Voices: Rescue on Challenger Point
by Craig Reynolds
May 6, 2011
We were moving too slowly down Colorado’s Challenger Point, my five fellow climbers and I still buoyed by our successful summit of one of the state’s 14,000-foot peaks. It was my 35th “14er”—I feared that at this pace we’d be out well after dark.
I was stepping closer to the rock wall to gain better footing when I heard a scream from high above us.
I stopped, waited a moment. Again, more clearly: “Help me—I’m hurt!”
I scanned the rocks above us—I could hear panic in the man’s voice. When my gaze returned to our group, my friends were staring at me.
“You’re not going back up there, are you?”
I’m a dad. I consider risks carefully. I had put off climbing certain peaks until my daughters were raised. But as I heard that call for help, I thought of my youngest, airlifted after a car crash when she was four years old, spending the next several weeks in a coma. I thought of the EMTs and the helicopter pilots and their care for her. I thought of the emergency room swarming with doctors and nurses who saved the life of my oldest daughter last year as she suffered seizures from an unknown illness after coming home from college. I thought of my loving wife, and all we’d been through. I looked up the slope, between the boulders and the deep snow and ice fields from which we’d come.
The scream pierced the air again.
There was no more time to think it through. The rapid responses of others had saved the lives of those I loved; how could I not respond in kind? Something inside me had been expecting this moment for years.
Each man in our group had a different level of experience in the wild. Butch, my neighbor and a Navy veteran in his 50s. Dave, my soon-to-be son-in-law—sensible but adventurous. College student Tyler, and Greg, his twin, both comfortable and capable in the outdoors.
Then there was Jesse, a friend for many years who had lived in Africa as a missionary. He was always ready for anything.
I asked Jesse to climb with me. Greg handed me his cell phone. He and the others would continue down the mountain while Jesse and I clambered back up the mountain to see what we could do for the injured climber.
I was hoping we’d find just a sprained ankle, something simple to take care of.
But the man we encountered was seriously injured. He had slid down the snowfield and slammed into a boulder. Blood was everywhere, running down his face and oozing down his sleeve, covering his right hand.
Jesse and I moved quickly but carefully to stabilize him so that he wouldn’t fall any farther. We used his pack to insulate him from the freezing rocks, reassured him as best we could, and gave him water. I checked his pulse—fast, but steady and strong. He told us his name was Roy.
I was surprised to find we had a cell phone signal, rare in these areas. Jesse called 911 and explained our situation, that we needed a helicopter—there was no safe way for us to carry a man who might have suffered a spinal injury through these boulders and snowfields.
Problem was, we were at 13,000 feet. Most civilian helicopters have difficulty maneuvering and cannot hover at this altitude.
I have a morbid habit of staring at roadkill. As a former EMT, I figure if I can get comfortable with that, then I won’t be distracted by the gore if I come upon an accident victim needing help. I was about to find out if all that practice—and the teasing I’ve taken for it from my family—would pay off.
Roy’s forehead was slit from top to bottom. The skin fell forward and exposed the tissue covering the skull, and blood ran out of the bottom of the cut. I pulled a large bandage from my first-aid kit, applied light pressure, and wrapped his head. The flow slowed. I replaced his hat, pulled his hood up. Jesse and I found two Mylar blankets and extra clothing in Roy’s pack and we covered him with those and did our best to keep him warm in the falling temperatures.
We’d been with Roy about two hours when we heard a helicopter flying up the valley. Jesse and I leapt to our feet, began packing our stuff, and took some pictures, getting ready to be rescued.
But the helicopter landed below us in the bowl we were in. What are they doing? I thought. We can’t portage a man down there. Then the helo lifted off and slowly circled the bowl—once, twice, a third circle, each taking several minutes. We tried flagging them, but they made a fourth and fifth circle and then flew quietly away.
We looked at each other, incredulous. Had they seen us at all? Com-pounding our disappointment was Roy’s deteriorating condition—he could drink only a small amount of water at a time, the temperature was plummeting, and at this elevation we had no wood for a fire.
The silence was thick. Jesse and I prayed it wouldn’t rain. We prayed for Roy. We prayed for ourselves.
As the sun was beginning to set, we heard another helo approaching. Our hearts leapt! A larger craft this time, it circled the bowl as we waved our jackets, flashed our cameras, and yelled. Three, four, then five times it circled. Then it flew away.
The coming darkness ended our chance for early rescue. I knew civilian rescue teams don’t conduct night rescues—it’s just too dangerous. Roy was despairing. I spoke firmly to him, trying to get his fear under control. But he was in a lot of pain and still losing blood, and his chances of survival had just taken a hit.
Jesse and I had work to do—I’d read about emergency bivouacs and was confident we could create something that would protect us from the elements. I have to admit I was looking forward to the challenge.
We ate what little food we had left, double-checked Roy’s clothing and adjusted the Mylar wraps to keep him as warm as possible, put our feet in a pack for warmth, and sat together to conserve our body heat. Jesse told me he was the worst guy I could have chosen for this mission, given his low tolerance for cold. I told him he was the best —he could handle anything.
