Helicopter Rescue

Besides avoiding death, being plucked from the side of a rock face in darkness at 11,700 feet altitude by a Utah Highway Patrol jet helicopter yields several benefits.   Among them it is a comfort to know that not only aerospace engineering, company management and university teaching have been infiltrated by bureaucracy.  In addition to the modest $1,190 bill for helicopter flight time (at $700/hour) and $240 for crew (pilot plus the guy who grabs your arm helping you leap off your suddenly much more appealing than it was before help was in the offing rock perch and onto the landing skid outside the polycarbonate bubble), you also find an entry for “incident management”, a disembodied bureaucratic construct which nonetheless gets paid as much as the military trained pilot with 40 years rotary aircraft experience and his search and rescue specialist crew.  

 

But as my Dad wisely points out, $1870 I could have easily spent just getting ambulanced and admitted to the Park City Emergency Room and maybe getting a blood test before the bill grew another 0 left of the decimal point with MRI, ER Docs and Nurses, not even counting the luxuries attendant to overnighting on the med-surg floor under those 24/7 florescent grow-lamps.  And my bill gaining yet another order of magnitude with surgery and follow up therapy and medical visits.   In other words, a rescue as expensive as a week’s cycling vacation in the Alps may have saved the equivalent of a retirement bungalow in the Ozarks.  Not counting the months of unproductive time spent in medical care and then in physical therapy, taking drugs and hurting.  Or worse.

 

Outside of existential issues, how was the hike?  Rocky.  From about the time we reached the bouldered semi-summit for lunch, way ahead of schedule despite climbing a lot of rock with no climbing gear, dressed in T-shirts and running shoes, and started down various nearly vertical walls and chimneys, I cycled through all the modes.  First there was Denying that it was going to be as bad as it in fact was, followed by Bargaining:  if I ever got off this mountain I’d stick to safer endeavors – like cycling to Tyson’s II on the shoulder of Route 7 with cars zooming past at 55 mph, or maybe cliff diving in Monterey.  I toyed with Anger for a while – but getting mad at the only guy who has ever been there before (though it turned out the guide never had been there before – so just as Seinfeld once pondered the definition of “reservation” I began to ponder the definition of “Guide”) seemed counter to my overarching survival goal.  Finally I reached Acceptance – that this is a ridiculous situation but unlike some situations this one is completely cure-able if we made the right decisions.  Which were to give it the best try we could, and then to bail if all else failed.  

 

While the guide helped talk my left foot and then my right foot down long steps onto toe-width slivers of semi-horizontal rock, me facing the wall and gripping the cracks like they teach at Yosemite, I distracted myself thinking about my recent past.  I calculated that in the last 12 years, I’d spent 10% of my time in wheelchairs, casts, hospital beds and crutches – recovering from bone breaks – 3 clavicles, 2 ankles, one shoulder, several ribs and almost all the bones in one foot.  Another 10% of those years I had spent caring for Nancy.  An AeroAstro friend is just now able to travel – on crutches – months after breaking his leg climbing, and a cycling friend has a chance to go home to a life of 24/7 care in a few weeks following 3 months in the hospital, much of it unconscious, due to a head injury.   He may never be able to work or recover his personality. Then I thought about a passage in one of the library full of death and dying books I studied to help cope with Nancy’s care.  The author pointed out how hard people work, the lengths they go to, the money they will spend – to save their life or that of a loved one.  The same person will put the whole enterprise at risk to save a few seconds at a red light, or to have a little fun on a weekend, or to share a drink with friends out for dinner.

 

OK, not the sort of thoughts that motivate a person to muster maximum gusto, but few would number among my faults a tendency to spending too much time on the couch for lack of motivation to expend some energy.   

