Thursday, September 8, 2011

when things go wrong

Years ago I worked for a very short time as crew on a rescue helicopter. This time was a braid of excitement and terror, so closely entertwined that I sometimes could not tell the difference. I would be sweeping the bays, pulling weeds, or some other menial task and the paramedics would swoop in.

"We need this, this and this," they would say and I would pull out backboards, oxygen, short haul supplies. Eddie would fire up the helicopter and I would take the front seat next to him, his eyes in the sky. We would lift off and dive deep below the rim of the Grand Canyon, all the layers of rock one dizzying progression. As we spun through time, tourists turned their faces upward like flowers.

The victim could be on a trail, on one of the sandy beaches along the Colorado River, or just out there--somewhere. Eddie would wait on me to open my door and check the position of the skids, to see if we were on solid ground or if rocks were in the way. Sometimes he would hop the helicopter to a better place.

When it was safe we would pile out, the paramedics doing their thing and me helping. The faces of the victims never really stayed with me. Instead it was the relatives--hanging around with a look of puzzlement. How could this happen, they wanted to know. One minute you are hiking on your vacation. The next, intubated and fighting for your life. The dots were too hard to connect.

I thought about all this yesterday as I helped talk someone down a trail. To protect his privacy I will only say that sometimes the wilderness turns on us, either physically or mentally. It is not always some happy go lucky adventure. Sometimes people don't make it out alive. Sometimes they do, but are changed forever.

Someone falls from a mountain. Ultrarunners are caught in a brush fire.  A plane falls into Deadman Reach---we think, because we find no trace. It is the risk we take, the dark side of the moon.

Be careful out there, friends.


  1. You really never know what might happen. Back in July I was hiking down Mt. Guyot, outside Breckenridge (CO), bushwhacking through this section of forest to get back down to the gulch (where the trail was) from the ridge. As I duck under this tree that's slanted across my path, I end up splitting my knee open on a pointy rock sticking up out of the ground. It was just a little bump of the knee, but it split my knee open deep and wide, with lots of exposed fatty tissue and blood going everywhere. I was lucky in that it didn't cut all the way to the tendon, so I was able to fashion a tourniquet, bandage myself up, and walk the couple miles out back to my car. I ended up needing seven stitches, though, and the doc said if it'd cut any deeper I probably wouldn't have hiked out of there so easily. I didn't even fall or anything - I simply bumped my knee on a rock. It doesn't even necessarily take something dramatic to drastically change the course of your day...

  2. This year Yosemite already saw 18 fatalities and the tourist season is far from being over. I am amazed at the carelessness of some people, same people who later on, when an accident happens, complain that there are not enough guard rails, signs warning of danger and rangers to help the victim. This is not Disney World. I think I will finish my rant now.

  3. Sometimes mother nature is in charge.


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