Mountain Rescue: Beowulf Lessons Remembered

Menacing, dangerous, and deadly are the themes surrounding green in the Old English epic poem Beowulf. Listening to J R R Tolkien’s The Hobbit on CD during our Tahoe road trip, conveyed the threatening nature of gloomy green as Bilbo and the dwarves traversed Mirkwood Forest for seemingly endless days. Literature depicts life. In the modern world it is still no light matter to embark on an apparently easy, short jaunt into the green landscaped wilderness.

One of the Dollar Lakes we hiked past

After a week spent in Lake Tahoe enjoying the people and events of a Mandeville family reunion, we started for home in Idaho later than we wanted last Tuesday. Evening approached as we reached the outskirts of Elko, NV. Todd and I pondered four more hours of driving time to reach home. The nearby wilderness highway up Lamoille Canyon, NV beckoned us with high altitudes, cool temperatures, and hikes to alpine lakes. Having camped all week at Tahoe, it was an easy matter to decide to camp one night more.

From the 5066 ft elevation in Elko, NV, one can quickly drive up to “the Road’s End Trailhead, the high point (8,800 ft (2,700 m)) of Lamoille Canyon Road, which is a National Forest Scenic Byway.” After a bite of dinner, it took us about 1 1/2 hours to hike two miles to Lamoille Lake. The reason it took so long is that we gained almost 1000’ of elevation to arrive at 9740 ft.

The slow-going had me feeling grumpy at my lack of fitness during much of the hike up. However, at some point I realized that I had been drinking lots of coffee and not enough water during our drive across Nevada. Drat! Dehydration can literally drag you down. I didn’t consider that the high elevation may have also had an adverse effect. For me, it was a mild annoyance during the hike up. Soon we would see how seriously dehydration and altitude sickness can affect a person.

Once past Dollar Lakes, we finally gained Lamoille Lake. We watched a member of another hiking party standing on a rock ten feet above its surface. He jumped and plunged into the water.

“Oh, man, that’s cold!” he yelled after resurfacing. “So not worth jumping in!”

It was well into the evening and the remaining snow on the lake shore attested to the habitually cold nighttime temperatures even in July. The cool breeze chilled our sweaty skin. None of us jumped. Soon we started the return trip to our car via the horse trail on the other side of the canyon.

Unlike the hiking trail, the stock trail has almost no trees, so it was much easier to see in the waning light. The rocky pinnacles at the head of the canyon had only one tip aglow in sunset pink behind us to the south. As we descended to the north, rocky faces at the top of the northern canyon wall where it bends toward the west were still bathed in twilight, but only for a short time. We continued on expecting to arrive at our car with the last of the light, knowing that we had a headlamp if needed.

About halfway down, Todd saw hikers below us on a switchback of the trail.

“Someone’s hurt!” Todd said and began to run down the trail.

We could see a group of hikers huddled below us. Running up to them, we found a young woman vomiting wearing only a bathing suit, a young man wearing swim trunks holding her, and two more young men similarly clad looking on.

“Altitude sickness,” one informed us, which is also known as Acute Mountain Sickness.

Todd was asking them questions:
“What can we do to help?”
“Do you have a light?”
“How much water have you got?”

No light, little water, very light clothing and two light backpacks between the four of them had Todd and I concerned. In our backpack Todd had packed:

  • rain jackets
  • water bottles
  • lighter
  • headlamp (flashlight)
  • food
  • knife
  • camera

The young woman was holding nothing down. Soon after she drank a bit of water, she would vomit it back up. Todd filled one of their bottles with the little water that was left in our own, put our remaining sandwich in their pack, and handed them our headlamp.

“Oh, Mom, God must be real,” Jessica, our daughter, said to me quietly.

“Why do you say that?” I asked, equally quiet.

“Because you and Dad care so much,” was the answer.

“We are all able to love because God first loves us,” I affirmed in her ear, imperfectly paraphrasing 1 John 4:19. And while our concern and caring for these people we had just met might not prove God’s existence to many, it strengthened my twelve-year old’s faith.

One young man hoisted the young woman in his arms across his chest and we all set off. Soon the young man was setting her down again to vomit. I turned to another of the young men and said, “She should be seen by a doctor tomorrow morning.”

“Do you think so?” he asked.

I looked at the young woman with so much skin exposed to the elements and pulled off the extra wool shirt I had tied around my waist.

“Let’s put this on her,” I said. In her limp state she wouldn’t be generating any body heat from physical exertion. The young men helped me get the shirt on her over her bathing suit top.

Todd turned to me, “I’m going to run down the trail and get on our amateur radio to call emergency services. I can also bring up some skis and we can make a stretcher.”

“Yes, do!” I responded, concerned at how listless and barely conscious the young woman was.