 

The Guide and I spent 4 hours sitting on our perch, wondering if we were going to spend the night wrapped in a couple of rain parkas trying to sleep in 20°F air next to the burnt-out remains of the microfire he built from the scant combustibles one can find on a rock outcropping.  He skittered around the rocks collecting what wood and boughs he could, but nothing that would do much more than briefly flare.  We saw the sun set across the valley, listened to the absolute quiet when thermal driven wind subsided, and watched the stars emerge in a purple sky.  We wondered what phase the moon would be in that night.  We watched headlights on the road miles away to see if any looked like they were looking for us.  We adapted – enjoying the strange uniqueness of our moment and the beauty of it.  I remembered the last time I slept outside – 26 summers ago rafting a California river.  Camping, I admitted, was not my passion.  

 

Then we heard the helicopter – but it didn’t come near us.  We thought he didn’t see our little fire and our jackets draped over rock piles.  In fact, our fire was blindingly bright in the pilot’s night vision goggles, and a few minutes later the big rotating blades were on top of us, blowing embers from the fire onto our skin and seconds later I was just a passenger in the back seat of a small aircraft making a short, comfortable flight to the meadow where the day had begun that morning.

 

Days later 10 minutes still don’t pass without my marveling that I am not in a hospital, that all my limbs are in one piece, though my hands and legs are scared from rock hugging.  This year I watched a person gradually die, and I know what each of us really wants from life – the ability to enjoy it.  The rest, our quest for fun, for experiences, for salaries, for a good watermelon, for a better fitting cycling jersey, for the right stock buys, for all the things we tell ourselves matter enough to trade our time, maybe all of our time, for, as it says on my “Swimming Is Life” t-shirt, is just details.

 

  

 

 

  

4 Responses to “Helicopter Rescue”

  1. Alan Says:

    Holy sh**! In comparison, I had a rather boring week.

    Rick, kind of amazing that you can fall from a couple of feet up on a bicycle and require weeks of recovery from broken bones and, in contrast, be plucked off a mountain by a chopper and not really suffer any adverse effects. No adverse effects, right?

    Well I would obviously like more details (like what model chopper) which I hope I will get on the next ride. Glad to hear you were rescued and are safe.

  2. Marge Fiore Says:

    Wow, Rick! Glad you made it! Nothing like a close brush such as that to make you truly appreciate all your parts still being in place and unbroken. And nothing like a night on a rock ledge – or even part of a night – to make you appreciate the simple comforts of civilization, like a roof, walls, a bed, running water…

    I’m sorry to hear about your friend’s death (was it Nancy that died?). But, as I tell my desk-to-couch friends that are so concerned about safety that they never do anything physical, if you are going to spend your life avoiding all risk, you aren’t really living.

    Which I am glad you still are…

  3. Rick Fleeter Says:

    A couple of people have questioned if I just wimped out. After all, the guide got himself down to the road – in just moonlight. And my brother and his kids also hiked out. All true, and probably I could have gone for the gusto and made it down in one piece sans drama as did everyone else.

    My defenses are:

    – that the guide could make a decent I couldn’t is definitely true. He’s a 20-something professional climber, I’m a 50-something professional klutz. I don’t see people going 10 mph on the bike path riding cross bikes and dis them for not doing 20 on a carbon Orbea. We all have our levels, and the only result of pushing people beyond their capabilities is bad feelings for each other and for sport. The guide did get down – but it took him a couple of hours to do it, and then only to the road an hour’s walk from the parking point. So had I sucked it up, at best our 5 hour hike would have been a 12 hour ordeal. The guide did what was right for him. I admire his skill – he’s a real mountain goat. Doesn’t mean I delude myself that I could do everything he can.

    – my brother and the others separated from the guide and me with what they thought was a better way down. They were right, and even so, none of them would have opted to try it again. To follow them we needed to climb back up a few hundred feet of rock face, and then do what they had only unwillingly done. Just because the previous aircraft made it through a line of weather doesn’t mean you will too. My brother and his kids are black diamond skiers. I’m more of a X/C guy who if pressed can handle the green squares.

    – Yes, we could have awaited first light – 9 more hours on the mountain. But both the guide and I were glad we didn’t have to do that. The heli vs. wait for morning and go with ropes decision was made by others, and both of us were glad to get down that night.

