Posted by: Matt | August 5, 2009

Best Laid Plans

Yesterday afternoon I had planned and put together a quick over-night trip into the Alpine Lakes Wilderness in an attempt to push my mileage for the week up as well as penetrate further down the Pacific Crest Trail. Needless to say my plans were eventually altered, but what’s interesting about the whole evening in my opinion is how well everything was going along until that moment.

At the Wilderness Boundry

At the Wilderness Boundry

At about 4:00 PM yesterday I had my bags packed and ready to head out the door. I jumped into FunTruck, picked up some gas and replacement batteries for my flashlights, a couple of chicken soft tacos and then headed on up I-90 to the PCT trailhead (#2000) at Snoqualmie pass. My intent was to trail run between 15 and 20 miles into the wilderness, “camp” light for the night, wake early today, and return the way I had come. This should have gotten me back to the trailhead early this morning with enough time to head down the west side of the Cascades where I was planning on taking a shower and then attending some meetings.

I arrived at the trail head at about a quarter after five, loaded my ruck, tied my shoes and headed on up the trail. The first six miles of this trail is a pretty aggressive climb out of the Snoqualmie valley and I intended to push myself on this hill and was hoping for an average speed of around 2.5 to 3 miles per hour. According to my track log I was able to maintain this pace and often exceeded it where the hill lessens its demands. I was feeling good when I crossed into the wilderness area and feeling great when I made it to the bench just below Kendall Mountain.

Track Log of Progress to Alaska Lake

Track Log of Progress to Alaska Lake

As I crossed the Kendall Catwalk I was pretty sure I was going to make the full 20 miles I intended to cover with only a short distance at the end running in the dark. I imagined I would be past September Meadow or even Spectacle Lake at about the same time the sun would set and the rest is all downhill, not terribly steep and full of cushy places to bed down for the night.

I developed a quarter sized blister on my right heal and ended up stopping to doctor it up just past the Kendall Catwalk, but otherwise my body was working really well. The trail running was easy, my footfalls were light, and I even felt smooth as I traversed the uplands.

There were a couple of campers off in the trees near Gravel and Rail lakes, but I don’t think they noticed me as I slipped through and began my traverse around the north side of Alaska Lake. I was silently running with a big running induced grin on my lips when I heard someone yell “HELP!” At first I thought it was a marmot chirping an echo off one of the headwalls above me, but it made me pause for a moment. I stopped, looking around as I jogged in place, and eventually my eyes came to rest upon the figure of a man about 200 feet below me lying on his back near a small collection of trees.

“Are you ok?” I asked, not even sure what I should expect in the way of answer.

“No, I need help.” The man below replied and I could tell that the effort of yelling was a strain.

Now over that moment of disbelief I started things moving. I had turned off the antennas on my phone to preserve battery life in the back country, but changed that up quickly and was soon on the phone with Search and Rescue. Standing on the trail and speaking to the man below and SAR I established my location with my GPS giving them a really precise idea of where this was all going down, relayed as much information from the figure below as I could reasonably collect via shouting, and described both his situation on the cliff and my recently formed plan to descend to him and see if I couldn’t render some assistance. Soon this phone call was over and I was left standing on the trail trying to figure out a way down that wouldn’t send rocks his direction, wouldn’t put me too far away to be of assistance once we were on a level, and wouldn’t send me plummeting down toward Alaska Lake.

I descended a melt wash about 50 feet or so up the trail from where Jim had fallen. This worked well enough as what rock I dislodged went tumbling down the wash rather than down upon him. There were some thistles in the vegetation and I stuck my hands into a couple of them, but otherwise this was a pretty good decision. I couldn’t really hear what Jim was yelling at me while down in this wash, but we exchanged hopeful shouts as I made my way down then traversed back the 50 or so feet to where he was laying.

Jim looked miserable. He had come to rest in a small stand of spruce but was laid out on a bed of rocks that was anything but level. Close enough now I could see that his face and hands were covered in dried or drying blood, that both of his eyes were nearly swollen shut, and that his he was unable or unwilling to move his right leg. Not wanting to move him or aggravate anything I tried to palpate him and quickly discovered the whole soup-sandwich that he was living with at that time.

