Climber survives harrowing fall on Quandary Peak
Summit County correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
BRECKENRIDGE, Colo. ” Pausing in his descent from the summit of Quandary Peak on a cold, blustery day, Adam Dailey watched in wide-eyed horror as a climber below him took a fall in the steep Monte Christo couloir.
“I saw his feet just go out from underneath him, and that was it,” Dailey said. “I kind of thought maybe he was practicing a self-arrest technique. The way the fall happened, it didn’t look like it was for real.”
Arms and legs flailing as he struggled to stop himself, Dan Heim, an inexperienced mountaineer alone on his first alpine-style snow climb, bounced and cartwheeled about 200 feet.
“He was tumbling down the mountain, and I saw him hit a patch of rocks,” Dailey said. “His body basically went limp, and he just kind of rolled down like a rag doll.”
Battered and bleeding, Heim came to rest in the snow.
Nearby, a Colorado Springs painter with five years of experience as an emergency-medical technician was climbing the mountain for a day of skiing.
Trask Bradbury said he “beelined it” to the steep snow gully on the south side of the peak where the climber had fallen after hearing of the accident from another skier.
His friend, Erik Wellborn, called 911 with only a sliver of cell-phone reception.
For the next two critical hours, while they awaited high on the mountain for the Summit County Rescue Group, the men kept close watch on Heim’s vital signs and covered him with their jackets to keep him warm.
Bradbury applied gauze to his fractured head. He gently rolled Heim onto his side, placing backpacks on the snow to insulate his back while keeping his spinal column in line.
Every couple minutes, he asked Heim questions.
He said Heim, 34, was scared, drifting in and out of consciousness.
“He wanted to get up and get out of there ” you know how it is at that altitude,'” Bradbury said.
It was cold on that June 13 morning, and winds were howling.
“I filled a Gatorade bottle, put hot coffee in it and put it underneath the jacket on (Heim’s) belly.”
A hastily assembled team of about 30 rescuers from both Summit County Rescue and the Alpine Rescue Team of Evergreen made their way up the mountain, south of Breckenridge. At about 11:15 a.m. they reached the scene, about 700 feet below the summit of the fourteener.
Over the course of three intense hours on the steep slopes, the team administered first aid to Heim, gently placed him into a rescue litter and began the arduous task of lowering him some 2,200 feet ” a few inches each step ” with ropes wrapped through anchors dug into the snow.
Rescuers requested a high-powered military helicopter from Fort Carson to try to pluck Heim from the mountain with a long line, but were thwarted by the winds.
After Heim was lowered to the valley floor, a Flight-for-Life helicopter ultimately was able to take him to a hospital in Denver.
Ken Heim said his son can’t remember the accident or rescue, which is typical of such cases.
He doesn’t know why his son, who has worked about a year for the Vail Resorts information technology department, was climbing the 14,265-foot peak alone.
“He’s not an amateur, but probably doesn’t have the skill level to be where he was,” he said.
Tim Skallerud was climbing with Dailey and three others that morning. He had a brief conversation with Heim before they ascended.
“He told me it was his first alpine climb,” Skallerud said. “He just asked if we’d ever done anything like it before, and I said I’d done it a few times.”
Both Skallerud and Dailey used ice axes. They said Heim, who was climbing more slowly, was using trekking poles, which are not made for stopping falls.
Heim was wearing a helmet when he began the climb but not when he fell, Skallerud said.
“He was wearing crampons and boots, which both looked to be pretty well brand new. A couple people at the scene commented on how new (they appeared),” he said.
Heim sustained a broken arm, a six-inch head wound requiring 12 staples, a concussion, and, most seriously, a broken neck.
A spinal surgeon told Ken Heim that his son’s cervical vertebra had rotated 90 degrees: A facet of a bone that keeps the head from turning too far broke off.
About a third of such cases result in quadriplegia, and another third result in serious paralysis, assuming the patient survives, he said.
“It (the spinal cord) was basically hanging by a thread,” Ken Heim said. “Another movement would have hit that spinal column.”
Blood flow from two of four arteries to the brain ceased temporarily, and Heim is thought to have suffered two minor strokes and apparently incurred minor brain damage due to the trauma.
In emergency surgery early the next morning, doctors fused two vertebra in his neck to stabilize his neck and compensate for the broken bone fragment.
Twelve days later, he remains in the trauma surgery intensive-care unit at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver.
Ken Heim said his son’s respirator tube was removed four days after the accident.
He was able to sit in a chair Monday, and he took five steps on Tuesday, but it was “unbelievably fatiguing.”
Heim is battling pneumonia, and he probably will lose about 10 percent of motion in his neck, but he is expected to recover from the physical injuries, Ken Heim said.
His recovery from the brain injuries could be more onerous journey.
“He’s got some obstacles ahead of him,” Ken Heim said.
He can talk, but a simple form of post-traumatic amnesia has affected his short-term memory.
“The brain has to reconnect all those electronic connections, and it takes time,” Ken Heim said.
Heim is to be transferred to Craig Hospital in Denver for rehabilitation possibly in the next week, his father said.
When he heard how close Heim had been to paralysis and even death, Bradbury, the mountainside EMT, was stunned.
“Oh my god,” he said repeatedly.
Ken Heim heaped praise upon the rescuers for their heroic work to bring his son down, and he singled out Bradbury for saving his son’s life.
“If he had not been handled with the care that he was, he would have died on the mountain. It’s just a miracle he’s alive.”