Editor’s note: The following is a first-person account of a wilderness Flight for Life rescue that took place in the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness on July 26. It involved more than a dozen rescuers, half of whom were participants in a three-day Huts for Vets women veterans program, in which the victim was a participant. Rescue personnel asked not to be identified in this account for the sake of team anonymity.
We had wanted a bonding experience for our Huts for Vets program, but not like this, and not at the expense of one of our eight participants.
Still, four hours after a bad fall left a woman veteran incapacitated and the Flight for Life helicopter lifted off from a wildflower meadow encircled by evergreens, our bond had become indelible.
This was our first women’s program at Huts for Vets, a nonprofit that takes veterans into the wilderness at the 10th Mountain Huts for camaraderie and healing opportunities.
The introduction dinner the night before had been charged with expectations from a powerful group of women veterans representing a mix of Army, Marines and Air Force. We were geared up for a memorable, possibly life-changing experience.
That night, Terri, the unwitting subject of the rescue, spoke from the heart when she expressed her hope that the program would provide a much-needed opportunity for renewal and rejuvenation.
“I’m looking for new ways to do things with my limitations,” she wrote in her application.
We drove up to Margy’s Hut on Friday to save the long walk in from Lenado. That hike had sapped several brawny male veterans on the last program Huts for Vets ran in June, and we didn’t want to waste the women before even getting to the hut at 11,300 feet.
A crew from the 10th Mountain Huts was there when we arrived, working a firewood detail and cleaning up after a new roof had been installed. The crew leader happened to be a member of Mountain Rescue Aspen.
Our team loaded daypacks with food and water, rain gear, sitting pads and a few basic first-aid kits spread among us. Three of our staff instructors were freshly trained in first aid and CPR, though most of the vets on the program had gained far more medical experience during their deployments than all our staff collectively.
“Beyond the wall of the unreal city, beyond the security fences topped with barbed wire, beyond the asphalt belting of the superhighways …” My son and co-guide Tait Andersen read Edward Abbey’s “Nature Prayer” as a benediction to launch us into the wilds.
“May your trails be rocky, narrow and slightly uphill,” Abbey wrote, which set the tone on our first hike of this three-day program.
One minute from the hut, our trail crossed the boundary into the Hunter-Fryingpan Wilderness Area — 80,000 acres of peaks and plunging valleys. From the wilderness boundary, the trail descends gradually toward Sawmill Park, an open meadow where we had planned our first seminar discussion session. The topic, ironically, was titled “Wellness.”
The narrow trail contours a gentle slope across wildflower meadows with stunning views of the Williams Mountains and then plunges into dark timber. A little more than a mile from the hut, there is a small two-step descent over a couple of embedded rocks above a small drainage where bluebells were chest-high.
I was walking the lead with three women veterans. We were about 100 feet ahead of Terri, who walked slightly slower, using hiking poles. Terri had had a left knee replacement three months before and was trying out her new hardware, which seemed to be working well.
When Terri came to the rocks, she tried to place her right foot on the first drop. Her ankle rolled, and she said she heard a distinctive “pop” as the ankle gave out.
Terri somersaulted down a steep slope through the bluebells. She landed on her backpack, which cushioned her fall thanks to a full Camelbak water bladder. She had the instinct to grasp the flower stalks around her and stop her slide into the bog a few feet below.
“I broke my ankle!” she immediately announced to a fellow veteran who saw her fall and came to her aid. Another vet, with EMT experience, determined there were no head or spinal injuries thanks to the soft landing.
There also were no broken bones. The “pop” Terri heard was the sound of all her tendons and ligaments separating. Her bones were fine, but coming undone, the bone ends had broken through the skin as the ankle rolled, leaving a large, open wound that was now seeping blood into her boot.
From where I was farther down the trail, I heard shouting and whistling. I hurried back. When I saw that Terri was down, I knew it was serious. When I got close enough to notice the weird angle of her foot and her blood-soaked sock, it was clear that we had an emergency.
One of our women vets had already taken off running up the trail to the hut. She did this despite chronic pain she suffers as a result of war wounds. Still, she covered the uphill mile in respectable time. The adrenalin that drove her was pumping through all of us.