I was still able to get a phone signal out to the medics who had started to collect with the King County SAR team at Snoqualmie Ski resort. In particular they wanted me to isolate his head and spine as best as I could. Jim had already tried to splint the compound fracture of his left index finger and there was nothing I could do for his other extremities. I made it clear to the SAR team that we were only going to get him out of this situation on a back board and that I wasn’t sure how even that might be accomplished.

There was 200 feet of loose granite above us and a crumbly headwall above that to tie into. The way down past the trees that had arrested Jim’s fall was steeper and crappier than up and I had already tried the way through Gold Creek last Saturday. Even if we could get him down to the lake, we’d still have to descend the “trail” from Alaska Lake to Gold Creek and if that weren’t bad enough there was the physical impossibility of a mile or so of debris field to cross as well. The SAR team called for a helicopter which came from the Naval Station on Whidbey Island.

Jim and I hunkered down, I got a small fire going (at the recommendation of the SAR folks) and prepared to wait it out. Mostly we exchanged stories, but I tried to make him as comfortable as I could and did my best to collect up the scattered contents of his ruck. He had been working on the PCT for years and this was the last stage left before it was done. Earlier that morning (it may have actually been the day before I’m not completely certain because Jim’s grasp of time wasn’t too solid and he kept saying it was the 3rd.) he had started out on his hike and had to stop and bend over for something. When he stood up he became light headed and that’s what caused his tumble.

Medics Working on Jim

Medics Working on Jim

Eventually, the helicopter showed up and located us on our ledge. They had to head back down the valley because the rotor wash was fanning my little fire to an extent that it might spread and I ended up clawing what dirt I could out of the hill above it to extinguish the fire. They tried again, but had to fly off once more because they missed their drop. Finally, on the third attempt three people made it to the ledge and Paul, the medic, began working on Jim while Rich and Guy, the helicopter guys made preparations for more medical folks to join us. My recollections of this period are a little sketchy, but it’s enough to say that things started to happen.

Jim Ready for Evac

Jim Ready for Evac

Several helicopter trips later, the Huey hauled Bob, Jim and Chris off to Harborview Medical Center. Paul, Guy, Rich and I remained with a big stack of gear. We had about two hours or more to kill because the Huey would have to fly to the hospital, then to Boeing field to fuel, and then back up to pick us up off the mountain. The moon was nearly full and Jupiter hung in the sky over the lake. Everyone tried to get a little sleep, but it’s nearly impossible to make this happen on a scree field. We ended up exchanging stories and talking quietly under the stars. There was, I’m sure you’ll all be amazed, even discussion of barefoot and minimalist running techniques.

Finally, the helicopter returned for us, the gear went up first, then Paul and Guy, and Rich and I followed up the cable. I don’t think I’ll be forgetting this experience any time soon. Rich used his arms as the winch hoisted us to keep us from spinning and as soon as we were clear of the ground the pilot started back to the LZ was us dangling beneath the whirly bird. Once we were inside the helicopter I couldn’t hear anything, but was amazed at the sight of the mountains lit by moon light passing by outside. All too quickly we were back on the ground.

The King County Sheriffs debriefed me and then I made my way back to FunTruck. I arrived home at about 4:30 this morning, waking Tess as I crept unexpectedly into the house.

First, I want to wish Jim a speedy recovery, I’m glad that I was able to help you. I hope that you get another opportunity to finish the PCT. Next time let me know when you’re going and we can hike it together.

Second, it’s important to say how much I appreciate the competent and professional response of the King County Sheriffs and the King County SAR team and everyone else who helped with this event. I don’t know what I could have done for Jim without your assistance. These are critical services that society largely consumes (when they need them), but also which we tend to ignore or even berate while we feel safe. You guys have a thankless job, but I want you to know that I thank you for doing it.

Finally, if I got your name wrong or if you think I’ve misrepresented the progression of things somehow please let me know and I’ll do what I can to correct.

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Responses

  1. Kudos to you. Great response, great write-up. Thanks for helping a fellow hiker!

  2. Jim is lucky you found him. Thanks for being such a well-prepared backcountry runner. Kudos also for writing such an extremely well-written post.

