Falling // Flying

I’ve been having this recurring dream that I’m falling. I know, very original. I’m always falling in a different way in the dreams; the only recurring part is the falling. I trip down a flight of stairs. I’m climbing, and I lose my grip. I think one time I was falling out of an airplane, but I never totally remember the mechanism of falling.

No matter the cause of the fall, I feel the physical sensation of falling, and I wake up with a jerk. It’s annoying, because it means I have to fall back asleep in the middle of the night, which we all know is not easy.

In my waking life, I imagine myself falling. I think about what would happen if I did trip down the huge flight of stairs at my workplace. I picture splatting my face on the concrete below. This image comes to me more quickly if I’m wearing any kind of heel (not often). I imagine my tie-in point breaking on a multi-pitch climb, my body bouncing off ledges until it hits the canyon floor hundreds of feet below. When I’m near the edge of a cliff (more often than you might think), I see myself tripping over my shoelaces and tumbling right off, maybe getting caught by a merciful tree trunk on my way down.

I also see other people falling. I realize that sounds kind of Sixth Sense “I see dead people,” and this all may read as pretty morbid. But I think this is similar to how my mom (a mother of five) feels when any of her children, or other people’s children, or any human at all, is close to a cliff edge. This feeling is accentuated when I’m with children for whom I’m responsible. I’m a climbing coach and guide, so these situations are a regular part of my life; I manage them, it’s fine. I’ve managed groups of people outside regularly for the past eight years, and I’m more comfortable in this role than it may sound. I don’t actually believe that someone is going to fall off a cliff at any time, but that doesn’t stop the images from sneaking in through the corners of my brain.

I have always been cautious and risk-averse, especially when managing other people in a wilderness context. But last night, after being jerked awake again falling through my subconscious, I realized these images and recurring dreams only began after the evacuation. Since she flew out on the helicopter, I have pictured people falling. I have woken up with the feeling of falling. I imagine myself falling.

I distinctly remember a moment during the first youth expedition I led after the evacuation. It was at this moment that I realized I still held the evacuation in my body. It was the next summer, and I was leading a group of girls on a two week mountaineering course. The objective was to climb Mount Baker, and we had spent a week in the neighboring Twin Sisters Range learning the skills needed to attempt the summit. The moment came when the group was approaching Mt Baker’s high camp. The route goes up a section of trail called the “Railroad Grade,” which is a gradual uphill march along a moraine with a steep drop-off to one side. I was in the back of the group, with my co-instructor leading the way. I was the last one to climb up to the railroad grade. When I reached the top of the moraine and could finally see the drop-off on the other side, I got dizzy, and I almost threw up. I am not afraid of heights, and I deal with much greater exposure than this all the time. But suddenly I did not trust the group to walk next to the steep slope, even though they had clearly demonstrated their ability to walk on two feet for the last eight days. I was shaken, and I knew then that I was not totally okay.

//

“It looked like someone pushed her from behind.”

That’s how another group member described the fall that led to the evacuation. Terrifying, right? It happened on a trip I was leading about two and a half years ago, during the summer of 2016. We were coming down from a summit attempt in the Gothic Basin area of the Central Cascades. We had turned around before the summit due to timing; we had not left early enough, nor had we correctly estimated the massive amount of time it would take to get eight youth climbers through several hundred feet of fixed lines on fourth class terrain. It had been a long day, we were beat, and light was fading. We had descended the fixed lines, traversed back down the boulder field, and reached the faint climber’s trail that would take us to our camp. We were totally off technical terrain. A few hundred feet earlier, I had given the okay to take helmets off, and we had pulled out our headlamps.

I was rounding a steep switch back when she fell off the trail above me. She pitched forward into the air with a surprising amount of force. She was within my reach, so I tried to grab her, slow her fall. I can’t picture the exact physics of how she fell, but she ended up upside down, on her head, on the trail below. I was surprised by how quickly the moment transitioned into an “incident.” My mentality immediately shifted, and I recognized this as a “scene.” I knew it when I saw her face; it was blank and did not register what had happened.

My co-instructor and I initiated the patient assessment system, the part of my training as a Wilderness First Responder that they hammer into your brain. If you remember nothing else, they say, remember this assessment. We did a head-to-toe exam, we monitored her vitals, we did a S.A.M.P.L.E. history.

“Am I going to be paralyzed?” she asked. This was one of the scariest moments of my life. I couldn’t respond.

“No, of course not.” My co-instructor responded. I was grateful for him in that moment. “You’re doing so well, that’s really good,” he kept saying, as we checked each of her limbs, looking for pain and abnormalities.

