On April 11, 2015, my wife Heather and I were in the middle of enjoying our vacation to Las Vegas when we decided to leave the bright lights of the Miracle Mile to take in the sights of nature with a pair of day trips to Red Rock Canyon and Death Valley National Park.
Heather had chosen Vegas for the site of her 40th birthday, but I was looking forward to the things that were outside the city. Oh, don’t get me wrong. If I could have played a slot and won millions (donating a share of it to the good folks at KTA), I would have been more than willing to. Nevertheless, what I really had on my mind was a pair of slot canyons. Mosaic Canyon was at Death Valley. Ice Box Canyon was at Red Rock Canyon.
Those were my gold.
Our day to travel to these parks began uneventfully enough. We drove through Las Vegas and headed out into the desert. It’s amazing how much nothing is actually all around the “everything” that Las Vegas is made up of. When you fly into Vegas at night, you see this. There is literally a line of lights that marks the beginning of the city. Beyond that, there is a sea of darkness. Eventually, you touch down on the runway and get a glimpse of all of the hotels, casinos, and pomp and circumstance. It’s like Broadway on steroids.
From the ground, it’s easy to see that the outskirts of Vegas is housing developments and strip malls, but eventually, they end and with them comes the wide open lines of road, which lead to destinations here and there amongst the cactus. Some of these places are divided by longer distances than others, and all of these journeys seem to take forever when there’s nothing to see. Nevertheless, the drive to Red Rock Canyon lets you know you’re at least getting closer to something meaningful up ahead with images of bicycles and runners moving athletically in their fluorescent green attire until you finally get there, and wham! It’s the visitor center / restrooms / scenic loop area that let you know that you’re at the starting point of an “adventure.”
I was surprised at Red Rock Canyon. I had been anticipating the journey to Death Valley ever since I realized all of what was there. In fact, I was ready to abandon Red Rock to the “we don’t need to stop there unless we have time” pile, but my wife determined that this was where we were going to start our day, so I followed the advice of “happy wife, happy life,” and went with it.
As we drove into the park, the loop offered some really beautiful views of some craggy forms, and since it wasn’t too hot, it was a great morning to be out and about. Exercise enthusiasts filled every parking area to include one where several guys were jumping rope. Nevertheless, for all the pictures we took, and there were some nice ones to take (without Kodak Picture Moment signs telling us just where to shoot), it was about getting around to the entrance to Ice Box Canyon as opposed to anything else other than taking pictures of cactus blossoms and listening to the signs that said, “Don’t hit the tortoises.”
And yes, we did take those pictures and we didn’t hit those turtles.
Driving around windy roads, we got to the parking area, and we found that it was already full. It was only 10am, and we were parking on the side of the road! Man, this must be some place to visit.
“Oh well,” I thought, as I pulled over, and got out, divvying out the giant cold water bottles for our hike that the ranger told us was 2.5 miles round trip.
Now, I can’t be sure if she was wrong with her mileage or we expressed our final destination incorrectly, but it turned out that the waterfall we were heading to was 2.6 miles away, by the numbers on the sign we encountered in the canyon. Perhaps it was the wilderness sign that was that far into the walk. All things considered, the recalculated distance of 5 miles isn’t a long journey, and while the beginning was in exposed sunlight, the further along we went, the more shadows we had coming down on us. That was OK by me.
By the time we got properly into the canyon, Heather was feeling run down. She had been sick 2 days before, but as we were in Vegas for the first time in our 4 decades of existence, she was all about sticking it out. I kept asking if she was OK to go (like Jodie Foster in Contact), and she always responded “yes,” but it was clear to see we were moving at a slower pace than our fellow hikers were going. This was our second warning sign that the simple trek was going to be something more like an endeavor, but we soldiered on because when it’s fun, you just ignore the fates.
It’s what we do.
The third sign of doom was that we heard a huge boulder thud down. At first, I thought it was from the cliffs on the sides of us. Climbers were already on the walls, so who knew what was to come. Fortunately, it was from the top of a gully, and nobody was hit. Unfortunately, this woman who was walking the trail’s husband had barely escaped getting hit and now she was visibly flustered, reflecting how they should have put a sign up to state that there were loose rocks.
I’m not sure who they was, but I’m sure it was a magical omnipotent and omniscient park ranger combination of Barack Obama, the ghost of Edward Abbey, and Smokey the Bear.
In her defense, the rock was much bigger than a bowling ball, but still, I muttered something to myself about “legislating the wilderness,” and we went off again, balancing on boulders and rocks and ascending through bushes and make shift stairs until it looked really rough ahead.
Hikers wandered past us. I would ask them how far it was to go, not out of exhaustion, but out of curiosity because I’m a terrible judge of distance. I also asked if the waterfall was running, and to this, I got a definitive “no, but the pool above it is nice and cool.”
