Accident on Lower Jump
As an outdoors enthusiast with a “worst-‐case-‐scenario” mentality, I have been absorbing wilderness safety education for about a decade. I’ve taken formal classes on wilderness preparedness, advanced canyoneering, wild plants, starting a fire with whatever you have on you, and a litany of other subjects. I am also exceptionally cautious, sometimes to the point where I annoy others. Despite all this, I had to be rescued from a canyon this summer.
July 27, 2014 -‐ I was canyoneering (basically, rappelling in waterfalls) in the Sierras about 2 hours east of Fresno in a ravine called Lower Jump Canyon. A beautiful granite gorge cut to the bedrock by snowmelt and rainfall, the canyon (officially the North Fork of the Kings River) gets its nickname from countless deep pools into which you can jump as you travel downstream. It’s a gorgeous, fun, and dangerous canyon known for injuries because of slippery, algae covered granite. Also, though the water is typically clear, there are obstacles hidden underneath that people unknowingly jump onto.
It was a perfect day, just the right temperature and the views were stunning. One great aspect of canyoneering is the places we go are so hard to get to that we see parts of the world most people never will. I paused to give thanks for that gift as we entered the beautiful canyon that morning. I also realized that the built in privacy would make this a great place to take a girl skinny-dipping. I would have to contemplate that further sometime in the future.
I was travelling with two friends, Daniel and Bronic. Though they didn’t meet the female requirement of my above mentioned thought, they were excellent canyoneers. We had the minimum group size of three people, we were all highly trained, very experienced, and well prepared for the trip. Knowing the inherent dangers of this route, we treaded carefully. At every jump, one of us would rappel down to check the depth of the water so the other two could jump it.
At 9:30am we were about 2 hours into the canyon, making good time despite our caution. We all hoped to beat the 12 hour trip time clocked by our friends the day before. At this point we found an optional granite water slide that looked fun. We sent a backpack down first to see how the water would carry us. We devised a plan and Daniel went first. He hit a ledge in the granite with his butt that bounced him into the air but he landed safely in the pool below. In the video of this event you hear me say “Is this a bad idea?” He reported to us that it was, in fact, quite fun. Since Daniel made it through I went ahead. I sat down, pushed off, and quickly picked up speed. As I rapidly approached the ledge I was concerned about breaking my tailbone on it, so I put out my feet to act as a shock absorber. Suddenly, this all seemed like a worse idea. My right foot caught the ledge and held firm as the rest of me kept going. I felt a couple snaps and a sharp pain as my ankle built and released pressure so fast it all felt like a single event. Though I’d never experienced this before, the sensation was unmistakable. This was no sprain.
I hit the water and held up my leg with my hands, cursing every four-‐letter word I could think of and making up more when the ones I knew didn’t cut it. My yelling was not from the pain. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt that bad. It was anger that produced my screams. With only one sixth of this very challenging canyon completed, I knew I had royally screwed the entire group. Then I kept thinking of the upcoming trips that would now be void. Whitney was definitely out. Probably Kilimanjaro, too. Shit.
I informed my companions of what happened. “Are you sure it’s broken?” asked one of them. As I swam to the shore, my foot flopped around independently of my leg’s bone structure. “Yep, pretty sure.” They helped me climb out of the pool onto a sloped granite ledge where I immediately elevated my foot and started digging through my bag. Daniel and Bronic considered our options. “Do we have anything to splint it?” “Do we know how to splint it?” “Are we going to have to carry him out?” “Nope,” I stated. Over the course of my 34 years I had grown quite used to seeing my foot in a certain position. Currently, it contrasted that familiar sight by about 70 degrees. We probably could have splinted it but none of us knew how to reset the bone(s). Traveling the rest of the way would have subjected myself and my comrades to an unnecessary risk.
I found what I had been digging for in my bag, pulled it out, and turned it on. It was an ACR ResQLink Personal Locator Beacon. It sends a distress signal with your location to search and rescue (SAR). It was an expensive item I had picked up a couple years prior when I started hiking alone. A peculiar purchase, you buy it hoping to never use it. In this particular moment I thanked God I had spent the money. Unfortunately, the device tells you it’s transmitting but gives no confirmation that the signal was received, so you have no idea if assistance is coming. So what do we do now?
