Headwaters of the Stani, a fractured fairy tale summer 2014

Lewis Lake
Mary and Luna, Lewis Lake Outlet near base camp

Hiking down the Summit Creek trail, my dog Luna and I, amidst a flurry of emotion and purpose. To the west, I could see the granite domes above Iceland Lake and the Lewis Lake cluster. High in the sky an osprey kited, and then the full scope of what had just transpired that morning came into full clarity.

I have done my fair share of helicopter evacuations from the Sierra high country, but this time it was different. In all honesty, I hadn’t necessarily felt I had any skin in them. Of course I was very concerned for the victims' health and well-being. I wanted them to be safe, but this was "REAL REAL." Emotionally real. This time, I wasn’t evacuating a "client", I was evaking my wife, partner and best friend of twenty years! And that’s also twenty years of us backpacking together without a single incident. This had some real emotional urgency! Thank goodness my training, nurtured by the Sierra Club and specialized wilderness first aid courses, was the foundation to my inner voice of calm, collective focus on the goal: reaching the nearest help and procuring a rescue without creating another victim.

Prior to her falling, the trip had been going as our usual backpacking trips. Every day full of bliss, hiking off trail into alpine areas from a base camp. Seeing no one for days on end. Drawing and painting and some fishing. The weather was perfect and the evenings were still just cool enough that the mosquitoes hadn't gained enough traction in the areas we were camped after hiking for the day.
Luna and I looking for rising trout
Luna and Mary
Summit Creek

That morning Mary and I had been doing a few watercolors near camp and planned to go on a short eight-mile hike to a place called Lunch Meadow from our base camp near the lower Lewis lakes. We collected our drawing kits, lunch and some essentials. We hiked down through Sierra sidewalk benches to find a dry crossing for Summit Creek. Upriver a ways we came across a nice log about twenty feet long and about ten feet above the stream. Soon I was across and then Luna, and as I was looking back to check on Mary, I saw her slip. Then feet in the air and down into the water and boulders she went. In that split second, I said to myself, Did I see what I think I just saw? Oh shit! She was in thigh-high water clutching a large boulder. She seemed OK, but couldn't move.

Next I remember helping her from the stream, but she couldn't walk and her arm seemed to be dislocated at the shoulder. We sat down together and I started to assess her injuries. It seemed the best plan at the moment was to find a large granite shelf in the sun for her where she could dry out and try to reduce the dislocation by hanging her arm down in a relaxed state. As she lay out on the granite near our base camp, I thought it was best to begin moving the camp from our hidden spot down half a mile to where the wet stream crossing was near the trail.

After about an hour and half I had the camp moved and re-setup in the new spot with hope we would see someone hiking by, preferably a ranger. After this time the shoulder actually looked and felt as if it had reduced back into the socket, but when she sat up it went right back out and became very painful again. If I only knew to support the arm with a sling before she sat up, so there would be no weight on the joint. This might have helped it stay in place.

I knew now, however, that we needed to get some help soon. So our next goal was to move to the new camp and set her up in the tent with provisions to supply her for a whole day while I head back to the trailhead and resort for assistance. Mary was in pain, but we were secure knowing that nothing was life-threatening and that she would be fine in the tent while I got help. We agreed on a plan and that I would be back as soon as possible that evening. In all my wilderness training, I’ve learned it’s very important to never leave a victim alone,. However, since we hadn’t seen a single person for the past three days, it was apparent I needed to go find help. It also was Sunday afternoon, and why would we expect to see someone now or even tomorrow? Even though it’s considered the northern boundaries of Yosemite we were in the wilderness, and not a popular area as well.

So off Luna and I go!

Three hours later, about eight miles, Luna and I arrived at the resort. Within minutes the owner Matt was making calls to the sheriff’s department and soon things were in motion. I communicated that she looked to have a broken leg and a dislocated shoulder, but there weren’t any compound fractures involved. At this time Luna was outside picking fights with all the cowboys’ dogs there and I had to go out and leash her up. Soon the restaurant cook came out with a huge care package for us, and Matt gave me a radio to keep in contact with the resort, sheriff’s department, and a helicopter if and when it would be en route.

So off Luna and I go again to head back to Mary’s bivouac on the trail. I kept the resort up on my progress and in about three hours I arrived back at Summit Creek, crossed the creek, and rejoined my best pal who was eager for news. But before I could tell her everything, I heard a helicopter. We talked on the radio and I took out my emergency blanket and started to wave it in the air out in the open granite area. Soon he saw the flash on the foil side and began to circle. The only glitch was he wasn’t able to land on the rippled, wrinkled surface that granite slabs often have.

He created a GPS waypoint for the next copter and told me that a search and rescue team was just dispatched from Kennedy Meadows and would be to us in an hour and a half. OK, I said, Thanks for trying!

I set out a strobe beacon on the tree facing down-trail and just waited, trying to make Mary comfortable, which was nearly impossible.

At about 11 pm the search and rescue team arrived, with Phil, a super-cool cowboy guide from the resort, was leading Will, Wade and Jesse on horses and mules with all the gear needed for a backcountry resue. Once they arrived I could relax. I asked if they were hungry. I made dinner for them while they triaged her in the tent. We would stay up all night, over and over telling stories and checking on Mary status. At this point no change was a good thing, she was stable.

As the horizon started to glow and we knew it was finally morning. From the tent, I then heard a radio come on. I couldn’t hear what was said, but everyone started to get active and Will said a chopper was en route and would be here in 15 minutes. Yow! We got Mary in the carrier with her sleeping bag and essentials. We carried her to the opening above camp and then the CHP helicopter appeared. They circled a few times above the spot, with the doors open, pilot and medic leaning out, spotting the rotors as they came in between the trees and landed. Wow! Within minutes she was in the copter and they were headed to Sonora County Hospital.

I was speechless, heart in my throat. Phil came over and patted me on the back and said "You did a good job, man! Now pack up your stuff because I got enough room for it on one of the mules!" I said, Sweet! So I rough-packed everything and gave it to him to haul out. Soon we were all ready to go. They waited for Luna and I to cross the stream, then they did. I waved to them, Wade waved and they were headed back.

I sat alone for a bit on the rock just down from where Mary fell and realized this could have happened to anyone. It was just one of those crazy simple things that just happens. Shit just happens sometimes.

So here I go again ... back down this trail with my ten essentials and Luna, set on getting to the resort and not creating another victim. Around 3 pm Luna and I arrived at the hospital and there was Mary, all patched up, ready for home and the next part of the adventure, recovery.

All in all, her CT scan showed two fractures in the left tibia from the top down about one inch. Her shoulder was dislocated and reset. She had a bump on the chin, and possibly ankle sprain.

Phill, Wade, Jesse and CHP loading Mary into the Heliocopter
ready to go.
Off to Sonora Hospital
Beer back at my truck!