A walk in the park turned into a 24-hour rescue ordeal when I slipped on some elk-worn heather and broke my ankle.
Four of us were hiking in the Olympic National Park above Wynoochee Dam at 11 a.m. Sunday morning July 17. The two-mile scramble through steep bushy terrain to cross the ridge in to the park proved easier than getting back out.
After the mishap, two of my friends, Jarrod Todd and Bob Peterson went for help and drove 12 miles back to the dam where they called 911, gave our GPS coordinates, and requested an air rescue. Officials at the Park initially denied permission for the Navy helicopter from Whidbey Island to enter the wilderness designated area, as “mechanized access” is not allowed.
They wanted the Navy to drag me a half-mile back up and over the ridge and out of the park, and then air lift me from heavily timbered Forest Service land. Not possible. The Park finally gave in and the air rescue started at 4 p.m. How much this factored in to the delay of my rescue I am still not sure?
When my other hiking partner Frank Stinchfield and I first heard the rescue copter over the ridge to the south, we knew the chances of getting out that day (Sunday) were slim to none as the fog had rolled in and you could no longer see the ridge line.
The copter tried to find an opening as the fog lifted a little, but before too long things went quiet and we prepared to spend the night. We were both equipped with extra food, water and gear for just such an occasion. Then we heard the copter again working the area hard to our east where Discovery Lake is, but after several minutes it went all quiet again.
Now reaching 6:30 p.m., I was laying into a tall stand of trees for the night when there was a sudden noise and Jarrod and two Navy medics arrived. They had been lowered down near Discovery Lake and had come cross county through some terrible rock walls using the GPS coordinates.
They were my heroes.
Jarrod had carried the litter, and Wayne and Alan, their heavy medical backpacks to get aid to me. The plan was to still lift me out before dark. We sent Jarrod back out so he could make the two miles before dark as he had to work on Monday. The medics started to immediately assess my situation and tried to start an IV, which proved difficult having suffered 25 years with Lyme Disease and my poor veins.
It wasn’t long before they abandoned the IV and gave me a shot of Fentanyl to help ease the pain as they worked on my right ankle. I was at a pain level of two on a scale of one-to-10. After cutting away my boot it was obvious the golf ball size lump on the inside of my ankle was serious. I could feel bone rubbing on bone when we moved it.
The medics immobilized my leg with a splint, wrapped it up and radioed for the helicopter. The medics had brought red smoke cans and strobe lights to help direct the copter to a landing area, but the fog proved too thick. Then we heard them to our north and the radio barked, “We have landed just below you 1,000 feet. Bring the patient down to us.”
Frank and I looked at each other and said, “Not possible.” It was a steep rock drop off below the meadow. Frank and Alan went to try and see if they could find a way but came back shaking their heads. A call to the helicopter sent them on their way back to base as it was nearing dark.
We were there for the night with rain showers in the forecast. The three of them started building a camp in the trees 100 yards from me. I covered my foot with a garbage bag I carry for emergency situations and slid backwards on my butt to get there.
When I reached the spot on the elk trail where I slipped I could now see what had happened. There was one lone patch of heather on the trail. The elk had worn off the greenery and bark so that made the stems very slippery. I had just taken a photo of the meadow with Jarrod, Bob and Frank walking through it. As I looked at the camera to see how the picture turned out, I stepped forward with out looking and right onto that spot of heather. My leg whipped out from under me and snapped in mid air and on my butt I went.
Camp was comfortable with a fire, which we learned the next morning that the Park was going to have a problem with as fires are not allowed above 4,000 feet. We were at 4,200 feet. The medics had expected to be airlifted out by now and had not brought food or water so we were sharing ours. I had two pieces of Casa Mia pizza I shared with the four of us … we also had some carrots and split an apple.
The medics had radioed the Navy Base they were not able to carry their “Go Bag” of supplies and needed some brought in. A team from Olympic Mountain Rescue was dispatched to come in with supplies in the dark. They planned to start the climb at 2 a.m. I looked up about then and the stars were out. I woke Wayne and he called for the helicopter for a night evacuation, but it was needing service after flying so many hours. They called for the King County Rescue copter, but it wouldn’t come this far. Next they called the Coast Guard, but they don’t fly at night. We were stuck till daylight.
The Grays Harbor Rescue Command Center had been gearing up with my hiking buddy Bob Peterson who stayed on the phone at the dam to help assist. Because of the foggy weather, Rescue Coordinator Leader Chief Leonard Johnson from Grays Harbor Fire District No. 2, was bringing in a backup team to lower me down with ropes. Estimated time was going to be six to eight hours. Plans were to meet at the dam at 7 a.m. Bob would lead the 18-man team the 12-mile drive up to where we parked, and then into the woods.
