- May 23, 2017 at 12:32 pm #3469382
I wanted to post an account of a hiking accident I had 9 weeks ago that resulted in a broken ankle, so that others could learn from my mistakes and that I could get feedback from this community on what else I should have learned.
In the months leading up to the accident, I had been going on 8-10 mile hikes 1-2 times per week on the Appalachian Trail and similar trails as part of training for a planned Wind River trek late this summer.
On the day of the accident, I was hiking alone on a state park trail that I’ve previously hiked on pretty extensively. I had left a detailed trip plan using a hiking map with my wife, and I also knew I’d be in cell range (there is a cell tower visible from the path.)
There had been snow earlier in the week; but when I set out, the temperature at “base” altitude was about 50 degrees. This particular trail is pretty steep, rising 1000 feet in elevation in a half mile, with multiple big looping trails at the top that are more gradual. I’m carrying some extra pounds, but this was not strenuous for me given that I had done hikes like this every week for a few months.
As I got higher in elevation, the trail got muddy, and then snowy. There was a light dusting of snow (maybe 1/2″) at the top. It was also, of course, getting cooler. I was worried enough about the footing that I took off my rubber hiking pole caps because I thought the sharper carbon points would give me better traction. I also sent a text message to my wife that I was a little worried.
Given the danger I perceived, I decided to take one of the longer looping trails back down, rather than heading down the very steep portion of the trail. I decided to take a totally flat fire road that ran along the ridge to a gravel service road.
As I continued on the ridge fire road, the snow started getting deeper because the ridge was exposed on both sides (duh) and because of drifting. It was gorgeous and serene and I was really enjoying the hike. The road had some scrubby grass and I was walking where I could see the grass, thinking that the snow was shallower there. My mind wandered for a few moments, and even though I was on a road, I stepped into some sort of pothole that I could not see because it was filled with snow.
I tipped in to the left and tried to catch myself with my poles, overcorrected, and then fell in the opposite direction, and my right ankle came down hard on the edge of a rock. Even though it didn’t hurt at all, I immediately knew it was damaged (because it was in an unnatural position.) While still on the ground, I called my wife to let her know that I had fallen and to be on standby. I tried to hobble a few steps, and realized I wasn’t going to make it.
I hobbled over to an area where there was no snow on the ground, and put on all of my clothes from my backpack (I had a wool mid layer, a rain shell, hat, and gloves) in case I went into shock. I called my wife and she called 911 and gave them my cell phone #.
The emergency responders were awesome. They called me right away and I described my position which I knew very well because I was familiar with the trail and had GPS on my phone. I was on the fire road, so I thought I would be easy to find.
However, it took the emergency responders 1.5 hours to eventually get to me. The first set of responders were state park rangers who got stuck in a 4×4 pickup truck in 2-3 foot snow drifts on the fire road. The second set of responders were 10 guys from the volunteer fire department in a 1958 army jeep with tire chains. This was a big smoking beast and could plow through the snow drifts.
It took them a long time to find me because for some reason what I thought were clear directions to my location got lost in translation between the dispatcher and the responders; and they couldn’t use my GPS coordinates. When they were close, the first responders sounded some sirens and asked me to yell; I could hear the sirens but they couldn’t hear my yelling because I was in a small hollow. At this point I realized my little Osprey daypack did not have a sternum strap whistle and I kicked myself for not bringing a Fox safety whistle.
I was fortunate to be rescued quickly. I might have been in real trouble with hypothermia as later it started to rain. The first responders were exceptionally kind and professional.
So here is what I did right:
- Left trip plan with wife
- Didn’t panic after the accident
- Carried plenty of extra clothing layers
Here is what I did wrong:
- Didn’t have a whistle
- Didn’t entirely realize that conditions would get worse on the ridge road as elevation and exposure gradually increased – in hindsight, one of the lower more protected paths would have been better
- Maybe needed better shoes for conditions – I had Altra Lone Peaks – and also microspikes
- Allowed my mind to wander a bit just as the accident happened
- Maybe should have gone with the fall in the first direction rather than trying to catch myself
In the interest of improving my backpacking technique, and hopefully to promote others from learning from my accident (carry a whistle! easy), does anyone else have any other feedback? Thanks in advance.