Knowing there wasn’t a roaring falls to see for our effort, I looked at Heather and asked, “Are you sure you’re OK? Do you want to turn around?”
Canyon was canyon. A waterfall was different. If we weren’t going to get that, why progress other than “we came this far? Why stop now?”
She looked back at the husband she thinks is much more complete-ist and adventurous than he knows he is, and said, “No. I’ll wait here. It’s not far. You can tell me if it’s worth going to.”
I really was prepared to turn around because the waterfall was a trickle (a wet stripe, nothing more), but her encouragement and the short distance said, “Go forward, young man.”
When I got to the area, it was a lot more boulders and piles of debris, but I got up the smooth rock and through to the back and took my pictures. From there, I was proud of myself for skirting a steep edge to get back to the wet stripe of a waterfall, but smartly, I decided not to climb up to the second falls because I didn’t want to slide back down the 60° incline.
When I got back to the area beneath the boulder pile, Heather was there asking if it was OK for her to go up. I thought for sure she would sit comfortably and wait for me, but the Ohio in her said “tough it out woman!” Here she was, no longer tired, and ready to go, having just completed the piles of boulders that it took to get back to this corner.
To know Heather is to know that this was the woman who did the 35foot rappel at Sand Run Falls (and I didn’t). This was the woman who made it to the actual ice cave at Sheldon Reynolds in Ricketts Glen (and I didn’t). Who was I to tell her no? Between us, we weren’t in athletic shape, but we knew we could push ourselves as far as we had to. We had confidence in our feet. We could prop up trees along the way. We weren’t in a race. We were here for the moment and the pictures and the stories and the experience. We knew how to be safe (for the most part). Onward and upward.
And so I waited for her as she went up. I drank my water, took a picture of myself, and paced around for a few minutes. Then, I saw her come back, eventually calling to me from the right side about how to get down from the rock she was on. I re-ascended and went back to where she was. I hadn’t come down this way, but I figured it out. It wasn’t high at all. We had jumped off walls twice this high as little kids. Surely, she could do it.
Her feet were 5 feet up above the ground, but she was able to dangle them to about 3 feet above the ground. From there, I was able to guide one of her feet into a little nook. When that was done, I offered to move the other one, but she was scared to come down that way. That fear was something real and palpable, but I dismissed it with the feeling that she could do this. I would have done this, and I’m afraid of heights, I thought.
With that, I then offered to catch her when she came off, but she shooed me away and began to slide down into position to burst into the space between above and below.
Between motion and stopping, there is a million light years. There is her telling me that I should keep going forward at Ludlowville Falls as the snow I was sinking into could be forded, and I would regret not going back under the falls and so I slowly and safely did. There is her fear of not having landmarks to get into and back from the open desert that was the Bisti Badlands of New Mexico, which caused me to stop the 2010 trip to these alien hoodoos without hesitation. There is “to cherish and protect.” There is “don’t think; it can only hurt the ball club.” There is fear, and there is the ignorance of “nothing is going to happen. You’ll be OK.”
And there is movement again, and with that, she is collapsed on the ground in pain, swearing it away as something has went wrong.
As a husband, there is something crawling inside me that says, “What have you done? What should you have done? How do you make up for this after you get her out of this?”
The thought was there, but I didn’t want to think about it, but thinking about it was what I would be doing now that “something real” was here.
My thoughts were distracted as she looked at me, and just like that, she stated, “I heard a pop.”
“I didn’t,” I said, focusing on the bright side, which is all just magical thinking because something is wrong. I’ve been there when she over-abused her legs coming down from Glen Onoko’s mountaintop. This is more than that.
Wincing through the pain in that tough way she has, Heather replied, “Give me a minute to get it together.”
In a few minutes, we tried to stand her up, but she could bear no weight on the right leg.
“I’m going to go get help.”
I knew that no matter what happened, I couldn’t get her out myself. I might be able to figure out some of the ins and outs, but we were 8 feet down a rock pile, which needed to be descended 12 feet to get back to piles of other rocks and drops. I needed people.
I walked back up to the waterfall and looked around for big tough dudes to help. I quickly found one with his wife.
“Hi. I need to ask you a weird question, but my wife injured her leg, and I was wondering if you could help me get her out of the canyon?
“Yes, I can. I’m a search and rescue trainer, and my wife is an RN. What’s exactly going on with her?
I told him the story as best as I could. They came and looked her over, knowing that they couldn’t confirm diagnosis, but they could assess for the feel of breaks and other injuries. Heather was in good spirits, and she responded well to the fact that it was easier to get her out walking than by stretcher. She knew it was going to be tough, but she was prepared to do it.
First, though, she needed a splint.
