A Day to Remember

Earlier this year in the winter, the club replaced the front door at Sphinx (Burton) Hut with a new one. However, the new door had a big gap at the bottom which created various problems; for example, snow drift in, rodents getting in and living in the hut, and so on. Therefore, another mission was launched to attach a “door-shoe” to close the gap. The President asked me if I wanted to help out and I obligatorily (read: happily) agreed.

The original plan was to hike in from the Cheakamus Lake trail via Gentian Pass to find a way to the hut. When a chance presented that BC Parks might be interested in lending their canoes to us to reach the hut via paddling across Garibaldi Lake (which is a much easier and more pleasant way), we gratefully accepted their offer. The negotiation with the Park rangers took some back-and-forth effort, but we were able to finally reach an agreement to meet the rangers at their cabin by the Lake at 8am on Saturday (July 13) morning and get the canoes from them. I was very excited for the weekend because 1) I get to help the club; 2) I get to paddle on this beautiful popular lake and enjoy the surroundings from a different view, which not many people are allowed to do (ya know, just to feel special in front of those “normal” hikers who religiously pilgrim this crowded jewel); 3) And with the manpower we have, the work we need to do should be easily manageable, thus a relaxing weekend out and about.

The crew of 5 VOCers (Steph, Clemens, Julien, Piotr, and me) left on Friday (July 12) evening and arrived at the Garibaldi Lake trailhead with an almost-full upper parking lot just before midnight. We discussed about hiking up in the dark but I somehow convinced/forced a group decision to sleep for a few hours and hike up in the first light of dawn. The road up to the lake was uneventful as usual with some sighting of ranger’s machineries doing trail work – all I was thinking was how my knees would hate it on the way down these brutal switchbacks, again. We arrived at the Ranger’s Cabin by Garibaldi Lake shortly after 7am when the rangers were still having their breakfast. We ate some snacks of our own in the beautiful morning sunshine until 2 friendly park rangers came out and unlocked two canoes to us with some necessary safely lessons. We agreed to return the boats before noon time on Sunday and said goodbye to them. When we left the shore by Battleship Islands, some people around ran over and wondered how we got the boats – YES, I smiled with a sense of pride while feeling glorified – the goal of the weekend was accomplished! The paddling across the lake was as spectacular as I expected, Black Tusk on the north, Price, Table and Garibaldi to the south, Sphinx Bay/Glacier in front, and crystal clear alpine water under our paddles. We took our sweet time to enjoy the views with many photo stops, and still made it across in about 50 minutes. We easily found the hut without the need of probing and digging through 10 feet of snow. It was my first time there in the summer.

Sphinx (Burton) Hut

After soaking in the gorgeous views for a short time, we quickly started working. (By “we”, I meant mostly Julien and Piotr.) Steph brushed up the trail to the outhouse; Clemens set up his bug net and took some rest as he did not sleep well the night before; I took photos (documenting hut works is important to me for the club’s history book), and supervised all the actions while feeding snacks and fruits to the hardworking folks. Things went fairly smoothly despite we were constantly under ferocious attacks by gazillions mosquitoes. We finished the job around 2pm (earlier than planned) and it was a success. The attached door-shoe fitted great and the gap at the bottom was closed!

Piortr and Julien working on the door shoe

Satisfied with our accomplishment, we decided to head out and explore a bit of the surroundings. The objected was Guard Mountain. We left the hut shortly after 2pm, planning to make the best of the long daylight and return before dark. Soon, we met the crux of the trip: crossing the spout of glacier water to the big lake. We checked around trying to find a narrow path, hoping we could walk across to no prevail. Showing some skins was necessary. As we fully exposed our bottom parts into the cold, strong water, the relentless mosquitoes also found their chance – we crossed the creek without too much difficulty, but all with multiple bites, some close to our defensive-less private parts – damn those buggers!