PS: My ankle is mostly healed now. Only broke 1 of 2 ankle bones, and no pins/plates needed. I did have to cancel this summer’s Wind River trek.May 23, 2017 at 12:56 pm #3469390
Katherine .BPL Member
Sounds like you handled the situation well. All in all I’d say, sometimes injuries happen. Glad you’re mostly healed.May 23, 2017 at 12:59 pm #3469392
Thanks for sharing.
You had cell reception??? I don’t even have it at home. Good thing you were able to call for help.May 23, 2017 at 1:01 pm #3469393
Yes, I had excellent cell reception which was fortunate. It would have taken my wife many hours to realize I was missing, and many hours after that for them to find me if I hadn’t had cell reception.May 23, 2017 at 1:29 pm #3469400
Perhaps the only recommendation I would make for future such hikes is to also carry one of those emergency bivies or blankets. Would allow you to survive longer is such conditions, and give some protection from rain.May 23, 2017 at 1:49 pm #3469404
David ThomasBPL Member
@davidinkenaiLocale: North Woods. Far North.
A Spot or an InReach or an EPIRB would have sent Lat-Long coordinates to someone who knew how to use them (the central SAR dispatch center) who then, hopefully, could have conveyed that to your local responders in a useable-by-them form.
It surprises me that in this day and age, especially among SAR, that they couldn’t dial your GPS co-ordiantes right in and then translate that to whatever road/trail map they needed.
What were you sitting on? A foam pad, perhaps scavenged from your pack’s construction makes a HUGE difference on cold ground. Or, often better yet, just sit on the entire empty pack. If you did have a piece of foam, you could roll it into a megaphone for more reach as you called out to SAR.
Something else you did right was having enough charge on your cell phone. GPS and those calls to 911 take power and can go on longer than you’d think (as you found out). It seems like fully half of rescues now involve, “Then the victim’s cell-phone lost power. . . “.
So something else you did right was NOT calling all your friends and posting about your predicament on Facebook – that’s now the norm in such situations. Use only one point of contact: let them deal with the outside world while you manage your situation and conserve your phone batteries.May 23, 2017 at 1:56 pm #3469406
@idester, good point about the mylar blanket / bivy. I will bring one on all future day hikes.
@davidinkenai, I did have the presence of mind to sit on the entire empty backpack which had a minimal foam so that was another thing I did right. Regarding phone battery, I did turn off BlueTooth immediately, and the 911 dispatcher reminded me to turn on “low power settings” on the iPhone, which I did.
I do think I’ll get an inReach.
This was in a fairly rural area of WV with volunteer fire departments, but I was surprised that my exact GPS coordinates didn’t help them. I had given fairly precise directions (on a road 1 mile from a scenic overlook / parking lot) which turned out to be totally accurate but they still took quite a while to find me The rescuers had fanned out and were covering 50′ on each side of the road in abundance of caution, so it may have just taken them a while to get to me. But there was a lot of back-and-forth between me and the dispatcher about where I was. I am not criticizing them because they were wonderful and saved my bacon, but I was surprised about this.May 23, 2017 at 2:20 pm #3469411
Bob MoulderBPL Member
@bobmny10562Locale: Westchester County, NY
What format were the GPS coordinates? That might’ve been the source of confusion regarding position.
If using lat/lon the easiest format is dd.dddd I don’t know what the standard is for SAR but that would be my choice.May 23, 2017 at 2:43 pm #3469414
@jimmyjamLocale: Mid Atlantic
Glad it turned out OK. It’s fairly easy to hurt an ankle on the trail. Here’s my dumb accident:
Out for a weekend in the SNP which I do at least 6 times a year. I stopped on the trail to take a leak and have a snack. I had set my pack standing up in the trail. Just as I was bending over to pick it up, the wind blew just hard enough to topple my pack. The mountain sloped steeply off trail and my pack did one flip down hill- and then another and another. In my panic I started after my pack catching the toe of my right foot on a root and I fell off the trail, cartwheeling down the mountain, passing my pack. I somersaulted about 50 ft before landing on my side in a brush pile with a big “crack” sound.