Somebody wisely suggested that I take some Advil and we discussed our next course of action. Since we didn’t know if the beacon was working, someone would have to exit the canyon as a backup. This canyon is no joke, so the prospect of one person doing it alone seemed like a bad idea at first. However, the reason that three is the minimum canyon group size is so someone can stay with the victim while another person goes for help. I decided in the future I’d make four the minimum. We gave Bronic two of our three ropes. It would be a heavy load for one person but it was the minimum he would need to exit the canyon. We developed a contingency plan to ascertain Bronic had made it out in the event that Daniel and I were rescued first. With no cell service we had to be very explicit with what everyone was to do. Full of a hero’s adrenaline, Bronic pressed onward. Time was of the essence but it was far more important for him to be cautious. We didn’t want another injury or worse.
“Well, Daniel. Do you have a deck of cards?” I asked. I figured we would be waiting a long time, so we started finding ways to pass the time. Keeping Daniel with me proved to be the right decision as my mobility was greatly compromised. It got quite hot after a while and he was able to refill my water bottle and dunk my shirt in the water to keep me cool. He also used our remaining rope to spell SOS on the rocks. Perhaps most important of all, he kept me company. I was in good spirits. The pain was mostly managed as long as I didn’t move too much and I knew our rescue plan was solid, but it was a relief to have a friend nearby.
Despite the high spirits, Daniel and I were both playing games with our
expectations. If you don’t get your hopes up, then you’ll still keep it together when nobody shows. Even still, the sound of the running water would play tricks with our ears, filling us with a false excitement that we had heard a plane or a helicopter. I guessed it would be at least five hours before we’d even know if a rescue was in progress, but I kept hoping that it would be one or two or three. The reality was if the beacon didn’t work, the earliest that SAR would even know we needed assistance was if/when Bronic made it out 10 hours after he left us. If that was the case, Daniel and I would surely have to spend the night. We were prepared for this contingency with extra clothing and food, but it would have been miserable. What if the beacon didn’t work AND Bronic got stuck or hurt? Daniel and I decided that if nobody came for us by 10am the next day then he would leave me and go for help, himself. We didn’t have enough rope for him to descend the canyon, but after reviewing the topo map we thought he could climb up the steeply sloping wall of the canyon back to the road, 860 feet above us. It was a bad option but it was a choice between that and waiting another day for my parents to report us missing.
My parents! I had a horrible realization. They, along with my friend, Phill, were listed as emergency contacts on the beacon. If it actually did work, they would have been notified of its activation hours ago. They would also have no indication why the beacon had been triggered. Did I break my back? Did I die? Was it even me who was hurt? I could only imagine what kind of hell they were going through.
At 1pm, Daniel and I were half asleep in the hot afternoon sun. Suddenly, my ears perked up. I heard a sound far more distinct than the tricky water. At first I was hesitant to react. Then it all became quite clear. I bolted upright and shouted, “Daniel!” He sat up and we yelled in unison, “Helicopter!” The image I saw next was not a particularly striking image. It would not have made the cover of any self-respecting photographic magazine or even gotten more than a few “Likes” on Facebook. However, it was the greatest sight I had ever seen. Swooping into view from beyond the cliffs and passing overhead was a Sheriff’s helicopter.
Daniel and I cheered ecstatically and gave each other one of those bro high-‐fives. You know, the kind where you hold onto each other’s hands for an extra second or two and shake each other around because it’s more manly that way. A loud speaker squawked from the helicopter, “Do you need medical assistance?” Instantly our hands shot up in the air forming a “Y” shape, which is the signal for “Yes.” Incidentally, waiving your arms around means, “Don’t land here,” so we were careful to make the distinction clear. They passed us a third time and asked us the same question. Concerned, we yelled, “Yes!” and held our arms up again. They kept passing us and asking questions but it was impossible to understand them over the sound of the running water and the beating rotors. We did everything we could think of to show them we needed help. We blew our whistles, flashed them with the mirror in my compass, and pointed at the large SOS spelled out on the rock.
Looking at the helicopter more closely, it was clear that this one would not be pulling us out of the canyon. It was pretty small and had no obvious cable system. At least we were fairly certain they knew we needed help. Instantly my mind went to Bronic and I second-guessed whether sending him ahead alone was the right choice. What if he got hurt? The beacon obviously worked so he was unnecessarily at risk. Nothing could be done about it now, though. It was still the right decision given the information we had at the time.