Photo by Stephanie Grothe

We circumnavigated around the back (east) side of Guard Mountain while roping up to cross part of a glacier before reaching the south ridge of Guard. The view was awesome: Garibaldi Lake, Garibaldi, Table, Sphinx, Castle Tower, even Tantalus in the distance. We also saw a group of goats passing about 100m below us above Sentinel Bay. The scramble on the ridge was mostly straightforward with a few exposed Class 3 parts. All the loose rocks made the moves more difficult. We made to the (sub)summit in no time. Originally thought as the true summit, we started taking photos and soaking in the views, until Piotr set off to a bit of further exploration. Convinced the other summit block was higher, he went down into the gully between the two and studied the steep cliff on the other side. From where we were standing, it didn’t look worth the risk – the entire thing was like big loose boulders stacked together, any movement has the potential to trigger a slide. Some of the rocks were somehow perfectly balanced on a tip of edge of others – it feels like one can kick them off the mountain with the slightest push to unbalance their stance. But Piotr found a way up and were standing on top of the other summit block before we were discussing too much if we wanted to check it out. One followed, and another… I was quite content at that moment with a vantage point to take pictures of their climbs so I stayed for then, clicking the shutters on my camera for the posers. Needless to say, I followed along afterward. It was definitely Class 4 scrambling on loose boulders with one low-5 move (to me at least, as I needed to jam my forearm in a crack to get up one step). We found a summit registry and logged our story on it. (Apparently, two guys did a one-day trip, paddle-boarding across the lake and made to the top of Guard.) Since it was already 6pm, we quickly posed for some summit shots and started the way down.