The wind picked up and we began shivering. The rising moon gave the peaks surrounding us a cold, gray cast. The landscape was beautiful, in those shades of black and white that fire your imagination. Majestic, but heartless.
I thought of home, the warm Indiana summer I’d left behind, my wife, my daughters, my friends.
Yet, strangely enough, I was actually glad to be where I was—this moment of testing, at the edge of survival.
The wind blew Roy’s Mylar out of place. We fixed it again, checked his pulse.
We talked in hushed tones. Aircraft occasionally flew overhead, far too high to be aware of our predicament. We were alone on the mountain. Time crept by. I tried not to look at my watch. We were getting stiff from the cold. Midnight passed.
Something was coming our way. Jesse and Roy didn’t seem to notice it, and I caught only occasional beats from far off, over the ridge opposite the bowl. It was a sound vaguely recalled from my childhood, but I couldn’t place it. Like a deep bass drumbeat, repeated in rapid succession. The drumbeat sounded deeper and louder as it approached.
I rammed my elbow into Jesse’s leg when I realized what it was.
“That’s a Chinook helicopter,” I yelled. “The military’s coming to rescue us.”
I told Roy he was going to be evacuated, he was going to make it. The excitement and the volume and intensity of the sound were overwhelming.
Silhouetted by the moon, the huge gray craft moved over us, its two invisible rotors beating the thin air. The rotor wash nearly ripped our jackets off!
Our skin was stung by sand, ice, rocks, and water as a green, glowing light appeared from the craft and descended toward us. An Army National Guard medic, loaded with gear, was descending on a cable. An evacuation litter spun above him. He dropped to the rocks 30 feet below us and we scrambled down to meet him.
Josh, the medic, asked for my assessment of Roy’s condition, then performed his own. He asked me to wrap Roy’s head in gauze. Then we added a cervical collar, stabilized Roy’s spine with a collapsible backboard, and carefully loaded Roy onto the litter.
The Chinook moved back and forth over us like an impatient gray monster on a chain. Then after an hour above, it flew off—the third helo to come and go without us.
“It’s okay.” Josh reassured me. “They’re probably low on fuel. They’ll be back soon.”
We settled in and began one last long wait.
I passed the time asking Josh questions. He said the crew had spotted us using night vision goggles (NVGs). This was his highest rescue ever, and the crew’s first using NVGs. Josh’s family had served in the military for two centuries. He had been in Iraq and would soon deploy to Afghanistan.
Time began to slow again. Our shivering resumed. Roy cried out. Freezing and in great pain, he wanted to be free of the confining litter. We empathized but, not knowing how soon the helicopter might return, simply could not undo our work.
At 2:30 a.m. the sound of the rotors echoed off the mountain
face again. The Chinook came directly at us, lowering a cable. Jesse retrieved it, and Josh attached it to Roy’s litter. The cable lifted Roy while Josh used a rope on the ground to keep the litter from spinning. Soon I could see the silhouettes of soldiers wrestling the litter into the belly of the Chinook.
Jesse and I were next. I retrieved the cable, struggling against the helo’s wind and the spraying sand, climbing back with my eyes shut. Josh attached the cable to a “jungle penetrator,” which looked like a large grappling hook. We sat down, and Josh strapped us to the hook and loaded us with gear.
That’s when I saw the lock-blade knife on the shoulder strap of the pack Jesse was wearing. It had opened just an inch from Jesse’s neck. I yelled at Josh, and he saw the knife. With a quick pull he ripped the knife from the pack just as we left the ground.
We spun our way about 100 feet up to the Chinook. The stability of the machine was incredible, as if it were docked at 13,000 feet alongside this boulder-strewn slope. The helmeted soldiers grabbed us and pulled us in. Their NVGs gave a green glow to their eyes.
Soon Josh was pulled onboard. Before even catching his breath, he began attending to his patient, starting an IV, checking vitals. We banked away from the mountain, the windows closed, the cabin warmed. It was like a dream for me, working alongside these military men, helping this injured climber, and all of this deep in the Rocky Mountains I love.
We landed in a meadow near the tiny town of Crestone. Jesse and I stepped out of the Chinook and onto the soft grass, glancing at each other for a moment as we walked out under the still starlit sky—a sense of accomplishment I cannot begin to describe.
Sixty-six hours later I awoke in the heat, humidity, woodlands, and leaf shade of Indiana, with my wife, my daughters, the familiar barks of our dogs. I was home.
In the days that followed I began reading in the Western states’ online newspapers about two unknown Hoosiers who had saved a Colorado man’s life. The man was the father of a Colorado state representative. He’d suffered a fractured skull; bleeding and air bubbles on the brain; a broken eye socket, nose, and arm; and multiple lacerations. He was released from the hospital five days later.
Me, I still think often of that night—those gray peaks, the green glow of the NVGs, the sweet sound of those twin rotors beating—wondering, hoping, that God was just preparing me for another adventure.
Craig Reynolds is a friend of Wabash and longtime sales representative for Tabco, which prints the College’s Academic Bulletin and other publications.