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|Weather||Cloudy but not cold|
|Mailed to WacList||10/13/2005|
About three or so years ago I enrolled and completed the MOFA course sponsored by the WAC. This is the same course as will occur next month. Since that time I have not had the need to apply those skills. On Sunday, that changed. |
A co-worker and good friend, Steve Olivier, slipped while down climbing an ice slope on the lower Coleman glacier, slid approximately 15 feet, and in the process suffered a break to his right leg (believe it was the tibia) near the ankle, several broken bones in the right foot, torn ligaments and tendons, and a decent puncture wound to calf. He was not going to walk out on his own. With the assistance of about a thirteen people (many of them strangers) we were able to execute a self-rescue and deliver Steve to a hospital that evening.
He underwent surgery Sunday night and after a day and half in the hospital, is now back home. He is not looking forward to limping on crutches for the next 12 weeks. This time, of course, does not include the rehab required to strengthen his ankle.
The plan was to visit the lower Coleman Glacier to top-rope a few routes and "boulder" on lower angle ice. The crew consisted of Steve, myself, Aaron Haran, his friend and climbing partner Paul. Arriving at the parking lot around 8:30 AM, Ira Rushwald spotted us. He, Jenn O’Neil, her husband Dave and a co-worker of Ira’s, Stefan, had happened to decide on the same day outing. How serendipitous to have four other people you know in the same area when an accident happens. Another six climbers nearby helped with the self rescue too.
The accident itself was not spectacular. The terrain on which the accident occurred, nothing to exciting: a straightforward slope with a small shelf in the middle (each half maybe 15 feet in length) and perhaps 45-50degrees at its steepest, much less near the bottom.. The run out was to a shallow bowl, meaning no one would take a wild ride down the glacier should they slip. The four of us front-pointed up the ice slope to the top of a crevasse in order to rig two top-ropes for climbing the steeper ice on another side.
After rigging the ropes, Paul and Aaron chose to rap down. Deciding it would be quicker to down-climb, I descended the way we came up and recommended to Steve he follow to gain further experience in down climbing lower angle ice. As Steve is fairly new to climbing and this was just his third time on crampons, I was coaching him on technique. “Always keep three points of contact.” “Be sure to get good pick placements.” “A good placement produces a ‘thud’ sound.” He was doing well.
Using an axe and an ice tool Steve did a great job down climbing the first half of the slope. He moved slowly but deliberately. He was a bit nervous but did not freeze or express undue concern. After a brief rest in the middle he continued downward onto the second half. At some point I looked away – to take in the great scenery, perhaps. I really don’t know. Upon returning my attention to Steve I saw him sliding down the slope on his left side. His boots with crampons still firmly attached were on the ground leading the descent and not in the air as they would need to be. Steve emitted no yells or shouts of pain. He told me later that he was not terribly worried as he knew the run-out was safe, which it was. The fact he was not *to* concerned meant he probably didn’t think to keep the feet up.
In total he slid more than 10 feet but less than 15. He did not flip or spin around during the descent. He came to a stop exactly where we expected. Looking down at him once stopped it became immediately apparent his right foot had an unnatural position relative to his leg. And so began the MOFA experience.
While down climbing to him, Steve didn’t say much. I asked if anything was hurt and at first he said no but a few seconds later expressed concern his foot may be broken. Arriving at his side the most visible issue was blood splattered on the snow around him and on his right pants leg. A quick inspection of that wound revealed a puncture wound to the calf that was also torn for about ½ inch in length. A flap of skin dangled down. It looked unpleasant enough.
Jenn O’Neil and Ira came over pretty quickly after I announced to Aaron I needed him over here to help Steve. Stefan came too. To deal with the puncture wound, Jenn provided the betadine for the wound. Ira applied a couple o butterfly bandages to keep the wound closed. I applied two sterile guaze bandages and taped them to his leg. Wound dealt with. On to the foot.
The only problem Steve reported was his right ankle, still in the plastic boot. He was moving his other leg and the rest of his body /o complaint. He was lucid and had no problem breathing. I asked him if he could flex his foot, which he did almost to full extension. The discomfort was minimal. Side-to-side movement, though, produce a large grunt of pain w/o much movement. We made a decision to move him off the ice and to our packs located perhaps 100-150 feet away. We would still be on the glacier but more on the rock and dirt debris that litters the edge of the Coleman. There we could deduce a plan of action.
Aaron and Paul were busy dismantling the anchors as it was apparent we would not be staying. They again chose to rap down, using another party’s rope.
To move Steve we assisted him in standing and with a person on either side provided balance while he hopped on his one good foot. This movement was tricky at first what with us still being on ice but it went surprisingly well. He hops well. Once at the packs we went about splinting his foot using a ¾ length Ridgrest of Aaron’s and Steve’s dismantled trekking poles. It worked quite well, actually.
