FALL ON SNOW, UNABLE TO SELF-ARREST, FAILURE TO TURN BACK, EXCEEDING ABILITIES
Colorado, Rocky Mountain National Park, Mount Meeker
On Saturday, January 29, Eric, Ward, Ned, Arnold and I were planning on attempting Mount Meeker (13,911 feet) via the Iron Gates route that eventually diverges from the Chasm Lake trail and follows a generally Class-2 ridge to one of the summits. The weather was gorgeous—warmer and sunnier than we possibly could have hoped—and the high winds in the area had scoured most of the alpine area around Meeker and Longs Peak clean. The snowpack was hard and stable, so for the most part, we could not punch through and we did not have to posthole through the patches of snow that we did encounter.
We continued along the Chasm Lake trail as it winds around Mount Lady Washington and follows a path cut into a steep slope. The area is cliffed-out in sections directly off the path. These portions of the trail were covered in snowdrifts, making them trickier than in the summer by far. We took out our ice axes and some of us donned crampons. The trail eventually cleared out and we reached a snowfield above Peacock Pool that stretched to Chasm Lake. There were steps cut into it already from a previous party. The snowfield was steep (approximately 30–40 degrees) and covered the landscape in a large south to southeast-facing bowl that led to a boulder field below. We assessed other options to avoid crossing the snowfield. We discussed descending to the bottom of the cirque and climbing up the edge of Columbine Falls, or following a different path on the snowfield lower down. We decided to proceed onto the [icy] snowfield. Temperatures in the area were well above freezing the preceding day and well below freezing during the morning. Thus the early morning south-facing snow surface was icy.
Ned and Ward put on their crampons (Eric, Arnold and I already had them on), and Ward led us out onto the snowfield spaced ten feet apart, following the pre-kicked steps that were already there. Next in line were Ned and Arnold. I followed behind them with Eric behind me. After completing a mountaineering course this summer and gaining technical training with crampons and ice axes, I believed I would be able to arrest my fall if I were to slip.
At this point, the events of the day are very hazy for me. What I have managed to piece together is the result of the fast-paced experience I endured and the accounts of Eric, who was forced to watch the entire process in abject horror and helplessness.
Probably ten to twenty steps onto the snowfield, I fell on the hard snow. I found myself completely underprepared for arresting a fall. I gained speed very quickly and tried to flip over and weight my pick into the snow to stop myself. The pick scraped the snow, and then ripped out of my hands due to the force and speed of my fall. After traveling roughly 100 feet and picking up speed, I impacted a rock jutting out of the snow with the bottom of my left thigh. I caught air and continued another 20 feet into the boulder field below, where I finally stopped my fall.
The impact of the blow was reverberating throughout my entire body. Sharp, grueling pain began in my left hip and back and I began to go into shock and to hyperventilate. The hyperventilation caused my fingers and toes to tingle, something I had been told to look for as a sign of spinal cord damage. My left thigh had suffered a major abrasion (sic) through which I would eventually lose a pint of blood, but I did not notice at the time. At this point, Eric had run down the slope to me, and Ned, Arnold, and Ward were close behind. Eric took out his SPOT and asked me if he should press the button that would send for help.
Although the idea of needing to press the SPOT was unfathomable, I knew that I needed a backboard, and an evacuation. There was no way I could possibly walk down the mountain. It was roughly 8:00 a.m.
I was moved onto an insulated surface. Arnold and Ned began to head towards the trailhead with incredible speed and competency to call 911, asking anyone traveling up the trail if they had cell phone service. These travelers proved to be invaluable as they came across Eric, Ward, and I, and told us of our friends’ progress towards the trailhead. Arnold and Ned had left their warm layers with me, and had moved as quickly as possible to get help, call my parents, and send for a backboard.
Around 10:00 a.m., Rocky Mountain National Park Search and Rescue [rangers] made contact, and the next stage of the ordeal began. It would take me fifteen hours to reach the trailhead.
For me, the entire rescue was a series of jostling bumps, caring assessments, checking of vital signs, and half-conscious experiences. I arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 p.m., accompanied by the exhausted rescue teams that had worked so hard to save my life. The rescue teams had been working to evacuate me for 15 hours. I was immediately taken to the Estes Park ER. X-Rays were taken and I was cleared for movement. I breathed a sigh of relief. My spine was okay but I was confused by the unexplained and intense pain in my lower back that completely eclipsed the laceration in my leg. I was given Vicodin and kept in the hospital for the remainder of the morning: the doctors were concerned about the possibility that the muscle damage to my leg could cause kidney damage. By the morning, my kidneys were on the right track, but we discovered that my lungs had collapsed slightly from being bound into the litter for so long. (NB: Probably atelectasis, not true lung collapse -J.D. Forrester)
An orthopedist revealed that I had fractured my sacrum, the extension of my spine that connects to my pelvis.
The lessons that can be learned from this are complex and multi-faceted. As hikers and mountaineers, we often take risks and find ourselves in situations where we could have died. Had I failed to hit the rock, I would have hurtled into the boulder field full-force. Had I impacted the rock with my head, or anywhere near my internal organs, I could have died on or shortly after impact. Had the impact on my back been different, or the avalanche shovel failed to protect me, I could have been paralyzed or dead. For the first time, and hopefully the only time, I find that I not only could have died, but truly should have died in countless ways this past weekend. Also note: a SPOT device is not a true safety net. If I had suffered internal bleeding or a more serious injury, I would have died before I made it into town. The wilderness is not a button away from front-country medicine.
In the process of pushing ourselves, we often hear voices that tell us “this isn’t such a great idea” or maybe caution us of potential consequences if we miss a step. The situation I found myself in this weekend was rare, but we face situations where we gauge risk versus reward almost every weekend we spend in the mountains. I am pleading with you to have the courage to turn back. I know the pressure of trying as a trip leader to fulfill group expectations of grandeur, and I know the feeling of being a participant and not wanting to hold back a group. Travel with people you know would accept your discomfort and acknowledge objective hazards and respect them. If someone says they are uncomfortable with a situation, listen. Realize that the people you travel with in the mountains may be the ones who save your life. (Source: Rebecca Stubbs -29 from a post on rockymountainrescue.org) (Editor’s note: The ability to self-arrest a fall on steep snow varies with individual experience and skill, equipment, and snow surface conditions. While perhaps not obvious, it is well established that after falling on steep, icy snow, it is nearly impossible to self-arrest. An additional hazard, that did not come into play in this case is that when attempting self-arrest with crampons on, it is easy to catch the front points, which always exacerbates the fall.)