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Accident Analysis and Rescue Reports

January 29, 2011 - Injured party account of a fall on steep snow and evacuation, Rocky Mountain National Park

On January 29, 2011, RMRG assisted the National Park Service and Larimer County Search and Rescue with the evacuation of an injured party from the Chasm Lake area. The injured party, Rebecca Stubbs, provided this account for friends and family. RMRG is publishing this account with with her permission with limited annotation for outdoor recreational safety education purposes. Other than receiving rescue services, Rebecca is not affiliated with RMRG. Her words are her own. Also note that National Park Service (NPS) in Rocky Mountain National Park is the legal authority and primary agency for search and rescue within the park. Any RMRG operations within the park are at the request of and in cooperation with NPS. Other than Rebecca's, we have changed the participants' names (the guys) for their privacy.

Luckiest Saturday of My Life

Rebecca Stubbs

Saturday, January 29, 2011, Eric, Ward, Ned, Arnold and I were planning on attempting Mount Meeker (the peak just to the left of Longs) 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 (with options to do a knife ridge once we got there). After some careful planning, we decided to scope out the route, turn back if the avalanche danger seemed too great, but start early enough in the day that we could complete our objective if the conditions were favorable. 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 incredibly hard and stable, and for the most part, we could not even punch through and posthole into the patches of snow that we did encounter. With no avalanche danger coming from bare ground, we rejoiced in our good luck, the beautiful sunrise, and continued along the Chasm Lake trail. For those of you familiar with the trail, it winds around Mt. Lady Washington and follows a path cut into a slope that is incredibly steep at best and is cliffed out in sections directly off the path. In winter, these portions of the trail were covered in snowdrifts, making these areas trickier than in the summer by far. We took out our ice axes, some of us donned crampons, and all of us crossed these sections safely.

The trail cleared out once more and we reached a snowfield above Peacock Pool that stretched between us and Chasm Lake. There were steps cut into it already, most likely from a mountaineer crossing the terrain the day before, since it wasn't yet 8 o'clock in the morning, and we had made good time. The snowfield was steep, most likely between 30-40 degrees, and covered the landscape in a large, scooping bowl shape, [south to south east facing] that led to a boulder field below. We assessed other options to avoid crossing the snowfield; we discussed taking the tundra down to the bottom of the cirque and climbing up the edge of Columbine Falls, or maybe following a different path on the snowfield lower down. We had all gone into the day expecting avalanche danger, and decided that traveling low in the path of a clear runout was not a good idea. The option of traveling up Columbine Falls looked sketchy at best, and involved what seemed to be technical rock or ice-work that we were clearly trying to avoid. With all other options exhausted, we decided to proceed onto the [icy] snowfield.

[Editor note: High temperatures in the area were well above freezing the preceding day, and well below freezing the morning of the accident. Thus the early morning south facing snow surface was icy.]

Ned and Ward put on their crampons (Eric, Arnold and myself 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 was Ned and Arnold. I followed behind them with Eric behind me in line. The snowfield was much like many I had crossed in my youth without the protection of ice axes or crampons (I attended a summer camp in Estes Park during middle school, where we did technical terrain without technical equipment: for example, the summer after eighth grade, we completed the "Grand Slam", which is the combination of Meeker, Longs, and Pagoda all in the same day). After having taken 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. Some number of steps into the snowfield, probably ten or twenty, I began to fall. The snow was incredibly hard, more akin to the snow you might find on terribly groomed ski slopes than the kind of snowfields I had previously traversed, and I found myself completely underprepared for arresting a fall in the deep winter conditions. I gained speed very quickly and tried to flip over and weight my pick into the snow to stop myself. The pick caught for probably one second, superficially 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 to 30-40 miles and hour, I impacted a rock jutting out of the snow with the bottom of my left thigh. I caught air and caterwauled another twenty feet into the boulder field below, where I finally stopped my fall. After having taken my Wilderness First Responder course last July, I have been sobered to the potential consequences of backcountry travel. Many of you have chuckled at my medical forms that I bring on my trips, and I am often the person to be a relative killjoy on a dangerous route when I pipe up about consequences. My greatest fear was and always has been a spinal injury, and the fall I had just taken was the perfect mechanism for spinal cord damage.

