---UPON REVIEW---Further thoughts from an accident report
Exquisite! The day had been simply exquisite. Seven of us, having rousted from the reverie of Jorge's seventieth celebration the night before, had hiked in to do a variety of routes side by side in the Solar Slab area. The sky was vivid blue and the welcome warmth of the sandstone was a tactile delight.
That morning Joanne played cruise director and paired us off into new teams that hadn't climbed much or at all with each other before. Like waiting to be picked for softball games in elementary school gym class. By coincidence or happenstance or ritualistic party dance I ended teamed with a guy calling himself Mike Gilbert. Which couldn't be true as I knew the "real" Mike Gilbert. He was the older brother of my (BITD) best friend Scott. That Mike Gilbert was a famous climber and this impostor was not him. After actually making him show me his drivers license, and having him explain that even though it said Edward he really went by his middle name which was indeed Michael, I figured I would have to let that anomaly slide. Though it ended up being the source of endless chiding on my part. Normally climbing with someone I don't know fills me with apprehension and messes with my focus in uncomfortable ways. What did I really know about this somewhat goony looking character I was slated to rope up with. We had chatted a little yesterday and I had found that he was some kind of doctor, had a quick mind and quirky humor. So we both laughed at the same kind of wry jokes. Big deal, so what! Mike and I were as different as the 50s and the 60s. I had a braid down the middle of my back and he had the buzz cut of a marine drill sergeant. Does this dude know how to climb? That's what I wanted to know and had to find out. While racking and roping at the base of Beullah's Book, Mike starts massaging and rotating his shoulder and saying he is way "on" the couch. Classic phaffer ploy. "Would I mind taking the first" he asked? And maybe all of them was what he was actually inferring. "Sure noooooo problem" I answered. You do know how to belay? is what I was actually inferring. Well I prefer to be in control and in charge in situations like this so that was cool. As we, "the odd couple" progressed up the 4 pitches to the terrace we seamlessly gelled into a coherent team.
Mike's belaying was perfect. Never tight always there. His climbing was top flight. Never harried always there. Our re-rackings were quick and smooth and we filled the time with good hearted razzing. As both of us were climbing old timers we did our systems the same way. By the time we had leisurely un-roped on the broad expanse of the Solar Terrace Mike was again comfortable enough to swap leads and I was comfortable enough to climb with him again. If I could only figure out who the "real" Mike Gilbert really was...
3: O Sheila where art thou? (exit stage down);
Of the seven of us that started out that day one rope team had opted to retreat from the Solar Terrace early to avoid the annoyance of a $50.00 late parking ticket. That left two rope teams. Mike and I. And the three ladies who were still continuing up Solar Slab. Joanne & Marilyn were enthusiastically flying up pitches swapping leads. Sheila didn't want any part of leading and was following with apparent trepidation. Mike and I leisured about in the warm sun waiting for the women to clear a belay stance before following after them. A few pitches higher we were surprised to come across Sheila alone on a ledge leashed into the anchor with her daisy chain and no other gear. To that point all I knew about Sheila was that she was the wife of one of Jorge's oldest climbing friends. The same friend who first brought Red Rock to Jorge's attention in the 70s. Having only met her the night before, to me she seemed a frail and timid wall flower. How deceiving first impressions can be. She turned out tough as nails. She had gotten to the point that she didn't want to climb anymore that day while MG and J were just getting warmed up. Well since Mike and I were coming up the same route and the ladies would soon be coming back down the same way she had opted to hang out on the ledge and wait. So pleased was she to see me arrive at the belay stance that I had the momentary flash that she had been worried she was being "ditched". The shadows were stretching east across the desert the day was fading away. Mike, Sheila and I decided to start down right away and we rigged for the first rap. Sheila was obviously nervous about the raps and the apprehension of the impending dusk had shaded her with an additional layer of gloom. She had appeared quite flustered since her husband and sole climbing partner for the past ten years had opted to descend earlier. Some instinct of our old trad minds had Mike and I automatically playing mother hens to our new rope mate. It's not that she didn't know what to do It was more that she was really withdrawn, more nervous than focused. Mike and I were checking, double checking, conferring, visually inspecting, and testing everything. We were of a like focus and needed few words to communicate quickly and clearly. It was one of those times where a glance or hand gesture spoke volumes. Sheila was at this point simply glad to accept the guided tour. We didn't know it then but she was fairly terrified of climbing situations in the dark as she had experienced a previous nighttime epic. Unfortunately for Sheila she was soon to have another. Uneventfully we arrived at the big Solar Terrace and pulled the rope as we watched the other two ladies rapidly descending. Lounging around un-roped on the commodious area waiting for J & MG to gather back up with us no one noticed that Sheila had disappeared.
