Wet rock. Slipping. Rolling. Caught. Alive? I couldn’t feel my arm. It was just dangling there lifeless, wedged between my heavy backpack and a huge granite boulder. Was it still attached? 127 hours immediately flashed into my mind. I started to scream. How did this happen?
An Alaska adventure had been brewing for months between Nick and I, and it finally became a reality when we boarded a ferry in Bellingham that was Juneau bound. Little planning had gone into the trip, but things kept working out in our favor.
2 days later after an amazing trip filled with whale sightings and beautiful scenery the ferry docked in Juneau. We made a quick decision to board the ferry leaving in 15 min for Skagway where Tink was working with SAGA on the Chilkoot Trail, a scenic 33 mile epic former gold rush trail into British Columbia. The trail seemed like a must do while we were in SE Alaska and since Tink was already up there it was a great excuse to see her and to hike the trail.
Upon our arrival in Skagway, we headed straight for the trails office in hopes that there would be some permits left for the next day (they only give 50 out a day). I was our lucky day. No permits were required for the trail in September. The down side was that the train was no longer running from BC back to Skagway. That gave us a couple of options; the first was we could hitch hike back to Skagway and the second was we could hike the trail out and back. We decided to go with the later. The guy working in the office was super helpful and told us that when he did the radio check in with SAGA that evening he would let them know that we would be making our way up the trail the following day so Tink would know to expect us.
After picking up a map, we took a shuttle to the Dyea campground at the trailhead. The views from the campground were amazing, so I was anxious to get on the trail and see the scenery to come because I knew it was going to get even better.
The next morning we stashed our extra stuff (food, clothes, phone, ect) in a bear box and started our 13 mile hike in to Sheep Camp. At mile 8 we found Tink and stopped for a couple of hours to hang out with her. We tried to convince her to come with us, but unfortunately she had to stay and work so we made our way on without her.
After our night at Sheep Camp, we made our way to the golden staircase. From Sheep Camp it was 4 miles to the top of the staircase and then another 4 to Happy Camp. The trail to the staircase wasn’t bad, but the staircase itself was intense. It was neither golden nor a staircase. It was a scramble up a practically vertical boulder field. Basically the entire 3000 ft of elevation that the trail gained was in that ¼ mile.
The difficulty was totally worth it once we reached the top and got a view of BC. There were high snow capped peaks surrounding us and glacial lakes splashed across the tundra. It was breathtaking.
The hike from the top of the pass to Happy Camp was my favorite part of the trail. It was so beautiful. To make the experience even better, Nick and I decided to jump into one of the lakes. It was raining out and it was so cold, but it so worth it.
At Happy Camp, it rained hard all night, but finally by morning it started to let up. I was a little anxious as we were leaving because we were turning around and heading back down the golden staircase. I wasn’t sure how that was going to be with a pack on.
By 10:30 am we had made it the 4 miles to the top of the pass and were making our way past the warming hut to the staircase. When we were about 5 minutes away from the hut the accident happened.
The combination of slippery rocks from all of the rain the night before and my disturbed depth perception caused me to lose my footing. I slipped and rolled until my pack caught me face down in between 2 larger boulders. I was only a few feet away from my entire body smacking against the granite.
There was an immediate feeling of relief that I was alive, but then I saw my left arm dangling there with no feeling in it, shock overcame me. I started to panic. Nick, who was a few yards ahead of me, heard my calls of distress and rushed over.
I started crying and apologizing for ruining our trip. I felt horrible. He immediately tried to calm me down and I was able to pull myself together and somehow get out from where I was stuck. Nick began to examine me and it was clear that I was conscious, I hadn’t hit my head and I wasn’t bleeding, but my arm was in bad shape. Any time I moved it I could feel the bone in my upper arm move accompanied by gruesome crunching and popping. It was the most intense pain I have ever felt. My arm was unmistakably broken.
Nick helped me get my pack off and then put my arm in a sling with some of his extra clothes. He was staying completely calm and had already come up with a plan of action. He told me that he would help walk me to the warming hut, he would come back for our packs, and then hopefully there would be a radio in the hut that we could use to call for help.
It was a slow and painful walk to the hut, but thankfully we we’re too far away.
Once we were in the hut, I sat down and Nick went to go get our packs. He was only gone for about 10 minutes, but it felt like hours. Still slightly in shock from the accident, I was freaking out. All of these scenarios of something bad happening to him while he was away kept flashing through my mind and I noticed that there was no radio. I forced some crackers down in hopes that it would help calm me down and finally he returned.
Although there was no radio in the warming hut, there was a ranger cabin only a few hundred yards away, so we were hopeful that there was a radio there.
Nick went to check it out and when he returned he told me that there had been an interesting development… the cabin was locked. He told me not to worry because it was on his bucket list to break into a building and this was a great legitimate reason to do so.
A few minutes later, after he had pried the window of the ranger cabin open with a shovel, he came back with a sat phone and used it to cal for help. He was having a hard time getting through so he moved outside and then eventually lost the call. He came back in and explained the situation to me and said that he was going to go to the ranger cabin to try the radio instead. I asked him to take me with him (there was no way I was going to wait by myself) and we moved to the ranger hut.
