What if they never come?
Darren Smith’s frightful 6 hours till rescue
Read Darren Smith’s story about his simple, enjoyable backcountry day that went terribly wrong at 11,500’. Darren tells us the lessons he learned, so others can prepare for, and expect, the unexpected emergency.
We are grateful for Darren’s permission to publish his story—“So That Others May Live.”
Darren’s accident and rescue
Feb 4, 2018
- What happened?
- Getting there
- The fall
- The wait
- The rescue
- Takeaways (some ski specific, some for everyone)
- Alpine Rescue Team and Rocky Mountain Rescue are awesome, consider donating
- All group members practice what to do in emergencies
- You aren’t hurting only yourself
- Helmet and goggles
- Contact method
- Go with a partner
- Don’t make mistakes and show off
- Have good gear
- Identify unknown risks and acknowledge unknown unknowns
- Backcountry skiing not equal resort skiing
- We all owe our lives to others
We were going to leave from my place at 7am to ski at East Portal of Moffet Tunnel, but Ryan couldn’t get his car out of his hilly neighborhood due to the recent sheet of ice from freezing rain over the night, so instead I drove to Lee Hill Dr trailhead and he hiked a mile to me with his stuff. We both like to travel fast and light so this wasn’t a big deal or sacrifice for him.
We got to the East Portal around 9am and started, quickly passing >15 people. I had packed standard avy gear, lightweight gloves, buff, ear warmer, 1 liter of water, and about 600 calories of food, an extra set of skins and some small stuff like ibuprofen and maybe a lighter. It felt nice to travel so light. Quickly my lightweight down jacket was shedded. Ryan normally carries a Spot, but forgot it this trip.
Ryan is very a good Skimo racer and general outdoor badass. I am a very experienced inbounds skier (happiest in steep glades at moderate pace) and fit but only about 7 days total of backcountry skiing experience. Ryan was definitely faster than me on skis despite our similar speed when running, it was surprising to me as I didn’t realize how much technique must be involved in what feels like walking.
I was working pretty hard to keep up. We were getting fresh tracks with no sign of anyone around. We skinned up to a ridge near Forest lakes 11,200’ then skied down 500’ continuing north. Even going up our next hill I was getting cold. I put handwarmers in my gloves (something I had never actually tried before) and was borrowing an extra very thin hat Ryan had under my helmet. I had definitely underestimated how cold and windy it would be up here. We skinned up to 11,500’ on to a ridge that connected to the continental divide in <¼ mile.
Even though both of us were out there for exercise and not to ski the gnarliest line, we decided to ski down between some rock fields for some stimulation. I asked to go first and, feeling like I had something to prove, skied it a bit faster than normal for how unwarmed up I was, it looked really easy to me, I’d definitely skied way steeper and tighter lines before inbounds. The first several turns felt a little awkward but good. Then I was planning on making one more turn before angling right to avoid the rocks. But something happened and I found myself flying over the rocks face first (it really did feel like flying, I had a dream/nightmare the night before about falling several hundred feet into a pool, and it felt like that too). I’m not really sure what caused the fall, I suspected my skis got stuck in the breakable crust and didn’t come around but my weight was already committed to the turn, Ryan thought it looked like I snagged a rock that was obscured by snow. As I flew I cared not what caused the problem but just thought about how I was totally screwed. The rocks steepened so I was going to be in the air a while, I couldn’t even see the end of rocks. I was almost in disbelief at how much trouble I was in, I didn’t see it coming; I had severely underestimated the danger. Time didn’t really slow down, I knew I might die, but didn’t have any revelations or time to think of loved ones. My mind just drew a blank probably trying to think of a way out but there was none. I hit the rocks and kept falling, now very disoriented. I’d had this feeling of falling before while skiing but in snow not rocks, it is quite scary but snow is soft and rocks are not. There was nothing to do but wait until I stopped which I had no idea when that would be. I remember hitting maybe one more time while continuing to fall before I lost memory or consciousness.
