Monday, June 16, 2008

Sans pictures

One of the things that I enjoy about knocking around the woods, water, or desert is that if you pay close attention or spend enough time, you'll almost always see something new. A corollary to that truism is that if you don't have the camera along, more remarkable sights will present themselves.

Yesterday, we headed up a very nearby mountain for a bit of a hike at altitude and to give the dog a chance to splash in the little creek. Since the plan was for no more than a short duration hike, an hour or two, in an area which sees a lot of traffic, on a weekend, I didn't pack much in the way of gear. I almost didn't bring my daypack and I didn't load a lot of the little things that regularly ride in there- parachute cord, a bit of duct tape, the headlamp, matches, firestarter, etc.. Instead, I threw in a couple of water bottles, a fleece sweater, a rain jacket and a first aid kit. Some of that was just for weight.

During the walk I was frustrated in that I also forgot to throw in the little digital camera that makes almost all my outdoor trips now. Several new-to-me wildflowers begged identification (and I had left the flower guide at home, too) and some of the views were really nice and would have provided blog-fodder. Later, I was to regret leaving the camera a bit more, as I lost the chance at some photos from a rescue.

We were driving back down the canyon and passed a nearby village's Volunteer Fire Department's ambulance in a turn out by a trail head. They were pulling out gear and assembling a wheel under a Stokes litter. There were only four people at the ambulance and they looked to be in a bit of a hurry. I mentioned to A that we ought to see if everything was ok, so we stopped. In response to "You all need any help?" the answer was "Probably." I was a bit surprised.

Turns out, they were just responding to a call about a fellow who had suffered a myocardial event some distance up the trail. Hot day, high altitude, and some steep slopes can be a tough combination, I'm sure.

I dumped the little bit of stuff out of my day pack and we grabbed ends of the litter and started down the trail with it. Concerned for the patient, a couple of the EMTs took a defibrillator, some iv packs, and bit of other gear and went on up to his location. A, one of the volunteer firefighters and I hauled the litter well in their wake, pausing as terrain and breath required to drink water and rest a bit. Shortly, we were passed by a paramedic and then joined by another volunteer fireman, then a local search & rescue volunteer. The last pitch up to the rim the patient was located just under was quite steep (really glad he wasn't on top of the rim), but more hands made a difference and soon we were there. Just after that, a Forest Service law enforcement officer arrived and then another search & rescue volunteer. We retreated a bit down the hill to stay out of the way and then helped the FS officer move some brush and downed limbs to clear out an area they were considering for use as a lift-off spot as an alternative to hauling the litter and patient down that steep stretch to get to an open flat where the in-bound helicopter could land.

By the time we were done with that, others had the patient on the litter and moved him the few yards to that gap in the trees and the search & rescue folks were really starting to come in (one of them turned out to be a guy I've chatted with at the last few RMEF banquets, always surprising where you run into folks). The person coordinating the rescue and the helicopter pilot made the call to winch the patient to the aircraft from that gap, perhaps out of concern with the lack of lift due to the low humidity, warm air, lack of breeze, and altitude as well as to avoid moving him further than necessary in the litter. Since more bodies were not going to be needed to handle the litter all the way back down the trail, the volunteer fire department leader decided to clear some unnecessary gear and people from the area so we grabbed some of the equipment he indicated and headed back out. On the way out we passed a couple more Forest Service folks inbound, chainsaw and Pulaski in hand and on their way to clear the pick-up area a bit more, perhaps to remove a couple of standing dead trees.

A mile or so on, we could look back and see the National Guard Blackhawk helicopter hover, drop gear, drop a crewman, then circle, only to come back a few minutes later to pick up the patient and crew member. At the trailhead, more volunteers, a communications trailer, and the state police were on hand. Our bit done, we gave the fire department their bags of gear and drove on down the hill to a late dinner.

The whole experience was pretty thought provoking. First, a mile-and-a-half can be a terribly long way under the wrong circumstances. Hauling that gentleman out on the litter would have been really wearing and pretty darned slow, likely finishing close to dark. This even though most of the trail is what I would have considered a good one (the tread was 1.5 feet wide and well beaten) with quite a bit of maintenance done on it and only two blowdowns. It would have been slow and hard on the patient even given that a bunch of those search and rescue folks looked pretty gnarly and in-shape. Not that in-shape, I was blowing from pulling half the litter with only forty pounds or so of gear on it.

Second, my daypack goes with me always, now. I was feeling silly taking it on what was more a walk than a "hike" to my mind, but I was really glad I had it- to loan to one of the EMTs to put medical equipment in so they could scoot up the trail to the patient and then to carry out a bunch of rope (which fortunately wasn't needed) webbing, defibrillator and other gear back out. For that matter, a little bag is going to live in my daypack and that bag is going to have some basic stuff- p-cord, marking tape, headlamp, duct tape, and some other odds and ends. I carry all that stuff in my hunting pack, but I don't want to shuffle stuff around and leave some out. I'd rather have it always to hand. We were just talking about first aid kits and I realized I need to go through, replenish, and replace some expired meds in a couple of mine. Now I have a bit more incentive.

Third (and somewhat counter to the first point) it is pretty amazing to me that within an hour or two of a call, emergency help and trained medical aid was on hand for the patient. While the location was a long way from wilderness, it also wasn't a street corner and the guy was being treated in very little time and was on a helicopter to the hospital in just a couple of hours. Search & rescue volunteers were really pouring in, too. Cell phones and GPS systems are making the world smaller in some interesting ways.

Last- yeah, the camera goes with me, so I can ID flowers and hopefully take a bit of video of the next time a Guard pilot holds his helicopter rock-steady over a ridge while winching someone aboard.

"New Mexico is mellow, people there they treat you fine"-Townes Van Zandt, "White Freightliner Blues".


Andrew Campbell said...

I served on a volunteer SAR team in Maine, mostly working with the rangers at Acadia NP, for three years. Acadia is NOT a wilderness park by any stretch of the imagination (which may be part of its problem in this instance), and we'd have a half-dozen carry-outs every season as well as one or two technical rope rescues, in addition to being called out by Fish & Wildlife for searches in other parts of the state. When it comes to carry-outs, there are never enough people... so thanks for helping out.

And frankly some of the bravest efforts I've ever seen were from National Guard Blackhawk crews assigned to do pick-ups. I watched one pilot bring his chopper in in 70mph headwinds to do a litter pick-up off a ridgeline to save what would have been a dangerous 24hr body carryout through a moraine field.

Support your local SAR team. And the best way is to make sure you're fit enough to go where you want -- and know how to get out even if you get hurt.

Nice post.


mdmnm said...

Wow, that's some serious community service.