  3. You were right where you were supposed to be that day. Good job!

  4. Sounds like you were the right person to heed the call for help, you should get double miles for your Hike-a-thon efforts last night. We heard the helicopter head over our home and are glad to hear it signaled someone being brought to safety from the mountain. Thanks again for your calm, effective assist, may your trail karma abound!

  5. if i ever bad mouth a trail runner again, someone toss me over the ledge (i sometimes run trails, too)

    thank you for your help….i read about this rescue on NWHikers.net.

    take care…..

  6. Way to help out a fellow human being! I’m sure Jim will be forever grateful. Thanks for detailing the account on your blog.

  7. Wow, Matt- that’s pretty amazing. Helps restore my faith in humanity.

    Take care and happy trails.

  8. We hope you enjoyed the flight and you deserve the thanks for saving Jim’s life. The helicopter crew and medics, well we just did our jobs.

  9. Hello Matt,
    I am Jim’s “significant other” writing from my hotel in Seattle. I flew in yesterday from San Jose to find Jim battered and wrapped in bandages at the Harborview Trauma Center. The first thing he said to me was “I am so lucky to be alive!” Indeed, he is and the thanks is due to you and the remarkable team of people you mobilized to find and rescue him, get him to the Center and the folks who took it from there. He is doing remarkably well and is in a very positive frame of mind about his recovery. Of course, the morphine helps! He does expect a full recovery (some surgeries may be required on his shin/knee and back) and to return to complete his journey along the PCT. Jim’s son Jason–by the way a decorated Santa Cruz City fire captain–arrived at the Center about an hour ago. On behalf of Jim’s family, thank you so much for your efforts. We know that Jim is alive because of you. I will share your story with him and his family.

    Kate

    • @Kate,

      Thanks so much for getting in touch with me, since they got him on the chopper I’ve been unable to find out what happened to Jim and I’m glad to know that he’s in good hands and has friends and family nearby. I’d really like to come visit Jim, but only if my presence won’t cause him stress of pain. I’d imagine that with his neck and that leg he’s in a lot of pain so I’ll rely on you to tell me when or if it would be ok to make the journey to Harborview.

      If there’s anything I or my family can do to help please let us know.

    • Kate,
      I am Marge that lives in Idaho and Jim had sent me emails when you and he were up this way. I was not able to see you at the time due to another big operation etc. But I am fine now. Give Jim a hug for me and perhaps we will meet another time. I was able to follow his progress ( I have a son and many freinds in SAR) Tell Jim to hang in there it does get better but there were times that I could not answer the phone or even talk to people. I am still in the wheel chair but am now able to walk a little with the aid of the walker.
      Cheers Marge

  10. My Name is Brett Harris – I work with the recruiting folks for King County Explorer Search and Rescue.

    Points at hand:

    1) Mad props for assisting Jim – you are correct in your assessment that these services go largely unnoticed and that the need for them is great. For you to have taken the time to assist, report and stick with Jim proves your mettle.

    2) To that end – I would be honored to have you, and your fellow trail runners, join our merry little band in SAR. I’ll be running recruiting with Lauren here starting in a few weeks and we’d love to see you there.

    More info here: http://www.kcesar.org/schedule.aspx

    Again – you ROCK!

    Kind regards,

    Brett Harris
    KCESAR Recruiting

    • @Brett,

      Thanks for the offer of training, I’ve recently decided to go back to school here in town so I’m not sure how I’d be able to fit it in. That said, I’d be happy to put out the word of your upcoming training schedule and I’ll keep it mind the next time around.

      BTW, please pass around my kudos to the crew. That night time extraction was awesome and you guys do an amazing job.

  11. Wow, what a powerfully uplifting story. It’s awfully nice to hear good news like this. Matt, what a hero. I know you weren’t playing the hero, but that’s what a hero truly is; one who does what needs to be done because he is there and it needs to be done. Kudos to all the rescue squad, too…thanks for what you guys do so well. I wish Jim and his family peace and comfort. Namaste’.

  12. Hi Matt, I’m Eric from King County Explorer Search and Rescue (ESAR).

    Let me say you did a SUPER JOB! Way to keep a level head in an intense and life threatening situation. Also a fabulous write up! We don’t often get the reporting party’s full POV on missions.

    You may not know it but in addition to the Helo we had a large contingent of ground teams responding to this mission. It is normal that we send in ground teams in case the helo can’t fly or can’t do the hoist for whatever reason. Usually ground teams are moving in before the helo is even in the air.