Why did we have skis with us in July in the Northern Hemisphere, you ask? Many pair of classic Head skis had been stored for Todd by his parents. We had picked them up during our time in Tahoe. Most of them no longer had bindings. I didn’t know what Todd would come up with to turn the 6 ft+ skis into a way to carry the sick woman, but I knew he wasn’t nicknamed MacGyver during his university days for nothing.

“She should probably go to the ER tonight,” I said to the same young man, as Todd took off running down the trail.

In hindsight, I’m amazed that I didn’t realize right away her need to be seen at the ER. How ill she was slowly dawned on me the longer I observed her. I considered the rocky trail down which the young men were carrying her and down which Todd was running. Along with praying for her well-being, I began to pray that no one else would get hurt. Additional injuries are a real possibility in a rescue situation. And I wouldn’t be carrying any of these strapping young men down the mountain!

Another young man lifted her in a fireman’s carry across his shoulders. He carried on a loud conversation with her to keep her conscious; childhood, high school, and favorite Looney Tunes characters were all discussed. I can’t remember any of her answers, most of which were grunts and a few of which were words. I mostly remember her saying, “Gonna throw up” every time they set her down and gave her a bit of water.

The men were able to hike much faster while utilizing the fireman’s carry. My children started to lag a bit behind.

“Keep up!” I admonished, not wanting to get separated from the sick woman.

Two of the young men took turns carrying her while the third held the headlamp to light the path. Several times during the switch, I took ahold of the young woman from behind and under her arms so that she would not be laid down again, and then laid her across the shoulders of the next young man to carry her.

At one stop, one of the young men with EMT training attempted to check if she could track the light with her eyes.

Why waste time to do that? I wondered.

“We need to keep going.” I said aloud. “We must get her off this mountain!”

I was to repeat those words several times more when they stopped and seemed to take too long to continue on. Then again, I wasn’t one of the ones bearing her weight. Perhaps they needed some time to gather their strength. At one point, the young men attempted to feed her.

“You need to eat something!” they said to her. And began to get some sort of food out of their packs.

“She does not need food at this point.” I said. “She needs water more than anything else.”

The young men heeded my words and gave her some more water, which she shortly vomited. But heaving up water was better than dry heaves, which is why we kept giving her sips.

My children during all this were very quiet. They were good little troupers who kept up while staying quiet and out of the way. My daughter, who had planned to accomplish the entire hike in bare feet and had managed it thus far, was now wearing shoes.

“God gave me a chance to put them on,” she stated when I remarked on her shod feet. Without complaint, she had put aside her plan so we could stay part of the rescue party.

Around this time, I saw car hazard lights blinking on and off. I knew Todd must have turned them on.

“There’s the end of the trail, guys!” I said.

During one of the transfers from one young man to another, the young woman encountered my hand with her hand.

“Who’s that?” she mumbled.

“The awesome people who are helping us,” the young man replied.

She grasped my hand and held on. I got really quick with my feet over rocks while holding her hand and following right behind the young man.

Todd came running up the trail holding some gear. He had a folding camp chair, two skis, and rope.

“Wow, you guys are fast!” he said. “I thought I would be running much further back up the mountain.”

Your chariot awaits, m’lady.

By this time it was getting truly dark. The chair was opened and the young woman placed into it. While Todd arranged the skis and lashed them to the chair, I stroked the young woman’s face. All four of the young people were in their early 20’s, at most. I am old enough to be their mother, even though our children are quite a bit younger at ages 9 and 12. And like mothers everywhere, I wanted to make all the sickness and worry go away. I couldn’t do that, so I gave what comfort I could.

We got underway again. With Todd’s phone in flashlight mode and holding it to the side and aiming it forward, I was able to light the path for Todd who was holding the rear of the skis and the young man holding the front of the skis. In this fashion, we made even faster time down the last half-mile down the trail.

On the way down, we learned that Todd hadn’t able to raise anyone on his amateur radio. As well, there was no cell phone service that extended into the wilderness canyon. However, the hikers we had seen at the lake came down the other trail while Todd was gathering gear. They agreed to call 911 once they made it into cell phone range.

Finally, we gained the parking lot. The young men set the woman across the front seat of their truck. As they breathed for a moment before loading into the truck, we reminded them to take her to straight to the hospital and if they saw an ambulance on the way, to flash their lights to flag it down.

“Yes, ma’am,” one responded.

They thanked us profusely, gave us hugs, and said “God bless you!” a few times.

“And, by the way, would you leave Ellen’s shirt at the ER when she’s done with it?” Todd asked. One ready to drive, one held the woman, the last one hopped into the bed of the truck, and they were off down the canyon.

Time for a family hug!

We had been planning to drive down the valley a ways, find a wide spot in the road, and pull open our OverCamp rooftop tent and camp for the night. Since it had gotten so late, we decided to open it right there and go to sleep.

Womp. Womp. Womp.