I was then in a peaceful comforting dream. When I woke it sucked, I wanted to go back to the dream (like most dreams I’ve forgotten what it was about). I don’t remember what position I was in, but I didn’t like it and my legs were freezing cold. I was in so much pain that all I could do was scream without reason. I moved to try to get my legs out of the snow. I had cratered somewhat which stopped me from sliding, but when I moved I started to slide again. I struggled to get to a stable position where I could brake with my feet. I slid quite a ways (50 feet?) while doing this. I was concerned that Ryan wasn’t with me (since I didn’t know how long I was out), worried that maybe something had happened to him too. But I got a glimpse up and saw him skiing down to me cautiously. When he arrived he quickly started an assessment and told me not to move. I’d taken wilderness first aid and recognized what he was doing so I didn’t question him. He told me not to move in case of a spinal injury. He called 911 (we were lucky to have signal here, I think since we were so high up there was nothing to obscure signal, otherwise we would not have). I think it was the 911 operator that told us not to move and that rescue would come. I couldn’t believe I was going to be rescued, I felt like I wasn’t that injured. I never thought I would be the one being rescued (and yes I know that is dumb but I’d say most people think that too).
My legs hurt, especially the right leg below the knee (although it felt like only a really bad bruise). My chest also hurt below the pec on the left side, I thought it was only a bruise too. I didn’t feel like I had a back or neck injury, to which I was very relieved but agreed that it was smart to play it safe and not move in case there was one. I didn’t feel disoriented but knew I had hit my head pretty hard (to cause loss of consciousness). I was mad at myself for injuring my most prized possession (brain). Ryan put his backpack under my head and used his helmet as another prop. My backpack kept my body off of the snow. It wasn’t comfy but at least I wasn’t all laying directly against the snow. Ryan put his down jacket over my body (I was wearing mine already for the downhill). It was 11:30, from here I wouldn’t move for 6 hours.
I knew it would be a long time before anyone could get to us. But that’s what they told us to do and it seemed like the right choice. They said no food, water or medication. Ryan started building walls out of snow around me with his shovel to block the wind. He said this helped him stay warm too. He kept checking in with 911 in 15 minute intervals as he was asked to. His phone still had a high charge. Around 75%. He let his wife know. He let my Dad know, but I told him to tell him that I was OK, because I didn’t want him to worry. I really did think I would be fine. I cursed myself for not having memorized my girlfriend’s phone number so that he could contact her too.
Since the fall I continued to breath insanely hard. I’m not really sure why. But it was as hard as I breath at the end of intervals in my running training. I experimented with trying not to do this but I seemed to get even colder when I stopped so I didn’t fight it. Ryan kept making the walls bigger. My hip flexors started to become very painful. I actually asked Ryan to massage them and the true friend that he is did so, and it did help. I still don’t know why exactly this happened, but this was the most painful part of the whole experience. My hip flexors on both legs were in excruciating pain until after I got pain killers and flexeril in the hospital. I think not being able to move my legs while shivering caused them to permanently tense and become overstrained.
My body heat melted snow under me and so I’d shift downwards slowly, which made the backpacks very uncomfortable. Ryan would then need to take snow out from under my butt and move it to my lower back to restore comfort. The operator had asked us to rate pain of various areas on a scale of 1-10. Later, I joked about how the wedgie from sliding was probably a 2. The situation did suck but we had time… Ryan went up to get my skis which also helped him stay warm. I lay there wondering if snowmobiles were allowed in this area and if there were exceptions for rescues. I was previously an anti-vehicle-in-nature purist, now I hoped there were no such rules. I’d listen for sounds of anything motorized and only heard tens of airplanes go by over time.
Some sun finally came out briefly but it was still cold, Ryan checked the thermometer on his ski pole, 17 degrees. We got word there were some rescuers on snowshoes getting close. This gave me hope. I kept asking Ryan if he could see them (I could only see the sky, straight up). At this point I had accepted something which was very hard for me. Which was that I was helpless and my survival depended completely on other people, strangers. I always try to be a good person, to give more than I take, but I did this by just not taking much. This was so hard for me to accept because here I would be taking so much, which was outside of my core values, who I was.