    I was on one of the ground teams making our way along Gold Creek trail to your location. We had about a dozen folks on the trail from ESAR, Seattle Mountain Rescue (SMR), and Ski Patrol Resuce Team (SPART), all humping in a bunch of gear for a potential long and technical packout. In addition we had 4X4 SAR units providing transport, communication relays, and LZ support.

    Even though we never got on scene and turned around once Jim was safely onboard the helo, we are always happy to be “Plan B” and assist any way we can. Most of the time we don’t have the use of a helo, or the situation doesn’t warrant it, so we usually carry the subject out ourselves.

    We are really glad Jim, you, and the rest of the crew maed it out safely. Thanks again for your good samaritan work!

    -ER

    • @Eric,

      Wow! You guys had a real haul ahead of you. My wife and I crossed the debris field which spans Gold Creek basin and made our way up to Alaska Lake last Saturday. That is a nasty piece of work and we weren’t humping half the gear you guys probably had on your backs. Thanks goodness for trekking poles in that case.

      Thanks for providing the Plan B.

  13. What an amazing story of team work and guts. Beautifully written write up of the drama – you should change jobs! :-)

    Get well soon Jim.

  14. Cheers to you, I found this story on nwhikers.net, and shared it on my Facebook page. This story made my day.

    Best wishes to Jim, and also to you, Matt. Huge karma coming your way.

  15. What exactly is a “soup-sandwich”?

    • @The Angry Hiker,

      A way to describe something that’s messed up. It might require a little imagination, I was trying to avoid the gruesome details.

  16. Matt,
    Thanks for your help, the stories, and the education on barefoot running. I wish you the best of luck.

    Guy Herndon (KCSO – SWAT)

  17. You are a hero! Wow.

  18. Very nice write up of an interesting night. Living in North Bend I always hear the helicopters but never here the outcome. So glad that this time it was a good one, they are not always.
    You are a special person to be the right place at Jim’s wrong time.

  19. Thanks for the great blog, the excellent writeup and, of course, for helping a fellow hiker. I’ll be looking forward to reading about the rest of your Hike-a-thon adventures – hopefully they will be less dramatic than this one!

  20. I will be sure to pass along your blog to all of my friends and neighbors here in North Bend. We all knew something was going on because it is rare that we have helicopters whirling over our heads in the middle of the night. We woke up cranky, but when we discovered that it was a rescue mission we were all thrilled to know the hiker was found and able to be taken to the hospital. It is part of living in our beautiful neck of the woods.

    Shhhhh…don’t tell everyone how beautiful our mountains are by moonlight. ;o)

    Awesome job assisting… and special thanks to the SAR crew!

  21. This was one lucky man! Undoubtedly he might well have not survived without you coming along and knowing exactly what to do. You saved a life!
    Art, Seattle Mountain Rescue

  22. Thanks so much, Matt, for helping Jim. In ’07 we hiked off-and-on with him during his PCT section hike from Tahoe to the Columbia River. His trail name was Tazul then. He was a terrific hiking companion and just a wonderful human being. I hope I’m as gutsy at his age!

    We spoke with Jim last night, and he sounded pretty good and his attitude was great. Thanks again for saving his life.

    Frodo (and Scout) PCT ’07

    • I got to spend a little time getting to know Jim on that cliff, but since he was winched into the chopper I’ve gotten to meet many of the people who love him. This says a lot about him as a person. I’m really looking forward to meeting with him tomorrow, I’ll pass on the good vibes.

  23. I surely hope and would expect that Matt be given a state or some king of life saver award, we see folks getting them every year for other types of life saving events. I know the State Patrol and other agencies have awarded citizens.

  24. Matt,

    You are an extraordinary guy–you deserve mucho awards for this. The PCT listserve is in awe of you. You kept your cool and thanks to you, this guy is going to make it.

    OK, I have to ask. What cell phone service gets a signal above Alaska Lake? Seems almost impossible that you would get a signal. I guess the whole rescue was meant to be.

    • Howdy Tom,

      I have AT&T and was using a Samsumg Epix. My connection from the trail was ok, but down on the ledge it became a little unpredictable. I had to be standing and facing down the valley to remain in contact with the SAR folks.