[Editor notes: The ability to "self arrest" a fall on steep snow varies with individual experience and skill, equipment, and snow surface conditions. While not obvious, it is well established that after falling, it is nearly impossible to self arrest on steep, icy snow. An additional hazard, that did not come up in this case, when when self arresting with crampons, it is easy to catch your toes/ front points and break your ankle.]

Accident scene
Where Rebecca fell, as viewed from the trail. Rebecca stopped near where she is above, in the orange sleeping bag, middle, NPS photo, Click to enlarge

The terror I felt when I came to rest I have a hard time describing, and is something I still have not fully processed. 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 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. I don’t know how I managed not to scream, or cry. Somewhere in this process I soiled myself, either from the impact or from pure and unadulterated fear. My left thigh had suffered a major abrasion through which I would 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.

Despite my training and my knowledge that I needed to stay still, I couldn't help moving my arms and legs, moving purely on instinct and pain, driven to discover where I had been injured, and with the deep and prevailing sense that these motions might be the last ones I make before paralyzation kicked in. I was barely cognizant enough to answer questions and attempt to direct those around me. Since I had the highest level of medical training, it was imperative that I give those around me the greatest level of detail possible. Eric took out his SPOT [Satellite GPS Messenger], 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 in the morning.

The next half hour to forty-five minutes were a haze. I was shivering from the cold and suffering body-rocking spasms from shock that jostled my back and made my pain even greater. Despite the intense situation, those around me were able to keep their cool, layer me in a cocoon of their warmest layers, and dig a pit in the snow to line with emptied backpacks to protect me from conducting all of my heat into the ground. I cannot imagine how difficult it must have been for Ward, Eric, Ned and Arnold to see me in such pain and to act on my behalf the way they did. I truly believe that I owe each of them my life. We are honored to share the mountains with them.

As soon as 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 their 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.

Time passed, and minutes turned into hours as Ward, Eric and I waited for some sign of search and rescue or a helicopter. I took three tablets of ibuprofen, and I began to control my shock. Sensing that we were in for a long haul, Ward, Eric, and I took turns trying to make each other smile. Ward and Eric worked to keep my core warm and my extremities from becoming numb, constantly re stacking the layers around me and sacrificing their own comfort for my sake. When placing avalanche shovels on top of my layers to keep them from blowing away, we found a huge gouge in the metal shovel that had been on the outside of my pack. I discovered my own incontinence and the bleeding from my leg that now had soaked through three layers of clothing from my knee to my bum. I couldn't believe I had forgotten to check for blood right after I had fallen- I realized that despite my medical training, I was in too much pain to manage my own situation. I was in Eric and Ward’s hands as they encouraged me, and prevented me from moving as best I could, even when I cried out. I decided to leave my leg as it was, since examining it would involve taking off layers and exposing me to the chill, and potentially ripping off any clotting that had formed to my long underwear and had stopped the bleeding. Around ten o’clock, 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.

The rangers evaluated the terrain, navigating it carefully, and looked for places for a helicopter to land while the first of many EMTs began to examine me. My long underwear was cut away, revealing the fat-layer-deep lacerations that luckily had caused my bleeding. I was moved into a litter with more insulation, and my view of the surroundings shrank to a six-inch window pointed at the sky and framed by warm layers as I lay on my back. My sense of direction was completely eliminated.

I began to measure time in medical personnel- I was given O2, and an EMT who had brought up bags of fluid began to look for a place to put an IV. He looked at my arms for 20 minutes, tourniqueting them, tapping my hands, letting them warm up again, and hunting for a vein. Unfortunately, I was so dehydrated, cold, and in shock that the only vein he could find was the one in the crook of my elbow. It took three tries for him to get the line in, and he began to pump in fluid that was incredibly cold, despite their attempts and warming it up in their jackets. I cried for the first time.