At first it was chaotic; she was having trouble breathing and needed her inhaler. She was not a hundred percent responsive at first and didn’t remember the actual fall. We were a little frantic, made a satellite phone call without compiling good information and without knowing what we needed. The clear framework of the assessment held me together. As it went on, and it was clear she was not in immediate danger, the scene began to calm down. At this point we remembered that we had seven other group members. We looked over at them, and one of the older boys was leading the rest of the group in a warm-up dance-game we had taught them the week before. Okay, they’re okay.

She got so cold so quickly. The night was falling, and it wasn’t until she started shivering that I noticed how frigid the air was. I pulled out the sleeping pad and sleeping bag that I pack on every summit attempt, specifically for moments like this. Carrying those pieces of emergency gear is like an insurance policy; I was grateful for every other time that I carried them up and down a mountain unused, so they were with me when I finally, desperately needed them. My co-instructor made the half-mile trip down to our base-camp to get more supplies. He brought the rest of the group down and brought back a shelter, another sleeping bag, more layers, hot chocolate, tortillas, and grape jelly. We were going to be there for a while.

Because of the way she had fallen, we didn’t think we could rule out spinal cord trauma, which requires that patients be immobilized. She had landed on her head, so even though she didn’t fall from very high, there was a possibility of a spinal injury from the compression. She felt pain in her neck and back, and her grip strength was unequal. Deciding that someone needs to be immobile many miles from a trail-head is a very committing decision, so we got a second opinion from our on-call doctor. That’s when I ended up on hold with a hospital, on a satellite phone, in the middle of the night, shivering on the side of steep hillside, at 6,000’ in the Cascades.

“Hello?” I said through the crackling connection.

“Hello? I can’t hear you, you’re breaking up,” whoever at the hospital replied. The connection went dead.

I called again.

“Hello? I’m trying to reach our on-call doctor, I have a patient in the backcountry.” I told them the program I was with and the doctor’s name. We were supposed to have access to this on-call doctor at all times.

“He’s very busy right now, I’m going to have to put you on hold,” the hospital person replied.

And then I was on hold on a satellite phone. I never thought I would be on hold on a satellite phone, but there I was, listening to the hospital’s elevator music. I waited seconds, minutes, maybe five minutes. It sounds cliche, but it really did feel like an eternity. Eventually I got the doctor on the phone, described her condition and what we found in the assessment. He agreed that she couldn’t move herself. Our choices were to carry her out or have a helicopter pick her up.

Anyone who has been to Gothic Basin could imagine what it would take to carry someone out. The trail to the basin is long and gains a significant amount of elevation. I think it was about 3,500’ over six or seven miles. Parts of the trail require third class scrambling; big slabs of granite cut across the trail, requiring the use of all four limbs to move up them. The search and rescue dispatcher I talked to next estimated that it would take a team of thirty people an entire day to get her out of the backcountry on foot. We decided a helicopter would be our best bet. It was cold, she was in pain, and she was lying in the middle of the trail immobile. But when we told her that a helicopter was going to pick her up, her eyes lit up. She wanted to be a paramedic someday and had always wanted to ride in a helicopter. The only thing she was concerned about was that she would leave her group members early and wouldn’t be able to finish the trip.

//

She was the one who got us through the night. She was always a leader in our group, a strong personality, someone who energized others. Nothing changed that night. As soon as she became more mentally aware of the situation, her first concern was about the rest of the group.

“Is the group okay? Are they cold? They must be getting hungry – it’s past dinnertime. You guys should really feed them.”

Around eleven at night we knew what our plan was. A helicopter would leave at first light, arriving to pick her up around 6:30 am. My co-instructor had brought the rest of the group back to our base-camp. We had her on an insulating pad, in two sleeping bags, with hot water bottles stuffed down the sides. We had made ourselves mochas with lots of cocoa powder and were munching on tortillas with grape jelly. The three of us had seven hours ahead of us in the dark, waiting on that steep hillside.

So, she told us her life story. For three hours she talked while my co-instructor and I sat and listened. She told us about how she got kicked out of the daycare at her mom’s work when she was four. I think she kept standing on tables and refusing to come down or something. She told us about losing her dad in a bicycle accident. “My life was pretty crazy when I was ten,” she said about that time. She told us about skipping school last year. She didn’t like her high school in Seattle, stopped going. Eventually she got sent to military school after she had skipped enough school for the consequences to get real. She told us how she actually thrived in military school, became a leader there. Finally, around 3:00 am, we heard her start to snore. It was abrupt; she stopped talking and almost immediately started snoring. She had kept us alert and laughing for hours, but she finally tired herself out.