4: And then it got dark! (I'll take "what happens when the sun goes down" for three hundred Mr. Trebek);
By the time we all arrived at the top of the Solar Gully we found Sheila hunkered down hovering over the anchor bolts in a Vietnamese squat. She had been up and down this way with her husband before. So at that time we were neither overly concerned when Sheila wasn't with us on the big terrace or too surprised when we found her waiting for us at the first rap. She really did want to get down ASAP. It was dark now but not pitch black. Red Rock nights are often impacted by a strange luminescence from the neon cacophony that is Vegas. This was such a night. Just enough of a cloud reflected glow to allow us to descend sans headlamps. The evening was warm with only occasional breezes. It was serene and enjoyable to descend in such quiet subdued splendor. With four ropes between the five of us we quickly developed a rhythm of leap frogging ropes on the way down. Everything could not have gone better and in no time Joanne was back on the ground at the base of the wall. MG was at the second to last rap and Mike, Sheila and I were atop the third to last rap. It is surprising, frightening even, how instantly situations can radically change. "You always want to be sure both strands are all the way into your rap device" I hear Mike remind Sheila as he rigs her to rap once again. Then she is off, slowly rapping out of site. Left alone Mike and I are relaxed enough that neither of us are tied into the anchor even though the station slopes steeply towards the void. We occupy the dark by quietly "pun"-ishing each other with high ball humor and wait our turns to descend. It has been a fantastic day and now dinner, beer and wine at Jorge's awaited our return. At about the time Sheila's rate of descent would have put her at or near the next station we hear OFFRAaa...a quick surprised squeal, sliding, scrapping, a short scream, a thump, more sliding, more scrapping and then a really heavy, bone crushing, ground shaking THUD! With barely enough light to read expressions Mike and I shared a mutual look of perplexed disbelief. WTF! we said in unison. Time elapsed? Nearly a lifetime!
5: And ugly! (butt ugly);
Screaming! Screaming! Screaming! The night was rent with the anguished sound of extreme suffering. A wild animal being trapped and devoured alive by a pack of ravenous predators would make such sounds. Certainly no mere mortal human could. It was horrible, terrifying and utterly disassociated with the ideal day of just thirty seconds before. The only good that came of the screaming was the knowledge that Sheila was alive and breathing. What ever else her condition entailed lie hidden ominously waiting in the darkness below. Like fireflies on a midwest summer night little LED lights started popping up as headlamps were at last retrieved and engaged. Many minutes dragging like hours ensued before we could get Sheila to stop shrieking and communicate with us. She was able at least to tell us her hip was surely broken. Meanwhile, fearing the worst kind of carnage, Mike was beginning his rap into the unknown. 80 feet down he also split the night with an oration that would have made a longshoreman blush. In his urgency to get to the aid of our fallen companion he had been more than lucky to just catch the taped end of one rope strand in his brake hand. His exuberant expletive enhanced exaltations were just his way of letting us all know how extremely close he had come to joining the heap of destruction below. With both Mike and Sheila frantically screaming I reached up and finally clipped in with my daisy chain figuring that events had certainly taken an odd turn for the worse. Anchoring in would soon prove to have been a very prudent move. Frustrating moments of not knowing oozed by before Mike could explain to me that the rope ends were offset by forty feet and that he almost rapped off them. He was trying to even them up as he cursed. Nervously marooned at the highest anchor I waited with nothing to do but a great deal to worry about. I flashed that Sheila, who had fervently worn it all the way up, was not wearing her helmet on the way down. During the descent it had been suggested more than once that she re-don it should pulled ropes bring loose rocks down. She inexplicably resisted this advise. Now I dreaded the imagined mess I would find when finally it became my turn to rap. Not again! wafted through my scattered mind. Hadn't I seen enough human wreckage all ready. I was beginning to feel like I couldn't go through this again When Mike called up that the rope was clear. The anxiousness of helpless idleness quickly became a blur of something to do. Action at last. Too quickly and distractedly I rigged my rap device. Weighting the system I was jolted to the realization that only one strand of rope had been engaged. Caught by my fortuitously clipped daisy chain I cautiously and meticulously re-rigged to rap. With enough going on all ready I never mentioned that I had nearly ended up in a mangled gang of three somewhere in the darkness below. I sharpened my focus and forced those thoughts from my here and now.
