By Brenda Tirrell
My friend Joan and I both completed our Adirondack high peak quests in 2019. Except for my first high peak (Skylight, 2008), we climbed all of them in 2017, 2018 and 2019. We climbed many of them independently; we climbed others with ADK chapter hikes, ADK-led hikes and ADK Trailless Peak Backpacking trips. We met the varied challenges of the trails, herd paths and weather and completed our hikes up 45 of the high peaks without incident.
But our Mount Marshall hike on 09/13/2018 was far more thrilling than we anticipated. There had been light rain earlier in the day and the trail was narrow much of the way, so we were pretty well soaked with water from the trees, bushes, grasses we brushed against along the way by the time we reached the summit.
After lunch we decided to strip off our wet clothes and put on dry long underwear, another fresh layer and then our rain pants and jackets, anticipating continued soaking from wet flora combined with dropping temperatures as we descended. We knew we would finish our hike after dark but expected to be well along the Indian Pass Trail by then, long but relatively gentle (by high peak standards) and safely navigable by headlamp light. And our dinner at the Porcupine Inn would be saved for us to reheat upon our return.
We were only 15-20 minutes down from the summit when Joan fell, skidding on a slab of wet rock. She recalls, “My slide was stopped by a root system that crossed the short slide. Unfortunately, I had fallen in an upside-down position! My legs had landed firmly in the tangle of roots, but my upper body was dangling downward with my heavy pack tugging me further down. I struggled to grab onto several roots and managed to pull myself into a somewhat upright position. I was able to maintain this awkward position by supporting my weight on my arms outstretched behind me. I soon realized that any attempt to move from this position or to move my right leg caused sharp pain in my thigh. I had originally presumed that my rain pants had caught on the roots and had helped to stop my fall. Actually, the fall had driven a root into my leg. Indeed, I was impaled on the root. I was so glad my calm and able hiking companion was with me on the trail that day.”
I took Joan’s pack off and placed both of our packs under her back for support and to relieve the pain and stress on her arms. Then I cut off the leg of her Marmot rain pants with my jackknife scissors as close as I could to the point of entry on her right thigh, just above and behind her knee and to the right of center, while Joan bemoaned that she had just bought them last year!
Miraculously, we had cell phone service. (We are now the proud co-owners of a Garmin inReach Mini Satellite Communicator.) The 911 dispatcher took and confirmed the details of our situation, location and need for help. I told her that we were well equipped and had water, food, first aid supplies and adequate clothing for safety and comfort. She took both of our cell phone numbers and said she would stay on the line with us as she patched us through to the NY Dept of Environmental Conservation, where we would speak to a Forest Ranger.
Seconds later we were speaking to Forest Ranger Rob (Praczkajlo), calm, patient and professional. He addressed us both by name, confirming our situation and location. He asked me how big the root penetrating Joan’s leg was compared to my baby finger. I had to squat down in the mud to get a closer look, but it was just about baby finger size. He asked if I could see how deeply it had penetrated, but I could not. I could confirm that one end of the root was in Joan’s leg and the other was part of a larger root system on the slab of rock. Ranger Rob said that DEC would dispatch a medevac helicopter and drop a Ranger on the summit of Marshall, which would probably take 45 minutes to an hour. In the meantime, we would be connected to DEC Dispatcher Alicia (Bodmer), who would be our contact throughout the rescue.
I was able to call my sister Linda, so the members of our Purple Bandana Ladies Hiking Group, (all women of a certain age, like us) were aware of our situation and knew that help was on the way.
Rob called back shortly
and said that a helicopter was en route. He also said that the thing I could do
that would help Joan the most would be to pull her leg off the root. Oh dear.
Really? I had heard Joan scream. He was
very matter of fact and reassuring. He asked if we had first aid supplies. (Well,
of course we did!) I responded simply, “Yes, we both do.” He said to look for a
bandage I was sure would cover the area. He said I could try to wipe the area
with an alcohol or disinfectant wipe but not to worry too much about that, as they
would do a very thorough job cleaning the wound at the hospital. Freeing Joan would
make her more comfortable through the wait and would allow us to get her
injured leg into a slightly elevated position. Joan and I looked at each other;
she grinned and said, “Go ahead — I’m ready.”
Must retrieve first aid supplies while Joan’s weight was supported by both of our backpacks. This turned into a comedy routine. My hands were filthy with mud. Washed them with Purell. Got out my first aid kit and promptly dropped it in the mud. Picked it up and washed my hands again. My bandages didn’t look big enough, but I took out packets of alcohol wipes; half of them dropped into the mud. Retrieved Joan’s first aid kit without sending her tumbling down the trail; examined contents. Decided not to worry about cleaning the wound. I had too bad a case of jitters to think that would work, especially given the awkward location of the injury. Decided on best bandage and Joan held it in readiness.
I crouched down again and was able see more clearly the angle of the root’s entry. I followed the angle up and over Joan’s knee and showed her the angle I would pull her leg. She said with surprising confidence, “Go ahead, Brenda, I know you can do it.” I got into position with one hand under each side of Joan’s knee. Deep breath, quick prayer, steady, gentle lift …
Yes! Her leg lifted off the root. I tried not to look too closely at the gaping wound; just grabbed the bandage from Joan and slapped it in place. Although the wound area and Joann’s leg were bloody, I was relieved that there was no gush of blood. Joan shouted with relief, “It’s out! It’s out! You did it!” I shouted back, “It’s out! It’s out! We did it!” Neither of us had cried or thrown up! We laughed and hugged and exchanged accolades. J: “You’re wonderful.” B: “You’re brave!” J: “You’re so wonderful.” B: “You’re so brave!” etc.