The guy took charge instantly, and with people coming to aid in this process, we were gathering gear such as a web belt. I was finding sticks, and a girl immediately came into the area and offered her shirt for ties.
“I’m OK. I can just give her my socks,” I said, even taking off my socks for the task.
“You can have my shirt. It’s old, and I don’t need it.”
Eventually, after going around a couple of times, we relented, and she stripped down to a jogging bra. Being married, I didn’t look, but I’m sure others didn’t feel shy about it. She was young and in shape and she had become one of the trail angels on that journey. With that, we had our ties for the splint, and she was off to go and get help and possibly a husband.
Theoretically, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.
The humor of that thought shouldn’t escape the situation. To get out of trouble, it’s important to “be here now,” but it’s also important to reaffirm with positivity. It’s important to keep things light with humor. The fact that my wife had a strange woman take her clothes off for my wife in Vegas became a light-hearted moment that filled us with laughter over and over again in the hours and weeks to come.
Besides, it was better than thinking about whether or not we could take an object at rest and put it in motion to get out of the quicksand that this event could be.
And so with a brace tied on, it was time to move, but moving was slow. It involved retying the sticks a lot, but eventually, Heather took step after step, and in going up and over the pile, she was down.
We have the pictures to prove it.
The initial half hour or so of the journey was probably about 50-100 feet up and over that pile, but she did it. I was never prouder of any person than I was of my wife and her 2 trail angels on search and rescue.
The other people, the husband and wife, Don and Theresa Lester, were clearly in charge. Whatever they needed we were going to do for them. I stepped back as their assistant to whatever they needed, scouting up ahead for clear paths, moving downed branches out of the way, and helping Heather get through. Where possible, I would take one side while one of them took the other side.
Other people helped, too. There were cold packs, water, food, and ibuprofen. There were more people going for assistance to call in the rescue teams. Nevertheless, nobody came back. It was all moving forward. There were offers of help out of AMR trained individuals, military people, backwoodsy people, and people who just wanted to help but weren’t sure how.
There were also looks as if to say, “Wow. That’s serious.”
The 4 of us nodded back. It was serious. Heather and I have had those looks for others, and now we saw them being given to us. I know Don and Theresa saw them before, but this was my first time on the other side. I saw a Ricketts Glen in autumn victim rescued with stretchers. I walked countless miles of a day with blisters that were getting worse and worse, but I never did anything with a gimp leg.
Oh, I had heard of how through-hiker Lakeland prayed for salvation on the AT, just south of Katahdin when his knee gave him trouble (and he got it, finishing up the 5,500 miles of the Eastern Continental Trail with no more “real” issues for the last 2,000 miles), but other than tales of Aron Ralston in book, documentary, and movie (and stories like it), I never knew someone who went through it.
They say that you don’t know your limits until you’ve exceeded them. Well, that day was short of my wife’s limits because she went up and down, over and across, and through the heat and boulders to get 2 miles in 5.5 hours until the Clark County Fire Department and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police arrived on the scene.
To do it, she learned to swing her right leg in ballet motion twirling around in some Nutcracker Suite in the canyon. She kept her wits. She smiled, and she fought back the tears, and somewhere, a mile or so out, after we were brought a stretcher by the Army guy who went back for gear, but was unable to stay to help us get her out, we were face to face with the beautiful image of the Clark County Fire Department and their smiling faces and EMT bags.
At this point, Don and Theresa went back to their vacation or what was left of it, and Heather moved another half mile or so through stage 2 of the rescue, which was getting to “oogle” at the burly and rugged Harlequin Romance guys who were helping her get back to the road, which was still far away though it seemed so much closer than when we started up behind the 12 foot rock pile. As a husband, I can’t fault her for this. She kind of earned it pushing through the 80° heat of early April in the desert.
These fire rescue guys and a gal in training were energized but calm in the face of 3 people moving a woman with a walking stick through the rocks and brush. Just a few minutes previously, Heather was talking to Don and Theresa about life and vacations, and now we were talking to the firemen about a helicopter potentially coming to rescue us. I knew a thing or 2 about helicopter rescued, having been med-evaced from a car accident almost 30 years before, and I knew they were expensive, so I enquired about paying for one of them.
If they wanted her out on that, I would agree, but a 5-figure rescue bill?
Fortunately, for us, the chopper would have been free, but we got her out before we needed it. It turns out they were unavailable for rescue due to other concerns, but an AMR ambulance was waiting in the parking lot for us as the good folks from the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department were about to join the party. They quickly extended the medical care from the firemen (a reinforced and “real” field splint) with a stretcher carry where 6 men rotated 100 yard carries with switcheroos to the other arm or to a new waiting carrier. All of these men huffed her down the hill, down a set of stairs, and up the incline to the waiting ambulance. It was precision, beauty, and workmanship.
