"I was out exploring with my life-long buddy Bob. We were in the Owyhee desert in the southwest corner of Idaho. The vast Owyhee region is one of the most remote locations in the lower 48 states and where we were today was no exception. There are only four or five actual towns in all of Owyhee County and once outside of these, the population density is about 100 square miles per person. We are always slightly disappointed whenever we see someone else during one of our outings.
It was March 14, 2010 and it was a beautiful spring morning. The sky was clear, temperatures were in the mid-forties and at the beginning, and there was very little wind. Spring comes early to the desert and the area we were visiting rarely gets snow. Any snow that does fall in this country is quickly absorbed into the sandy soil as it melts.
We are heading to a spot which is several miles off the main road. We accessed this location using a good jeep trail. The drive into the trail head was slightly dusty but we were thrilled to see that once again, we were alone.
Our goal for the day was to enjoy exploring the twin Hart Creek canyons. This was my fourth visit to this site since Bob and I came across the canyons almost a year ago when we were geocaching. Hart Creek and Little Hart Creek form what are known as slot canyons. They are very narrow and deep with almost vertical walls. The two creeks converge about a quarter of a mile past the end of the canyons.
Previous trips had us exploring around the area where the canyons end and the creeks open up to large riparian areas. We found evidence of beavers having once lived in the area. Due to the very dry conditions in the Owyhees, it was difficult to estimate how long it had been since families of beavers once tried damming these creeks.
Hiking into the canyons from the riparian areas proved to be very difficult. The bottoms of the canyons are very rugged and the creeks flow year round. Following this route and exploring up the creek bed would require technical climbing skills, which are beyond our abilities.
I am a firm believer in Harry Calahan’s quote in the movie Magnum Force; “A man’s got to know his limitations”. The desert is a harsh, unforgiving environment. There are more ways to get hurt here than you can imagine. Say hazards and desert together in one sentence and I would imagine that most folks think of: rattlesnakes, scorpions, or maybe mountain lions. While these are potential threats, desert explorers are more likely to encounter problems with vehicles, weather, or accidents. You must realistically understand your capabilities and then force yourself to stay within those limits.
This day, we planned on hiking to the top of the bluffs so we could get a view down the canyons from above. There was about a 300 foot vertical gain to the top of the mesa with a pretty steep grade over uneven ground.
Over the past year, my wife and I had committed ourselves to becoming healthy. We enjoy a robust, western lifestyle and we realized that we were not able to participate in the activities we enjoy while being greatly overweight.
On one hand, it is pretty simple; diet and exercise. On the other hand, I have an eating disorder and for me, exercising has never been fun. Weight Watchers showed us how to eat properly and following their program, we made great progress. In one year, I lost 104 pounds and my wife lost 45 pounds! I developed an exercise program which I found worked well for me. Eventually, I was walking 2½ miles daily over lunch and cycling 5-7 miles each night either on my stationary bike or on my bicycle depending upon the weather. I found that the daily walk really broke-up my day nicely and makes the afternoons fly by.
Before initiating our program, I was diabetic and suffered from hypertension. Now, I am no longer diabetic, no longer hypertensive, my resting heart is about 65, and my LDL is 69. Bottom line was that on this Sunday morning, I was in pretty good health.
As I scrambled up the slope, I felt great. It was a good workout and I was having no problems. I could see that it was also providing a good workout for Bob and I was tickled to see that for the first time in my life, I was making progress faster than him. We found a good looking sitting-rock and rested for awhile at about the ¾ point to the top. Looking at the canyon, we could see a raptor’s nest built into the side of the cliff. What a blast!
Reaching the top, we approached the canyon lip. Removing my pack, I carefully positioned myself to get some good photographs of the cliffs. At one point, I was able to easily toss a rock all the way across the canyon with it landing on the mesa on the far side. Looking down, we could see a couple of waterfalls; nothing big, but really beautiful. It was obvious that we could not have made any progress exploring up the canyon from the creek level.
Moving upstream, the canyon opened up some and the vertical walls were replaced with steeply sloped sides. We identified an area where we could descend into the bottom of the canyon, cross the creek, and make it back up to the top of the mesa on the far side of the canyon. We could see some very interesting overhang areas which we thought would be fun to explore. Once on the opposite side of the creek, we would continue on to explore Little Hart Creek canyon about ½ mile north.