We called the DEC dispatcher to let her know that Joan’s leg was free of the root and that we had been able to make her more comfortable. I wrapped her bare leg in her pink fleece. I took a photo of Joan’s thumbs-up and sent it to my sister to share with our group.
I rearranged the backpacks to support Joan and to relieve the stress and pain on her arms. Then we each had a cookie. Soon we heard the sound of a distant helicopter. The sound came closer and closer … then faded away. A few minutes later we heard it again from a different direction; again, it came closer then faded away. This happened several times before the DEC dispatcher called to tell us they could not drop a Ranger safely on the summit of Mt Marshall, which remained completely in the clouds; Instead they would drop Forest Ranger Scott (Van Laer) on Cold Brook Pass. She called a little later to let us know that Ranger Scott was on the ground and on his way up the trail. Remembering how long it took us to climb the herd path, we settled in for a long wait. We had another snack. Then I pick up all of the first aid supplies that still littered the area.
Much sooner than we imagined possible, Ranger Scott called out from below us that he was almost there. A few seconds later Joan, facing downhill, saw him racing up the trail towards us. The helicopter appeared above and hovered over what looked like dense forest to us but was evidently going to serve as a “clearing” for rescue.
Forest Ranger Scott arrived
and introduced himself. When we expressed our amazement that he made it so
quickly, he acknowledged sheepishly that he ran the whole way (carrying his
65-pound pack). He explained that we would be moving very quickly as more
clouds were closing in and we had a very narrow window of opportunity. He gave
me assignments, “Brenda, please put my radio transmitter there. Then help Joan
put on and fasten the yellow helmet.” He got out the harness for Joan and asked
me to help him help her into it. This took some time, given her injury and
impaired mobility. We heard the helicopter pilot ask how much “our passenger” weighed;
Joan responded, “about 100 pounds,” and Scott radioed that information to the
pilot. Scott made his way into the “clearing” and asked me to toss him the red
helmet. He held the helmet over his head to let the pilot know exactly where to
drop the cable. I heard the pilot radio to Scott that he had to get Joan to the
cable drop immediately as clouds were closing in; we had only minutes to
Scott supported Joan and led her, hopping on her left leg as best she could, to the pickup spot. The cable dropped directly into Scott’s waiting hand. No time for the usual informative descriptions and explanations. He secured the cable to Joan’s harness, showed her where and how to hold on and shouted “GO!”
Scott and I watched Joan
rise; I was astonished by the speed of her ascent. Then, Scott climbed back up
to the trail and broke the ice by telling me he thought Joan had rounded up
when she said she weighed 100 pounds. I told him that she claimed to be
five feet tall, too. Scott assured me that she would be at the Saranac Lake
Hospital (Adirondack Medical Center) in about five minutes. He radioed the DEC
Dispatcher, asking her to call my sister with that information.
Ranger Scott recommended that we hike up and over the Mount Marshall summit and from there to the Lake Colden Outpost. The DEC dispatcher radioed Scott while we were still on the trail that Joan was okay and that my sister Linda (46er 6322) and Elly (46er 623) were with her in the ER.
We arrived at the Outpost at about 10:30 that night after a slow hike via the Herbert Brook herd path. We were welcomed by Outpost Caretaker Eric (Burns) and Assistant Forest Ranger Greg (Bowler). Thank you, DEC, for keeping the Interior Outposts open and staffed. There was a fire in the wood stove, and they had prepared a comfortable cot for me, complete with a neatly folded plaid wool blanket at the foot of the sleeping bag. Scott made a giant bowl of macaroni and cheese – a delicious late dinner. I ate heartily, yet only consumed a small fraction of the portion I was served. When I hoped aloud that someone might be able to have the rest of it for lunch or supper the next day, Scott exclaimed, “Are you kidding? It’s not going to make it to the refrigerator!” He radioed the DEC Dispatcher, asking her to let our hiking group know that we had arrived at the Outpost and would hike out in the morning. She let us know that Joan was home from the hospital (back at the Porcupine Inn).
Rangers Scott and Greg and I left the Outpost the next morning after a fine breakfast. When I looked around for my pack, I saw that Greg had his own heavy pack on his back and mine on his front! I assured him that despite a sore knee, I was sure that I could carry my own pack. He responded quietly, “It’s not necessary; I’m made for this.” Scott suggested that we take a few minutes to walk to the shore of Lake Colden before we left the Outpost. Morning sun; stunning beauty.
When I arrived back at the Porcupine Inn that afternoon, I found Joan resting comfortably on the chaise lounge on the porch of the Charles Room. Joan and I are both so grateful for the expertise, professionalism and kindness of the Forest Rangers and others who guided us safely through this experience, including those not previously named in this article: NY State Police Helicopter Pilot Tim Orapallo, Forest Rangers Pete Evans and Ben Baldwin. Thank you all. Again.
A year later, Joan and I learned that Forest Ranger Scott Van Laer would be the speaker at the Adirondack Forty-Sixers Fall Meeting, where we were delighted to see him again.