Two members of search and rescue were hiking in on foot to help coordinate the helicopter landing, and they arrived around 4:30 or 5:00 in the morning. They gave us both a Snickers bar, which I wolfed down immediately. I think they handed me a jacket too. I must have stuffed some of my layers into her sleeping bag to keep her feet warm, because I was only wearing a thin fleece at that point and was freezing. They were both EMTs and did a quick patient assessment of their own. To our relief, they agreed with our findings and complemented us on making a good decision and taking care of her through the night. And then the five of us waited a little bit longer.

The helicopter arrived at first light, just like they said it would. The team executed the rescue with efficient ease. Two rescuers with a litter rappelled out of the helicopter while it hovered next to the hillside. They packaged her into the litter in about five minutes while the helicopter circled and came back into position. Her face, which had been calm for hours, suddenly looked frightened.

“It’s going to be okay,” we told her, as much as we told ourselves.

“She’s my hero,” my co-instructor said after she was strapped in, and the rescuers were carrying her away from us.

And in a moment, the helicopter lifted her into the air, reeled in her litter, and flew away.

We stood there side-by-side, watching the helicopter fly away. Once it was far enough that we could no longer see it, I collapsed into my co-instructor’s arms and sobbed. We stood on that hillside and held one another, releasing the emotions from the long night. We looked down at our base-camp and saw our seven other group members standing by the lake, also watching the helicopter fly away. It wasn’t over yet.  

The EMTs gave me another Snickers bar before they started back down the trail.

//

I’m not going to go into full detail about the last couple days of the trip, after the evacuation. They weren’t easy, I’ll say that. The rest of the group made chocolate chip pancakes for my co-instructor and me the morning after the helicopter flew away. I prayed a rosary without being required to for the first time in my life. We tried to make sense of what happened and debriefed the rest of our group members. We were still responsible for making sure they were okay too. Our tents got flooded with two inches of water two nights in a row. We finally received an update when we checked in on the satellite phone. There was no permanent damage. She was going to be okay.

I’ve replayed the fall over and over in my head many times. Picked apart everything we did, how we responded, how we could have avoided the whole thing. The doctor at the hospital that received her said it was lucky that I slowed her fall, that it could have been much worse. Despite this news, I still couldn’t shake the feeling that somehow I caused her to flip upside down, that my attempt to catch her made it worse. Both the EMTs and on-call doctor agreed with our assessment, that she had a possible spine injury and needed a helicopter evacuation. Even though I heard them say this, I felt like we missed something in the assessment, jumped to conclusions too quickly.

The evacuation happened over two years ago, but I still discover it in my body from time to time. Last spring, I re-certified as a Wilderness First Responder and found that discussing the mechanisms of injury for spinal cord trauma caused me to go over the details of the incident in my head again. It brought me right back to that hillside.

Being in the mountains feels heavier now. I’ve always been cautious, and I’ve had quite a few near misses with rock fall over the years that have reinforced the reality of objective hazards. I’ve always known in theory that we can’t eliminate risks when we go out in the mountains. That we need to enter terrain with a high level of preparation and a certain level of risk acceptance. The evacuation transformed this theory into reality. I no longer carry emergency gear on summit attempts because it is part of my training. I carry it for the real possibility that someone will not be able to return to base-camp on their own, and I need to prevent them from developing hypothermia while waiting for assistance. I don’t carry satellite communication devices because I like the extra weight. I bring them in case a member of my climbing team is injured by spontaneous rock fall and needs an immediate evacuation.

The mountains have been a consistent source of joy for me since my first backpacking trip at age fourteen. I’ve built my life around climbing and mountain travel, and I’ve introduced lots of new climbers to the mountains over the last seven years. The deeper any relationship grows, including my relationship with the mountains, the greater the risk of conflict, trauma, and pain. But the possibility for deeper joy grows too.

I haven’t stopped travelling in the mountains. I did for a short time after the evacuation when it felt really heavy to be there. But it feels lighter now, the joy returns slowly. It returns with scars, with dreams of falling. But I am more connected to it than before, understand its deeper layers. I can meet it with less fear, even though the risks are more tangible. I wonder if someday the scars will fade away, whether I will be able to release the image of the fall from my body. I also wonder whether I want the scars to fade; our scars really do tell our stories, for better or for worse. I do know that I will continue to bring people to the mountains, and I will always carry that extra sleeping bag and foam pad to the summit.


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