The first person she encountered at the hut was the Mountain Rescue Aspen member and hut-staff leader. He was in the middle of a firewood chore but dropped what he was doing and came running down the trail with several 10th Mountain interns. Following close behind was the rest of the Huts for Vets staff, which had been stocking the hut with our gear.
Terri was beginning to feel intense pain by the time the rescuer arrived. After assessing the injury and making sure the care Terri was receiving was appropriate, he got on his radio and called for a rescue via the radio relay on Aspen Mountain.
Meanwhile, several veteran women were at work stabilizing Terri both physically and emotionally. One propped up Terri’s body with her own so she wouldn’t slide into the bog. Another checked her vitals — pulse and respiration — recording them with a notepad and pen.
As the waiting game began, a hut intern with Wilderness First Responder training assisted in removing Terri’s boot. Lightly tugging a shoelace sent her into howls of pain. Ten minutes later, the boot was off and her sock was being cut with shears. A compress was applied to the wound — again with howls from Terri. The same occurred when a splint was secured, all with painstaking care.
Regular radio calls were made to Mountain Rescue Aspen updating Terri’s condition. We learned that a simultaneous rescue was taking place on Pyramid Peak, where a climber had taken a life-threatening fall. This already had been a peak summer for rescues, and now two more were in progress.
The women veterans took turns comforting Terri. Each shift change jostled her slightly and sent her pain level to 12 on a scale of 1 to 10. Mosquitoes were gorging on our exposed skin despite clouds of repellent being applied.
The weather looked threatening, and we made sure we had a tarp and the wherewithal to set up a lean-to if rain came. Terri remained stoic, clutching the hands of two Marine Corps veterans crouched beside her in the damp flowers.
Together we endured 21/2 hours of bitter patience before the Mountain Rescue Aspen paramedic arrived. He reviewed Terri’s med prescriptions and then administered an anesthetic that brought her pain rating to zero — a huge relief to all of us.
Soon other rescuers arrived with a basket litter, ropes, harnesses and assorted medical paraphernalia. As the litter was assembled, a rope was fixed to a tree above the trail for hauling Terri out of the bog.
Lifting Terri onto the litter brought a prolonged jolt of pain despite the meds from the paramedic. The rope was then tied to the litter, and Terri was carefully lifted to the trail, where a large, knobby wheel was clipped beneath the basket for rolling.
Now came the rigor of moving Terri more than a mile up the trail and back to the hut, where a chopper was expected in an hour.
To the Chopper
It took six to eight rescuers to maneuver the litter over roots, rocks and logs. Sweat poured from those who struggled up the hill with Terri teetering between them.
Teams switched often to stay fresh for the exertion of balancing the litter on the wheel and lifting it high over obstacles. The paramedic kept Terri in conversation, making sure she didn’t fall asleep under the meds he regularly administered to manage her pain.
What seemed an eternity lasted about 50 minutes. We approached the hut knowing that Terri would soon be in good hands at the hospital. Suddenly, the Flight for Life chopper roared overhead, looking for a place to set down.
In a wildflower meadow beyond the hut stood three rescue-team members holding streamers to indicate wind direction for the chopper pilot. The chopper set down gently, and the rotors came to a rest before the litter team approached.
Terri was transferred carefully to the chopper as the paramedic reported to the chopper team Terri’s status and her meds. As she was secured in the chopper, Terri raised her arm with a thumbs-up salute. We all cheered. Dazed by the meds, she was tearful and apologetic, sad to have to leave the women vets she later called her personal heroes.
The chopper doors closed, and we all moved back into the trees. The rotors spun, the chopper lifted off, and Terri was gone. The Mountain Rescue Aspen teams dispersed, and our group retired to the hut, exhausted from the exertion and the stress of a rescue that could not have gone much better.
We were more fortunate than most to have a Mountain Rescue Aspen member within easy reach; to have trained first-aid responders on our team and among our participants; to be prepared with food, water and shelter; and to have the blessing of military veterans who managed this crisis with the best mindsets one could imagine.
Terri is recovering at home in Grand Junction, and our team of veterans can look back with pride for their teamwork, attitude and preparedness in the wilderness.
Paul Andersen is executive director of Huts for Vets and editor of the land desk for Aspen Journalism, which is a local nonprofit news organization. More at www.aspenjournalism.org.