2016 Lake Catherine SAR and Rehab

The warmth of the sun on my face slowly stirred my consciousness. I opened my eyes, unsure if I was fading in or out of a dream. I laid comfortably on my back on a gentle incline of grass and rocks, soothed by the sound from a nearby waterfall. I soon realized that I was at the bottom of the cliff I was trying to climb down. A brief feeling of success quickly turned to concern of a possible injury. I stared at my swollen and crooked right wrist and wondered if that was the worst of it. Wiggling my toes in relief, I tried to move my legs next. My left leg did not respond. I tried again and noticed blood gush out from below my knee at each attempt. At that moment, I knew my hike was over and would need to call for help. I slowly got my backpack out from under me to retrieve my SPOT and activate its 911 feature for the first time.

In order to ensure my 911 signal wasn’t impeded by the cliff above me, I slowly dragged myself, my leg, and my backpack about 25 feet, creating a dotted line of blood as I shifted my leg every few inches. Finally satisfied with my location, I propped my leg on a rock, and settled in for the wait, with my bloody hat on my face for shade. I sat up a few times to take photos of the waterfall, my wrist and my leg. I even tied a bit of rope around my leg, hoping to slow the blood flow. But I was mainly relaxed and just waited.

About six months prior, I spent many evenings and weekends studying topo maps, reading trip reports and forum discussions, and scrutinizing terrain on Google Earth, producing an 8 day itinerary starting from Agnew Meadows at Mammoth Lakes. But the real adventure starts on day 2 with a hike over the Ritter Range via North Glacier Pass and except for a small ¾ mile section later, remain off-trail for six days. My route would take me through Bench Canyon, Hutchings Creek Basin, and the Lyell Fork of the Merced River, pristine wilderness that receive few visitors, and then return over Rodgers Pass and wind my way back to Mammoth Lakes via Davis and Nydiver Lakes.

During my planning, I identified two sections that required extra caution. One was the west side of Rodgers Pass which is notorious for loose scree on its steep slope. The other was the descent from Lake Catherine down to Twin Island Lakes, where complex terrain and cliffs in the area force travelers to choose their routes carefully. This is actually a section of Roper’s Sierra High Route. But Roper’s book only provides a general description of the route to avoid spoiling the challenge many off-trail hikers seek. I had also penciled in an alternate route on my map that winds south towards Ritter Lakes before heading back north to the more commonly used route. According to my online research, this avoids some of the steep cliffs in the area.

On Day 2, from my private campsite west of Thousand Island Lakes, I reached the top of North Glacier Pass, picked my way along Lake Catherine’s rocky shore and past a small tarn, and was rewarded with my first view down the slope towards Twin Island Lakes. I was drawn down the beautiful landscape so decided not to take the alternate path. Using an assortment of easy granite ramps, I reached the top of a horseshoe cliff. With a river and waterfall to my left, my only choices were to climb down the cliff or continue along the high route to the right until I could find an easier descent. As I peered down the cliff, I saw a manageable route that went ¾ of the way straight down and then to the left around a corner. Unfortunately, the view around the corner was obstructed. Hopeful a path continued, I decided to climb down but discovered the path to the left was a long smooth granite slide that ended about 8 feet off the sloped ground. Perched at the top of the slide looking around, I think I had made the decision to go back up. I have no recollection of the next fifteen minutes of my life. 

I didn’t know how much time had passed since I had activated my SPOT. Dialing 911 on my mobile phone repeatedly failed. But I was surprised to feel a little excitement about this ordeal, about breaking a bone for the first time, and the challenge to recover. I suppose I never seriously considered that I wouldn’t be eventually rescued. Still, I was relieved at hearing the helicopter blades and thought to myself that their response time was really quick. They flew overhead in the general area and each time they got close, I flashed my headlamp at them. This continued for maybe 20-30 minutes. My measure of time was not very accurate. The helicopter disappeared after a while before returning. Then it would disappear again. I thought they had seen me but could not find an area to land. Maybe they sent for a foot crew to come rescue me. The next time I saw the helicopter circle over me, I took out a shirt and started waving it. The helicopter sounded its horn in response. They finally saw me, and landed at 4:15pm, 4 hours after my fall.

The crew of 2, from the CHP Central Division Air Operations Unit, came to assess me. One of them stayed with me while the other walked around with his camera, taking numerous photos and appreciating the surrounding. They put me in a bag to be airlifted out. Unfortunately, another helicopter had to be called in for the extraction. I was partially dragged and carried to an open area to wait for the second helicopter, which arrived at 7pm. I felt absolutely no discomfort during the wait, though I started to feel chilled as the sun set and the temperature dropped. After I was airlifted into the second helicopter above the shadows, I warmed up quickly and lightly dozed off to the rhythm of the helicopter blades. I recall landing somewhere, possibly to refuel, before reaching the hospital and was able to confirm this with my GPS tracks, since my GPS unit was still on. We landed on the roof of Community Regional Medical Center in Fresno at 8:24pm and was admitted into their Trauma Medical/Surgical unit.