6: Waiting is Not an option! (Hang on);
One in a Million is an understatement. A disservice of words. This was a miracle! Somehow, that I am still unable to explain, Sheila wedged to a stop on the verge of eternity forty feet below the ledge of the last rap station. She was completely detached from the rap line. Had she not landed on that tiny sloping ledge there was nothing to stop her from tumbling all the rest of the way to the base. Her left leg and rump had wedged like a cam in a crack on the far side of the ledge. This undoubtedly saved her life. But it also meant that her right hip and pelvis were shattered by the impact and her right leg broken in a few places as well. In profound discomfort she was still alert and cooperative. She was in fact instrumental in her own triage diagnosis. Did I say miraculous? It was! Though she had removed her helmet earlier her dramatic vertical tumble had produced no head injuries. No spinal injuries either. In fact other than remarkably few abrasions her injuries were isolated to her savagely insulted hip and leg. None of the breaks were compound but the area around her hip was rapidly swelling with what we could only assume was internal bleeding. Quick reality check; she is alive but she is hurt bad. She is conscious and not in shock. But there is fear welling up behind the resolve in her eyes. We have to get her to the ground ASAP. Self rescue is the name of the game. Waiting for a rescue was not an option. But can we? She is literally stuck to the rock and any movement even the slightest has her instantly erupt in banshee song. With two doctors in our group we actually had med kits with good meds. All of which Sheila was allergic to and refused. Grimly we realized this operation was to be with out the benefit of anesthetics. Having established an equalized omnidirectional AMGA approved boomproof anchor to secure and eventually lower Sheila from, I proceeded to pull and clear the overhead rope and establish an additional rope to the ground. Mike is a leading heart transplant specialist which makes him a doctor but not one who's patients normally scream bloody murder in his face. So it was a great relief when MG, a trauma specialist, requested I belay her up. Our little sloping perch was now really crowded. So I decide to rap out of the way. I tell myself I am going down to look for things like my walking poles that can be used for splints but secretly I'm really glad to get away a bit and regroup. We are all just a little stressed by now. Secretly MG and Joanne are really hoping it's not really all that bad and that we can get the hopefully over reacting Sheila back to town ourselves. It is not to be. It becomes quickly apparent to MG even as I break it to Joanne that we really do need a search and rescue team. And we need them quickly. We can get her to level ground ourselves and that will save untold amounts of time. But she needed a hospital right away. Not counting the 40 minute drive to hospital we were still at least an hour hike away from our cars in the parking lot. And that would be without having to carry a seriously injured person. And that would have to be after getting her to ground!
7: Can you hear me now? (A trillion dollars of satellite communications for what?);
911...nothing. Damn! 911...nothing. Dammit this was maddening. We had all concurred that a Search and Rescue team medi-vac was absolutely in order. But now none of us could get a call out. There we were on the edge of the wilderness poised on the threshold of the twenty first century with the lights of Vegas in sight and we couldn't get one lousy emergency call out! Aaaarrgh! 911... nothing. Every available phone was repeatedly tried to no avail. A desperate urgency was beginning to be felt. We were on the verge of sending Joanne, our strongest runner, out to the parking lot to make contact when. "911 dispatch what is the nature of the emergency" faintly crackled through the static on my old junker back up cell phone. Miracle #2 the cavalry was on the way. Sheila was still anchored up at the crowded accident site doing her stoic best to remain calm. Joanne and I had just been startled by the unexpected arrival of Rob. Not surprisingly he had heard the ungodly din and abandoned his walk-about to see of what assistance he might be. Miracle #3 the angel arrived. To begin with we were a fairly remarkable group of experienced climbers. Several of us had rescue experience and two of us were highly trained doctors. If you were going to have a life and death type climbing accident out in the boonies this would be the A team to have with you. But when Rob appeared things really started happening. Rob was a recent transplant to Vegas and was out for a brisk hike that evening when we interrupted his return dash to avoid the ticket. Rob was also a very experienced climber who had spent a lot of years with SAR teams and working as a guide. It was Rob who fashioned a custom boson's hammock out of our emptied packs and slings to make lowering Sheila possible. It was brilliant too. Sheila was supported and stabilized with no undue stress or weight on her shattered pelvis. A work of rescue art. Now Rob was lowering Sheila while each doctor rapped along either side of her. Guiding her down as carefully and comfortably as possible. The roar of the chopper rotors thankfully drowned out Sheila's reoccurring banshee song. Which would erupt when ever she was bumped or jostled too much. But the helicopter's inescapable flood of light made it only too clear that she was indeed singing. Loud and Clear.
