot had I been up there much longer; moreover, with the poor weather throughout most of the following week it was unclear whether an airlift could have been conducted the next day anyway. A cell phone had also proven vital on Mt. Terror the year before. (It is interesting to note that as Jenny was searching for a signal we heard the "whoop" of a summiting party. When Jenny yelled to them for help, they too pulled out their cell phones, but none of them could find cell service. Of all the phones on the mountain, only Jenny had Verizon, which I've discovered on previous trips is one of the only providers that gets scattered coverage in the Cascades. A GPS-enabled SPOT or a PLB would have been nice to have if we had not found cell coverage, but they lack the ability to verbally communicate.)
The helicopter arrived at 3:40pm, less than three hours after the fall. The short time from call to arrival was aided greatly by the fact the helicopter had been on a reconnaissance flight to Storm King and planning a body extraction. The crew and medical team were still at the airport and the aircraft was already refueled when Jenny's call came in. The rescue team consisted of Chief Pilot Deputy Bill Quistorf, Pilot Deputy Steve Klett, and Crew Chief Deputy Beau Beckner (hoist operator), as well as two volunteers from Everett Mountain Rescue, Helicopter Rescue Technician Ernie Zeller and Flight Medic Richard Duncan. Even though wilderness search and rescue is free to the lost or injured in Washington state, this has no impact on the phenomenal quality and effort displayed by the volunteers on these teams. The helicopter that rescued me, SnoHawk 10, was a Bell UH-1H Iroquois, commonly called a "Huey."
After identifying my position (they were a bit thrown off that I was the actual injured climber when I started to take photos of them), they dropped one of their party (Ernie) to the bushes below. Ernie attached me to a seat harness and by 4 pm I was hoisted into the helicopter. (Note that a hoist is slightly different than the short haul I had thought I would get: a hoist involves being lifted up into the hovering helicopter before it flies away while a short haul involves actually hanging below the helicopter as it flies away, which would have been more exciting but I'd had enough excitement for the day anyway.) Ernie had made me take off my backpack, but assured me he would bring it up with him when he was lifted just after me. The helicopter flew to Copper Lake below the north side of Vesper, where the team had dropped off some gear in order to reduce weight for the hoist; while we were on the ground, the flight medic (Richard) gave me some morphine and resplinted my foot. They then flew directly to Providence Regional Medical Center in Everett, arriving there around 5pm. I am forever thankful and indebted to the whole-hearted efforts of the SCSO AirOps Helicopter Rescue Team on Sept 14, 2010.
The Night of the Accident
During the time I was transported and then getting x-rayed at the hospital, Jenny called our parents to fill them in on the news of the accident, hiked out to the trailhead, and drove my car to the Providence Regional Medical Center. My parents arrived at the hospital shortly after Jenny, at around 8 pm. I do not remember the first night in the hospital, but it was quite a traumatic time involving three separate surgeries and nearly losing my foot.
The first surgery—which took about 1.5 hours—was to place pins, plate, and screws on the tibia; no plate was put on the broken fibula. The surgery was conducted by orthopedic surgeon Dr. Peter Kinahan. Dr. Kinahan's attention to detail would turn out to save my foot—as I was being awakened after the surgery, he noticed that my foot was completely white and he called in well-respected vascular surgeon Dr. Mark Papenhausen to take a look at it. Dr. Papenhausen reported that the two main arteries to the foot were damaged (one artery had actually been severed by the broken bones, but fortunately it was crushed and clotted enough that I had not bled out), necessitating immediate reconstructive surgery. I was put back under. In a painstaking and rather impressive surgery that took about 5 hours, he used the vein running down my lower leg to replace the damaged arteries. During this time, my parents were more or less resigned to the fact that I would lose my foot, but Paupenhausen commented that he was determined not to let this happen to a 27-year-old athlete. However, I was not out of the woods yet. With the renewed blood flow, the calf muscle began to swell up with blood; this is a situation called compartment syndrome. The swelling was so great that in order to stitch close my lower leg and relieve the limb-threatening compression of the nerves, blood vessels, and other muscles within the compartment, Papenhausen had to perform a fasciotomy, in which the fascia of the compartment was slit open to relieve the pressure. The slit opened to a 7" x 5" wound as the muscle swelled freely. (Over the next week the wound would be drained via a wound vac and would shrink a little, but it would still require a significant skin graft to close.) At 5 am, Papenhausen reported that the surgery was a success.
I had initially put my recovery notes here. But due to a series of frustrating setbacks and dangerous complications, I ended up creating a separate "Recovery trip report", a day-to-day account spanning the first year after the climbing accident. Recovering from this serious tib/fib fracture ended up being both the most challenging and the most life-enriching mountain I've ever climbed.
||Beginning the road to recovery....little did I know how long and windy it would be.|
Looks like a nut tool!
