Sunday, 16 August 1998.
Climber's Ranch, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming.
[ Note: This dispatch covers just 24 hours, a full report of the Wind Rivers will follow. - David ]
Our alarm clock went off at 4 AM, but a quick discussion with Simon postponed our alpine start for another day. As people woke up, plans were made. Dave Oka and Mark Gallagher set out for a climb on a route on Easy Day Peak. Hilary Coolidge, Ian Springsteel and I set out for a hike around the various lakes to figure out what was where. Simon was under the weather, so he elected to stay in camp, as did Mike DiChicco.
The three of us had a relaxing hike around the various lakes. We started up one of the passes, but turned around when we hit step snow since we had left the ice axes back in camp. By Billy Lake we had fun bouldering on a set of rocks. Pretty impressive what a pair of approach shoes can do. Our exploring needs meet for the moment, we headed back to camp.
Arriving back in camp, I noticed that Simon's tent was open. That's unlike Simon to let the bugs into the tent. Continuing into the camp, more of the camp was in a disarray. The note left in the center of the camp made things clear.
The note stated that Mark had an accident and had broken his ankle. Dave was heading out to request a helicopter extraction. We were to bring a list of equipment up to accident scene. Dave had left camp at 1:30 PM and it would take him a few hours to cover the 14 miles back to Big Sandy Lodge. Initially in shock, we quickly sprung into action. We first used binoculars to spot Simon and Mike at the accident scene. Given that it was a little after 5 PM, we determined that we might not be able get Mark down by dark, so we gathered equipment to enable Mark, plus two others to spend the night out. Ian and I carried up a pair of sleeping bags, pads, bivy sacks, a stove, breakfast and dinner for three and six quarts of water. Hilary stayed in camp to prepare for our return and to coordinate with any arriving help.
Ian and I hiked across the talus field and scrambled up the slope to the base of the climb Dave and Mark had been on. By this point it was 6 PM, and Simon and Mike had successfully lowered Mark off the climbing route. Mark was in very good spirits all things considered. We were quickly brought up to speed on the situation.
At approximately 11 PM, Dave was belaying Mark up the first pitch. Near the end of the first pitch, Mark had grabbed a hold to pull himself up and over the lip. What Mark grabbed was not a solid piece of rock, rather a loose boulder. As he pulled on the boulder, it came loose falling towards his face and chest. Mark pushed the rock away from his chest and it slamed into his legs. Dave arrested Mark's fall with a body belay. Mark started swearing and said that he was hurt. Dave lowered Mark to a lower ledge, then rapelled down to Mark.
During this sequence, Mike had been in camp watching Mark climb. Mike believes he has pictures of Mark falling and the boulder crashing into the ground far below. Mike and Simon sprung into action and were quickly on the scene. Mike's previous EMT and SOLO wilderness first aid training was put to the test. Mark's left ankle was cut to the bone, and the right leg had a possible compound fracture. Mike stopped the bleeding, then using a Thermarest pad (inflatable foam sleeping pad), Crazy Creek chair (foam camp chair) and duct tape made an impressive splint. Simon used his training from the New Zeland Search and Rescue team to prepare for lowering Mark off the route. The decision was made for Dave to rapel down and head out for help. Once Mark's injuries were stabilized, Mike and Simon began lowering him. Simon belayed Mark from above, while Mike rapelled down the cliff with Mark hanging between his legs. The entire process was awkward and stressful for all involved.
With Ian and I on the scene, we began the process of getting Mark down the approach of the climb. Even though the approach wasn't technical, it was still steep and slow getting Mark down. We used several techniques. In the steepest sections, Mike would rapel with Mark. In less steep sections, we would assist Mark crab walk down. At approximately 7 PM, a backcountry ranger from the Forest Service arrived on the scene. He had heard from a hiking party that Dave had passed that there was an accident. The rangers started called in for a helicopter, but before the helicopter could be dispatched they had to confirm the accident. So they started heading in towards our campsite. The rangers ended up getting a lift via horseback when they encountered a group of wranglers out of the Big Sandy Lodge.
The ranger attempted to confirm the helicopter request, but was having some difficulties with their radio. During this time we continued to lower Mark down as best we could. At 8 PM we heard the thump-thump of an approaching helicopter. As the helicopter flew over head we signaled with raised hands and a waved tarp. The helicopter made two passes overhead then left. Not sure what to make of the situation, we continued lowering Mark.
About a half hour later, the helicopter returned, made a pass and landed a clearing at the base of the cliff. The helicopter unloaded three people and gear, then left the scene. A bit later the three members of the Grand Teton Search and Rescue Team arrived on the scene. They quickly took assement of the situation and took over the scene. They assembled a portable litter and placed Mark on it. He was strapped in with a "spider strap" to the litter. The SAR team used our ropes to setup an belay for the litter. Two of the SAR team members, plus the four of us carried the litter down the mountain. We went straight down for two belayed pitches, before reaching more level ground where the belay was not needed. Our campsite was located on the other side of the stream from the cliff. Plus the meadow where the helicopter would land was on this side of the river. The decision was made to keep Mark on this side of the river. We went back across the river and grabbed a tent and supplies. By this time it was 10 PM and we'd all been on the go for a long time. Hilary had made soup which hit the spot. Ian started dinner for the entire group.
Our campsite was located at approximately 10,400 feet, which is quite high for a standard helicopter to land. When the helicopter came in on the first pass, the pilot determined there was too much weight onboard to land at this altitude. So they flew out to lower elevation and dropped off the heli-tech. Because of this, they SAR team had to leave behind their ropes, tents, sleeping bags and cooking gear. Thus they were quite happy when we gave them a tent to spend the night in, plus served them dinner.
While we were getting dinner and the campsite ready, the SAR team examined Mark's legs. They were able to make a cellular call (very surprising) and get permission to administer IV antibiotics. The plan was for the helicopter to return in the morning to fly the SAR team and Mark out.
In the morning, we cleared out the landing zone and got Mark ready to travel including packing up his personal gear. Via radio we heard that Dave Oka needed a some of his personal gear including contact stuff and his wallet.
Every thing ready, we waited until 9:30 for the helicopter to arrive. The helicopter touched down, Mark and one of the SAR team members got into the helicopter. The helicopter flew out to Pinedale, 50+ miles away by road. Then the helicopter returned for the rest of the SAR team.
In Pinedale, Mark was taken to the local clinic. An x-ray was taken and it showed that Mark's right tibia was smashed. The doctor on call decided to have Mark sent to the hospital in Jackson. Mark was loaded into an ambulance and taken into Jackson. In Jackson, Dr. Forbes looked at the Pinedale x-ray and decided to have the entire leg x-rayed. The additional x-rays showed two sets of breaks. The lower part of the tibia was shattered into several pieces and there was an upper clean fracture below the knee. Mark was given the option of a full leg cast for six to eight weeks, or surgery and no cast.
The decision for surgery made, a metal rod was inserted into Mark's leg. Mark had decided to take only local ansetic, and watched them use a hammer to drive the rod into his leg. Ouch! Mark is expected to recover fully and will be in rehab riding a stationary bike or swimming in three to four weeks.
The SAR team members: Leo, Scott and Andy were all impressed with our self-rescue capabilities and the dinner we had served. Everyone from the SAR team members, to the Pinedale doctor, to the ambulance EMTs commented on the excellent splint that Mike had engineered. I was most impressed with the way that all the members of our group had worked together as a team to get Mark down safely and quickly with the minimum amount of discomfort to Mark.
At Mark's request, we didn't pack up and leave. The remainder of the adventures of this past week to follow.