Learning from Actual Wilderness Emergencies

We can learn a lot from the experience of others including the emergencies experienced by seasoned wilderness travelers. With this in mind, the first section below is a brief synopsis my own experience involving emergencies taken from over fifty years of hiking, backpacking, crosscountry skiing and climbing. In the third and forth sections, I provide a brief synopsis  from two close friends who agreed to share their experiences. The three of us have 140+ years of wilderness experience. In the final section I draw some conclusions to assist in preparing for wilderness emergencies. 

Author’s Memorable Emergency Type Experiences

—   I broke both my fibula and ankle at the end of a weeklong high traverse in the North Cascades of Washington State. My crampon caught on some ice when I unexpectedly slipped on steep snow and severely torqued my leg in the process. I was stabilized and airlifted out by a helicopter from the Whidbey Island Naval Base. After a long recovery process, I now have full use of the damaged leg—with occasional residual pain and stiffness.

—   My son and I were with a group of 10-12 snowshoers in the Central Cascades. We were at the back of the party and following a zigzag snowshoe trail up a steep slope when an avalanche let go. Both of us were able to ride/swim on top of the avalanche for 200-300 feet downhill. We were separated on the ride down, but neither of us were hurt.

 —   Five of us were on an overnight snowshoe and ski trip in Mt. Rainier National Park with a goal of sleeping in igloos we would build. While building the igloos, we were joined by a party of three camping nearby with a tent. We woke up the next morning to a heavy dump of snow and blizzard conditions. The other party had left the scene. We decided to head back after accidentally kicking off an avalanche in a large bowl. Crossing some gullies lower down, we first came across a hand sticking out of the snow, then another person with just their head out and finally the third member of the party covered just to the knees. The had avalanche happened only moments before and we were able to extricate all three quickly. They were shaken but not seriously injured.

—   Deep in the North Cascades of Washington, I received an inch long cut on the palm of my hand after slipping on a wet, down sloping rock slab and falling on the adze end of my ice axe. After a forced march out of the mountains in the dark and heavy rain with failing flashlights, a hot shower and a few hours’ sleep at a roadside motel, an ER doctor sewed up my hand the next day.

—   Two of us were walking down a relatively flat ridge between two crevasses after a climb of Mt. Rainier. We were roped up when my partner slipped unexpectedly. He pulled us both into a relatively shallow crevasse. The only injury to either of us was a facial cut when my glacier glasses were jammed into my face. The cut required Band-Aids, but no stitches.

—   On an attempted climb of Denali (Mt. McKinley), a member of our party, loaded down with his full (60 lb?) pack, fell into a big crevasse on the Muldrow Glacier. He was roped up and his fall was easily arrested. Fortunately, there was plenty of manpower to effect a quick rescue. He was not injured in the process.

—   On a circumambulation of Mt. Adams in Washington State, a member of our party slipped on steep hard crusted snow. He was using an ice axe, but not wearing crampons. He slid down a hundred feet or so before coming to a stop. The combination of his heavy pack and a too-short ice axe interfered with his attempt to self-arrest. Fortunately, he missed some nearby rocks and only his pride was injured.

—   Three of us were leading a group of college students on an off-trail adventure in the Central Cascades as part of a summer sociology course. One member of the party cracked his leg bone while jumping from one rock to another with his full pack. After it happened, he informed us that he had a history of brittle bones and bone cracks. Two members of the party hiked out 15 miles to report the emergency. His leg was splinted and he was then moved a short distance to an open area ready for evacuation by helicopter.

—   On a day hike to Snow Lake in the Central Cascades, I was wandering off-trail and ran into a nest of hornets or wasps. I was stung multiple times. After an hour or so, I suffered an allergic reaction with swelling and itching around my face and extremities. What started out as a leisurely trek back to the trailhead became a hurried and somewhat anxious retreat. No allergy medications were available at the time. Finding that I am allergic to both bee stings and neoprene, I now carry two levels of allergy medication when I am out and about: antihistamine capsules and an Epi-pen for injecting adrenaline.

—   I came down with a case of bronchitis accompanied by a high fever on the first day of a weeklong trip into the North Cascades Recreation Area. The bronchitis had evolved out of a chest cold that I had acquired 5-6 days before the start of the trip. After two days of complete rest in a base camp, our party decided to terminate the trip and hike 15 miles back to the trailhead. The decision to terminate the trip was made easier when it became obvious that a rather large, lightning-caused fire blocked our route.

Author’s Experiences with Search and Rescue (SAR)

In the 50+ years I have been hiking and climbing, I have been directly involved in SAR operations nine times (excluding practice sessions): One was as seasonal climbing ranger at Mt. Rainier National Park; four as a member of the Central Washington Mountain Rescue Council; four as a member of a wilderness group needing emergency assistance. Four of the operations involved a helicopter pick up; two of the four used cell phones as the primary mode of contact. Three involved individuals who were deceased before SAR personnel arrived on the scene. 

Emergency Experiences of Close Friend and Website Contributor

Jim Morrison, a close friend and fellow hiker—scrambler—climber—sailor, has traveled extensively in Washington, Alaska, California, and Arizona since 1965. He spent many years as a volunteer firefighter and EMT. Here is a summary (in his own words) of his experiences in the mountains of various incidents and emergency situations.