8: The Pit and the Pendulum. (the first cut is the deepest);
Three miracles was probably the house limit for anyone in a twenty four hour period of time even in Vegas. However, right about then I was praying we wouldn't need a fourth. Up till the last half hour I had always dug helicopters. But now my affections were waning fast. Initially the superbly skilled pilot of this tiny craft made several flybys to assess the situation. Then, over the course of many runs, dropped off a hoard of SAR personnel and equipment one at a time on a rock out crop that provided a one skid touch down. Sheila was down on essentially level ground by now but still along way away from medical help. And now this chopper jockey was tucking his fragile flyer within feet of the rock walls on either side of us. We were at the base of a steep gully in a tight side canyon. One of the most unnerving experiences I have ever had was the multiple approach runs that pilot made where his rotors were up against the wall and right over my head. Thwap, thwap, thwap deafening all sound deadening all thought. When the canyon wind gusts started picking up I found a wide crack to cower in and waited for all manner of explosions and flaming wreckage to further spoil this fine evening. In my mind, the fertile playground of a graphic and over active imagination, I envisioned destruction befitting Armageddon, a vastly swollen body count and an inability to properly explain the sequence of events to curious authorities. Thwap, thwap, thwap. No BOOM.
9: Silence in the night. (deafening isn't it);
No such despair as a rescue copter crash occurred. After much wrangling Sheila, now secured in a liter, flew away dangling under the helicopter with two SAR paramedics swinging along side. A slew more flights to pick up the hoard and materiel and we were finally left to the blissful silence of the desert night. Even though we had successfully and quite efficiently performed a high angle rescue of our seriously injured companion, a task the SAR team was not prepared to do, we still had to convince the authorities that we could indeed find our own way back to our vehicles. I guess that meant we were turning down a perfectly free chopper ride but by that time the allure was gone and I was grateful to have them simply leave. Aahhh silence. A chance to think. WTF was that all about? We gather up the flotsam and jetsam of our hastily used gear that we only narrowly saved from the SAR scissors by the most stringent of protestations. Each of us pack in a state of muted numbness. Then one by one we head wordlessly down the trail. No bobbing headlamps, no jovial banter about a day wonderfully spent, no hurry to avoid the ticket. Just a weary stumble home in the dark. It had been a very long hard day and we were all emotionally and physically drained. Back and Jorge's cold dinner and colder beers awaited. As did many questions and hopefully some answers to our concerns about Sheila.
10: Debrief? (good 'cause these ones have skid marks now);
Chagrined. That's one way to explain the feeling of being immediately interrogated by the chief of rescue operations on our return. Immensely annoyed would be closer. Just as soon as one of us would straggle off the trail into the parking lot the Man would be on them with twenty questions. I didn't so much mind the need to fill out and file an incident report but the veiled implication that we had been negligent or somehow at fault was more than a little galling. And while we're at it mind if I put my pack down? It's a little heavy after all this time. We were tremendously grateful for the efforts of the SAR team and their psycho rotor jockey but much of our interactions with them left a bile-ish taste behind. As a team we had stabilized and rescued Sheila off the wall. A complicated effort that saved many hours of rescue time. But when the professionals arrived we were pushed aside and dismissed as unnecessary. In my case while still holding Sheila's leg in traction which was the only thing that gave her any relief. She cried out sharply when I was forced to move aside. When we insisted that they needn't cut off the hundreds of dollars of our climbing gear and packs that encased Sheila they boorishly radioed in that we were being uncooperative. And that our selfish concern for mere climbing gear was endangering our friends rescue. None of which was true. In considerable distress, Joanne having been stuck on the ground since shortly before the accident, approached Sheila to see if her long time friend was all right, She was immediately stopped and rudely confronted by the chief SAR professional. He actually grabbed her by the breast and heaved her on to a ledge and out of his way. It was all very surreal. We were deeply and directly involved. We were competent and experienced. We were there to help. Yet we were the enemy. Well here was the BIG big chief and myself nose to sternum in the Oak Creek parking lot. If I could only find a step ladder or a soap box he was going to get an earful that night. He was BIG and though he was also a SAR paramedic he was first and foremost a cop. Sometimes indignity gets the better of me and I defend myself against all odds. I had already had a few recent unpleasant encounters with the LEOs of the Red Rock regulars. So I really had very little business and less sense in facing up to this obviously annoyed official. Particularly at night with few witnesses. Or so I imagined. He was a badge with bullets and built like a barge. I was a pesky little old man with a burr in my britches. But I didn't care. I needed to speak my mind. Get it off my chest. I figured at least I was old enough to get away with it. Surely my patrician grey hair and beard lent an air of harmlessness if not respectability. In the end the Man listened to me as I concurrently praised his capability and paned his bed side manner. And I listened to him as he explained his perspective. We ended respectfully with a thank you and a handshake. I truly believe we are both better for it.