      Usually I turn off the antennas (air plane mode) when I go into the back country. It saves battery life and I can still use it as a camera. I was actually really suprised when I turned it on and got service.

      Thanks again everyone for the kudos!

  25. Wow, you are a true hero, Matt. God Bless You! Jim would most likely have died without your help.

  26. Way to go Matt! You did an amazing thing, and I know everyone else who knows you must be as seriously proud of you and as in awe as I am! I look forward to reading about how your meeting with Jim goes this weekend.

    Hope all else is well with you & yours; being on leave from work so long, I swear I never hear any of the news from the old crew anymore, good or bad. Glad to hear things worked out so well in this instance. :)

    Victoria

  27. matt ~ you ROCK ! what an awesome story about a WONDERFUL group of people coming together to save a man’s life ! thank you for sharing and wishing ALL OF YOU the best ! ~ ~ ~ diane

  28. Matt,

    It’s heartwarming in this day and age to see a story such as yours. Many people would not have been the Good Samaritan, or at least not to the extent you were. I admire what you did, and wish that most people in the same circumstances would do the same (yeah, dream on, right?). Thank you so much for your kindness – you’re my kind of hero.

    Sincerely,
    Kira

  29. I came here from a link at the Runner’s World on-line site. What a story! You are to be congratulated for your heroism. Way to go!

  30. Right person, right place, right time.

    Hope Jim recovers quickly, too!

  31. How inspiring! I saw this story on Runner’s World and I was in awe. What a heroic act…to not just call for help, but to climb down there and stay with Jim to try to help until SAR could make it. I hope Jim has a speedy recovery. This absolutely made my day.

  32. I too saw the posting on the runnersworld website, and have learned a very valuable lesson on being prepared. I like to run the trails in NC but until now rarely took more than water along. That will change after what I just read. Thanks

    • I don’t bring that much along on my runs, but just enough. Right now my base pack weight is about 5 lbs then add food and water. Often, if I’m trying a new piece of gear, I’ll give it the business at home or nearby before its considered ready for field work. Nothing worse than having a bit of gear you’re rely on either fail or not be operational. Maybe I should write a bit more about what I carry?

  33. Well done Matt…inspiring.
    TY
    sam

  34. Matt,
    Thanks for sharing your story and for what you did for Jim. As executive director of the Pacific Crest Trail Association I get to hear lots of wonderful stories and yours is one of the best.

    Jim is a longtime supporter of ours and I have met and talked with him a couple of times. He sure loves the PCT and I am glad you have given him the opportunity to finish!

    • Thanks Liz,

      I’m glad I got the opportunity to help him. He’s a pretty neat guy and I consider my self lucky to have met him even if it was under less than great circumstances. He’s told me I need a trail name now.

  35. you were at the right place at the right time…you’re awesome!

  36. Matt…we here in Old Station, CA (where we ‘re Trail Angels for the PCT), remember Jim from Santa Cruz well. We wish him the very best and a complete recovery. You, sir, rank at the top of my ‘heros’ list… Thank God you were there, cool-headed enough to handle your part of this near-tragedy with a calm and logical approach. It sounds as tho just your decent to Jim’s ledge could have caused even more serious problems for either of you had you not looked carefully at your options. And the info you were able to pass on to SAR must have been invaluable as they made their plans for his rescue. Well done! (If you see Jim again, please tell him that FireFly and FireWalker from Old Station in Shasta Co. are praying for him and his family.) If you get this way on the PCT, we’d be honored and humbled to have you stay with us at The Hideaway at Old Station.
    Thank you for being there at just the right moment to save a life.

    • Thanks again for the kudos. I’m really thinking about putting together a PCT thru hike someday and would be glad for the help at some point.

      I’ve been in contact with Jim and family from time to time and he’s doing better. Still a long way to go on his road to recovery, but there are a lot of people who are happy he’s still with us (myself included). He’s a really special person in my opinion.

  37. [...] being 2009, Thyer has a blog. In a riveting post, he describes the experience in detail, including how he managed to discover the injured Nee, lying [...]

  38. […] I wrote about being a rat bastard. You guys responded with the most hits I’ve seen since I rescued Jim Nee from a ledge on a […]


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