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Beartooths Backpack 2002
The Best Laid Plans...

The accident

Tuesday, September 3   We awoke to a beautiful clear, frosty morning. There was frost all over everything, and the thermometer said 28 degrees. I could tell I was feeling a bit better, as I had enough energy to climb up our 12 foot knoll on which we were eating. The plan for the day was to leave Martin Lake Basin to the NW, going past Green Lake and Lake Elaine, picking up a real trail, and following trails over to the east end of Otter Lake. A full, but not big day. I had hiked that stretch before, and recalled the lovely campsite at the east end of Otter. Of course, one "pays for that by having to walk the rock seam on the south side of the lake to move further west, but it is worth it. Anyway, it looked like a wonderful day to hike, and Susie and I were packed and rolling by 9:07 am, along with everyone else. It was back up to the NW corner of the lake, and up to the saddle toward Green Lake. This time, as we dropped down along the creek bed, we bore left along the small shelf that Susie and I had been on the day before. If you keep going on the shelf, you eventually intersect the last 200 meters or so of the High Lakes trail, that terminates at the NE corner of Green Lake. No one seem interested in a rest break, as we had only been underway maybe a half hour or 40 minutes, so we crossed the meadow, and climbed up to the "route junction" where we had forked right toward the outlet of Summerville Lake yesterday. Today, we forked left, and headed for a ford of Sierra Creek.

Sierra Creek drains the valley at the head of which sits Flat Rock Lake. So even at this time of year, there is a substantial flow of water in it. It is not very deep, but it is wide. We looked for a place to easily rock hop, and there being none, most everyone else decided to walk gingerly on rocks covered with an inch or two of water. Susie and I thought it was a great opportunity to change into our camp/stream crossing shoes, knowing that they would dry out be the time we got to Otter Lake anyway. For what ever reason, Susie and I tended to drift downstream of the point where the others crossed. I got to the far bank, about 50 meters below where everyone else was. I looked back upstream, and saw Sue sitting on the stream bank, with her feet in the water, and nodding her head in what was obviously major pain. She was holding her left leg. I called back to Susie, who was just completing her crossing a few feet downstream of me, that it looked like we had a major problem. Sue is a tough lady, and to see her so distressed could not be a good sign. We dropped our packs and headed up the rest of the crew. Sue told us that she had severely twisted her left ankle and was having a very hard time putting any weight on it at all. I told her to keep the foot in the cold water to minimize swelling. It was pretty obvious that we were not going any further this day. After some discussion as to exactly where to set up camp, we opted for the grassy "beach" at the NW corner of Green Lake, about 250 meters from where we had crossed. Tim and Diane and Susie and I moved our packs down, looked for some flat spots, to give Sue a sense of "home," set up our tents, and went back to see how the patient was doing. The ankle was not very swollen, but she was in enough pain when she tried to weight the leg that it was clear she could not get to camp without major assistance. After an aborted effort where she tried to hop on one foot with a guy under each of her shoulders, we all decided to quit screwing around and basket carry her. For anyone who has not tried this, it ain't as easy as it looks. On my turn, I don't think I had carried more than 30 meters or so when I slipped on some loose gravel in the path, and pulled something in my left ankle.

We got Sue to camp, got a cold water bag on her ankle, put up a tarp, to give her some shade from what had become a fairly warm sun, and assessed the situation. Sue was trying to be very optimistic, suggesting that maybe she would feel better enough to continue with the backpack the next morning. Although I did not share this with her, I was very concerned, since my experience with bad sprains is that you can walk on them fairly soon. Sue was saying that when she try to put any weight on her foot, there were shooting pains up her leg. (Lest the reader wonder any longer what was wrong, Sue had actually broken two bones in her ankle, torn a ligament that holds the lower parts of the tibia and fibula [large and small bones in the lower leg] together, and broken the fibula right under the knee. No wonder she had shooting pains in her leg. Of course, we could not know this, since we had no portable x-ray machine with us. However, when I eventually saw the x-rays, even I could pick out the below-the-knee break.) Of course, the best way to assess the situation was with some food, so we all sat down and munched. The good thing was that there seemed to be little swelling, discoloration, or dislocation, and no obvious bones protruding near the skin surface. And there was no evidence that she was losing circulation in the foot. We talked about the possibility of having to arrange to haul her sorry ass outta the wilderness, and Sue implored us all to be positive and give it until morning to make a final decision.

In looking back over this time, I think that one of the many lucky things that happened to us was a) that Sue fell in such a place where it was easy to get her to a campsite. I think of all the places it could have happened, and life would have been a whole lot harder; and b) because Sue's situation was not acute and she was not in a lot of pain, we had time to talk and think things through. Of course, we were blessed with a lot of brain power to work on such matters. I could just feel all the high test IQ's being brought to bear on the problem. All that said, there was not much else concrete we could do with the afternoon, other than kill time waiting until tomorrow. So, with the exception of Andy, most of us decided to relax and enjoy our mini-layover day. Tim and Diane and Susie and I decided that we would head over to Lake Estelle. Maybe there was some good fishing there, Tim (hint, hint). Of course, there is no official trail, but there are lots of paths and ways to get there. It was on the way down (it is slightly lower in the drainage than Green Lake) that Diane first broached the subject of the details of a rescue. I think she was verbalizing what most of us were thinking: leave Andy and Lance with Sue (she needs two guys because she would have a hard time - how does one put this delicately - taking a dump) and the remaining four would head out the fastest way possible to the nearest highway, and ultimately effect a private horse rescue. The advantages of this plan were many: although an experienced canyon hiker, it had been years since Lance had been on a mountain backpack, and he could use as much time as possible here. Also, he was strong and self contained. The advantage of the two couples going out over "unplanned" terrain was that even if one person fell and got hurt, there would still be two to complete the rescue arrangements. (See how we had become paranoid already.)