I couldn’t feel my pinky fingers. They felt like objects that were not part of my body. I’m not sure if I could move them. My legs were extremely cold against the snow and my feet numb. My pants were stretchy nylon with no insulation (but many new holes) and my boots TLT7 performance (performance meaning that they shed insulation to save weight). Some snow had gotten in my boots probably and I think some was in my helmet. It seemed futile to try to fix any of that though. At some point Ryan gave me another jacket and put it over my legs. I think he was wearing what he would wear only to go uphill. But he was waiting with me for 6 hours too, I don’t know how he stayed warm. He skied down a short distance to a road to mark it with my skis where the rescuers should leave the road to get to us. I say road here, but only 4x4s can do it in the summer, in the winter it is impassable.
We got word the snow shoers were only ⅓ mile away. And that other things were being tried like snowmobiles, and a snowcat from the north. And even a helicopter (Flight for Life). (The order of finding each of these out might be off). These didn’t seem to work though, the snowcat couldn’t make it past something, the snow mobiles, ran out of snow, it was too windy for the helicopter. I was glad we started early since rescue is so time consuming, darkness would be very cold. Hours passed though and it was starting to feel hopeless as I could feel it getting colder from the sun going down. I knew that it was a privilege to be rescued and that no one was obligated to save me, but I did occasionally wonder what was taking so long. I knew that I was far out, and that if it was my job to bring rescue equipment all the way up here in an area that I wasn’t familiar with, with conditions that I couldn’t have perfect knowledge of, that I would take quite a long time / possibly never find the spot so I was not mad.
I meditated, noticing that when I did the pain wasn’t that bad. Yes I was cold, and had numbness, my legs, ribs, and hip flexors hurt. But it really wasn’t that painful. But it was excruciating not to be meditating, because the real pain comes from fear. What if I can never walk again? What if my feet freeze into black solid objects? What if I freeze to death? Those fears amplify the pain, but when meditating I only felt the actual pain. I wasn’t sure that reducing pain would really help though so I didn’t do it that much. The only thing I could do was try to generate heat and tell Ryan anything I could think of that could help. I wiggled my toes as much as I could and continued to breath hard, I seemed to get colder if I stopped doing that. Occasionally I would just scream as loud as I could, it seemed to help me stay warm. At one point I thought I was going to shit myself, at another point I thought I would vomit, luckily neither of these things happened.
I’d ask Ryan “What if they never come?” To which he said “then I’ll make a sled out of your skis and drag you out of here myself.” I don’t know if that would really have been possible, but I knew Ryan really had my back and wouldn’t give up. Ryan would say “They said they are close” and I would say “that is what they said 2 hours ago”. Then he would say “true”. I appreciated that he wouldn’t lie to me and give me false hope because there was still real hope. Since they were close, he was asked to go down to meet the rescue people to help them find me. Here I lay by myself. I don’t know how long, maybe 45 minutes. During this time, I thought I could die, I was so cold. I thought about how my mother had died of cancer, how her pain was probably greater than mine and for longer and with less hope, I felt maybe I could relate to that experience better now. She breathed faster than I was and was strong. I thought about people I know who’ve had terrible injuries and recovered well, they gave me strength too.
Occasionally I would lift my head to check to make sure the jacket hadn’t blown off of me again. I had nothing to do but wait. I thought that maybe they weren’t coming and that I might have to try to get down the mountain myself. But I couldn’t move my legs no matter how hard I tried. I could move my arms but it was so painful to attempt to move my torso. It seemed like a bad idea to start sliding down the mountain because even if I could, I would likely freeze faster once I stop being able to slide. I thought how if were going to get out without help we should have started immediately and maybe we were told the wrong thing. But I didn’t really think it would have been possible to get ourselves out. I stopped thinking about that because it was pointless, only what we do/can do now matters. I would irrationally yell “Ryan,” not that it would do any good, Ryan already knew where I was and was on a logical mission. So then I would try to be rational and yell something helpful to a stranger, “I’m up here.” It didn’t really matter what I did. What I went through was hard but I didn’t have a choice. What Ryan and all the rescuers went through was hard and they did have choices, lots of them and they had to make the right ones. I am very grateful for them.
