20161113: Mt. Haig broke my spine (Castle Wilderness)

We had a little too much fun scrambling Haig.  I’m happy to report we didn’t resort to cannibalism like survivors of a certain Andes plane crash, but we did spend the night spooning for warmth in winds and icy face-scouring snow. “We” was Darcy, Cat, Brandon, Laura, and Julie. And me.

This write up is meant to share my perspective of the incident. I may share my experience regarding hospitalization, recovery, and debrief recommendations, later.

Location of Mt. Haig
Where the heck is Mount Haig. Yes, by Castle Mountain Resort down by Waterton and the US border, not Castle Mountain up off the TransCanada : )

 

Is it true what happened to you?

1. Collision of nature and humanity

Here’s what Darcy told me later. I don’t remember exactly. We were descending from the summit at around 3:15pm, traversing across to the east ridge from which we’d ascended (we’d nixed descending via Gravenstafel due to conditions). During a step-down transition from rock to snow my spike caught and I tripped. Too bad that spot happened to be, um, kind of steep and icy.

I’d dropped my axe and wasn’t able to self arrest with spikes alone as the ice was too thick for them to catch. I slid down and off the snow/ ice slope and fell over two 10 to 15ft rock bands, approximately 300-400m total. As I fell over the edge the group lost sight of me and I cannot imagine what they were thinking and feeling. I felt my body gathering speed and saw rocks tumbling by in my line of sight. It seemed like a very long time and I braced myself for an explosion of pain and, frankly, an exit from this world.

But a small alpine bush tangled my legs, slowed my fall and I came to stop on a ledge. I remember being upright, ensuring movement in my toes and fingers, and looking down the next dropoff and thanking god that I didn’t go over it. Then I couldn’t do anything but lie down on my back, where I pretty much stayed for the next 19 hrs.

Mt Haig
Final summit ridge, on the lip of the continental divide

2. Call and answer

Darcy ran directly down to me, falling about 30m himself while doing so, successfully arresting, while the others picked a safer route down. Darcy pressed his SPOT and Julie made her way over to the ridge for cell service and called 911. Pincher Creek Search and Rescue (SAR) responded immediately and brought in others to  help (Crowsnest SAR, Kananaskis, Lethbridge, Banff NP, Waterton NP – please let me know if I missed anyone). These are world class organizations. It’s an understatement to say we’re so very fortunate to have access to their services. Castle Mountain Resort opened the ski lodge in assistance. Pincher Creek Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) later said it was the most complex rescue they’d had part in. This was also the first time Parks Canada had lent personnel to a rescue outside of the parks system.

SAR attempted to reach us by foot – helicopter was not an option in the gale force winds. We knew we were in for a wait, as we were sat at around 2275m up moderate (class 3-4)scramble terrain.

Mt Haig
Accident site. Julie’s photo

3. How to save a life

The group sacrificed clothes and an emergency bivy and stayed with me. Nightfall breathed chill from the divide. We hoped for relief from the wind and said things like “it’s supposed to subside throughout the night” without really believing it. Julie built cairns to help guide SAR across the steep loose terrain and kept up communication with the realm outside our snow globe. Brandon built a little wall in an attempt to keep out some wind. He chanted and told terrible jokes; Cat sang. Laura huddled her back against me and told me not to move. “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said softly. Darcy, on my other side, kept the bivy from blowing off my body by wrapping his arm across me as l held a piece in my teeth to keep my face covered. RCMP said they’d measured wind speed at 130kph that night down in the valley.

Occasional view of Darcy in ski goggles leaning over me, the sharp sound of emergency blankets flapping fiercely in the wind, heavy bulkiness, rhythmic chanting cutting through the roar of gusting wind, damp condensation on my face… Due to the slope I was slowly sliding down the mountain and the group helped pull me upslope a couple times; not an easy feat in the terrain and conditions.

Darcy said we must have lost track of time in the darkness. Brandon set off a flare and put his headlamp on flashing mode

Three SAR personnel reached us after 9 hours at around midnight and after several trials to get across the terrain. I was covered, warmed, and sheltered in a tent. Jonas Hoke (Waterton NP Safety Officer) fed me warm tea and stayed while the others, on initially shaky legs, but otherwise still well equipped with gear and skill, made their way down the mountain. SAR had tents and sleeping bags available at the base for the group should they have wanted, but they made it down to the road, were driven out, and decided to (try to) sleep at Cat’s place in Pincher Creek.

They got out at 6am. I don’t think anyone made it to work the next day.

Mt Haig
Late afternoon. They’ve wrapped me in a bivy. Brandon’s photo.

4. The weight of the snow

Jonas made sure I was comfortable through the night. He put my backpack against me as a marker to not slide down the slope. He would shovel me out of the snow (falling at 2cm per hour) on occasion because when it accumulated, the weight was heavy on my chest and pushing me downhill. The orange tent plastic hovered inches from my face, saved only from plastering me in wetness by the brim of my ball cap; Jonas would occasionally also open a zipper to vent in fresh air.