It was a good move. There were lawn chairs and a propane heater. Nick set me up with my sleeping bag in a lawn chair next to the heater and then got on the radio and gave dispatch our information. They said that they sent a ranger from Sheep Camp up to us and he would be there shortly. Then we waited.
Nick made me tea and I ate a PB & J tortilla. I was still scared, but at least I was warm, fed, and had shelter.
We had just settled in and we heard rustling outside. It was way too soon for the ranger to be there, so I was confused as to who it could be. With a burst of cold air the door swung open and a Canadian couple walked in. The warming hut had been too cold for them so they decided to come to the ranger cabin to see if it was any better. When they walked in and felt how warm it was, they didn’t want to leave. They asked what we were doing hiding out in the cabin and we explained the situation to them. It didn’t even phase them. They brought out their lunch and went on about how they had been heli-evaced once after a car accident. It was a little awkward, but a distraction from our situation. Before they left, they did give me some extra strength Advil for the pain and assured me that the ranger coming up was “a handsome young man with a beard” who would be able to “carry me out on one shoulder.”
Only an hour and a half after they sent him, the ranger from Sheep Camp arrived. He immediately apologized because he had wanted to get on the radio and introduce himself (Kyle) and let us know he was coming rather than us hearing about the mysterious “213” heading up the mountain via radio chat. He got all of my information and made a more official sling for me and then worked on trying to get a helicopter up to the pass to get me out and .made it his mission to make sure I was as comfortable as possible.
Unfortunately, the fog was settling in even more thickly. There were helicopters from both the US side and the Canada side attempting to fly in to the pass, but the visibility wouldn’t allow for them to get too close. It even started to snow, which really made it look like we weren’t going anywhere.
By 4 pm it was clear that we were going to have to stay the night.
I was so scared about what was going to happen to my arm and being trapped in the cabin, but Kyle assured me that there were plenty of options and they would get me out the next day. Dispatch had also passed on the message that there were 2 doctors hiking the trail and they would be making their way over the pass early the next day, which was a comfort.
Since we weren’t going anywhere that night, we decided to make the best out of a bad situation. While scavenging the cupboards Kyle had found packets of Indian food and Nick had found the ingredients to make Naan bread, so we decided to make an Indian feast. Even though I was in a lot of pain, the evening ended up being really fun. Kyle was a great guy to be around and an awesome person to talk to. I was really glad that it was him that they had sent to help because he made what could have been a horrifying experience, an enjoyable one.
After eating our delicious Indian meal, I finally felt like lying down and trying to sleep. Kyle had made me a nice bed in one of the bunks in the back. It took both Nick and Kyle to help me lie down, but once I did I was so much more comfortable than when I was sitting. To put me to sleep, Nick volunteered to read my book to me (Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac). He read for a while and then got tired and was going to stop, but then Kyle volunteered to take over. They alternated reading to me until I fell asleep.
After the longest night ever with barely sleeping at all, morning finally came. I heard Kyle get up and get on the radio. The conditions for getting a helicopter in were looking good and by 8:30 they were able to land at the pass. I was getting out!
Nick packed our bags and Kyle put on my shoes (giving me a foot rub in the process). They wrapped me up in some blankets and then we made our way to the helicopter. Kyle told us that even though it wasn’t under the best circumstances, he was glad it was us he got to hang out with. He also said that if we were ever in Skagway we had a place to stay and he would take us out to dinner. It was sad saying goodbye to him.
Once I got in the helicopter, the experience from there on out was chaotic and stressful. The helicopter ride was less than fun. The fog was setting in again and the visibility was horrible. I was terrified the entire ride that we were going to crash and then when we landed I was immediately loaded in the ambulance and had no idea where I would be going. Kyle had seemed to think they would take me to Whitehorse in Canada, so I got really freaked out because Nick wasn’t in the ambulance and I didn’t know where he was or when I would see him again.
It was a short freak out because about 2 minutes later they unloaded me at the Skagway Clinic.
Right away they took X-rays. All of the paramedics from the ambulance as well as the nurses had to get a look. They were all really impressed by the break, but at that point I couldn’t look at it. The doctor, Lynne, decided that since the break was so intense I needed to see a specialist and because she was so worried about the swelling, I needed to be flow out immediately. Her reaction really freaked me out. By the way she was acting I was sure I was going to lose my arm if I didn’t get help immediately, which made the rest of the day even more stressful.
At that point, I was finally reunited with Nick. He looked at the X-rays for me and told me that it was broken in multiple pieces and then called my mom (the only number I knew was my home phone and luckily she happened to be there) and explained the situation to her. I was in no state to try and explain things to her. He did such an amazing job of calmly laying out the situation for her. The doctors were so impressed that they wanted to hire him on to make all of those kinds of calls.
Lynne then began to work on trying to get me med-evaced out. Unfortunately, no med aircrafts were leaving with the weather, so she decided we would have to fly commercially to Juneau.
