FALLING ROCK-BLOCK PULLED OFF
New Mexico, Sandia Mountain Wilderness, Hail Peak
After breakfast and coffee, Sinjin Eberle and I set out to have a nice day for a multi-pitch 5.8 climb of Hail Peak on May 9, Mother’s Day. The weather was warm and stable with a storm possibly moving in later that evening. The Sandias typically keep many climbers away because of the long approach times and thick raspberry and oak groves. We got an early start and planned to be off the climb by mid afternoon with only a moderate pace. As many climbers in the Sandias can attest, the old granite is great to climb, but the amount of loose rock is a major drawback, especially on approaches to many areas. The primitive approach to Hail Peak is no exception, with a two-hour fourth and fifth class terraced traverse that steadily gains exposure as Echo Canyon drops below. I had just scrambled my way up some loose blocks and saw Sinjin about 40 meters behind so as to not risk getting hit by rock fall.
Sinjin asked, “How does it look?”
“O.K., as long as you don’t pull on anything too hard,” I replied. Then all of a sudden I heard a quiet, “Oh... Marc...” I turned to look back and saw that Sinjin had pulled an incredibly large piece of granite loose. He lost his footing on the sandy slope, attempting to balance the rock back into position for enough time to escape its path. The boulder expanded from the face and first crushed onto Sinjin’s hands, then it rolled on top of him. I tried to tell him to jump (out of the way), but it was clear that I was getting ready to watch a friend die. All I could see of Sinjin was from the middle of his shins down and the top of his head. The rock covered the rest of his body and was dragging him down the slope I had just crossed.
The ledge was only two to three meters wide that ended abruptly with some yuccas and a 50-meter cliff. Somehow, with the inertia of the rock (250-300 kg) and all of his strength, Sinjin was able to get the rock off of himself, but not before it clipped him in the back of the head, throwing him around like a rag doll. Blood was flying in the air from his crushed hands and torn open leg. I yelled at him to not move as he could have easily rolled once and gone the distance. He managed to hook a foot on a bush and maintain his position, as he was still remarkably responsive.
I have seen a lot of trauma from ten-plus years of EMS and I could tell already that the extent of his injuries would need a trauma center. Fortunately, I had brought a cell phone. With one hand I was calling a friend from the Mountain Rescue team and with the other I was setting an anchor so I could lower Sinjin off the rock. I called Steve Attaway.
“Steve, how are you?”
He knew me right away. “Good, how are you?”
“Fine, but Sinjin needs a helicopter to the West Face of Hail Peak, he’s been crushed by a rock.”
“O.K., see ya soon.”
Steve knew the situation was critical and didn’t dally around with details. He knew the right people to call at the New Mexico State Police and he immediately got the rescue team in motion. The call was short, but it was all that was needed and I had to save my phone battery for later. Meanwhile, I managed to assess Sinjin and see that his hands were crushed, bleeding, and useless to him. His leg was split open at the shin but not obviously broken, although he could bear a little weight and had numbness in his right foot. But perhaps worse were his arms and neck that were severely bruised. Crush-syndrome could easily ensue from the mechanism of injury, and organ failure was a real possibility. He was also facing the permanent loss of his hands or arms and major lifestyle changes.
We did all the medical care we could with a sparse first aid kit and then got him ready for a long lower. I could not do a standard pick-off because the only anchor was questionable at best and I had to back it up with my own body weight. So, after determining Sinjin most likely did not have a dangerous spinal injury, it was necessary to lower him off the ledge for a rescue team to gain access to him. Sinjin became courageous enough to be lowered off the cliff and was able to maintain most of his weight on one foot until he reached the bottom. Although he could manage this, he could not walk, and attempting to do so would exacerbate the situation. All fours were needed to get out of the canyon and Sinjin had maybe one -and-a-half at best.
Hours later, Jen Semon and Steve arrived with a rescue medical kit and we gave Sinjin a desperately needed IV and narcotics. Moments after that, Kirtland Air Force Base arrived with a CH-53 helicopter carrying a Para- rescue team. The winds were shifty at about ten to fifteen knots, but the down draft in that little vertical canyon made it seem like a hurricane. Sinjin was lifted by winch at a 35-40 degree angle with a tag line and taken to the hospital.
A ground rescue for Sinjin would have been complicated and absolutely would have taken into the next day. The storm that came in an hour after the rescue had gale forces that would have made it impossible for the CH- 53. This would have proven a bad outcome for his medical well-being as he would have most likely lost a major portion of his hands and possibly his foot, secondary to infection and sepsis. He spent an extra two hours in surgery to make his hands functional again.
What I learned out of this experience is that good decision making, being prepared, being lucky, and having good, fast connections all come together to escape disaster. Sometimes a safer route cannot be taken, so it is important to realize when the danger zone is present. It was a humbling experience for both of us to find ourselves at the mercy of nature, especially given the many years of climbing experience we have between us. (Source: Marc Beverly, Albuquerque Mountain Rescue, PA-C/Paramedic, and AMGA Certified Rock Guide)