After receiving various x-rays and scans, I was told I had multiple fractures in my wrist and leg and my patellar tendon was completely lacerated. The actual details of the injuries and what would be done during the next 24 hours was unclear to me. One of the emergency room surgeons said they might need to insert a rod in my leg. Given the fact that the fractures were in the tibia plateau, which I would find out a few days later, the surgeon that made the rod comment must not have seen my x-rays. Luckily, I was lucid enough to request them not to insert any rods, plates, screws as I preferred to have this done at a hospital closer to home with a trusted surgeon and where follow-up appointments would be easier. I did ask them to reattach my tendon since I was worried it might shrink and lose elasticity.

My wife was initially called by a SPOT dispatcher to confirm I was in the area of the signal location. She was then provided regular updates from a sheriff on the search and rescue operation. She drove the night and arrived while I was in the operating room, but the hospital staff gave her few details on what was happening.

I woke up in a hospital recovery room with my left leg and right wrist immobilized in splints. We still had few details from the rotating staff and remained in the dark the entire day. Finally, the surgeon who had worked on me came in the next morning as I was still half asleep. He had a team of interns around him and told me he only had a few minutes to talk. So he explained that he just cleaned and closed the wounds and set the wrist to close anatomic alignment. I was still half asleep but I also heard him say he did not reattach the tendon. I now realize this was best. I was discharged a few days later.

At home, we found highly recommended surgeons for my wrist and leg, and consulted with both on a Monday. I underwent wrist surgery the following day as an outpatient and then leg surgery on Thursday, spending a few days in the hospital to recover before returning home with multiple plates, pins, and screws and my tendon stitched back together. It may have been the medication, but I felt very little pre- and post-surgery pain. My main discomfort was the restlessness from being in a wheelchair. In addition, since my left leg was immobilized from bending, my wheelchair required an elevated leg rest attachment. Maneuvering around corners with my left leg sticking straight out became very tedious. But this period of time was also an opportunity to appreciate an unhurried life. After trying to work from home the first week, I took disability and enjoyed short outings around the block and at the park with my wife. She also drove me to my doctor’s appointments, took care of medical paperwork, arranged the house so I could move around, and made life easier for me.  My daughters also responded to provide me with the best environment possible for a quick recovery.

After about a month in the wheelchair, I was relieved to finally use a walker with a platform attachment for my broken wrist and then crutches with a platform attachment a week later and finally crutches without the platform attachment. My wrist cast was removed and my straight-leg brace was replaced by an articulating one so it was time to work on getting my seemingly frozen wrist and leg to flex again. It’s amazing how the body responds when it isn’t utilized.

Today (Feb 2017), about 6 months after the accident and with physical therapy, I am only about 10 degrees away from my normal wrist flexion and extension and leg flexion. Strength is at about 75% and improves noticeably each week. I can jog lightly and am looking forward to returning to my outdoor activities. I recognize that the situation could have been much worse and feel truly fortunate that I was rescued and my injuries were not more severe and unrepairable. The CHP Air Operations Unit crew members, surgeons, physical therapists and medical staff that helped me are true heroes.

Throughout this entire experience, I remained positive, never doubting my ability to recover, and even found fortune in my accident. It is my belief that lessons learned could prevent a worse injury or even save my life.

Lessons learned:

1. Carry some type of satellite communications device, especially if travelling off-trail.

2. Use a satellite communications device that pings your location at regular intervals. If I had stayed unconscious, I would not have been able to signal for rescue.

3. Climbing down a cliff without a clear path should be a last resort. Have the patience to look for another route.

4. Always have 3 points of contact while climbing. Friction can be suddenly lost. I’m certain I wasn’t holding on when my feet slipped.

5. Helicopters cannot see a flashing light in daylight. Use a bright piece of clothing or mirror. The helicopter will signal when they see you.

6. Make sure family/friends have your trip itinerary

7. Carefully assess your abilities and travel with others if the route requires more experience than you have

8. If injured, remain calm and relaxed

9. Stay positive while injured and during the recovery

10. Relish the simple things in life. Prior to this trip, I took my daughters on a much less challenging backpacking trip and really enjoyed it. I loved their company but also appreciated not having the stress of thinking about crossing a difficult pass or river or logging high miles.

Banner Peak and Thousand Island Lake outlet

Lake Catherine

View towards Twin Island Lakes

This pot was in my backpack behind my head

My video clips combined with footage by CHP Central Division Air Ops of helicopter rescue