I lay there for a minute thinking the crack was my ribs as I had pain in my rib cage. I tried spitting and no blood came up- i thought that’s good. I got up and crawled back up to the trail retrieving my pack on the way. No protruding ribs, but scrapes and a little bleeding here and there. I continued my hike and took two naproxins that night and still barely slept from the pain in my ribs. Hiked out 15 miles the next day and went home. Finally got X-rayed two weeks later and no fractures showed up.
Lesson learned: always lay your pack down in a spot so that it cannot roll over and if it does, let it come to a rest and then calmly go after it.May 23, 2017 at 2:54 pm #3469417
Thanks much for posting this – as already pointed you kept your cool and made several goo d decisions.
“What format were the GPS coordinates? That might’ve been the source of confusion regarding position.”
From a long time SAR volunteer here in the south SF Bay Area, his SAR team uses the UTM grid (WGS84) on all their devices and searches. I don’t know if they also use UTM coordinates to communicate with dispatchers and others.May 23, 2017 at 3:08 pm #3469419
Greg MihalikBPL Member
LatLong-to-UTM conversion calculators are easily found with a google search. While there might be issues with data sets, the result should get them closer than guessing.
Regarding sternum strap emergency whistles – While better than nothing, the ones I’ve tested operate at the upper end of the auditory frequencies and do not carry very far. Do some testing the next time you are out with someone.May 23, 2017 at 3:37 pm #3469421
Interesting discussion. I have always wondered about the SARS use of GPS. The ability to use GPS coordinates seems to vary widely with the various authorities performing the rescue. It seems UTM is becoming the preferred format since it is the least ambiguous. EPIRBs only use 14 bits for Lat and 15 bits for Long, so they can only report minutes to 2 places. That only narrows the search area to 1.1 km. Better than nothing, but if they would have added just on bit it could have been 10x as accurate. The international and US standard for GPS reporting is the format 45 35.25N 101 15.16W. When giving gps information verbally, this is the standard. “Three nine degrees, three six decimal zero six minutes North by seven six degrees, five one decimal four two minutes West.” Look up CGSIC for the specs. Now, whether an individual local SARS group adhere to this, I would love to hear feedback from someone who knows. So, any SARS members out there who could enlighten us on how to report our position?May 23, 2017 at 3:41 pm #3469422
Ben H.BPL Member
@bzhayesLocale: So. California
My thoughts are similar to Greg’s on the whistle. If they couldn’t here you yelling they probably wouldn’t have heard your whistle. Whistles are good for producing noise long after your voice would have gone horse.
In terms of frequency, I will say higher pitchers carry better outside and lower pitches carry better indoors. I’m an engineer and should be able to tell you why, but I haven’t the foggiest. My knowledge comes from refereeing. I referee kids hockey and soccer games and in soccer (outside) I used a higher pitched whistle than hockey (inside). I have tried switching whistles both ways and they each have noticeably less carry for the other sport.May 23, 2017 at 4:31 pm #3469430
Good points about the whistle not carrying much further than me yelling, that makes sense.
I had given them coordinates in LatLong in format dd.dddd. The 911 dispatcher didn’t seem to use the coordinates for anything but maybe he did and I just didn’t realize it. He was relaying messages between me via my cell and the SAR folks via (I think) radio. Again, not criticizing the response at all – they were awesome and highly professional, and even though I felt terribly guilty about needing to call for help they were incredibly gracious about it.May 23, 2017 at 6:16 pm #3469443
@jimmyjam, that sounds frightening. Glad your ribs were okay. It is pretty amazing how fast things can go sideways.May 23, 2017 at 6:21 pm #3469445
Kevin BabioneBPL Member
SINCE you had cell phone coverage (and knew you would) a GPS to SMS app might have really helped. It sends a link to your position on Google Maps as well as your longitude and latitude. Here’s an example of what it sends:
Cheaper than a Spot, but ONLY if you have cell phone coverage. I didn’t know such an app existed until someone posted it here a year or so ago.May 23, 2017 at 6:54 pm #3469456
Jeremy and AngelaBPL Member
@requiemLocale: Northern California
The fun thing about standards is that there are so many of them. I would expect most SAR teams in the US to be using UTM. The official standard (FEMA, US NSARC, USCG, etc.) for ground operations is USNG, which is close enough to UTM and effectively identical to MGRS. (Aircraft use degrees and decimal minutes.)