Piortr going for the true summit of Guard

We discussed about how we wanted to go down the dangerous part. Rappelling was our first choice, but finding an anchor was not easy among all those loose boulders. We looked around, Piotr even went half way down to find a station, but we could not find anything we fully trusted. Therefore, the group was leaning toward scrambling down. It would be a sketchy move, but not something we had never done before – our skill sets should be able to handle it. With a few more discussions, I said: “Let’s just down climb this.” There we went, one at a time, giving plenty of space to each other. Piotr, Julien and Steph went down safely, Clemens had the rope so I left him to the last one. I carefully walked to the edge of the cliff, saw a horn shaped boulder sticking out, making a perfect handhold. I put my right hand on it, pulled a bit, it did not move so I decided to commit to it. At this moment, I was not even at the most dangerous part yet; I was going to do a left to right mini down-traverse to reach the crux. I turned around, facing in to the cliff, and shuffled my feet back a little bit. Then, as soon as I put my weight on my right hand, that rock came ajar. It was like a slow motion in movies that the microwave size rock came out of its attachment. Because my feet were already on slanted rock and my left hand was not on anything I could grab to hold myself, I immediately fell backward, into the air free falling. I hit a few ledges on the way down, with the second one being particularly painful (that was probably where the rock I pulled loose fell on me). Fortunately, I did not hit my head or back at all, so I was conscious during the entire fall. I even opened my eyes and saw the gully I was falling into, and probably because of the angle I was looking at it, it looked so steep that I had a flash thought of “oh shit – I don’t know how far I’m going down that thing”. The fall ended after an estimated 8-10 metres and I landed on all fours, facing down to the ground in the gully between the two summits. My full body was in traumatic shock and all I could do was keep breathing and trying to grasp the reality of what just happened. I could hear my teammates screaming at me, but I could not muster anything together to reply a word. After maybe a minute, I was able to feel my back and move my head a little bit; it’s then that I realized I was OK (i.e. still alive or not paralyzed). So, I yelled back with all the strength I got: “I’m OK.” Piotr and Steph quickly scrambled down to me, and did preliminary examination. I felt my spine and head were all fine and could move all extremities without any problem, and they could see my helmet did not even have a scratch (how lucky!). So we temporarily ruled out severe head or back injuries; not fully because all my body was still in severe shock which could be distractions. After about 5-10 minutes, they tried to get me up and move me out of the rock hazard zone, but I could not get up by myself – my left hip part was in extreme pain that I could not move my left leg at all. Julien came down to me as well by now, so he and Steph had to jack me up from two shoulders to a flatter terrain which was not far away but significantly further from additional rock fall hazard. At this moment, Piotr already got his cell phone out, told us he had reception, and was ready to call 911. I asked them to hold on for another 10 minutes to see what I could do then. But Piotr rejected that idea right away, saying: “Shane. Even if you can stand up and walk, you are not going through exposed Class 3 scrambles and steep snow slopes. And it’s already past 6pm, SAR takes time to get ready, we don’t have much time.” Looking back, this was one of the most critical decisions we made (and I’m thankful that Piotr made that decision). Piotr reached 911, and told the dispatcher all the information we could give them, including what happened, our location, my condition, our team’s equipment, etc. Julien and Steph started taking care of me with further examinations. Julien scrambled back up to the sub-summit where we left our packs, and retrieved food, water, first aid kit, and warm layers. Steph took off my helmet and rescanned my head and went down my spine again. She was also able to take off my harness and did further examinations on my abdominals and hip parts. Except bad skin scrape-offs and bruises everywhere, I had no severe external bleeding, and my only intolerable pain was on my left hip. So we worried about my femur but not too much about other things (i.e. not critically life-threatening). After making sure I was OK for the moment, we had to get Clemens off the summit. I was quite concerned about him because it was no small task to get down that thing after watching what just happened to me. He came down safely in style – I had to give him a shout for the mental strength. Then, Julien and Steph and Clemens tried to set up backpacks with other things to put me into a somewhat comfortable (or not too much pain) position. They also put warm layers on me and gave me water and food. Piotr stood on top to make sure he had phone reception, and watch for the SAR people or their return call. Despite what happened, the spirit was high. I was kind of blaming myself for getting the team into this situation; and also thinking I always told myself that if I ever got into a helicopter ride it’d be like this but could not believe it was actually happening… I would feel bad because I hate risking other people’s life for me. Time past quickly with all the little tasks we were doing, and we still didn’t hear back after almost 2 hours. Piotr called 911 back and got the news that the SAR helicopter was going to leave any minute. That got my hope up as I was preparing for the worst to spend the night there since the time was late and I was pretty sure they could not land the helicopter on the terrain I was at. Upon that news, Piotr and Clemens started building a better landing pad for the helicopter on the sub-summit. Steph and Julien stayed with me. The sun was setting; although the view was still beautiful, it started getting chilly. They gave all the warm layers to me and sat on both sides of me to keep me warm while they themselves started shivering. Then, we heard the helicopter coming. It started circling around Guard about 200 metres below us and kept doing that for about 15 minutes. We did our best making ourselves big and waving all the colourful materials we had but failed to get their attention. It was a frustrating moment because it is one thing to accept I needed to stay there for the night, it’s another to know they came but gave up because they couldn’t find us. After using up all our ideas and still could not get their attention, Piotr called 911 again and desperately begging them to relay the message through that we were on the summit of the mountain. (We told the dispatcher at the very beginning but apparently, from the SAR person afterwards, they did not relay that important piece of message through.) They came up and saw us right away after they heard the message on their radio, and we were relieved. They landed one rescuer on the sub-summit and Piotr led him down to me. He examined me and told me that with the limited daylight “we either to get you out here FAST, or you are staying here for the night.” I replied without any hesitation: “Get me out of here, whatever it takes.” Upon getting my consent, he took command, administering tasks and directing traffic in front of me. The helicopter dropped down the line with a spine board in a rescue bag. The SAR guy neck-casted me, immobilized my bottom part from feet to hip (you know, all those skills we learned in wilderness first aid courses). Because the difficult terrain we were on, all these were done by brute force and I just had to bite my lips through it. After bundling me up, they log-rolled me onto the spine board and wrapped me into the bag. He gave a few more instructions to my teammates before the helicopter came down to clip me in. That time, I knew I was in safe people’s hands; and started to worry about my teammates’ safety. I asked them to take whatever they could back from me because I didn’t know what they’d have to go through after I was gone. (They didn’t end up arriving back to the hut until after 2am.) It was a hasty and surreal, yet commanding, composed, and masterful 20-30 minutes. I had to tip my hat off for the SAR folks for what they do.