11: Epilogue. ('cause what else are you going to do with an unfinished story);
Seven or eight. I think. That's how many beers it took my adrenaline sodden mind to finally slow down enough to fall asleep that morning. Waking up again in the early evening I felt disoriented and foggy and pasty with dehydration. The others have already gathered. I hear the inevitable storm of questions already being asked. I stumble upstairs and into the fray. Everyone looks pale and somewhat stricken. I fear it is bad news from the hospital but it is only hangovers and exhaustion. Sheila is doing fine, her surgery went very well. She will be up and about in a few days and climbing again a little over a year after that. The miracles of modern medicine and a timely rescue from a miraculous accident. It's kind of funny to say that someone who gets hurt that badly was really lucky. Wouldn't it really be really lucky to not get hurt in the first place. But it is true Sheila was really, really lucky. It all could have turned out so very differently, so tragically. But what happened? Opinions vary based on the relative positions of those experiencing the accident. Trauma has blocked some of the event from Sheila's memory so we may never know for certain. But, based on my experiences of the accident here is my amateur forensic explanation of what I believe happened. In her state of flustered urgency Sheila arrived in the dark at the ledge of the next rap without actually getting to the station proper. The rap she had just done was a disorientingly awkward gutter ball affair down a steep corner/chimney system. She must of felt momentarily secure to finally stand on the horizontal shelf she knew from past experience was the ledge for the next repel. That ledge, while comfortably large on the left side where the next anchor is, is shaped like a long triangle and precariously narrow on the right side. It is the right side of the ledge, at it's narrowest where it abuts the corner/chimney system, that gravity would have compelled sheila to. From what I heard this is what I believe happened next. At about the time Mike and I thought she should be down I hear her start but not finish saying "off rappel". The last word is cut off by a startled shriek and the unmistakable sound of a body falling. I believe Sheila, feeling more secure on the ledge though not yet anchored to the next station, took her self off repel and turned to walk toward the next rap. Turning to the left her next step met with nothing but air. Starting to fall she clutched for her previous repel rope to steady herself with. When she caught only one strand she pulled it down with her as she tumbled. Probably releasing it with the first impact. The first thump we heard. Her extended left leg still straining for purchase amazingly guided her to the only crack that could catch her. Her abrasions, contusions and fractures were all on her right side, the side she would have most likely ridden down after turning to the left. I can only imagine the terror she must have experienced. For now she was very much alive. Her injuries would heal, the memories fade. She would make a remarkable and thorough recovery. It turned out to be a pretty good day after all.
12: Final assessment (for lack of anything else to say);
Well hindsight is a perfect vision and second guessing is a human art form. So what did we learn from all this? This miraculous slice of raw life and death. What could we have done better? What should we have done differently? It would be easy enough for any number of others to tell us what they would have done and by extension what we should have done as well. Certainly some one could have stayed at the top of the last repel until Sheila got there. Or we could have simply tied the ends of the preceding repel rope to the anchor of the next repel. It would be easy for me to argue that knots in the rope ends weren't necessary as each repel ended on ledges with ample spare rope. Two people had just previously descended that same rope so it is reasonable to assume the ends were not uneven before Sheila's turn. The fact that they were wildly uneven after Sheila's accident indicates she pulled on them when she fell. The additional fact that when found she was thoroughly detached from the rope Indicates she took herself off repel. Rapping off uneven rope ends generally entails the long rope staying attached to the repel device and only the short end zipping through the anchor. This was clearly not the case in this particular situation. In the unlikely event that she rapped off the ends of both ropes essentially simultaneously she would have had to have rapped well past the obvious ledge of the last repel station. This would have substantially shortened her fall. And probably lessened her injuries if she could have still stuck the landing! In the final assessment lots of things could have been done differently but weren't. Sheila could have taken the offered headlamp which would certainly have helped her see where she was and where she was going. But she turned it down twice. Fortunately she didn't need the suggested helmet. Luck, even painful luck, is it's own reward. But being prepared is always undeniably wise council. We are in fact, each of us, responsible to and for ourselves first. We are accountable for what we choose.