—   While ice climbing on the Matanuska Glacier in Alaska, my friend Don fell and shredded the seat of pants.  He was only sore and shaken, but later that day he twisted his ankle.  He was unable to climb the next day, but was able to walk out. I think the seat of his pants and his ego suffered the most.

—   My daughter Jamie developed a sore knee when half-way between Canada and Rainy Pass on the Pacific Crest Trail.  An ace bandage and aspirin gave her nearly complete relief from the pain for the next 40 miles. She also thought she looked pretty macho wearing the bandage on her knee.

—   Neil Lind was one of my most faithful companions. In 1975 he fell while traversing a steep snowfield and when he put out his foot to stop himself on a rock, after having slid some distance, he broke his ankle. We did not know it was broken until many days later when it was x-rayed.  We taped it up tight with an ace bandage and he used his ice ax as a crutch (which was about the only way we knew to use ice axes then). We took a climbing class the very next spring.

—   On an easy part of the trail, after about 10 miles of hiking, a party member crossed a dry creek and slipped on the rocks climbing up out of the creek bed and hit his head.  He had a one-inch laceration on his scalp. I asked about other injuries and then I cleaned it up with alcohol wipes and examined him for signs of brain injury. Finding nothing remarkable, and because the bleeding had stopped, no further treatment was necessary.  It could not easily be bandaged because it was in the hairline and he had rather long hair. We balding mountaineers have at least one advantage!

—   On a very hot summer day while doing strenuous climbing in the Olympics, one of our party became extremely weak. This was surprising because he had always seemed to be in at least as good of condition as everyone else in the party. He was also carrying extra water for the climb and was drinking regularly. But his pace became slower and slower. Even though there are many possible causes for fatigue, two possible causes are either hyponatremia (excessive loss of sodium) or hypokalemia (excessive loss of potassium) or both. One of the reasons for this opinion is the fact that the individual in question suffers from high blood pressure and therefore chooses to severely limit his intake of salt. This lack of electrolytes combined with drinking lots of water (which flushes out electrolytes) could have been the cause of his weakened condition.  A nutrient deficiency, especially the depletion of glycogen, is another common cause of fatigue and could have been a factor.

Emergency Experiences of Another Close Friend, Long-Time Climber and Wilderness Traveler

A friend and fellow hiker—scrambler—climber, Lloyd “Willie” Willette, has hundreds of wilderness trips under his belt since 1978, including numerous trips as an instructor and rope leader for college mountaineering courses. He related the following unique emergency situations: 

—   While on a climb of the Brothers in the Olympic Mountains of Washington State, one of the leaders of a college mountaineering class (approximate age 60) took a long step upward and felt a sharp muscle tear. This was a move he had made thousands of times in the past. It soon became obvious that any further climbing, up or down, would be extremely painful, if not impossible. Several cell phones in the party were mobilized to successfully call search and rescue. A Coast Guard helicopter was able to lift the patient off the summit just before nightfall. Two party members who agreed to stay with the injured climber were not lifted off and spent a long and miserable night huddled on the summit. They made their own way down the next day.

—   An out-of-shape beginning hiker fell apart physically and mentally from exhaustion and dehydration. A doctor in the party, a close friend of the patient, just happened (??) to be carrying the supplies necessary to administer an IV, which he proceeded to do. The patient recovered quickly and walked out under his own power.

—   A female member of the party became exhausted. The main reason seemed to be that she was embarrassed about urinating in a public setting and had decided not to eat or drink much to avoid that embarrassment. After the patient was encouraged to eat and drink, they made a rapid recovery.

Methodology and Generalizations from the Above Incidents

The methodology used above is simple: relate all of the serious incidents happening to a small group of highly experienced individuals over a lifetime of wilderness experience (three individuals accumulating 140+ years of experience).  The purpose is to learn more about the specific risks from hiking and scrambling and backpacking, which only occasionally involves some mountaineering. Several of the incidents related in the previous section happened in a mountaineering context. I acknowledge that a review of the American Alpine Journal’s annual accident reports would yield much more information about serious mountaineering accidents, but it would also take away from the purpose for including the above experiences. If there were a similar report of accidents happening in hiking and backpacking contexts to experienced wilderness travelers, it would also be quite helpful. I know of no such reporting.

Even though reports from additional experienced outdoors people would be helpful, we have plenty of anecdotes in the previous sections to make some useful generalizations. But what generalizations can be made from the 18 incidents related above? One is that there is a wide variety. They are all over the map, making risk more difficult to assess and manage. Even with such variety, one should still attempt to assess the potential risks for specific trips.

Another generalization is that highly experienced individuals often find themselves in mixed groups with a range of experience. Adding inexperience to the mix considerably expands risk assessment and management activities.

Broken legs and ankles and sprained knees are a common theme, especially when traveling on steep snow. In some cases, an ice axe practice before or during the trip might be helpful. Because of the nature of wilderness travel, extra attention should be paid to prior conditioning of the lower extremities. Balance type exercises would also be helpful.

Another obvious generalization is that helicopters are being utilized at an increasing rate. From a risk management standpoint, this fact dictates that knowledge of the different emergency communication devices is essential, especially for those who travel far off the beaten path.