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Day 4

Day 5

Day 6


Beartooths Backpack 2002
The Best Laid Plans...

Who knows where the road will lead us...

Thursday, September 5   It is interesting to wake up, and really not have a clue as to where you will be that night or what is going to happen during the day. Most of us live pretty planned out lives, and to me, it was a fascinating feeling. I was pondering this as I was lying in my bag, in the hour before sunrise. We had both slept like rocks, not getting up to pee until after 4 am. I went back to sleep, but knew that we might have a big day ahead of us, and my natural inclination is think things through. In the pre-dawn light of our headlamps, we started stuffing our bags and sleeping pads and organizing things. The plan was to be up sometime around 6:30 and use only one stove to heat water for coffee. Tim and Diane were up before us, or at least, talking before us. It was a cold morning, with heavy due and some scattered frost all around us.

Sometimes you just get lucky, and today started that way. Susie and I had taken our tent down, and I was just completing stuffing my pack. Susie was off in the bushes, and T&D were back by their campsite which was shielded from view of the trail by some trees. I happened to turn around, and noticed two men walking with horses behind them. I am not sure what I hoped to accomplish, but these were the first people that we had seen since the Chicago couple yesterday morning, and I walked over to them. I guess I felt like, if they had horses, I wanted to know where they had gotten them, so maybe we could contact the same ranch, and see if we could start the rescue process. Anyway, I went over to them and Tim soon joined me. It turns out that the lead guy Dave was a hunting guide, working out of the K Bar Z Ranch. He was guiding a day hunter who was bow hunting for bull moose. Talk about a sporting proposition!! First challenge is finding one out here, and then getting close enough to bring it down with an arrow. Whew. I guess you have to really want to be outside. Anyway, we explained our situation to Dave, and he told us that the only place that had any horses near here was the ranch out of which he was guiding. He told us that it just so happened that Dawna, the ranch proprietor, was not only his sister, but also a wilderness search and rescue first responder, and that she would know what to do. He assured us that we were close to the trailhead, but I told him that such was only the start, as I figure the Muddy Creek trailhead was still 6 miles or so from our vehicles. Oh, he said, well, heck, just borrow my truck that is parked at the trailhead, and use it to go to the ranch or get your cars. Wow, such incredible generosity. (Now, I know, some readers may be thinking, well, instead of walking the highway to the car, why not thumb a ride. These same readers have obviously never been out on the Beartooth Scenic Highway in mid-week after the end of the tourist season. Yeah, a car goes by every few minutes, as it makes its way between the two thriving Montanan metroplexes at either end of the Highway, Cooke City - population 86 and Red Lodge, population 2300. But it is typically older folks who are driving this scenic highway, having waited until the kids are back in school. Folks not likely to pick up backpackers, even if they had space in their vehicles.) So Dave told us where he had hidden the keys to the truck, and said, as he continued on, yeah, just unhook the horse trailer, and it should go pretty well. Horse trailer?? So this will be interesting. We thanked him profusely for his advice and generosity, and went back to finish packing our gear.

We told Susie and Diane of our good fortune, and were out of camp by about 8:15. We moved pretty quickly, except when the trail crossed small inlet streams. Those areas, not surprisingly for the edge of a marsh, were more than a bit muddy. But the big meadows were beautiful, and suggestive of wildlife, although we never saw any. The trail eventually hits an old road, and is pretty easy to hike on. Luxurious, actually. We made it to the highway a bit before 9:30, having covered the 2.5 miles or so in good time. And there was Dave's truck and gigantic double wide horse trailer. Now picture this: 2 Ph.D.'s walking up to a system about which they were totally clueless. We tried to figure out how to unhook the trailer, but it was not obvious to us. After fooling around for 20 minutes or so, we decided that the best solution was to borrow the truck AND trailer. I offered to drive and hopped in the truck to start it. I looked down and there were 3 peddles on the floor. Oh shit. Since it had been 10 years since Susie had dumped her stick shift Camry, and only 5 years since Tim got rid of his stick shift BMW, Tim drew the short straw. I rode shotgun as we headed out and up the Beartooth Highway to Island Lake. I swear that the trailer was as wide as the driving lanes on the upper part of the highway. Tim drove in an understandably cautious manner. When we turned in the Island Lake area, it was clear that we could have some major problems: backing up and turning around. Ultimately, the solution proved to be to drive forward through the nearest campground loop, hoping that the turns would not be too tight. I walked out in front, and guided. I think Tim was able to stay at least 3 - 4 inches from some of the posts. I could just see us tearing up this brand new horse trailer that we did not even own. Once that was done, I headed over to get our van. We left Lance's where it was, because we did not know where it would be needed.