We got down to Lake Estelle, and found a outfitter's camp, even with a large chalked sign on a boulder, announcing apparently to anyone who could not read a map that this was, in fact, Lake Estelle. The Lake reminded Susie and I a little bit of Boundary Waters/Quetico area. I swore I saw a loon, but Susie thought I was nuts. (A review of the range maps for a common loon suggest that it COULD have been a loon.) Anyway, the lake was lovely, but the wind was picking up and clouds were building pretty quickly. Tim threw his line in a couple of times, with no luck and we decided to head back, not wanting to get wet in a rain storm when we did not have to. The four of us just got back to camp, and completed erecting our second tarp to give the entire group full coverage, and the skies opened up. We dove under the tarps, and Andy reported the temperature dropping from 71 to 50 in a few minutes. The rain turned to hail and sleet, and it actually hung around a bit. It gave us all a chance to review the rescue options. One possibility for a rescue was to use the ham radio guys camped over on Martin Lake. After all, that is what these guys love to do. But Sue quickly vetoed that, claiming that she did not want to let the weird looking one know that there was a woman who could not defend herself just one lake away. Lance did throw out an "interesting" idea: do a fast day hike out to the highway, and then come back in later on a day hike. I told him I didn't think that was such a good idea, mainly because a) I would not want to be separated from my gear out here; b) the idea of hiking what I thought would be 11 miles out to the highway and another, what I thought would be 6.5 miles to the car. Then hike back the next day from the trailhead 11 miles, and then get my gear and hike back out another 11 miles. It made me tired to think about it, and it did not seem necessary. No, the idea of going out in the morning seemed to make a lot of sense. We explained to Sue that I did not think that, given the lack of acute problems (ie, no broken bones pushing thru the skin), there was no point in the four of us trying to get all the way out in a day, mainly because by the time we would get to our vehicles, it would be very late at night. Better to finish the trip on Thursday morning, and arrange for things to happen in the middle of the day.

While we waited for the afternoon to warm back up a bit, we also brought up the idea of how to do the rescue. Horses immediately came to mind, mainly because we thought we could easily arrange such privately. Our plan was evolving: leave in the morning, and try to get to within a couple of miles of the trailhead that afternoon. Get going early the next morning (Thursday), hike out to the Beartooth highway, walk the 6.5 miles to our vans. Pick up our van (leaving Lance's where it was until we knew what was going on) and drive to the nearest phone (probably do this on the way to the van because we would walk right by Top O the World Resort) and call the Forest Service, and ask them to suggest some outfitters who might be contracted for a rescue. We knew that there was a lot of if's in such a plan, like could the rescue be started on Thursday or would it have to wait until Friday? Would they be able to take the three of them out, or just Sue. One thing we asked Sue: how do you feel about using a helicopter if no horses were available. She paused, and then said that would be ok, if that were the only option. It was clear that bring a motorized vehicle into the wilderness did not exactly sit well with us purists, although truth be told, we are not exactly huge fans of horses. Or rather, we are not huge fans of the horses owners that take them where horses should not go and where the trails are not suitable. Lots of trails in the Smokies have been turned into mud wallows because of thoughtless horse owners. My experience in the Beartooths was either that there are a lot of smart horse-persons using the place, or the drainage on the trails, and the standards to which they are built, are exceptional.

We also talked about the possibility that if we could not get a rescue going right away, what would that do to fuel and food supplies, and plane schedules. We decided that we could not control the planes, but we could give our friends some of our fuel if they needed it, and food for another night's dinner, which could take them into Sunday. It was not a lot of fun to consider, but you have to think about eventualities.

With the afternoon's requisite storms concluded, it was time to focus on bathing (hey, it was a tough mile and a half today) and fixing dinner (lemon pepper pasta with dried smoked turkey), and taking portraits. We usually save such for the last night of the trip, and we realized that this would be our last night of the trip together. Sue repeatedly apologized for potentially ruining everyone's vacation. I pointed out that, like I have said in the planning of long distance outings, I feel better if someone I know and care about is doing such to me, rather than a total stranger. In addition, how could what would likely be 5 nights in a lovely area such as the Beartooths be considered a ruination. Sure, we won't get a chance to see as much territory, but for me, it was ironic that for a trip which had been billed as my covering mostly pre-traversed ground, it would turn out that virtually the entire trip would be on new trail. Always look at your cup as half full.

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Roger A. Jenkins, Suzanne A. McDonald, 2002