My heart rate was surging to around 100bpm and I shivered mightily though I wasn’t physically cold. I imagined I was back in the Drakensberg, that time also in early winter, when gale force winds forced a state of emergency in the coastal cities. My sleeping bag blew away; what ensued was the coldest night I have ever spent out. Even colder than a short bivy I once did in the arctic in Feb, at -30C+, and cold nights spent training for the arctic trip. These experiences were all, I suppose, a form of mental preparation for this, haha.

Under the heavy condensation my skin was puckered to raisin. I took off my sopping wet gloves, screw it. I had extras in my backpack but didn’t know where it had gone and didn’t have movement to feel around for it anyway. Feathers from my shredded down puffy stuck to the damp orange tent wall. My head hurt and Jonas removed my helmet, after asking whether I had any blood-borne illness. He ran his hand over my helmet but didn’t say anything.

In his interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. (CBC) Jonas said we talked about work. How sad. I wish I’d been in a better state of mind to connect over something other than work.

I had to pee. (Later I had a good laugh with female medic personnel, as they’d apparently been discussing/wondering how a woman does her business while wrapped in multiple layers, in a tent, maintaining c-spine,on a side slope.) Jonas gave me permission to pee in the tent. After some painful attempts to shift around and expose myself downslope (what I wouldn’t have given for a female funnel!), I decided the best method would be to pee into a towel or something absorbent. A tent zipper opened and Jonas’ arm reached in with a wad of toilet paper. Theoretically it would have worked and I was looking forward to relief but I couldn’t make it happen except for a small squirt. Ah well.

Mt Haig
Parks Canada photo of accident site, next morning.

5. Light of day

I did not feel unsafe but tomorrow was a long time. Jonas and I were bound by night and patience. Every two hours he would call in and report to an unknown entity, like as though we were on an outer space mission and I was being entertained but not influencing the storyline. He told me about various options for rescue, the most agonizing being a 3-day effort to lower me in a stretcher off the mountain, due to the lack of good rock anchor placement, and continued wind gusts hindering air access. I kept sliding down the slope off the mattress but I was able to reposition my head by pulling up on the brim of my ball cap. Repositioning my back, hurt. Delirious, I still thought maybe I could walk off the mountain under my own power. Jonas advised against trying.

Morning came.

Maybe you know Adam Campbell – he experienced a nasty fall back in October. In one article he talks about focusing on the sound of the helicopter as a way to manage head and heart. Well, I can’t express how incredible it is, after listening to the snow scratching against the tent, the wind and muffled voices, to hear …Can it be? The sound of a chopper. Yet I knew a quick exit wasn’t guaranteed; Heinz (the pilot) was working with visibility 50m and had to make several passes to locate us.

Every time the chopper passed by below I worked to moderate my hope. It was raining heavily in the valley and Heinz would have to navigate up through the clouds and into the snow while managing the wind. Once in a while I’d hear Jonas coordinating with Cpl. Feist of the RCMP. Two or three (I think) other SAR personnel arrived on foot and prepared to do… Something. I wasn’t sure what. They’d brought up a hypothermia kit and covered me in a heat blanket. I heard Jonas tell the new guys I’d refused tea because I didn’t want to have to pee. This is true.

In my pocket, my phone, on airplane mode, dinged in announcement of a text message. Weird.

Mt Haig
Parks Canada image showing rescue location

6. The valley below

All of a sudden, it seemed, I was moved and strapped and bundled and the tent zipper opened and slush fell into my eyes and I saw a bunch of winter faces looking down at me. It’s a really odd perspective; one is examined as equally by those peering down, as one examines what’s outside. After seeing only orange tent in proximity for the last eternity it was surreal, made more so by the hovering bottom of the helicopter centered in the round of faces and peripheral orange glow of the tent. I don’t remember anyone speaking other than Jonas apologizing for the slush on my face. As though I cared! Then just as suddenly the opening closed up, and I was being long lined, “dragged under the chopper” as one journalist put it, down into the valley below.

19 hours. Phew.

The medical effort was extraordinarily well coordinated. There was so much bustle, so many people at once doing stuff, taking measurements, assessing, asking questions, and all while experiencing that strange sensation of having clothing urgently cut off one’s body. Sound of cloth snipped, layers stripped, changes in temperature on your limbs, creep of chill, relief at wetness removed, voices. And you just lie there looking up at the kind brown eyes of the someone holding your head still.

I was taken by ambulance to Pincher Creek Hospital for initial x-rays and stuff. The staff were amazing and caring, gentle and calm. As I was prepared to be transported to Calgary Foothills hospital, “Wait, you’ve got a feather on your face,” a nurse said as she removed the down still stuck to my nose. Another nurse described to the paramedics what had happened. She said it was a drop, roll, drop. It was a true and concise description. I shivered inside.

Thank you to each and every one who had a part in keeping me well and wishing me well. I know there are so many of you. I’m truly grateful to all; those who play in the mountains to those who make their mission in healthcare, those from the Wet Coast to those in Onterrible, and those across the world. Love actually is… All around.

 

Mt Haig
My squad, defying gravity. Thank you; you don’t know how much.

 

I ended up having surgery on my back and, in fitting symmetry, on my neck (on my birthday, in the hospital where I was born). I’m currently resting and should make a full recovery with perhaps some small limitations in movement.

 

External links:

 

 

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2 thoughts on “20161113: Mt. Haig broke my spine (Castle Wilderness)

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