At this point we had about 13 people to assist. There were the seven I knew: Aaron, Paul, Ira, Stefan, Jenn and Dave and about six strangers climbing nearby. The initial plan was to have Aaron haul ass down the trail to the Glacier Ranger station to report the accident and request Search and Rescue assistance. The belief was that with Steve unable to put any pressure on his right foot, there was no way he could hobble 1) across the rocky terrain to the bottom of the moraine; 2) ascend the moraine; and 3) continue down the trail 2.5 miles or so. But, Aaron’s cell phone picked up an (analog) signal and I called 911. The operator took the incident report after a bit of explaining of where we were. She asked that the phone be kept on and the line open. With a call to 911, Aaron stayed to help with the evacuation.
Given we had over a dozen people to help, our location being completely open to the elements, and no idea when we’d hear back from Whatcom Country Search and Rescue, we again chose to move Steve and attempt to reach the trail above the glacier. There, we’d again make a choice of where to go: either continue down on our own or head for the wooded camps and wait for S&R.
The same technique was used to move Steve: one person on each side and Steve hopping on a single foot. At times, additional people helped brace those using their strength to hold Steve. And those not helping Steve carried the packs of those who were. It was an excellent group effort.
Who knows what the hikers watching all this must have thought.
Reaching the top of the moraine went far more smoothly than anyone could have expected. Most of that was due to Steve. He was clearly suffering but grunted through it. He knew that at the very least being up in the trees would be better than on an open glacier. And if he could make it to the moraine, perhaps he could make it to the car? Rest breaks were numerous but we made good time given the terrain. Still, we wanted to get back to the car. No one from 911 or the Whatcom County Sheriff or Search and Rescue had called back in the 90 minutes since I’d made the call. Maybe that’s typical. Not sure.
Once back at the main trail, the option to carry Steve piggy-back style was broached. The trail is quite bomber. We figured with as many people as there were, we could swap him out and most certainly make better time on the trail. There was only about 2.5 miles of trail to cover. So off we went with Steve on the first person’s back. Aaron stayed with me as I attempted to contact 911 again. Once we entered the forest just down the trail, cell reception would certainly be lost.
Reaching 911 was not the simplest thing to do. Well, reaching Whatcom County 911 wasn’t. Initially I was routed to a 911 facility in Chilliwack B.C. I tried again but was connected to B.C. again. They routed the call to Whatcom. The only phrase from that operator was “Sir, I can barely hear you,” despite the fact I could hear her perfectly clear. She told me to call a 360 area code number which immediately put me in touch with Whatcom Country Sheriffs S&R dispatch. Finally!
A discussion ensued of the nature of the accident and the self-rescue being executed. In the end, I stated we did not need any assistance as we would be out long before anyone from S&R could even reach the trail head. With that behind us, Aaron and I raced down the trail to catch up. The belief the group would make better time carrying Steve was born out. The group was past the Kulshan Cabin site, down the switchbacks, and pretty darn close to the final creek and it’s foot bridge by the time we reached them. Aaron and I took our turns carrying Steve. All the jostling was taking its toll on him. But it was the right choice to carry him out and Steve was happy to be on his way out.
We were at the cars around 4:30pm. The accident happened sometime between 11am and noon. Through the help of friends and generosity of strangers, we executed a successful self-rescue. That rescue, though, took over a dozen people. What if there were just the four of us? It’s doubtful the same result would have been had or at least so quickly.
With Steve loaded into the back of Aaron’s car we made for Seattle and Northwest hospital. Given the injury was not life threatening at the moment, Steve opted to by-pass the hospitals in Bellingham and be closer to his family.
The experience of seeing a friend become injuried was difficult. Seeing him injuried in an activity I care for so much and one I've ecouraged him to pursue is more difficult. A question that comes to me is when is it appropriate for a new climber - or any climber for that matter - to tackle a higher level of climbing, to take on more risk?
Should the decision strictly be theirs and theirs alone? In the end, yes. We're all responsible for our own safety. But Steve was looking to me for guidance and I was providing it. Given that, should I then have wrapped him in cocoon of safety: sink screws, rig an anchor, rope him up, put a face shield on his helmet, etc? At what point is the novice climber ready to challenge themselves and ready to accept the risks that come with the challenge?
Thoughts/Observations of Experience and Accident
1) Having taken a MOFA course was good! The ER doc complimented us on the splint. We made a plan w/o the situation becoming a cluster. Executed the plan.
2) Regardless, I need to refresh the skills, particularly the steps/process for conducting the initial injury assessment. It has been three years.
3) Moving someone who can not walk w/o assistance over rocky terrain is exhausting for all involved.
4) The successful outcome of this incident was heavily if not completely due to having such a large number of people to help
5) The type of accident Steve had can happen to anyone.
6) The type of accident Steve had is more likely to happen to novice climbers. His experience of using crampons and in particular the front points is not high. This outing to the Coleman Glacier was partly for instruction.
7) The same slide on snow would not likely have had the same result. Sliding with crampons and a failure to get them off the ground was directly responsible for the broken leg/ankle