Boy, what a difference from Labor Day weekend in the parking area: I think there were a total of only five vehicles and two were ours. Tim took off, and I drove behind him. A few more close calls with on coming traffic and we were back to the trailhead. Susie and Diane had been waiting there for over an hour, and we independently surmised that they had obviously taken the time to scope out the general area. So when they motioned Tim on to what looked like a huge turnaround, he naturally assumed that they knew what they were talking about. Not a good assumption. Turns out that they motioned Tim right on to a dead end track, which, to get to the place where the truck was originally parked would have required backing the truck-trailer system. Tim got out of the truck screaming and rightfully so. He had been under a lot of stress over the past 90 minutes, and to have been waived into a dead end drove him over the edge. He eventually calmed down, but he was rightfully pissed. During the calming process, Diane wrote a nice long note to Dave, the truck owner, explaining that our incompetencies with dis-engaging the trailer and backing the whole system up were the cause of our not putting the vehicle back where we found it and seeking forgiveness. At least we felt Dave could find the truck. Thank goodness for no trees. We left the note on the front seat of the truck, threw our gear in the van, and headed for the KbarZ Guest Ranch and Outfitters. Dave had provided excellent directions: about 6 miles up the Beartooth Highway toward Cooke City, then 9 miles down the Chief Joseph Highway, then about a mile or so off the highway. We pulled into the little guest ranch at 11:30 am.

We were greeted by a youngish, grandmotherly type, named Mary Ann. We explained to her that we were looking for Dawna, and why we were looking for her. You could tell this lady was sharp, and she asked us a few pertinent questions and went to get Dawna. Dawna listened to our story, asked a few questions about Sue's health status (I liked the one about any deterioration in the circulation in the foot.) and explained that because this was the start of hunting season, she lacked the guides to do a horse rescue, and frankly, thought it would be more efficient to turn it over to the sheriffs office, and the easiest way to get them was to call 911, which she did for us, and handed me the phone. This set off an amazingly efficient cascade of activities. 911 took some information, and then said they would transfer the information to the sheriff's department in Cody, and that office would call back. Sure enough, we got a call a few minutes later from the sheriff's department in Cody, and they took a wealth of information. (They seemed to be struck by the amount of information we were able to provide, including exact UTM coordinates of where Sue was located.) They indicated they would call us back in a few minutes, once they had some time to digest the data. Meantime, Mary Ann brought a second round of lemonade for us thirsty hikers, and gave us the mobile phone, so we could sit out on the deck, in the shade, and enjoy the outdoors, and still manage the rescue. In another few minutes, Cody called us back and said a) that based on the information which we had provided, they had determined that Sue was down in an area outside their jurisdiction (ie, in Montana, not Wyoming), and that they were going to turn this over to Montana Search and Rescue based in Red Lodge; and b) that given the time that it had been since the injury and the nature of it, they were going to recommend to Red Lodge that a helicopter be brought in to pick Sue up, but that ultimately, it was Red Lodge's call; and c) even though it was outside their jurisdiction, they wanted to be kept in the loop and would be calling us to see how things were progressing. The Sheriff's office said we should hear from Red Lodge in a few minutes. (Of course, now back in civilization, every few minutes seemed like a very long time.) Meanwhile, Mary Ann indicated that the ranch serves a very good lunch, and today, it was fresh salmon salad on the menu. All this stress must have made us super hungry, and we decided to take them up on their offer. In a short period, we got another call from Betty with Red Lodge Search and Rescue. Betty reviewed what she knew, seemed to be pretty comfortable with the concept of UTM coordinates, and took some more information. She indicated that based on the information they already had, they were tentatively agreeing with Cody that a helicopter was the way to do this, but as a backup, they had put out the word that a horse party should be assembled, in case they could not get a copter, or it could not get to Sue.

Lunch was served: wonderful fresh salmon salad on a fresh tomato, with grapes in a fruit dressing, tortilla chips and salsa, cookies, ice cream, and all the lemonade we could drink. I think at this point, Tim also noticed that they had fishing spots at the ranch and he started seeing the wisdom of potentially making an overnight stay. The incongruity of it all was a bit striking: here, we had just walked out of the wilderness, were arranging what would turn out to be a helicopter rescue of our fallen companion, while munching on salmon and cookies at this lovely ranch. Another call from Red Lodge, and they indicated that they were now trying to find a helicopter to do the rescue, as they had definitely decided that it would be much safer for Sue, and since we had not seen Sue in a day and a half now, we did not know how her injury was progressing. They would call back when they knew more. At about a minute after 1 pm, we got another call, saying that there was a helicopter firing up on a pad in Idaho Falls, ID to fly the mission, and they expected it would take about 90 minutes before they got to Sue, and maybe another 30 minutes before they knew any more information. They would call us back. Admittedly, when they hung up, I was a little blown away. I quickly ran the numbers on my GPS: it was 158 miles from Idaho Falls to Green Lake. My mind got dizzy at the thought of all the coordination that would have to be done for this rescue: one just does not fly into or low over a Wilderness Area un-announced. I started adding up the terrain they would have to cover: diagonally across Yellowstone NP, the North Absaroka Wilderness in the Shoshone National Forest, and the Absaroka-Beartooth wilderness in the Gallatin National Forest. All this in 90 minutes since we walked into the ranch. I was so impressed with the infrastructure available in this country to do what amounts to a surgical strike pickup in the mountains like this.