(You can also see the broken fibula behind, and all the staples over my skin graft as a result of the compartment syndrome.)
||My leg 3 weeks after the accident - looks like I got in a tangle with a meat grinder. The big round area is the skin graft over where my leg had to be split open when I developed compartment syndrome. The stitches are from the compound fracture, pin/screw insertion, and artery reconstruction. I was shocked at how quickly atrophy occurs.|
||Hospital distractions. Some sculpee clay would have been a good distraction on Vesper too.|
My leg at Week 8. At this point, I am unable to lift my foot up and the bones are still badly broken, but the skin graft is healing nicely.
Note the skin graft on the stuffed cat too. During the first few weeks of my recovery at my parents' house I passed the time by sorting through some of my childhood toys, and I discovered that some rats had eaten away most of my stuffed animals; my mom was able to salvage my favorite stuffed cat (named Coco) with a skin graft of his own!
I would be non-weight-bearing for 5-6 months.
Here me and my crutches are at Weeks 9 and 10, in Italy! Check out my Italy on Crutches trip report.
The recovery had several setbacks and complications. At 3 months, a bad infection necessitated immediate removal of the infected hardware in my leg. It was over half a year until I was off crutches, and several more months until I was "fully" recovered.
See my "Recovery Trip Report" for a day-to-day account spanning the first year of my recovery.
The rescue was in all ways a success, apart from the broken bones. Sometimes climbers are just in the wrong place at the wrong time. The outcome could have been very different had it not been to a number of good decisions and favorable factors:
- I was not climbing alone.
- We were roped up (doubled 8mm) and I had set good protection.
- Jenny and I both kept calm when the accident occurred.
- We made a gameplan for rescue.
- We were competent at first aid and anchors.
- Jenny was willing and able to descend alone to get help.
- I was resigned to stay on the mountain alone and take care of myself while Jenny went for rescue.
- We had a cell phone.
- Jenny was able to get to a place with cell service (Verizon).
- We had good weather.
- We had started climbing early enough in the day so that the accident occurred with enough time to get an airlift before darkness. My foot might not have survived the night due to the vascular damage. Plus, poor weather the next day would have made an air rescue impossible.
- The aircraft and rescue team was already at the airport and
refueled when the call came in, since they had happened to be on a
reconnaissance flight just before the call came in.
- The SCSO AirOps Helicopter Rescue Team crew did a great job at identifying my location and making a successful airlift off the steep rocky terrain.
- The surgeons at Providence Regional Medical Center did a great job putting my foot back together. If it had not been for Dr. Kinahan's fortunate observation of the lack of blood supply to my foot, I would have lost my foot.
- I would have climbed only the upper section of the route. The lower half—where the accident occurred—turned out to be loose, poorly protected, and not very aesthetic. We had decided to climb the lower section since we wanted to climb the whole route, rather than cutting in midway.
- I would have had a SPOT or PLB with me. Although the cell phone
allowed us to verbally communicate with the rescue team to let them
know the details of the accident and location, we were lucky that Jenny
found a cell signal. A GPS-enabled SPOT or PLB would have avoided the
agonizing 2.5 hours spent wondering if we could initiate a rescue that
day or if I would have to spend the night on the mountain. My foot
might not have survived the night due to the vascular damage. (Another option, albeit a bit above the typical climber's budget, is a
satellite phone; this would have allowed us to alert a
rescue team right from the accident site. Yet another option is a radio, although these tend to be line of sight and are of mixed use in mountainous terrain.)
Gear Lost During Accident/Rescue
Jenny had to leave a lot of gear behind to get safely down to the glacier when she went to get help. The rope—which might have been damaged in the fall—also managed to get stuck on her descent, but fortunately it was on the final rappel to the glacier. The following gear was lost on the climb:
- 60m 8mm rope
BD Cams: #2, #1, #0.5
Metolius Cams: yellow (size 2)
- Slings: 4 short
- Carabiners: yellow, red, and purple DMM carabiners, 4 neutrinos
- Other: Pants and climbing shoe (had to be cut by medic)
||First attempt at gear retrieval. The fog turned the team around. (Photo by Ian Derrington.)|
||Second attempt at gear retrieval. They got most of it, plus the summit. (Photo by Wayne Wallace.)|
Mountaineering Accident Statistics
Interestingly enough, about a week before I was involved in the mountaineering accident on Vesper Peak, I had written an article about mountaineering accident statistics (click link to see article). I used the data tables in the American Alpine Journal to make pie charts and cartograms displaying the statistics.
14.5 months later, I finally stood on Vesper's summit!
In December 2011, 14.5 months after I nearly lost my leg on Vesper's North Face, I again attempted to climb Vesper. This time, it was via the moderate East Ridge, as a snowy late-fall climb with a group of friends (click link for trip report). It was a rewarding day — finally I stood on the summit!