The descent began several hours after the rescue. The remaining team tried to sleep, each eking out a narrow ledge on the rocky summit on which to lay their bags and gear in the cool September night air, but sleep was elusive for most of them; they replayed the accident, the twelve hours of anxious waiting, and the initial attempted rescue over and over again in their minds. The roar of the final 11 p.m. rescue by a military crew in a Chinook helicopter with night vision capabilities still rang in their ears. The descent, they thought to themselves, should be easy.
Suffering from adrenaline let-down and little sleep, they gathered their gear at dawn and began to descend. Only six miles to the trailhead, and two more to the campsite. A walk in the park for the four men and one woman--all fit mountaineers. At first, there was little talk, as the group concentrated on the slightly technical descent into the Cascadian Couloir. They rehashed the events of the day before and congratulated themselves for handling the emergency so well. Of course, a few things might have been better. It was lucky that another party’s phone had cell service and was able to get an emergency call out to the county sheriff. And it sure was providential that the same couple happened to have narcotic painkillers with them. Rick’s foot was nearly torn off, after all. But, overall, it had gone as well as it could, and hadn’t they worked well as a team?
Approaching the Couloir, the team refocused on the new terrain. The couloir is a scree field, a broad mountain avalanche field filled with loose boulders, rocks, pebbles, and sand. It is active terrain, and the couloir hugging the flanks of Mt Stuart is renowned for its size, and its danger. The team formed a single line, with Dee and Jim in the front, George and Bryan next, and John in the rear. George turned to John as they walked on
“Careful,” he warned, “that rock seems like it could be ready to go.”
John looked up and made a conscious effort not to grab onto the boulder as he climbed through that area. His hand, however, did lightly brush it, and what followed was later to blur in John’s mind. The “rock”, a refrigerator-sized boulder, toppled loose from its resting spot—who knows how long it had remained safely in place?—and rolled over John’s legs, then bumped and rolled down the couloirs, breaking into bits by the time it reached the bottom of the slope. Alerted by the rockfall, the rest of the team looked back, saw John on the ground, and rushed back.
Stunned, John began to process what had just happened.
“It’s lucky the scree is so sandy,” he panted to the team, “I think my ankle is just sprained.”
The boulder had pushed him backwards, up slope, until he was nearly lying down on the field. As it rolled over him, the left leg lay crossed over the right leg, with the sandy scree underneath absorbing some of the impact.
“Are you sure?” Dee asked, “Can you make it down?”
John tested his slightly numb legs. He was shaky and a little shocked. With the thought of yesterday’s accident fresh in his mind, John thought of the number of hours it would take a rescue team to be notified and deployed. With still no cell service among the team members, no way to contact help immediately, and no way to notify family members of the further delay, John shuddered at the thought of putting his family through another night of anxiety. His wife hated the climbing anyway, and was always a nervous wreck when he was out. This could send her over the edge. No, he’d have to make it down, one way or another, sprained ankle or not.
The rest of the descent was a nightmare. John used his trekking poles as modified crutches and focused on the task at hand. With years of triathlons, marathons, swimming and climbing under his belt, he felt he possessed the raw strength to hobble down the mountain on one leg and two arms, but it was his mental disclipine he would have to rely on the most. After some time of achingly slow descent, the team stopped to plan. By then, the couple who had aided them the night before had caught up with the team, and saw that another team member was injured.
“Why don’t Bob and Sandy go down with John, straight to the car?” Dee proposed, “and we’ll go back to camp and carry out the gear.”
That was six sets of gear, each weighing sixty-five to seventy-five pounds, for four people to carry. Jim balked. Never known for his sensitivity, he looked at John,
“Hey, you can go back for your stuff…pick it up later. You’re not injured that badly.” John stood in stunned silence just looking at Jim. Had Jim’s climbing partner’s fall the day before impinged his judgment?
“What a jerk,” John thought to himself, considering what to say, but Bryan jumped in before he could form a cohesive reply.
“Hey, he doesn’t want to do that. We’re not going to do that. We’re getting all the stuff and meeting back at the parking lot.”
So, it was settled. Four members hurried down the additional six miles of trail to camp, while the remaining three continued the painful hobble downward. John’s arms ached, and his foot throbbed. His legs slowly began to show purple bruises from mid-thigh to ankle. With two miles to go, Bob and Sandy urged John to take a break. Stubbornly, he refused, fearful he wouldn’t have the strength to start again. Twelve hours after the initial descent began, the trip that should have taken just a few hours, ended in the team meeting at the trailhead parking lot. Three hours of driving were ahead of them.
Two weeks later, a surgeon cut through the fibula to repair John’s crushed talus and cartilage, along with several tendons. By that time, his legs had faded from purple, to ghastly green, and finally, a jaundiced yellow. It would be six months before he could walk without a cane-- in another six, he would run 5k in 22:45.