Tuesday, January 22, 2013

When at ski, the number is three - Rescue in the Northwoods

The above rule applies to sea kayaking and has been borne out countless times, including several incidents that I've personally been involved in.  I never thought much about it when cross country skiing however, simply because the risk factors we think about in sea kayaking, drowning, being blown out to sea, and other water related aspects just aren't there in the woods.  A couple are though, and hypothermia and remote locations with marginal access are most definitely cross country ski risks in many of northern Wisconsin areas.  As we learned from first hand experience on Saturday. 
Five of us headed to the Valhalla ski area in the Chequamagon National Forest for a short 6 or 7k afternoon ski before tying into some happy hour cheer and whipping up a nice supper.    We split up at a trail junction with a couple folks opting for a slightly shorter and somewhat less hilly loop.  I was with the threesome that took the longer route.  All was well until KK fell at the top of a long hill and yelled to her hubby and I, who were in the lead, for help.  I skied back and KK, a physicians assistant in 'real life', told us she couldn't feel or move her lower leg and it felt like she had broken her femur. After less than 60 seconds of consultation we decided that BK would stay with his wife and that I ski back to get help.  We had a cell phone but no service. I skied the 2k back to the parking lot as fast as I've ever skied and arrived, drenched with sweat, to find the other couple, BS and JS, just getting back to the parking area.  Still no cell service so I jumped in the car with BS and we headed for the closest help.  Fortunately, as a Wisconsin boy, I knew the location of the closest bar, where we called 911 on the landline.  We drove back to the parking lot in heinous disregard of the posted speed limit and BS headed back up the trail with blankets to KK's location which I had pointed out to him on the map.  A Bayfield Co. Deputy arrived very shortly after we got back and the Washburn Ambulance with both a Bombadier type vehicle and a snowmobile with a rescue sled showed up a short time later.  At least a half hour had passed and all I could think of was KK lying in the snow on a windy hillside with a broken leg. I told the paramedics on the snowmobile that I would show them how to get to KK back in the woods and they agreed.  Maybe 40 minutes had elapsed at this point, it's tough to tell.  We reached KK and BK and I'm not sure which of us were the most relieved. The paramedic did a quick check and went back to the sled. I heard him call for a helicopter evac to Duluth and to have an ortho surgeon ready. Unfortunately our balmy 25F day at the start of our ski had rapidly deteriorated.  The wind had kicked up to 20-25mph, the temperature had dropped ten degrees, and it had begun to flurry.  No helicopter would be heading our way.  BS then showed up at the top of the hill with he blankets.  After what had to be an excruciatingly painful stabilizing of the leg and loading on to the sled, we slowly made our way to the parking lot to avoid any unnecessary jarring and jostling. KK was loaded into the waiting ambulance where she was warmed up and stabilized.  I helped load the sled and gear and waited for BK and BS to ski out. The ambulance was still there when they arrived and BK was able to accompany his wife to the ER at St Lukes in Duluth. 

Lots of stuff went right, some could have been done better, and lessons were learned by Yours Truly.  The Bayfield Co sheriff's deputy was there faster than I could have imagined. I can't say enough about the professionalism and responsiveness of the Washburn Volunteer Ambulance Service.   They were there in no time, had all the right gear for the job, and coordinated the rescue very well. Ashland EMTs handled things when we got back to the parking lot and it sounded like a smooth trip to Duluth where surgery was successfully performed.  As I mentally walked through the afternoon, several times, a few things jumped out.

I did not wear my regular fanny pack, the one with the space blanket, candle, matches, stuffed down sweater, etc.  After all, it was just a short afternoon jaunt.  I could have utilized almost all of that stuff.  A gps would have been nice as well. I could have punched the coordinates and handed off the exact location.  Being the only one with the exact location, and only having it in my head was a troublesome thought.  I was able to point out the exact spot on a paper map to the EMTs and the comment was made, most likely from experience, that 'there are quite a few people that couldn't do that'.  Learn to read a map, carry one with you, and pay attention to where you are.  The cell phone was useless and I don't plan on a SAT phone for skiing; maybe a SPOT tracker but in this case the run to the bar seemed quicker.  Why I thought that BS needed to ride shotgun to the bar escapes me at this point.  He was working the cell phone, looking for bars/signal but we hit the bar before we had any coverage.  Having him ski out with the blankets immediately would have been the prudent thing to do.  JS could have came along to work the phone but we thought having someone in the parking lot in case help arrived was important.  Heading for the bar and it's landline was the best choice there since there were no houses in the National Forest; we did not even pass another car on that stretch.  BS heading out with more blankets was a good move as well. I was more than a little worried about hypothermia at that point.  As I write this post its -9F with a 10mph wind; I'm glad those were not the conditions on Saturday.  I couldn't go back with the blankets since I was the guy who knew precisely where she was, but we agreed that getting more insulation out there was critical with the dropping temp. I think the most crucial thing for getting KK out of the woods was having three of us.  Had she been alone she would have waited 45 minutes for the next skier to pass by, which one did when we were loading KK on the sled.  Two would have meant that the only recourse would have been to leave her there alone, cold and injured, to get help. This would be a poor choice, one that would be very tough to make.

Next weekend is our annual Intensive Training weekend.  We ski in spots with longer trails that are far more remote than the Valhalla loops.  11k thru 16k loops with some tough terrain.  Last Saturdays events and lessons will be in the forefront of our 'preflight' planning before we head out the door.  When at all possible, when we ski, the number will be three. My ‘survival’ fanny pack will be the big one that holds more than just extra wax, a cork, and a bottle of water.  We will communicate which trail we are on and give a reasonable time that we will be back at the parking lot.    

The VOR and I visited BK and KK in the hospital in Duluth yesterday.  KK had a long rod and some screws holding her femur together; “First broken bone ever and it has to be the biggest one in the body” was her comment.  I saw the x-ray and cringed a bit.  A clean break with jagged bone tips and a couple of cracks to go along with it.  She was up and moving however, and learning to use the walker and negotiate stairs.  The doctors say a complete recovery with no restrictions is the prognosis.  She is indeed a very tough lady.  Hubby BK was happy to change out of his ski boots after a couple days since details like a change of clothes were not on our radar as the ambulance sped off from Valhalla to Duluth. 

Play safe in the woods people.  Stuff is going to happen and it’s so much easier if you have a couple of things in place to deal with it.  Especially if it’s cold like it is this week in the Great Lakes states.  Perhaps when it’s below zero having a beer in that local bar is preferable to racing in to grab the phone for a 911 call.  Whatever you decide, please use your brain and think ahead a bit.  And be sure to get out there and have some good, safe fun in the snow.

1 comment:

anthony schmitz said...

Excellent reminder to carry some extra gear when banging around in the woods. Too often I tell myself I'm just going for a little stroll.