The downhill climb was steep, but well within what we knew were our limitations. There were a few spots where we had to crab-walk, but the footing was solid and we carefully picked our way to the bottom. We could tell that very few folks ever visited here. Too often, visitors use the desert for a dump and leave trash everywhere. Today, there was no trash, no signs of man at all.
When out in locations such as this, I always ask myself if any other human had ever stood exactly where I currently am. I often feel that the answer may be that I was the first. This is an exciting concept in our modern world. Yes, this country is vast and is rarely visited.
Hart Creek typically runs year round. It is slightly higher this day than when I last visited it in December. Even so, we found a good spot where we could rock-hop to the opposite side of the creek. There were very large, mostly flat rocks on both creek banks with one medium-sized rock in the middle of the creek. This looked easy. Heck, we have rock-hopped across similar creeks dozens of times in the past. On my climb up to the top of the mesa, I realized that I had left my trekking poles at home. This thought escaped me as I stepped forward to the center rock. As my foot approached, my eyes sent an unheeded signal to my brain: “the rock is wet”.
The sound of my femur shattering was loud enough that it was heard by Bob who was standing about 10’ away. Upon reflection, I realize now that the shiny rock was not only wet, it was frozen. The spray of the creek had coated the rock with a very uniform layer of ice. When my right foot reached the icy rock, it shot forward pitching my body counter-clockwise. My femur contacted a raised knuckle on the large rock which was my step-off point for the creek crossing. This created a very high point load on the femur which instantly fractured. The pain was immediate and intense.
I found myself lying partially in Hart Creek. I noticed that my foot was rotated way too far to the left and I could see a lateral offset of my femur. I wiggled my toes and could see that the end of my boot moved. I realized that I am lying in a creek, at the bottom of a 300’ deep canyon, in the middle of nowhere, with a badly broken femur and potentially a cut femoral artery. I panicked. I told Bob that I had broken my femur and that: “I am going to die here”.
Bob yelled back: “No, you are not!” I cannot recall exactly how it happened, but I asked Bob to stop talking for a minute and I focused on deep breathing and calming myself down. I was able to regain my composure and I began to think straight. This was a critical point in the event. It would have been very easy for me to fully panic, go into shock, and die right there.
Somehow, I made it through this stage. I felt that if I had incurred a serious cut to my femoral artery, I probably would have blacked out by then. Knowing that I was still conscious, I guessed that there was no major cut.
As my mind became rational, I started to instruct Bob on what we needed to do. I believe in being prepared when heading to the back country. I always carry a well outfitted daypack with me and I later notice that throughout the rescue, I will have used almost everything I brought along. However, even more important is that there was nothing I needed, that I did not have with me.
Bob hollered at me asking what he should do. I am torn. I told him that if we move the leg, we risk cutting the femoral artery, but I cannot just lay there in the water. Bob helped lift me to a more stable position on the big rock. That really hurt!
When I weighed in the day before at Weight Watchers, I topped the scales at 208 pounds. If I had weighed the 312 pounds I was a year ago, he never would have been able to move me. Thank you Weight Watchers!
I was wearing a wool long-sleeve shirt, a polar fleece zip-up, and a down vest over that with a stocking cap and polar fleece gloves. I had Bob remove the vest and the polar fleece. I directed him use the polar fleece to mop-up water from an indentation in the big rock right above my hip. After removing all of the water and wringing the polar fleece out, I had him place it in the indentation. I then asked Bob place the down vest over the wet polar fleece. Once done, Bob helped slide me into position so I was held in place by this indentation, resting on top of the polar fleece and down insulation. We placed my day pack under my head and upper back.
I removed two space blankets from my pack and placed them over me; one was silver and one was bight orange. I had Bob remove his coat and place it backwards over my chest and arms. I then had Bob take some of my parachute cord from my pack and running it under my armpits, tied me to a tree above me on the bank of the creek. I was afraid that if I passed out while he was gone, I might fall into the creek and drown.
Bob help me remove my leather belt and we positioned it around my upper thigh. I placed a pressure pad under it. If it appeared that I was bleeding internally, I would be able to use the belt and pressure pad to potentially stop the bleeding. This was a long-shot at best, but we made the preparation just in case.
At this point, I removed my SPOT Messenger from my pack along with the instruction manual and spare batteries; (yes, I carried the instruction manual with me). I turned it on and pressed the 911 button. I could see that it was sending the signal out. I told Bob to hike to the top of the canyon and place the SPOT on top of a rock, right above me. I gave him my truck keys and instructed him to hike back to the truck and drive out as far as necessary to be able to make a 911 phone call. Note: My SPOT, GPS, flashlight, and camera all use the same AA Lithium batteries and I always carry 4 spares with me.