The nurse dropped us off at the airport, we checked in, and the lady at the counter took our backpacks. We waited for a while and then realized that the plane had left without us. They loaded our packs and while we finished checking in the plane flew off. The next fight wasn’t for another couple of hours and at that point time we didn’t want to waste any more time. Nick flipped out on them and told them it was a medical emergency and it was not OK that they had left us. He called Lynne and she worked on another option.
In the mean time, a park service law enforcement ranger had tracked down our stuff that we had left in the bear box, so now I had my phone.
Lynne was able to charter us a helicopter and we flew out a half hour later.
Juneau was hands down the most horrible part of the experience. When we got to the hospital, they had no clue that they were suppose to be expecting me. Two different people had to get my information and then we were informed that no rooms were available so we would have to wait in the waiting room. I lost it and started to go into shock again. I was in so much pain and was under the impression that I needed to go into surgery immediately or I would suffer permanent damage in my arm and the fact that none of that mattered to them sent me over the edge. Nick tried to comfort me and then finally after waiting for about half an hour a room opened up. The nurse felt horrible for me and immediately stuck me on hardcore pain killers. It was then that the doctor came in and told us that it would be better if I went back home for surgery because it would be easier to be in a place that I could keep going back to for follow-ups. He said he had gotten a hold of my doctor in Flagstaff and I could just show up Monday morning and they would figure out what would happen next (so not true… my doctor had no idea I was coming).
After all the stress we had been through that day about getting me immediate care, they were just going to send me home and then it would be another couple of days until I would find out what they were going to do about my arm. It was a little aggravating. All I wanted was answers and I felt like I was being passed off to be someone else’s problem
After that Nick and my mom worked on getting our flights changed from the 18th to the next morning. We had booked flights a few weeks earlier from Juneau to Seattle where the plan was to pick up my car which was parked at Naomi’s apartment and since that wasn’t going to happen they were able to switch our tickets if we upgraded to first class. We decided that Nick and I would both fly to Seattle and then he would stay and pick up my car (which contained all of my personal belongings) and drive it to Portland where it would sit at my cousins apartment until we figured out a way to get it back to me and I would continue on to AZ.
That we stayed the night in this “hotel” that was attached to the hospital. I was an emotional wreck. I felt like I was being a burden on everyone and I was so mad at myself for ruining our trip and guilty that Nick had to take care of me rather than be out having adventures. Neither of us slept well that night.
The next morning Nick called a cab and we made our way to the airport. When we got there Nick made me sit while he tracked down our backpacks from the previous day and got our boarding pass. He got me a wheel chair, which I was reluctant to use, but it ended up getting us to the front of the security line.
The plan was that once we got to Seattle, during my layover, Naomi would bring me a backpack with some of my stuff in it. Unfortunately, our flight had been delayed in Juneau so there wouldn’t be time for me to get through security and back in to catch my flight. Nick was going to wait with me, but Naomi was waiting to pick him up so he couldn’t stay. I don’t think he wanted to leave me, but he couldn’t keep Naomi waiting so we had to say goodbye.
The second he left I burst into tears. How do you say goodbye to someone that you’ve spent almost every day for the past 8 months with and then are a huge part of this intense experience you’ve just gone through? I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. He had done so much for me and I couldn’t ask him to do anything else. I knew he had a life to start in Portland and I couldn’t keep him from that, but I really didn’t want him to leave me. I called my mom the second after he left to lessen the blow. While I was on the phone, Nick came back with chocolate, and that of coarse made me break down even more.
On the plane from Seattle to Phoenix I was a total wreck (I’m sure the guy sitting next to me was extremely uncomfortable). It wasn’t until I saw my parents at baggage claim that everything felt like it was going to be OK. I knew that the worst was over and I was finally able to relax. My doctors would take it from there.
Looking back at everything that happened I can’t help but think that this all happened to me for a reason. Too many things were in my favor that day and it was like I needed this to happen to push me in a certain direction or teach me something. Even though this was a traumatic experience and I did get an intense break in my humorous, there are no feelings of regret, pity, fear or anger. All I can express is gratitude because I’m alive and so many things went right- my pack caught me before my whole body smashed into the rocks, I didn’t hit my head, I broke an arm rather than a leg, we were close to shelter and a radio, NPS was still patrolling the trail (crazy enough it was their last day up there), both Nick and I had Wilderness First Aid training, and most importantly, I was with Nick. I have hiked by myself countless times and luckily this time I was with someone. What was even better was I was with someone who knew me well and knew how to respond to the situation. There were moments where I was so scared and he would make a funny face at me and make me laugh or I would be listening to the doctors and freaking out about the severity of the situation and I would look over at him and he would give me a nod that it was all going to be OK. He also took care of me. He held my wallet, insurance card, and passport, so I didn’t have to worry about anything. I can’t imagine going through this experience with out him. I don’t know what my next step is going to be after I’ve healed, but I plan on taking advantage of this down time to reflect on everything that happened to help decide which direction I want to go next. I do know that this experience won’t stop me from having more adventures and as soon as I’m able I will be back out exploring.