• Horsetail Falls Rescue - 2000
At about 5:40 p.m. on Tuesday evening, August 1, 2000, SAR pagers went off for a injured hiker near Horsetail Falls and volunteers began checking in for what would be one of the toughest rescues that most of us can remember. The initial call had been routed through Camino's dispatch, so Forest Service and ambulance personnel from the West Slope had been dispatched and were already on scene when we got there. REACH, a West Slope medical helicopter was en route as well. Lake Valley Fire (who had requested SAR) also responded, but after determining that there was probably sufficient personnel, they cleared to attend to the increased fire activity caused by the recent lightning strikes in the area. Sgt. Peshon rolled in to cover for the SO until Deps. Crawford and Mazzoni could get there and take over Command.
Two of the victim's four hiking companions had hurried out to get help, and they told us that the victim, Patrick, had slipped and fallen approximately 70' down a cliff, and was about 200 yards off the trail due west of the upper falls. He had been knocked unconscious, and had severe head trauma along with possible neck injuries. With one of the RPs to guide them, the two medics and the Forest Service crew were designated as "Medic 1" and sent on ahead. I gathered additional info to determine what specialized equipment might be necessary while other members put the wheel on the litter and gathered their personal gear. It was reported that our victim was on a ledge about 30 feet vertical feet above less extreme terrain, so we added the appropriate rope gear to our supplies and Gary, John, JT, Robert, Joe A., Doug H., Deanne and me deployed with the litter as Foot Team 1. We caught up with the Medic 1 team and added their manpower to the task, and shortly afterwards, Judy, Jenny, and Bob A., joined us to help out as well.
Monitoring the radio on our way up, we soon knew that the REACH helicopter would be unable to help. Not only were they unable to hoist, but they had decided that there were no LZs near the victim that they were comfortable with. By this time, we could see where our victim was and it wasn't reassuring. He was about 1/4mile west and above the trail, at the base of a cliff band. The terrain we still had to cover to get to him was very steep, consisting of ravines, tilting granite slabs, and boulder fields, all liberally accented with chest high manzanita. We confirmed that CP was contacting H-20, Fallon, and the National Guard, because we knew that any one of those helos could hoist Patrick to the top of the cliff and transport him to medical help far quicker than we could. We did raise our eyebrows when we heard a tone-out canceling additional responding resources, but assumed that a helicopter was a given, not only to get the victim out ASAP, but also because without one the probability of injury to the rescuers was very high. Todd and Tim were right on top of things, checking with us regularly.
CP: " What is your location, anything you need?"
Us: "We might need the evac pack from 901 and, oh yeah, we how's that helicopter situation?
CP: "Working on it."
One of our members went on ahead with the two medics to try to find the safest way to access Patrick's location while the rest of us followed with the litter but, if an good route was available, we sure didn't find it. When the medics got on scene and we heard their grim report on Patrick's condition, the extra sense of urgency increased our frustration with the struggle to get the litter to him quickly. We finally left the wheel behind (something we should have done before going off trail) and manhandled the basket and gear directly over everything in our path... brush, boulders, whatever. Deanne was given the task of reconnoitering and flagging a better way for us to get back down.
CP: "Now that you're nearer the victim, is there anything else you need?
Us: "Could you send someone in with some headlamps, we could use more water and, oh yeah, we're really, really, gonna need that helicopter!"
CP: "We're working on it"
Once we finally got to Patrick's location, Robert was assigned to head up the rope ops and began scouting for a good anchor to use for the lowering system required to get him off of the ledge. There weren't any, so we settled on a load sharing anchor between a flake, a rock, and a bush, and after the medics finshed doing what they could, the system was put to the test and Patrick was safely lowered off the ledge. His condition was not good and the medics were worried. Even with heavy bandaging he was still bleeding profusely from his head wound, they had rigged a C-collar using a SAM splint to try to avoid further neck injury, and he had a very low vitals.
CP: " Now that you're with the victim, is there anything that you need?"
Us: "It's getting dark, this patient's in bad shape, and, oh yeah, where the *#!#* is that helicopter!"
CP: "Sorry, can't get one!"
It was 8:30 p.m. and we were facing the ugly reality that we'd been trying to avoid all night, we were in for a long, hard carry-out down the same hazardous terrain we had just come up, only now it was dark and we had a 220 lb. load of critically injured human being. Oh well, we'd gotten spoiled; used to do it this way all the time, right? I won't go into too much detail about what it took to get this guy down the mountain and back to the trail, but for almost three hours we scrambled and battled to get from behind the litter to ahead of it so we could pass it down the many areas that were too narrow and/or steep to walk through, and we courted personal misfortune many times to get it done. By now, Joni and Jeri had found us, and Todd had redeemed himself somwhat for his earlier cancellation page by getting hold of the nearby CCC camp and asking them for help. They sent in a team of 5 who met up with us shortly after we finally reached the main trail, which was still a difficult single track most of the way out. It was now about 11:30 p.m. and the people who had been on the litter from the beginning were absolutely exhausted. Those CCC guys got on it and stayed on it for the rest of the hike out; they were great.
Helicopter issues continued to plague the mission. The REACH helicopter had returned to base, unable to wait for our return, and CareFlight, a more familiar resource, had been called in now that we were closer to the trailhead. Thank goodness, we thought, until we heard that they were planning on landing at Pacific House, still a 30" ambulance drive away. We knew that they could get closer than that and 30 more minutes was just not acceptable to us. Patrick had been through enough, what with the wild ride we had given himhead down, feet down, tipped left, tipped right, the only thing we hadn't done was drop him but, since he was just barely concious, he probably wouldn't have noticed if we had.
CP: "How's it going, what's your ETA?"
Us: "Maybe 30 more minutes out. Have you found a closer place for that helicopter to land yet?"
CP: "We're working on it"
While we straggled down the final mile to the trailhead, CareFlight scouted several alternate locations before finally declaring the CalTrans yard on Echo Summit a safe LZ for a night landing. Yeah!! It was after 1:00 AM when we finally delivered our patient into the back of the ambulance for stabilization and transportation to the LZ for a flight to Washoe Med. Seven hours from when we first started up the trail, now bleary-eyed and dog tired, we finally dragged back into CP, where Bob and Bobbi checked us in and signed us out.
CIP: "Good job guys."
Us: " Mutter, mumble, grumble ... helicopter."
The irony was not lost on us that we often bemoan the fact that helicopters are called in so readily these days that they've changed the character of SAR missions. They are a great tool, often getting a victim out of trouble far more quickly than we could, but when called upon indiscriminately, they sometimes end up as a extravagant taxi service for people or situations that do not warrant the privilege. We would have given almost anything to have one show up for Patrick because his life could have depended on it, but bad luck and bad timing conspired against us. H-20 was down for repairs, Forest Service, Fallon, and Natl. Guard were either fighting fires, out of service, or otherwise occupied until it was just too late and too dark for them to deploy.
To wrap up: This was an incredibly hard mission, but one of those that we can look back on with a great deal of pride. We got the job done the old fashioned way, with team work and hard work. Every person, from every agency, gave the maximum effort that they were capable of. Even though we could have used any additional manpower that might have been available, the response we did have was great, with 15 SAR volunteers, 4 Forest Service, 2 Medics, and 5 CCC members. None of us were injured and, a few days later we heard that Patrick had been moved out of the ICU and upgraded to stable condition with expectations of a full recovery. Doesn't get too much better than that.