Before leaving, Bob left me with an additional bottle of water. I took two extra strength Tylenol from my First Aid kit. As he left, I handed him my 44 magnum and instructed him to unload it and leave it in the truck. I was concerned that if I became delirious from the pain, I should not have a firearm anywhere within reach.
Watching Bob climb that hill was depressing. As he disappeared over the top, all I could think of was: “please be careful!” The Boy Scouts of America promote the idea of traveling in a minimum group size of 3. If an accident happens, one person can go for help leaving one person to stay with the victim. This is a really good plan!
I realized at this point that I had forgotten to tell Bob that if rescue was going to be delayed that he should bring me my large survival pack which is always in my truck. This pack contains: a sleeping bag, heavy polar fleece pants and pullover, wool socks, wool balaclava, water proof winter gloves, a water purifier, food for a week, 100’ of climbing rope, large Maglight, my major First Aid Kit, and so on. This would have helped keep me alive if I had spent the night on that rock.
Time passed slowly. I was focused on not moving. I noticed that my injured leg was resting against a ledge in the rock. I took my First Aid kit and wedged it in under my leg on the opposite side helping to immobilize my thigh. I continued to pump my toes up and down trying to promote blood flow through my damaged leg. It was very odd watching my toes wiggle in directions that they should not be moving. It seemed like it was someone else’s leg that I was watching.
I forced myself to drink water.
I tried to relax and breathe deeply. Lying on the bottom of the canyon provided me a unique perspective. I do not recall every looking up at a canyon that way. The sky was a beautiful, clear blue and there was almost no breeze. I could see raptors floating on the thermals above me. I listened, but there was no sound other than Hart Creek flowing by.
I somewhat forced myself to think about the beauty of the area and how this was my playground. Most of my free time outdoors is spent exploring the far reaches of the Owyhees. My funeral plans are to be cremated and have my ashes spread across the top of War Eagle Mountain. That spot is maybe only 5 miles from where I currently was, and this was comforting. I accepted that it would be OK to die in this canyon, but at the same time, I was going to fight with everything within me not to let that happen.
Watching the birds, I began to think about the other local wildlife. We had hopes of seeing bighorns on today’s hike. We had already found some pronghorn and you quite often see mule deer. Then the thought came to me and I realized that I was right in the middle of cat country, and not only was I unable to move due to my leg, but I was tied to a tree! If even a ground squirrel had decided to gnaw on my leg, there wasn’t much I could have done to stop him!
This was an interesting thought and I immediately wished that I had not asked Bob to take my handgun with him. I carry a large folding knife so I got it out along with my emergency signaling whistle. I figured that if anything showed up, I might be able to scare it off with the piercing sound that the whistle produces.
At this point, I decided to start a fire. I carry Gerber Strike Force cubes with me so I got one out and put it in a small indent in the rock beside my head. These cubes burn with a 6” flame for about 10 minutes. The cubes will light if struck with a spark, but I just used a stick match. I carry strike anywhere matches in a waterproof container, so I was able to light it on the rock. I removed a map from my daypack and began to shred it into strips which I fed into the fire.
I was starting to shiver so I removed my rain coat from my pack and placed it over me backwards. The rain coat help cut the breeze which was starting to blow.
Note that over the course of the 3 hours Bob was gone, I removed and used many items from my daypack. Having packed and repacked my daypack many times allowed me to know exactly where each item was located. This knowledge was very useful and it allowed me to benefit from the items I had with me.
As I was getting colder, I suddenly heard a helicopter. At first I thought that I was making it up, but then this beautiful blue and white helicopter appeared. It flew directly above me to the edge of the cliff and stopped. The pilot waved at me. He had seen the bright orange and silver space blankets covering my lower torso. I later realized that the helicopter flew directly to the location where the SPOT Messenger was placed. It had directed the rescue helicopter right to me.
The SPOT Messenger was able to reliability transmit two signals from the bottom of the canyon before Bob relocated it to the top rim; this was impressive performance considering the geography of the area. Bob was able to place the device in a location on the rim above me which did allow the signals to continue to be transmitted successfully. The SPOT device was supposed to transmit my location every 5 minutes or so until the batteries died. During 3 hours of transmitting, signals were received approximately 29 out of a scheduled 35 times. This was with a clear sky and on the top of the mesa; with the exception of the two signals transmitted from the creek.