    I admit to a little of the Volvo – driver defensive living philosophy. I have had enough injuries, watched enough of my friends get injured, and a few killed, every one in retrospect avoidable. Watching Nancy’s losing struggle for life, reading about a fellow cyclist’s head injuries on his wife’s blog, have also etched some new caution into my brain – probably a good thing given my orthopedic history over the last 15 years.

    If you’ve never taken a chance and ended up paying for it for 6 to 12 months of medical care and rehab, maybe you have a free pass to take risk. Young people especially do that, and it’s part of the maturation process which luckily most of us survive. If you’re like me, the idea of waking up under yet another x-ray machine, lying on that hard flat and cold table, the tech sliding plates in and out underneath you and coaxing you to move that painful one more inch or rotate another 10°, contemplating the pain, time and expense of another injury, wondering if you’ll ever be able to swim or ride again – and that being better than a lot of other outcomes I’ve been close to, is a little off-putting and opting to spend a little time and money to avoid that possibility starts to look pretty attractive. There’s the DeBra “guts to IQ ratio”, and I’ll admit to a low one! There’s also the risk to money ratio. I can afford to not take risk. What better use do I have for my money?

    One lesson I’ve learned about risk, a word I find much more descriptive than the euphemistic “safety”, is its lure – that most of the time we get away with things. Speeding, pushing our limits of hypothermia on a ride, a little innocent red light or stop-sign running on a bike, catching some powder just outside the boundaries – we do that sort of thing and see lots of others do it every day. Most adults drive after a drink or two at a dinner party. But one night one of our employees overnighted in jail for that. Had he hurt anyone, he wouldn’t be our employee anymore, his job title would have become “inmate”.

    Climbing up and down 80° rock faces and vertical chimneys with loose rocks, without appropriate gear, including ropes and climbing helmets, is something lots of people do and get away with. On the other hand, growing up in Cleveland, every year you hear about a fatality or two on Nelson’s Ledges – which we’ve all hiked maybe without even thinking about risk. But if you Google helicopter rescue, you’ll find hundreds of people who didn’t squeak by, many of them dead or permanently disabled.

    When I was a pilot, I first encountered the reality that the rest of my life depended on the every day decisions I made, in the context of wanting to keep my job, get to my midterm exam the next morning rather than waking up to a snowstorm outside the window of a Motel 6 in Windsor Locks, or frankly, just get to a heated hangar (the heat was generally not functional in our freight aircraft), a toilet and some food. I eventually decided on a philosophy – that if you don’t know you can make a flight segment for sure, for instance you know there are imbedded thunderstorms and you don’t have radar, or you don’t have de-ice and know there is icing but don’t know how much altitude you’ll need to punch through it, then you have ceded your survival to chance. I’m not willing to do that. On the other hand, an engine could fail at night over mountains, or I could run into a flock of birds at a critical moment before landing. But those are minute risks that even a careful pilot can’t be expected to mitigate.

    Logical or not, spending your life disabled by your own stupidity is a much heavier burden than because a tree fell on your bedroom while you were sleeping. The logical approach to risk in the real world is to accept the risks necessary to be a whole person and live a rich life, but not to trade our most valuable assets – our lives and our well being – for the sake of a schedule, a small amount of money, fear of being labeled a wimp, or a thrill. There’s no bright line there – we each make our choices. I try not to critique others for theirs, though I do sometimes, and I don’t blame people for questioning my decisions. But just because Air Traffic Control tells me the weather looks good, it’s my life on the line, not theirs, and I have to make the call that’s best for me. I’ll accept the burden, if it comes to that (which it never has) to argue it out with the authorities later – when I’m back on the ground.

  4. Abby Says:

    Rick,

    I can’t imagine how you felt. I’d be terrified to leave the cliff to “step” into the helicopter. But, when I think about it, there would NEVER be the possibility of that happening to me in the first place. NEVER on the side of a mountain…makes me dizzy just thinking about it:)

    I’m glad you’re ok!

    Abby

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