Hours passed, the sky began to darken, and more people began to trickle onto the scene. By the end of the day, twenty-two people from the Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, and Larimer County Search and Rescue were on the scene, setting up rigging to protect both my litter and the rescuers with rope systems for the journey to Chasm Lake Junction, where they were hoping to land a helicopter. Ward and Eric worked to haul gear, and collect equipment from a cache the Park Service used to store equipment. I was given morphine, and told that the helicopter might not be able to make it into the junction, since the winds were too high. I faded in and out of awareness, opening my eyes when rescue personnel asked me questions and when new IV fluid was pumped into my arm. The morphine made me nauseous and claustrophobic. I absorbed four liters of IV fluid, and was given a Depends to use on the way down if I needed it. I was so dehydrated that I never did.

Raising system anchor
Raising system anchor. The previous photo shows the raising system as well, NPS photo, Click to enlarge

Around 4 PM, I finally began to move towards the trailhead. The rescue teams used an elaborate counterweight system to haul my litter up the slope I had fallen, and used intricate rope-work to protect both myself and each other from the hazards of traveling in a winter mountain environment. On stretches of rock and gravel, I was carried by teams of six, while I was strapped into the litter along with my IV fluid and oxygen tank. On snow, I was towed and steered over snowdrifts. With every bump and knock, I felt my back twinge despite the painkillers. Periodically going into shock, I would shake and convulse, causing muscle contractions that rocked my body and destabilized my back. I knew that everyone was doing their best, but I was silently terrified that the next knock might be the one that would break down my spine. I tried to keep smiling. I remembered the section of snow drifts that led into cliffs that had provoked us to put on our crampons on the way to Meeker earlier that morning, and was absolutely terrified of the section. I was continually asking the people carrying my litter where we were. Just out of my line of sight, an elaborate system of rope-work was protecting the section that I was most afraid of, and I was being passed on from person to person in a move that they called the "caterpillar," where people stood in one long line, passing me from person to person rather than risking movement while carrying me.

Raising system anchor
Evacuation continues into the night, NPS photo, Click to enlarge

For me, the entire rescue was a series of jostling bumps, caring assessments, checking of vital signs, and half-conscious experiences. Those outside my cocoon of warm layers and living beyond my six-inch window to the world were exhausting themselves working to get me to front-country medical care. The medical team had brought up multiple tanks of oxygen, bags of saline solution, IV-glucose, painkillers, anti-nausea medication, and had prepared for any eventuality. The Rescue teams, Eric, and Ward were all finely in tune with my needs, stopping when the morphine made me nauseous and constantly adjusting the layers that kept me warm and out of shock.

The rescuers were challenged by both taking care of me and themselves, staying warm and well-fed was constant work. I distinctly recall one rescuer taking the time to make hot drinks to sustain themselves. They were taking every precaution, and Eric and Ward were doing anything in their power to help the rescue groups. Since Arnold and Ned had left their backpacks and warm layers for me to use while we waited for help to arrive, Ward and Eric had five people’s equipment to contend with between the two of them in addition to carrying rescue equipment, and taking turns being part of my litter team. They carried gear in loads from one stopping point to the next, using a seemingly endless reservoir of energy to help the rescue teams get me to safety.

Darkness fell, and I drifted in and out of consciousness, waking only to new bags of IV fluid and the sensation of rolling over especially sharp hills. I was unconscious for hours of travel down to the trailhead, where those carrying the litter had become so tired they began to fall, and everyone’s turns guiding me to safety were becoming shorter and shorter as fatigue kicked in. I arrived at the trailhead at 11:30 PM, 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 fifteen hours. Ward and Eric had been taking care of me even longer. Arnold, Eric, Ward and Ned had witnessed the worst of my pain, and had helped from moving when it was crucial I keep my back stable.