Ryan got back to me first carrying a big bivy type bag and a pad that he got from the rescuers. But it was impossible for him to get me in it and on the pad alone. He got my halfway in and on. It was about the same level of warmness since the previous setup of snow walls had to be destroyed to prepare for the litter (I suggested he take it down so they could roll me when they arrive). We waited for a while and the rescuers were still very far. Ryan went down to help them carry up the litter. The litter was very heavy and it is amazing they got it up the hill. There were 3 of them and Ryan helping.
It is kind of weird being rescued. I’d read a great article about RMR before and I knew they prefer to not have emotional attachment to their subjects, they don’t need the distraction, they are trained to do what is best and don’t need feelings getting in their way during a rescue. I tried to respect that. The initial 3 are part of Alpine Rescue Team (see the take away for more about them). I don’t remember their names, but I listened to them work. I am very grateful for their effort and experience.
They got the litter next to me, then they had to remove the pad and bivy to prepare them. It was sunset and although I was freezing I still found beauty in it, the sky was so orange with a mixture of random light clouds and no higher peaks to the east. I was at my coldest point and it got even colder, it seemed like minutes passed being totally exposed. But there were 4 people doing the job of what is normally 16. They rolled me onto the litter and got me covered. I was so happy. I had fantasized about this moment. I thought about how if this thing slid down the mountain out of control, I would be dead, not because it would kill me but just I couldn’t take another injury and cold exposure at this point. But I trusted them to get me down safely (I also had no choice). They belayed me down with a 40 ft rope several times, making anchors out of people and ice axes, I’m not really sure as I could only hear and imagine.
It was totally dark now, and we were on flatter ground. They even had to pull me uphill over snow drifts some. I don’t remember exactly all the stages of the rescue but gradually more people arrived and helped. I was transferred to different carrying things at least once I think. Soon I would guess there were 15 people helping. One person, who was originally from France, would talk to me to just keep me calm. I was starting to warm up. They told me to calm my breathing and I did. I was still in excruciating hip flexor pain, it was probably the worst right now. I was a pro at this point in being helpless and asking for what I needed and what was hurting. There wasn’t too much to say though. Hopefully I was the right level of neediness. We got to an ATV type thing on the road where it was as far as it could go. But it was too small to carry a body so we waited for a larger one. I was transferred to a really comfortable stretcher type thing, it felt like memory foam. I kept telling them about how cold my feet were. We agreed to take off my ski boots. They put on a down jacket around them, followed by a heat blanket, and more down jackets. It still felt cold though. I got loaded into the big ATV and to my dismay my feet would still be on the outside of the enclosure. It would be about 8 miles till the ambulance taking about an hour.
Casey was in the ATV with me and I told him I could feel wind on my feet still. I was probably being annoying with how much warmth I wanted here. At this point I knew I’d live but I didn’t know if I’d be able to move my toes, and that became my next priority. I love to run and I wouldn’t want to lose that. Casey asked the ATV driver to stop. He went out and took off my wet socks and rewrapped my feet. I thought I could still feel cold wind when the vehicle moved, but Casey assured me it was impossible. I just kept trying to move my toes over and over.
The ride was crazy. At one point it felt like we were sidehilling steeper than 45 degrees, I don’t know how it didn’t tip over. At another point it got stuck going up a steep hill. The driver, Big John, got out and shoveled snow for a bit. Then got back in and got out. Apparently it took 5 hours to get ATVs down this road because they had to do lots of shoveling to make it passable.