The chopper circled for 45 minutes before leaving us, and the waiting continued. About 30-‐60 minutes later, a forest ranger casually came walking up. He had no rappelling gear and no wetsuit. How the hell did he get down here? John, the ranger, informed us he had started hiking down the side of the canyon about 45 minutes before the helicopter arrived. It was a dangerous trek and he said he almost didn’t make it a couple of times. I felt regret for putting him into that danger; though, his presence proved vital to the rescue. Using his radio, he was able to communicate with the rest of the crew that I had a broken ankle, I was stable, and that we had another friend down canyon of our position. He could also relay the message to my parents that I was okay, which was a huge relief to me.
John stayed with us until the hoist ship (a slightly larger helicopter than the first one, outfitted with a winch) arrived to lift me out. John warned us to pack anything that could get blown away when the helicopter approached. The wind was so strong we had to protect our faces from all the flying debris. Daniel yelled at me to grab my 20lb. backpack which was blowing away. I glanced up and saw the helicopter constantly making corrections to avoid hitting the canyon walls. A CHP officer rode down the winch, unhooked, and the helicopter flew away. Tony, the CHP officer, suited me up into what they called a “screamer suit,” basically a big harness. The chopper came back, Tony hooked me in, and they wound me up. With narrow canyon walls, elevation, and constantly changing winds, it proved to be a difficult rescue for them and I am forever in their debt.
There wasn’t much room inside the helicopter, so I had to sit with my legs dangling off the side. Consequently, during our five-minute flight to the ambulance the wind tossed my loose foot around like a ball on a string. It hurt. After transferring me to the ambulance, an EMT cut off my nice new wetsuit (the only way to get it off, sadly) and I got my first look at the ankle since the break. The swelling was so bad it looked like I had a large orange stuck in my leg. The incredibly professional and proficient crew then drove me two hours to an emergency room in Fresno.
As it turned out, Bronic finished the canyon on his own an hour faster than the group from the day before. When he exited, the sheriffs were waiting for him to
make sure he was okay. Daniel and the forest ranger hiked backup the dangerous canyon wall, using our one remaining rope as a hand line.
I was shocked to discover how big an ordeal a broken ankle is. I needed surgery, after which my recovery was estimated to take 4-‐6 months. Even after that they say my ankle will never be as good as it was before. For the first three weeks I had to lay on my back and keep the ankle elevated constantly to avoid swelling and pain. As I write this it’s been about 6 weeks since the accident and I have another two left until I can walk or drive (since it was my right ankle). During this recovery I have been a burden on my friends and family, and I am in debt to them, as well.
Many discussions have taken place in the aftermath of this event, dissecting it in every way possible. “It was a freak accident,” is a phrase I have heard more than once. It is a kind statement that I believe is meant to defend me and my reputation as a reliable canyoneer. Though I appreciate the defense, I must say that this accident was the result of my poor decision. I knew the slide looked bad and I went for it anyway. “Daniel made it down just fine, so you’ll be okay.” “I’ve been really cautious this whole weekend, it’s okay for me to have fun once.” “Be as tough and adventurous as everyone else.” These were my thoughts that persuaded me to dismiss my better judgment. Maybe nine times out of ten those thoughts would be fine. This time they were not. Even if you are well-trained and cautious, it just takes one brief lapse of common sense to create a serious problem. It’s easier to fall into that lapse than I thought.
The important lessons to take from this are many. The critical ones that I have come away with are below:
1. Plan for the worst so you’re ready if it happens. Even when everything is going well on an easy trip, your situation can change in an instant.
2. Get an emergency beacon and know how to use it. Without it, our rescue would have taken a full 24 hours. Under worse conditions this delay could have had dire consequences. There is a beacon made by DeLorme that allows for two-‐way text communication. The benefits of that are substantial and most of the canyoneers I know have purchased that model in the wake of my accident. That said, I strongly suggest you do your own research as there are several brands and models, each with its own pros and cons.
3. Always leave your trip itinerary with reliable emergency contacts. This should contain routes, parking and car info, contact information of everyone on the trip, what time you'll return, and what time your contacts should call search and rescue if you don't return. The SAR teams were in communication with my parents who were able to give them that information (except the car info, which I had not provided). It was valuable to SAR which means it is valuable to you.
4. Take a wilderness first aid class. At a bare minimum you should take a course that lasts an entire weekend. If you will be in remote areas like me, I strongly recommend a wilderness first responder course. They are generally 5-8 days long and cost anywhere from $500-$900. It's a big commitment but consider this: If I had to exit that canyon under my own power we would have been in big trouble. None of us knew how to reset the bone and apply a splint, which is one of the many things you learn as a wilderness first responder.
5. Have fun but be careful!