It looks like I had two ponytails in this picture

Photo by Stephanie Grothe

At 9:45pm, in the last glow of dusk, I said goodbye to my friends wishing them well, and was lifted into the air, dangling under the helicopter for the next 5-10 minutes. The SAR rescuer was beside me for the ride and constantly checked me to make sure I was OK. I thought about asking a favour from them to stop on top of Table for a quick photos op, but deemed I shouldn’t ask for more trouble at that moment. The helicopter dropped me off at the Rubble Creek parking lot where an ambulance was already waiting for me. After exchanging some information and allowing me to say a few thank-you to the SAR crew, I was handed over to the paramedics who took me to Squamish Hospital. Because they didn’t have CT machines at the small hospital there and could not declare my condition was stable, I was transferred to VGH at 5am on Sunday morning. After an entire morning in the ER with numerous X-Rays, CT scans, and other tests, they declared I was stable and did not need surgery on the broken pelvis, so they moved me to the trauma ward around 2:30pm. The final diagnosis was a badly fractured left pelvis and iliac crest, two fractured bones in each hand/wrist, and a minorly fractured left elbow radial head. One of the bones broken in my right hand needed a surgery; ironically, I didn’t even report that hand at the beginning because of distraction from all other worse pains. I was in the hospital for 11 days. Still, with all the lucks I could get, my head and back were perfectly fine. The full recovery (close to 100%) will take 6-8 months.

Now, the million dollar question you all ask me: what are the lessons?

There are tangible lessons I can explain:

1.) During that part of the scramble, I should probably rely on more than 1 arm (or 1.5 maximum). If that one fails, which happened, I did not have any backup safety (i.e. redundancy).

2.) Always bring your cell phone (and in addition, your radio, GPS, SPOT, etc. communication devices). Between the 5 of us, only 2 had cell phones when the accident happened. 3 of us left ours in the hut.

3.) Always bring warm layers, and enough minimal supplies to spend a night out in case you cannot go back to camp. (Headlamp should be part of your body travelling with you.) We definitely did not have enough warm layers between us – yes, we thought it was summer and we would be back before dark. With all the money we spend on good light gears to save weight, I think we can accomplish this. We always say that we need to prepare for the worst, but not many of us are actually prepared.

4.) Was there anything we could do differently? Yes, but none could eliminate the risk. One thing we could do was to set up a body belay to minimize the chance of accident to the last person. However, that time and that location, it was difficult even to find a secure belay station. Was it a correct decision to move me around while not being able to completely rule out possible head/spine injury? It would take significant amount of extra effort in much longer time if we were to neck-cast and wrap up me securely to move me around. Under the certain circumstance that I was pretty confident my head and back was OK, being able to move upper body and my head without any discomfort, and with tremendous danger of additional rock fall, I think it was a good decision – I’d go back and do the same.

5.) During a rescue effort, take the victim’s feedback into consideration, but exclude him/her from decision making. I was probably trying to keep my egos when I asked them to give me some more time to see if I could walk out of this by myself (i.e. not embarrassing myself needing others to rescue me.) It was dumb and would have put the team into more risk.

There are many intangible things that will be hard to explain or pass on to others:

This was an experience. Every experience is a learning process. Some of the feelings I simply cannot tell with words. The next time I step on the trail going up Rubble Creek switchbacks, I will know that the last time I was there, I didn’t come back the same way. When I get back to a similar situation, I may make the same decisions again, but I know my thought process will be different – this experience is part of me now. I’m not saying you need to get an experience like this to learn the lesson, I’m more saying that we can all do more reflection on those things we heard and were supposed to learn something from. Remember those accidents reports we read and analyzed? And all those survival or tragic stories we talked about over camp fire? We all felt we learned something from them, but can we put what we “learned” into practice and make them a natural part of ourselves in real scenarios?! Can we be that (or close to that) commanding, composed, and masterful like the SAR rescuers when needed?!

Last but not least, I would like to thank my teammates for taking care of me at my worst moment: I will never forget Steph hugging me trying to warm me up while she was shivering herself in the only layer she had after giving me hers; I will never forget Julien and Clemens frantically running around dangerous terrains with their big colourful flyers trying to get the attention from the SAR helicopter; I will never forget Piotr making all those key decisions and checking on me every possible minute he could… I also want to thank ALL of you who gave me moral and physical support, came to see me in the hospital, cooked for me, travelled all the way from the west side of the city to entertain me, … the list goes on. As I said many times, words cannot express my appreciation. Having you in my life makes me feel special (more special than paddling on Garibaldi Lake in front of the crowds, I promise).

Be out there and be safe!

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