I was immediately taken to the Estes Park emergency room. The ambulance had waited for my arrival for over an hour. Once in the Trauma ward, X-Rays of my entire body were taken, and I was cleared for movement. It was past 1 AM in the morning. I breathed a sigh of relief- my spine was okay- but was confused by the unexplained and intense pain in my lower back that completely eclipsed the laceration covering my leg. I was given vicodin and kept in the hospital for the remainder of the morning- the doctors were concerned with the muscle damage in my leg causing 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. I am still working to regain my full lung capacity.

My parents had been planning on visiting me this weekend for months, and they received a call from [the National Park Service] right as they were about to board a plane for Denver. I am incredibly thankful that they have been here for this entire ordeal.

I eventually traveled back to Boulder, where I met with a representative from Victim's Assistance that had tracked me down from the local news. She helped me quickly gain a medical referral for a new diagnosis: with my back pain still completely eclipsing all discomfort from my leg, we decided to order a CT scan to re-check the area at the Boulder Hospital. I passed in and out of consciousness from pain while in the hospital ward: I had vomited up my vicodin in the Victim’s Assistance office. I was not even awake for my CT scan.

The CT scan and a secondary appointment with an orthopedist revealed that I had fractured my sacrum, the extension of my spine that connects to my pelvis. I am incredibly lucky: my fracture was only a 2 mm displacement, and does not require surgery. One-third of people who break their back in this place have neurological problems or chronic pain for the rest of their life. I seem to have avoided both. I will be walking on a walker for the next four weeks, and will be healing for the next three months. I am lucky to be walking at all.

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 on my head, or anywhere near my internal organs, I most likely would have died on or shortly after impact. Had I hit the rock in a slightly different way on my leg, I could have hit my femoral artery. Had the impact on my back been different, or the avalanche shovel failed to protect me, I most likely would be 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. 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. It took nearly 20 hours to get me into an ER.

We often use hiking and mountaineering as a way to push our boundaries and come in contact with ourselves. 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. Exposure is tricky: we know that the ramifications of falling could be huge, but we comfort ourselves by acknowledging our own ability to walk every day, and set aside our fears with the expectation that we will not miss a step. I have traveled over 600 miles in the Coloradan mountains, most of it in Rocky Mountain National Park. I have crossed countless snowfields, climbed countless peaks, and had many close calls. I am sharing my account of this past weekend to make sure that you know that you are not invincible. Mountaineers often talk about "peak fever," a kitschy name for the overriding desire to make it to the summit. All hikers who love climbing mountains suffer from this to some extent- the very desire to get to the top despite the odds is what makes the experience so fulfilling.

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, and I am pleading with you to have the courage to turn back. I know the pressure of a trip leader to fulfill group expectations of grandeur, and I know the feeling of a participant wanting not 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.

I could not have asked for better friends or backcountry companions than those I had this Saturday. The dedication to my safety, comfort, and well-being that Ward, Eric, Arnold, Ned and the rescue teams showed me most likely is what allows me to continue walking, and I am alive today because of the level of care they showed last Saturday. It is very difficult for me to put the level of the gratitude I feel towards the people who saved my life into spoken sentences, much less into the cold and relatively unfeeling medium of written words. Everything I achieve from this point onwards is a direct result of their bravery and perseverance in the face of a truly hellish ordeal. Every time I take a step, I am grateful to you. I owe you my life. Thank you for allowing me to continue seeing a world so beautiful, and thank you for being so careful that I am able to explore it with my own legs and not from the confines of a wheelchair. I was not just lucky to have lived: it is a direct result of your actions that I have such a hopeful prognosis.

I hope that as soon as I am well, I will be back in the mountains, but I will be traveling in them with a healthy respect for consequences and with the knowledge that "it can happen to me."

Becca "lived to tell about it" Stubbs

© Rebecca Stubbs 2011, reproduced with permission

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