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 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.
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.
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.
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.