“Oh, they sent the helicopter,” Todd stated and closed down our OverCamp, which easily folds closed like a book.

We could also see emergency vehicle lights heading up the road. Todd again turned on our hazard lights. The helicopter flew overhead, then further up the valley over the trail. It turn toward the west around and behind a mountain. With bright lights blazing — headlights as well as red and blue flashers — a sheriff’s SUV pulled up to us.

“They left about 20 minutes ago, you must have passed them on their way to the ER,” Todd informed the deputy while filling in the details of the situation. It was difficult to be heard because of the womp, womp, womp as the helicopter approached again, much lower in altitude this time. As the helicopter lowered down to the parking asphalt about fifty feet from us, its wash blew our hair around our heads, dirt into our eyes, and a few of David’s clothes out of his backpack and across the parking lot. Both Jessica and David ran and clung to me. I moved them the few feet to our car and the bit of shelter that it gave us.

The helicopter sound changed, the rotors slowed, the wash of wind diminished, and the crew of three stepped out in their orange jump suits. We explained to them the situation that we had helped get the woman off the trail and on their way to the hospital.

“We told them to flag down the ambulance if they saw it,” we said.

“Well, there’s your ambulance,” replied the sheriff’s deputy motioning to the helicopter. “But there’s also a ground ambulance en route.”

“Good thing you turned on your emergency lights, or we’d be looking on the trails for people needing assistance,” the helicopter pilot remarked. I wondered how they could find people on the trail in the dark.

They prepared to take off again, and we all got into our car. The rotors sped up, made lots of noise, and blew lots of dirt while we waited for it to lift off. We waited, waited some more, and then the sound of the helicopter changed, and the rotors slowed down. When they were almost stopped, the crew stepped out again. Some kind of mechanical problem kept them grounded. The sheriff’s deputy drove off and the crew of two men and a woman came over to chat with us.

“How did you get her down off the trail?” they asked.

We displayed our camp chair and skis while I explained Todd’s ingenuity. The kids were tired, so Todd flipped open the OverCamp again. Only the female paramedic saw him do it.

“Did you see that?” she asked her workmates. “Hey!” she exclaimed to get their attention. “Did you see how this thing opens up?”

The men looked at this tent perched over and beyond a car and expressed astonishment. “Get some pictures!” the woman said. Of all the events that transpired that night, us impressing a helicopter crew of paramedics surprised me the most.

I have no idea how late it was by this point, but all the surrounding mountains were completely black with no discernible features and several stars could be seen in the sky. There was no moon. One of the crew came over with his helmet in hand and asked me,

“Have you ever looked through NVG?”

NV-what? I wondered. I quickly realized that he was talking about Night Vision Goggles as he put the helmet on my head and lowered the goggles to my eyes. Holy Moly!!! Where moments before there was only solid black, I could see trees and bushes in NVG-green detail!

A while after we all got into bed, we heard the helicopter get up to speed and lift off. The mechanic must have arrived and solved the mechanical problem. I wished for pom poms to cheer the brave helicopter paramedics on their way.

The next morning we awoke to the stunning beauty and refreshing coolness of Lamoille Canyon. After a quick breakfast, we struck camp and headed to the hospital to see how the young woman fared. And to see if my shirt had been left if she was already released.

Knowing only her first name, we asked after her at the front desk. No record was found of her being admitted to the hospital. We asked after her at the emergency room admitting desk. No record there of anyone by that first name.

Perhaps she has a different legal name? Or perhaps she was so sick that they transported her to Salt Lake City right away? the admitting person suggested. She gave us the phone number for dispatch where we could get information about the resolution of the emergency call.

From a dispatcher, Todd discovered that the young woman had never made it to emergency services. The night before we had given the sheriff’s deputy the description of their vehicle. The dispatcher knew that emergency vehicles had in fact passed a vehicle with the same description.

So why didn’t the young men flag down the ambulance? Or take her to the Emergency Room? My first thought was that there were illicit details about which Todd and I were ignorant. Drugs? Playing hooky from work? It didn’t quite add up. The behavior of the young men had convinced us that they truly cared about the well-being of the young woman. And while they might have been doing drugs, I couldn’t recall any evidence of it from their behavior. Possibly some illegal substance had made the young woman sick, but her symptoms and circumstances easily matched acute mountain sickness.

And then I realized that there may be a more common reason they didn’t go to the ER that night: such visits are expensive. Whatever the case, they didn’t avail themselves of the medical resources ready and willing to help their friend. We pray for her continued healing and a return to complete health: physical, spiritual, emotional and mental. May she enjoy the shirt, which is now hers, and may it remind her to pay forward the help she received.

Next time you’re heading off into the wilderness for an easy, short jaunt, consider and be prepared for the fact that you may be out there longer than anticipated and may encounter unexpected events. Because, just as in Beowulf’s day, dangers lurk in the great — green! — outdoors.