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Rescue 5.11

The climber driving the ambulance was only trying to help the climber who had fallen on his head.

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The climber fell at about noon, 25 feet, while off route on Chair Peak in the North Cascades. He landed on his head on a ledge, then bounced down some more little ledges until stopped by the rope. The belayer had only gotten one cam in the rotten rock, and with shredded nerves, the two hung where they were, afraid to move for the rest of that day and into the night.

As a member of Seattle Mountain Rescue, I heard about the accident on my pager at about midnight. I also knew that I wasn’t going. I was an EMT in Seattle, driving an ambulance around to pick up old people with broken hips, belligerent homeless persons, and whiplash victims of parking-lot fender benders, and I had to be to work at 4:45 a.m.

The workday, as usual, was interminably busy. My partner and I picked up a kid who thought he was a hobbit after smoking cigarettes dipped in PCP, and we administered a Band-Aid to a man who thought he’d cut his thumb off in a home-remodeling accident but couldn’t bring himself to look down and check. By lunchtime we were, as always, thinking teriyaki.

I was using a new training routine at the time. It involved working 14 hours a day, eating only takeout, and bouldering on the ambulance ceiling: starting through the back doors and working my way along the ceiling using the handrails, then going through the tiny window in the back of the cab, and out the driver’s-side window. I thought it was hard, especially while wearing the shiny dress shoes required of my job. My partner, Al, said it was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen. This came from a guy who barbequed his own chicken at work on a hibachi he bungee-corded to the light bar—until the day a motorist called 911 to report a flaming ambulance headed down Rainier Avenue.

We were headed toward Teriyaki Madness for the Yummy Combo #6 Special with Egg Roll and Gyoza when I got a page that a Blackhawk helicopter had finally been able to pick up the two climbers. It was a relief to know that the rescue was cut short, instead of everyone laboriously litter-carrying out the injured man. I was also glad because the rescue entailed a bunch of my friends getting called to an all-night impromptu climbing and bonding experience, and afterwards going out to El Caporal for Mexican food, or at least Denny’s, depending on what was still open, and I didn’t like missing out any more than I had to.

I was also relieved that this rescue actually involved retrieving living people. There had been a string of fatalities lately. The last time our rescue team had been called to Chair Peak was for a soloist who’d pinwheeled down 600 feet of chossy rock face. There had been hikers with heart attacks, snowshoers in avalanches, skiers in avalanches—and a man wearing a pink bunny suit who jumped 270 feet over Snoqualmie falls, and who, during the retrieval, had to be raised back up to a scenic viewing platform visited by 1.2 million people a year.

But this was a live one. Great for everyone.
Then, on our way to teriyaki, Al and I got a call on our ambulance radio to go the regional trauma hospital’s helipad to pick up the patient from the Blackhawk.

The helipad is squeezed in behind the building, cantilevered over 1-5, while the E.R. is, sensibly, in the front. Our job was to drive the ambulance to the helipad on the back side of the building, then drive the guy around to the front. But knowing that this man’s story involved spending the previous night with many of my friends on a peak I had climbed many times, I planned to use those few minutes to interrogate.

The flight crew delivered the climbers into my ambulance, and they looked generally disheveled but not too bad off. No blood spurting or anything like that. The leader, despite falling on his head and hanging in his harness all night, had sustained, as far as I could tell, only a broken leg. I took his blood pressure and asked him to rate his pain on a scale of 1 to 10, but he wouldn’t tell me what caused the accident beyond, “We were really stupid.”
Well, let the person judge who has never done something stupid—like skiing in only a prom dress in icy conditions, or forgetting that the rappel needs two ropes, or had your foot slip from the ambulance’s ceiling rail and slam onto your own gurney, prompting your partner to scream “Stupid idiot!” while waving a BBQ fork in the air.

This climber seemed very nice, and climbing is a brotherhood and it’s up to us to look out for each other, and help each other in times of crisis, no matter what stupid things we do. So as we rounded the north side of the hospital I grew concerned, because the charge nurse was likely to rule the severity of his potential injuries as worse than I did—because I know, as all climbers know, that the human body can survive a lot more than most people think—and decide that he needed the full workup in Resus 1. That tended to involve a lot of people doing invasive things without asking, like sticking six-inch long needles in his groin. And nobody wants that.
I told the climber to sound as perky as possible. “Smile at the charge nurse and compliment her somehow,” I said, but it didn’t matter. A protocol applied to people arriving by helicopter, and the patient ended up in Resus 1.

As an EMT, I have carte blanch to watch what happens to my patients. And sometimes I am interested or feel obligated enough to stay for a few minutes, to witness the next chapter in the story of the worst day, or the last day, or just a normal day in one of my patients’ lives. So I watched, standing off to the side. After a minute or two a nurse friend of mine who was thinking about taking a climbing class passed by the door. She saw me and waved, and I beckoned her over to show her what kind of boots to get.

I watched the trauma team cut off the guy’s new-looking Arc’Teryx shell and pants. I watched as they cut off his plastic boots with enormous cutters instead of just undoing the laces. As they cut off his harness, still with most of his rack on it, I looked at the cams on the floor, wondering if they would make it into an orange plastic bag with his name on it or be swept up by the pink-clad cleaning team with their mops and buckets and trash cans. They are very thorough.

My friend the nurse watched with interest as his layers of clothing came off to see what else to buy. Someone on the trauma team took his temperature, and everyone was surprised that it was normal considering he’d spent the night exposed in the mountains. Now, as he lay naked and unable to see us because of the backboard and C-collar, my friend the nurse yelled over the doctors and nurses surrounding him, meaning to compliment him on the quality of his gear.

“Nice equipment!” she hollered.

The climber, knowing no context whatsoever for this comment beyond that he was naked on a table in front of a crowd, yelled back, “Thanks!”

The nurse turned pink, realizing what she’d said. She closed her eyes. “Stupid,” she muttered.

So, we’re all in it together. I’m a climber, and even though I didn’t know him, he was a climber, and he’d had a bad day. I tried to make his experience better, though ultimately only made it worse—or, at least, more embarrassing. But I did grab his rack off the floor, and return it to his partner.

Bree Loewen is the author of Pickets and Dead Men: Seasons on Rainier. She lives in Carnation, Washington.