Now I was transferred to an ambulance stretcher and loaded into the ambulance ran by Gilpin County EMS. I was really happy. My torso was warm at this point. I became really talkative with the guy with me. I feel really bad for not remembering his name, but I was given some painkillers so I’ll use that as an excuse. When we were in Blackhawk we had cell reception again, and he let me call my Dad again on his phone. I told him to go to St. Anthony’s Hospital, and he said he was there already. I told him to get Jess’ phone number from Ryan and tell her too and he said she was already there too. It was kind of mind blowing. It made me happy knowing they would be there when I got there. I really wanted to see them. During the 1 hour ambulance ride my body regained heat inch by inch down my legs, by the time we got there my feet didn’t feel cold anymore, but I wasn’t sure I could actually feel my toes still.
We arrived at about 10:45pm. I was so happy and warm. I felt like a million bucks
I know I may not look like it though… (me seeing my Dad, Jess, Uncle Barth and Aunt Dani). “Happiness = reality – expectations” (Mo Gawdat)
I got treated very quickly and all sorts of tests done on me very quickly. Once they deemed I was actually ok things seemed to slow down as there were more urgent things for them to worry about. X-rays showed I had 3 broken ribs and tibial plateau. Brain scan said I was normal, something I’ve always aspired to. They gave me Valuum, Flexirol and Tylenol. This seemed to finally solve the hip flexor pain. We got a room around 3am and got to sleep. Jess stayed with me. The next day Jess helped me to the bathroom (I alternated rotating between heel and toe on my left foot to move). I successfully took a crap in a toilet, my last fear was alleviated. Later they told me not to leave the bed again without calling for help. I got lessons on crutches. They are kind of difficult because of the ribs, but doable, hardest part is getting up.
Obviously lots of things happened here, but it is all boring compared to the rest of the story so I’ll keep it short. There were so many different specialist, they were all very kind. Time flew by, it was nice seeing my Dad, Jess, my Aunt, Uncle, and boss come visit. They are all very kind to give up their time for me.
I almost felt guilty with how happy I was. It was so much better than yesterday. It really sucks to be helpless, in pain, and scared with nothing to do but wait. Now I didn’t have any of that. I stayed another day in the hospital as they wanted to analyze my knee more for potential surgery. MRI showed that I do have two messed up ligaments too, but they said they should heal in the same timeframe as the fracture. So I’ll be on crutches 6-8 weeks and hopefully it heals right. When I tell people that, they think that sucks, but compared to what I expected when I first went flying over rocks, this is a very good outcome. I’m very lucky (aside from falling the first place obviously).
My Dad drove me home the next day. Getting up the 45 steps to his front door was a worthy challenge. I had to take a break half way up on a bench. I wasn’t wearing a jacket and I started to shiver, something that normally would be so uncomfortable, but now just felt like a reminder and minor temporary inconvenience.
The next day I teared whenever I thought about how lucky I am to be alive from kindness of others. I was still very happy, but knew that I may get bored and grumpy over the next two months, hopefully I don’t forget what I’ve learned.
Takeaways (some ski specific, some for everyone)
I probably could have told you all of these before the accident, but knowing them and following them are different things. Follow them. Obviously tailor it to the risk of what you are doing. But if what you are doing is risky do all of these things. I’d say I know a lot of people that do outdoor things and I participate in similar things to my friends, and that about a quarter to a third of them have had serious accidents in their lifetime, so it would have been reasonable to deduce that what I do is equally as risky and I had about that level of chance of something bad happening in my lifetime. This chance is probably too high and we just think we are safer than our friends (I know I scramble slower than my friends on new terrain and therefore concluded I am safer than them, but that probably isn’t true).
Also this list isn’t an exhaustive guide to safety, just things that were relevant in this accident alone.
Alpine Rescue Team and Rocky Mountain Rescue are awesome, consider donating
Also Corsar card (Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card) which to contributes to Colorado’s Search and Rescue fund.