IIRC EMS dispatchers will see coordinates in decimal degrees. Asking them to pass on grid coordinates could reduce the chances of dispatchers mangling the lat/lon format.May 23, 2017 at 7:30 pm #3469465
Cole BBPL Member
@cole-bLocale: The Edge of the Linville Gorge
One skill that has served me well since I was a kid is being able to whistle loudly with my fingers. I’m not advocating leaving your real whistle at home, but it’s easy to learn and comes in handy if you lose your real whistle.May 23, 2017 at 10:41 pm #3469489
Cameron MBPL Member
@cameronm-aka-backstrokeLocale: Los Angeles
Thanks for the reminder that even simple hikes can go wrong. You were well prepared. The only suggestion I might have is to start a fire with enough green saplings to create some smoke.May 24, 2017 at 5:14 pm #3469616
@kbabione, thanks I will download that app even if I get an InReach. For $0.99, seems worth it.
@cameronm, starting a fire with saplings for smoke hadn’t occurred to me. That’s a good one. Thanks.May 24, 2017 at 5:26 pm #3469617
brian HBPL Member
@b14Locale: Siskiyou Mtns
Thanks Rick for a valuable reminder.
I am curious to ask: next time youre in an identical situation, would you consider turning around when you hit the snowline, rather than deal with the inherent added complexities, like not knowing exact depth with each step? I have waded many river miles while fishing in water too murky to know the substrate, and it can be very taxing/exhausting. The downside is a mere soaking though, when I fall in, much less dangerous than your story.May 24, 2017 at 5:47 pm #3469622
@b14, that’s a very good question and one that I’ve been pondering. The snow wasn’t that deep – less than ankle deep most of the time, with a few random 1-2 foot drifts that I could mostly avoid. But you are right that it introduced uncertainty and risk.
To be totally honest, I think two things worked against me: 1) hubris, in the sense that I have more book learning in backpacking techniques than practical experience and I think I was overconfident in my skills; and 2) it was gradually getting more dangerous so by the time I thought about turning back I was so close to my destination (the gravel road at the parking lot) that I pushed on despite the increasing danger. If I am totally honest with myself, I had a sense of foreboding that I pushed aside.
Not that this was anywhere near the gravity of the situation but these are the exact same dynamics in “Into Thin Air” by Jon Kraukhauer and I’m embarrassed to admit that having read the book in a masters degree course on how to make better decisions I still fell into the trap.
When I hit the snow line the snow was just a dusting but it was getting worse as I was going along. I was considering turning around just as the accident happened; I think more experience would have told me to turn around earlier. As it turns out, the first time I fell in dicey conditions I broke my ankle. If I had fallen before [like on a past hike] without breaking my ankle, I would have been more cautious.
I think now that I’ve had that experience (and trust me, having a broken ankle is a pain in the a$$), I wouldn’t have ventured into the snow line past the snow dusting level without spikes, and maybe not at all because it wasn’t worth it. The SAR folks were very kind and professional but I could tell they were puzzled by me being on a snowy ridge by myself in what they considered to be tennis shoes (Lone Peaks).
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.” – Vernon LawMay 25, 2017 at 11:08 am #3469740
Sam CBPL Member
It’s not so much about how far the sound of a whistle can travel but about how much the sound is “not natural”, especially when repeated in some sort of pattern. We also intuitively know that the sound of a whistle is meant to broadcast an alert and/or draw attention. That is, when you hear yelling, the human voice, from a distance you might not know if it is a call for help or if it is just someone communicating to others farther down the trail. You hear a whistle, you know something is going on.May 25, 2017 at 11:54 am #3469749
Katherine .BPL Member
speaking of reading material, you might enjoy the book Deep Survival.Aug 9, 2017 at 12:19 am #3483929
Larry De La BriandaisBPL Member
@hitechLocale: SF Bay Area
I would have been wearing boots, but there is no way I would have turned around in those conditions. And I’m sure I have less experience than you. Then again, maybe I’ll be writing the next accident trip report.
It is my belief that most injuries occur when one tries to not fall. I fully subscribed to going with the fall instead of trying to fight it.
I personally believe that a good whistle will carry farther than even my loud mouth. But I’ve never had to test that theory.
I think you were fairly well prepared and it was just a “freak” accident.
You must be logged in to reply to this topic.