She was safe on the litter, and she was ready to go into the ambulance to go off to Sunrise Hospital. The wait for the drive seemed to take forever, but they were getting Heather ready with an IV to rehydrate her, marveling at the field splint Don had put on (even taking pictures of what a true field rig could be)
When the ambulance started, I followed it through the park, zig zagging around slow cars and even running an “orange” light to keep pace with her to the hospital in order to make sure she was OK. The worst, it seemed, was over, and she headed off through the Vegas streets talking about Area 51 with an EMT who was riding with her.
For me, I had called my parents to tell them something happened, but it was just such an overwhelming feeling in those brief sentences that I was complicit in being there when this happened. It wasn’t that they placed this on me; I do these things well enough myself, but it was the reality of what was here. This was my wife, the love of my life, and to think that this had happened over her 40th birthday weekend celebration.
There is a form of guilt that we all feel when this happens. We know it was and wasn’t us. It was the situation. It could have happened. It might not have happened. How do we let go of this guilt while we wait for the injury to heal? That is another challenge altogether, but it’s a feeling that has filled me since that time. When we guide, we lead by example, but what if this is an example we would have lived out and have lived out in similar aspects? Is this an invitation to readjust who and what we are to ourselves and others or is this just a freak incident that needs to be shaken off?
So many thoughts…. I just needed to get back to Heather and put them to rest.
The hospital itself was pretty much a wind-down from everything that happened in the desert. They have real deal equipment in an aseptic environment. They have tons of professionals ready to take the baton from the field care unit.
And what’s more, the field care unit established triage and first aid in such a way that the only worry at the hospital was “is it broken or not?” The answer was “NO!” I whooped. Heather smiled. She put her immobilizer on, learned to walk with crutches, and guzzled some water.
The worst was over. She was safe. The vacation may not have been what we wanted it to be, but we did get a story, as we seem to with all our vacations.
What’s more, we got an understanding of just how important search and rescue, wilderness first aid, contingency plans, and emergency units are to the care of people in a park. Stuff happens. It happens quickly. It’s not fun, and it’s often painful or worse, but those trail angels saved my wife. Those medical professionals did the job they were paid to do, and they did it well.
After she got the further medical care at home for what turned out to be a “done for” ACL, a meniscus tear, and bone bruise, I wrote a ton of thank you letters expressing how thankful I am for the men and women who work hard to ensure the safety and medical care of park visitors when “stuff happens.”
In addition, I wrote a thank you for the “free” nature of said care as well, and how this is a true kindness that makes situations like ours easier to recover from for those people who get into them. I would totally understand a huge bill if we got it. I wonder now if our travel insurance would cover a helicopter rescue. That said, I am also glad that we have medical insurance that helps us in these scenarios. Nevertheless, I think about what it would have meant to be prepared for this accident and what will come with for future hikes.
All the same, without Don and Theresa, I know the exit would have been much different. They are heroic, altruistic, professionals, role models, and all the good things, and they are also humble about it. As I said, the walk down through the boulders took about 5½ hours, and they stuck it out until the last half hour when we were in the hands of on-duty professionals.
In addition, many people along the way offered assistance. I wish I knew their names since they represent all the good things that these parks offer and encourage. I should state here that I had a few first names, but many of these guys and gals were too humble to give their names. These are all things that I feel you, the reading public, should know about and celebrate because talents and assistance like this are definitely things to be thankful for.
As a hiker / hiking group member from Pennsylvania (I volunteer with Keystone Trails Association, the PA DCNR, and the Standing Stone Trail in many capacities), I see many great things that people contribute to the trails of my state, but despite what I have witnessed, I was still amazed at the compassion of all of these people to help provide backcountry first aid to her during crucial junctures so that she could be stretchered out of the final part of the canyon. In addition, we are thoroughly happy that she could be provided with timely and professional medical care to still be able to enjoy the rest of our vacation to your city. For this, I use my writing talents and platform to spread the positives of their mission to let the world know that we need more talented people to get trained, either as paid professionals or as volunteers, to take up these positions. Stuff happens to all of us, whether we’re experienced like Aron Ralston or we just have a fair bit of hiking hours like my wife and me.
I can’t state enough that her rescue wouldn’t have happened without the care that these organizations and institutions provided for her. These men and women took a situation that could have been a nightmare and turned it into a reaffirmation of the kindness and professionalism of random strangers / workers everywhere who stated repetitively that they were “just doing their job.” For that, we are incredibly humbled by what they have done for both of us in helping us in a most trying situation.
Is a story and a pile of thank you letters even enough to begin to repay this?
Don Lester works for this company - https://sierrarescue.com/ I encourage you to support companies like them in thoughts and deeds (they’re in California, so it’s hard to connect them to us other than what they do and the things that they do it for).