2.3: The Rescue

I woke up at the base of a cliff. I was on my back, looking up at the sky. My feet were uphill of my head.

photo Noel Fitzpatrick

At first, I didn’t remember where I was. I remembered the fall, but it felt like a dream, like it would fade if I didn’t hold onto it. It took time for the span of my memory to creep backwards through the day. I remembered the rappels. The view from the top. Climbing on sun-bleached limestone tufted with plant life. I realized I was in Mexico. That I had arrived just last night.

My partner, Kristin, had been the first person to save my life. When I fell, I was still attached to one end of the rap line, pulling it down with me. Kristin couldn’t see me from the ledge, but watched the rope racing through the anchor. She immediately grabbed the other side with her bare hands. It burned the skin off her palms, but Kristin held on, slowing me down.

We had been descending just as some other climbers were arriving. They threw away their plans for the day, and were now making plans to rescue me, executing on their wilderness first response training. When I woke up, there was already someone by my side. Sadly, I can’t remember his name. He had taken the job of monitoring me, freeing the others to get organized. I had blacked out for about 30 seconds. I was confused, but could answer basic questions. Aside from some cuts, I had no obvious head injury. I could feel and move my feet and hands. I had ripped a lot of skin off my hands, and has deep gouges in my left forearm. My right leg was fine. My left leg was shattered, but the fracture hadn’t broken the skin.

photos Luke Webster

I don’t know how I would have reacted without these people helping me. They were joined by members of the EPC volunteer rescue squad, who speed-hiked the approach with a sked, a bolt kit, and a host of other gear. High angle rescue involves a lot of skill, equipment, and risks for rescuers. I am immensely grateful for the generosity of these volunteers, to me, and to every other person they have saved.

They bandaged my cuts, lifted me into the sked, packed some warm clothes around me, and started carrying me down. They rigged anchors on the steepest parts of the trail, lowering me one short pitch at a time. I had to avoid turning my head, in case I had a neck injury, so I could only watch the patch of sky above me to guess at our progress down the slope. Time passed slowly. I had to pee. I eventually gave up on holding it in.

Most of this time, Kristin was still on the ledge, not knowing what was happening below. She eventually rappelled the last two pitches on another team’s rope. She found a hospital in Monterrey that would accept our employer’s health insurance. She phoned Meghan, leaving a short message in her voicemail. Call me back.

I felt sleepy. One of the rescuers asked me questions to keep me alert:
Where are you from? Canada.
Do you have any siblings? Yes, a sister.
What’s your favorite show on Netflix? Jeopardy.
Do you like riddles? Immensely.

photo Luke Webster

He gave me three riddles, one of which I especially liked:
You have two kinds of pills, A and B. Today, you have two of each pill left in your pill bottles, but you accidentally drop them and get the 4 pills all mixed up. You can’t tell the difference between A and B pills; they look, smell, and feel identical in every way. But you have to take exactly 1 of each pill, no more, no less, or else. What do you do?

In total, it took about 6 hours to get to the road, where an ambulance was waiting. It took another hour to get to the hospital. The paramedic apologized for every bump in the road, but I didn’t mind. I felt sure that the worst was over.

The last thing I remember from that day was watching the ceiling flow by as they carted me through the halls of the hospital, heading to surgery.

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