The helicopter dropped off two crewmen and I could see them as they started down the hill. Somehow, my mind was allowed to relax and I either went into shock, or hypothermia. I started shivering uncontrollably. I was ready to cry.
The two crewmen reached me and began working. The woman started an IV with morphine in my right arm. She needed a pair of gloves and I offered her the pair of purple nitrate gloves in my First Aid kit. The man began to work on my leg. He cut off my clothing and assessed the damage. He could not see an indication of internal bleeding. He placed a temporary traction splint on the leg. Other that the discomfort this caused to my crotch, almost all of the pain in the leg just stopped.
The woman medic asked me about my general health and any medications I was taking. I was able to direct her to my wallet which had a card inside identifying all medications and the doctors who prescribed them
More rescuers appeared. There were volunteers from the Grandview Ambulance and staff from the Owyhee County Sheriff’s office. They placed me on a litter and strapped me down securely. I believe that there were 5 folks down below helping me and more on top. They tied a climbing rope to the litter. The folks below lifted me up and people on top pulled on the rope. It was a rough ride up. Everyone tried to give me a good ride, but it was an incredibly difficult task. I hit a few rocks and was pulled through several stands of sagebrush. Half way to the top, the team was able to connect the pull rope to a winch on an ATV and use it to assist pulling me up.
We reached the top and I saw Bob again for the first time. I feel that he was in shock as well. I had not seen him that pale since his wedding day 35 years ago. Without Bob’s help, I would not have made it. It was an emotional, but brief reunion. They placed me in the helicopter and we made it to Boise in about 15 minutes. This was not how I had hoped my first helicopter ride would go!
When reaching the hospital, my wife and mother were there waiting for me. I learned that as soon as Bob had placed the SPOT Messenger on top of the cliff, the 911 signal was detected by the International Emergency Rescue Coordination Centre (IERCC) based in Houston, Texas. They called my wife and asked her if she knew me. She said that she did and told them who I was. They then asked if I was at a location where I may have activated the 911 signal. She told them that I was on a desert outing and that I had my SPOT Messenger with me.
The IERCC representative asked my wife if she knew where I was. Whenever I go on an outing, I create a topo map of my plans and leave it on my PC at home. If I am hiking, I indicate the location on the map where I will leave the truck by creating a waypoint there. If I am on my dual sport motorcycle, I create a route showing where I will be traveling. My wife was able to email a copy of this map to the IERCC.
The personnel at IERCC continued to keep my wife updated on my rescue progress. This was very comforting to her. Later, they called back asking us to turn the SPOT off. It had continued sending out its signal, doing its job until the batteries were removed.
When Bob reached my truck, a copy of this topo map was left sitting between the front seats. He was able to use this map to explain the terrain and to instruct the Owyhee County Sheriff and the Grandview ambulance to where we were. In the end, Bob had to drive out to the main road and lead the sheriff back to where we had started hiking from.
The feeling of the helicopter landing on the roof of the hospital was very strange. Flying in the helicopter was fairly bumpy, and suddenly, we stopped. No landing approach, no taxiing, we were just there. Medics rushed out to meet us and carry me from the Life Flight.
Upon reaching the hospital, all kinds of activities occurred; CAT scans, X-Rays, more IV’s, lots and lots of questions. Later that night, I was in surgery for 5 hours to repair the break and to install a steel plate. I was blessed with a great surgeon, and he felt that the operation went as well as could have been expected.
I was in the hospital for 8 days. I have a year’s worth or rehabilitation on my leg to be able to reach the physical condition I enjoyed at the time of the accident. This has been a very emotional event and I feel that I will be a better person as a result. Some of the critical lessons learned are:
Always have a travel companion (two is preferred)
Ask yourself; are you willing to put your life in the hands of those who are exploring with?
The value of being fit. I do not believe I would have survived this ordeal if I had not lost the weight and if I was not in good physical condition.
Be prepared with proper tools and training; this takes a great deal of effort…..do not skimp.
Post clear, easy to understand travel plans at home.
Keep your cell phone with you. Due to the cell towers on the top of War Eagle Mountain, there is quite amazing phone coverage in the Owyhee Front area.
Thank God for the Spot Messenger. The Life Flight helicopter flew directly to its location.