Back at camp, my pain level was rising. Wayne tried more and different drugs and he was running low, coming directly from another rescue. Morphine was not doing anything as my level was rising to an eight. As they slept, my pain escalated to a 12 and I woke up Wayne. He offered to do an IO (Intraosseous infusion) where he would drill in to the bone to the marrow, just below my knee and inject Ketamine.
He told me the flushing out of the port would be painful and he needed my authorization. I told him to go for it and the plan was to do it as soon as the three Olympic rescue team members arrived. At 4:30 am they managed to find their way and we started my IO.
Wayne told the now five guys to hold me down with all their strength as he started drilling. Not bad till he hit the marrow and I screamed a bit. Then he said,”I’m sorry, but you’ll still like me in the morning.” I went ballistic in excruciating pain that I have never felt before. It was like acid had been poured in to my body. A few seconds later and the pain was gone. The world started spinning and I shot like a rocket into the universe at warp speed in vivid lime green colors. What a ride!
As my trip started back down to earth, it felt like I was in a surreal video game. I was talking incoherently — about dying, about finding Pokemon — and eventually I came too on the litter. The throbbing pain eventually lessened through the morning. I’m told I only got a half hour of sleep.
Olympic Mountain Rescue had brought food, water and sleeping bags for us and they hit the sack immediately, having driven for three hours from Kitsap before making the two and a half hour climb.
Sunrise broke under clear skies but the fog soon rolled back in. The coordination for a “highest technical level” ground rescue was in full swing with Tacoma firefighters, Park rangers and more of the mountain rescue team making up the 18 rescuers on their way to start the climb.
The ground leader was there with us and radioing in requests for gear and personnel as he assessed the steep terrain. I wanted to go out by air. I told him with my 50 years of experience in these mountains, the fog would burn off at 9 a.m. He thought I was still on drugs.
At 7 a.m. the Coast Guard radioed they were on their way. We could hear them but the fog was too thick to come over the ridge again. Suddenly, I noticed the Litshcky Valley from us to the Quinault River was open and they directed the copter to fly over to Quinault and come up the river. They flew up to Graves Creek Campground but ran into fog trying to get up our direction.
They returned to Bowermen Field in Hoquiam to refuel and await our call that the fog lifted on our ridge. At 8 a.m., the ground teams started the climb loaded with 300-foot ropes and gear. At 8:45 the fog started to burn off and the call went out to Coast Guard and the Navy helicopters to come get us.
At 9:08 the fog burned off to sunshine. I was loaded into the litter and held down again as four more drugs, including Ketamine, were given to me through the IO. The pain was sheer horror as each flush burned like I was being branded with a 1,000 degree steel branding iron. The world started spinning again, but I don’t remember a thing about this trip or the next half hour. Suddenly, I felt like I was in this virtual reality again when figures in orange flight suits appeared at my side. I asked,”Are you real? Can you touch me?” One did and my return to reality began.
I heard a copter and the Coast Guard came into view overhead. I was told “Keep your eyes closed” as the cable became tight and up I went. I felt the tug to be pulled inside. They told me we were going to Olympia Hospital and that it would be about 20 minute flight. The Navy helicopter whipped in and landed next and loaded the other five guys and their gear in and off it went.
Bob was watching from the road and said two minutes later the fog socked in again. That close to not getting out. The ground rescue was then called off with the guys half way up the hill.
I arrived in the emergency room on Monday at noon and x-rays showed I had broken my ankle in three places above the joint. When they removed my splints they saw fracture blisters had developed, The blisters occur from a chemical the body releases, and made for complications for surgery and healing.
I had surgery. A plate and 13 screws held my ankle in place, and I was placed in a walking boot. I was in the hospital till Thursday. I’ve made one trip back to the emergency room and have been in and out of doctors offices pretty steadily since. But the last x-rays looked great, the blisters were down to one small one, so the staples and stitches were removed and a walking boot was put back on.
I was told to walk all I can handle and soon wouldn’t need the crutches, and return in two weeks. I’ll need therapy as I have a lot of ligament and tissue damage.
My first shower was 17 days after the fall and I found two old growth fir needles between my toes, so I will have to be returning those to my rescue site as you are not allowed to remove anything from the Park. My surgeon expects it will be four months before I will hike again.
Most importantly, I want to thank all who helped in my rescue.
- Dan Boeholt