Well, with all this excitement, plus the realization that we would not know anything concrete for a couple of hours (like, had they picked her up, and where were they taking her: Billings? Bozeman? Cody? Idaho Falls?), Tim and I thought we would do something constructive, like go get their car (the shuttle vehicle parked on the Goose Lake Road). We took off about 1:20 or so, and headed back up toward Cooke City. We marveled at the thought of the ranch owner's kids: using a snowmobile to "drive" the 27 miles into school in Cooke City. A different kind of life. The drive up and back to the trailhead where we had planned to end up on Saturday afternoon was uneventful, although we had to dodge some earth moving equipment on the forest roads. There is something very big being built off the highway, and it was not clear to us what it is. Mine tailings pond? Probably some sort of development that we wished was not there. We kept our eyes peeled to the sky, hoping to see the helicopter, since we had great views of the Beartooths from the road driving back down. But no luck. We pulled back into the ranch at about 2:45 and Susie indicated there had been a call from the deputy sheriff in Cody, just checking up on things. But no calls yet from Red Lodge.

About 3 pm we did get the call we were waiting for. Red Lodge said they had just received a radio message from Yellowstone (I guess you get the information any way you can) National Park, and that Sue was 12 minutes from touchdown in Cody, Wyoming. We asked Betty if she had any information on the other two folks with Sue (thinking that with a big helicopter, they could pick everyone up) but Betty had no information. So we called Air Idaho Rescue, the team that picked up Sue, and they confirmed that there was only one "passenger" on the flight to Cody. So that pretty much settled it. At least we knew what we all would be doing tonight. Diane and Tim were going to move Lance's van from the Island Lake trailhead down to the Muddy Creek trailhead, where we had instructed them to come out unless they heard otherwise (more about THAT later), and the two of them would stay at the ranch overnight so Tim could get some fishing done. Andy and Lance would probably start hiking out within an hour or two, and make it to the trailhead late tomorrow afternoon. Sue was sitting in the West Park hospital in Cody, at least being well cared for. Susie and I had decided that we wanted to spend the rest of the trip - such that it was - in Yellowstone, but I had not been in from the east entrance, so it was the perfect excuse to go down to Cody, get a shower, and check in on Sue. See, it all works out.

Susie and I said goodbye to Tim and Diane, and headed down to Cody. (We ran into Dave, the guide that loaned us his truck, and thanked him profusely. The hunter did not get his bull moose, but they had seen a female and seemed to have had a good time.) The drive down the Chief Joseph Highway was spectacular. You leave the canyon of the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone and climb over Dead Indian Pass on your way to Cody. As we topped out on the pass, we noted that the weather had taken a turn for the worse. The showers were widely scattered, and all around. It did not look like they would be clearing up anytime soon. We pulled into Cody about 5 pm, and thanks to the directions given to us by the moose hunter, we found the West Park hospital with no problem. The emergency room folks were very helpful and friendly, and lead us back to Sue, who was still on an examining table. Her enthusiasm for seeing us was tempered by the knowledge she now had that she had broken her left leg. The orthopedic staff (they have have five orthopedic surgeons in Cody, a town of 9000. Why?? Think non-stop rodeos.) had at this point not been able to locate any more broken bones, but based on their experience, were highly suspicious of at least major torn cartilage in the ankle. They also had not made up their mind as to the need for surgery. They had taken a bunch of x-rays, and now needed some more time for consultation. In the meantime, Sue gave us the lowdown on her experiences.