These groups are 100% volunteer but do need money for buying gear which is used for training and rescues.
These guys dedicate a lot of time to train, I previously ruled out joining because I didn’t think I could give up a weekend day every weekend to do something not fun (now I see how it could be fun and rewarding). They are definitely a worthy cause to donate to, they shouldn’t have to give their own money to buy rescue equipment in addition to their time. They make a real difference, I experienced it. Hopefully you won’t have to but please take my word for it, they do.
All group members practice what to do in emergencies
As an example Ryan was able to give GPS coordinates to the 911 operator. If the tables were turned I could have done this too using the compass app on my phone, but I had not opened that app in years to confirm it still has that functionality so I would have been relying on luck. You don’t want to be doing things for the first time in an emergency situation. Practice, don’t go with people that don’t practice.
You aren’t hurting only yourself
What I went through sucked, but it sucked for anyone who cared about me, and anyone who worked to rescue me, and it could have been much worse. It just isn’t fair to them, take this into consideration when assessing if a risk is worth it. Take a second to think about how many people actually care about you (it will be more than you realized). Think of each individual person specifically in each group (friends, family, coworkers, activity partners, other groups you are part of).
Helmet and goggles
No brainer. A book I was reading in the hospital “The Crack Climber’s Technique Manual: Jamming with Finesse” has hundreds of pictures, but not a single one of them have helmets on. This is just stupid. Frankly I don’t think skipping a helmet should be glamorized. Hopefully your brain is your most prized possession too. I say goggles too because I think I did have an impact on the front of my face based on a gash above my eye. Goggles would also help more than sunglasses with trees/etc.
Get a GPS based emergency signal system if you are going to be doing something risky in an area without cell reception (you can borrow one or lend it to your friends too). They are cheap compared to your life. We just got lucky here, there is very little cell reception in the area. Imagine how much worse we would have been if Ryan had to ski and then drive to a point to get help. It could have added >2 hours and I would have been alone for so long.
Go with a partner
Duh (but I’ve violated this before). This is more important the more remote you go.
Think about what you would need to survive overnight. We didn’t have enough warmth to survive overnight, I was just lucky we didn’t need to. It wouldn’t take much space / weight to have one person carry a bivy (I’m not an expert here, there may be better options). You don’t need to survive comfortably you just need to survive, this is just for emergencies.
Don’t make mistakes and show off
If you don’t make mistakes you won’t get hurt (as much). It is certainly possible to be more focussed and in the moment than what I was doing. Just be careful and present.
Have good gear
It is possible that my skis contributed to my fall. I never liked how they skied and their binding position. I will now junk them and use them to practice repairing a dislodged binding screw, incase that ever happens and gets me stranded.
Identify unknown risks and acknowledge unknown unknowns
Basically think about what could go wrong and estimate how much you don’t know about what could go wrong and adjust accordingly. Skiing is fairly unpredictable. I was inexperienced in breakable crust. I didn’t think about how this unfamiliar condition could cause me to fall in a way that is different from most ski falls (forwards versus backwards).
Backcountry skiing not equal resort skiing
Breakable crust is a condition you will never find in the resort because it would require people to not ski powder for a while and they would probably close that area anyway if it did. You also have crappier skis and are further from rescue, and probably a bit rusty because you aren’t doing many runs.
We all owe our lives to others
The only takeaway that I hadn’t thought about. It is obvious that I am now alive due to the good nature of many strangers (and Ryan). This is very humbling, and I will never be the same. But no one is an exception here and everyone can learn from this. The most obvious proof is we all came from our parents and their care or someone else’s care if adopted. Many people do things for reasons greater than themselves and those actions affect us in ways we may not even think about too. For example any good thing I now do or children I have can also be credited to the good nature of the rescuers as it wouldn’t have been possible otherwise. I think most of us think we are independent and don’t need anyone to take care of us, maybe this is true, but it hasn’t always been true for you. Please think about this and allow yourself to be humbled and inspired.