Sue reports that although Susie had loaned her a paperback book to read to pass the time while she was waiting, she never got around to reading it. The pain she was in was fairly manageable, except at night when she would roll over, so she spent her days just sitting and watching the clouds go by. A little after 2 pm, she had seen a helicopter circle, and told Andy to hurry up and start packing. Andy sorta poo poohed the idea, especially when the helicopter moved to the northwest away from Green Lake. But in a few minutes, it returned and landed not too far from the tents. (The Chicago couple, who were camped at Lake Elaine, reported to Andy and Lance later that the helicopter actually landed at Lake Elaine. They had to tell the crew that no, Green Lake was over about a mile to the east. So much for aerial maps.) Sue reported that when the copter did land at Green Lake, one of the three people on the plane (a pilot who was also a nurse and two EMT's) ran over to her and asked her how she was. She reported that she was not in a lot of pain (thanks to Vitamin I) and they complimented her on the Sam Spint job that her friends had done. Originally, the pilot kept the engines running, but eventually turned them off to save fuel. The particular helicopter that Air Idaho Rescue uses is one built by the Swiss for mountain rescue. It has big engines for its small size, can turn on a dime, and is built to be especially stable in choppy mountain air. As they were packing Sue up, they started looking at the gear she had with her, figured the weight of everything, and thought that they might be able to take ten more pounds. (At this point, I wondered what I would have done if I needed to be rescued - would I have to fly gearless and nude and have them chop off my bad leg to get down to the proper weight?) So Andy packed up their tent (he could share one with Lance, who had just shown up from his day hike) and gave it to Sue to take with her. Sue said that they took off and it was a mere 17 minute ride to Cody. The crew was clearly concerned about fuel, as the range of the helicopter is only 250 miles. They opted for landing at the Cody air field, rather than the hospital, since it would be cheaper for Sue for them to refuel there than to fly to the hospital and have the fuel truck come to the hospital. (As Sue was describing this flight, with a high price nurse/pilot and two EMT's and flying nearly the entire range of the aircraft, I could imagine the billing rate for this operation. However, it was not too bad: $3400, and her insurance paid for all but $460.) So she was met by an ambulance and now here she was. There was just one little complication: in their haste to pack, Sue had forgotten to leave the couple's map case with Andy (she normally carries the maps). Since Lance had only purchased (remember back in Cooke City) maps that covered the Montana part of the hike, and the exit was in Wyoming, the two of them were without maps to get them out. Another example of why everyone on a trip should carry at least overview maps with them.

There wasn't much more we could do at the hospital, so Susie and I grabbed Sue's pack, and went off in search of a motel room. We stopped at the brand new Econo-Lodge down the street, and it looked like they were giving rooms away. I got in right before the flood, but behind an older couple. The man was bitching because he thought the rooms were too expensive, and his wife was telling him to shut up and book the room. Our room turned out to be huge, with two double beds, and we immediately thought: hmmm.... If Sue does not have surgery, she could spend the night with us, which would make things vastly simpler for her. Susie and I showered and headed down the street to Stephan's Restaurant. The wait was a tad long, but the place was small and hopping, so it did not bother me too much. It was nice to sit in a real chair for dinner, although, thinking back, we had not hiked much that day. My prime rib (you HAVE to order beef when you are in cattle country like this) was tasty, but a bit on the cool side. My guess is that they were trying to hold it at its medium rare state. Anyway, it was a nice dinner, and we wished Sue could have joined us. Back at the motel, we started doing laundry - sorely needed, I might add - and during a break, I thought I should check to see if we had any messages. We did, and it was from Sue, saying she was "ready." I drove back over the hospital, and found her in the ER waiting room, asleep in a wheelchair, with her leg in a cast, crutches next to her, and her x-rays in her lap. I gently woke her after getting the charge nurse to help with the wheel chair. We moved her into out room that evening, and reviewed the events of the day. She had indicated that without better proof of a major problem, they did not want to do surgery. The three of us crawled into bed, tired probably more from the stress of the day than any big physical activity.

As I lay in bed, I thought: gee, this is not exactly how I thought I would be spending my vacation. But then, it all goes back to having an adventure rather than taking a vacation. I am sure that people reading this will wonder: Why did they do it THAT way? I would have done it THIS way. And that you might be thinking about that is a good sign. I had thought about how we were handling it throughout the day, and decided I was pretty comfortable with how it was turning out. Yes, for the purists among us, bringing a helicopter into a wilderness area violates the concept of Wilderness, but it's actual impact to the countryside is very small and temporary, much less so than three or 4 horses spending a couple of days on the trails. And for Sue, it was probably a much safer experience. Absolutely, there are significant risks flying around the mountains in small aircraft. We talked about that before we had left her. Lance would ultimately suggest, a couple of weeks after the trip, that we should have given more consideration to self-rescue. That is, fashioning a stretcher from some dead tree limbs and our tarps, and carrying her out. We COULD have done that, but when you think through the problems (4 or 6 people carrying an extra 20 or 30 pounds in one hand, only half of the team being able to walk on the trail bed at any one time, while the other half scrambles to walk off trail at the same pace, the increased chances of injury to the people carrying her, the extra time it would have taken to get to the trailhead, the chances of Sue slipping off the stretcher in steep terrain and re-injuring the leg, and although we did not know it at the time, the fact that we would have been trying to do such in major rain), the way we handled it seemed to me to have been the way to go. But all these things are worth mulling over, since sometimes, the wilderness throws more at you than rough hiking and bad weather.

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Roger A. Jenkins, 2002; Helicopter Photos Andrew P. Butler, Susan M. Fischer, 2002