Gap Peak Scrambling Incident
January 26, 2019
Ealaine West and I decided to take advantage of the unusually warm January day to scramble up Gap Peak.
We carpooled from Calgary in E’s car leaving at 0800 with the promise of a fine blue sky. After parking at the gravel lot near the Baymag plant, we headed up the south ridge of Gap Peak, following a good trail. On emerging from the trees, the strong west wind was pushing us around a lot. Some significant scree appreciation was enjoyed before we regained the ridge. To this point we hadn’t see any significant snow cover on the ground, but the occasional dusting was never more than a couple of cms.
Going along the ridge was slower. I estimate a wind speed around 50kph with gusts to 80 or so. Sometimes we would stop for a minute or so as the ridge had become quite narrow. There were some pockets of snow on the east side of the ridge that stretched right to the ridge line. Most of the time we could creep along the edge of the snow, but close to the summit it was very narrow and we reached the summit at 1320. After a quick snack in a sheltered spot out of the wind and we started down. We found that our uptrack crossing the snow could be avoided by staying on the ridge. The winds had died down to 25 kph for a bit, and we hustled along. All to soon the wind was back, as intense as ever, but with more frequent gusts. There was a lot of ridge left to cover, and we decided it would be safer to get off the ridge, as there was a real risk of being blown off.. A very large scree bowl ran almost all the way down to tree line, and it looked like the remaining 500 m of bushwhacking would nicely put us into Grotto creek. There appeared that there could be some slabby cliff bands but our small sub-ridge looked like a possible solution to avoid those.
The going was good down the sub-ridge, although I was a bit surprised that the winds were not lower: 40 gusting 60. I was ahead of E, scouting around the small rock outcrops. E was picking her way along but doing fine. Rock size varies from pea sized to large baseballs, with the larger blocks as big as a watermelon. I had just gone over a small knob and was about 30 m ahead, when I head E shout my name. I paused for a few moments, thinking she was uncertain of her route. But she called again, and I headed uphill to reach her. Time: ~1415
E was lying on the scree 10 m off the line of the sub-ridge, and before I reached her it was obvious that she was in a LOT of pain. She screamed she had broken her ankle in two placed, and it was obvious that our unassisted journey was over. I pulled out my space blanket which is reinforced against wear. It covered her completely. Our alcove was not ideal by any means. It was sloped although E was on a ledge that was a bit more level. She was lying on her right side (injury to R ankle) and from a first aid perspective, her airway was in excellent condition. Perhaps Kananaskis Rescue (KR) could hear her all the way down there?
I dialed 911 hoping for cell reception, and it quickly connected. I could hear the Op centre clearly but the wind made it very hard for her to hear me. She asked for my name, location, phone number, and nature of emergency. I was able to tell of our (previous) plan that we were trying to descend towards Grotto Creek. As she repeated that info to me, I was aware that the phone number was wrong. And then the connection was lost. All we really had for medication was Ibuprofen. I didn’t think it would really do much for the intense pain, but it might help a little with the swelling of the injured area. Gave E 3 x 200 mg. Ealaine was cooling quickly, and I got a couple of Hot Shot packs from E’s pack. I swapped her light gloves for my double mittens. Tried the phone again. Nothing. So not being confident that KR had enough info to quickly find us, ( and with E’s strong encouragement!) I initiated my InReach SOS button.
E was very thirsty also, but that at least was managed readily with her water bottle equipped with a sip tube. That was great as she didn’t have to sit up to drink. I got a cell connection back to 911 and KR. I tried give them a GPS position, but it too was garbled by the wind. I could hear 911 talking to KR and 911 gave a ping location of my phone to KR. I noticed that they used latitude and longitude, not UTM co-ordinates, and thought that was strange. E’s pain spasms would sweep over her every 5 minutes or so, and she seemed to feel the chill intensely but apart from keeping her under the trap and giving more Hot Shots, there wasn’t a lot I could do.
It seemed like a very short while before we could hear a heli approaching. They readily found us and I like to think the large red blanket over E and my red jacket helped quite a bit. The winds were still not good and they made several approaches. They approached very cautiously and came close as if considering a toe-in touch for the alpine safety tech to get out. Unfortunately there were no good landing sites and the heli left. I got a couple of text messages from KR and we were able to exchange some basic info. Then KR asked me to send a photo of the injured area. Great! This was week four with my first smart phone and I did not know how to do that.
Well down the valley, I could see the long line rigged and a small figure on the end, being pulled along through the winds. I secured the site of loose things and held on to E while the heli landed the Tech. It was Matt Mueller, and a welcome addition to our small gathering! Time ~1530. The heli returned to the staging area near the 1A highway. After a short assessment, Matt requested a second tech on site, with pain meds. When they attempted to land this second tech, the winds were too blustery and he was flown back to staging. Matt produced a core-plast splint from his pack and we prepped E for a painful but necessary process. It took a while to gently lift and position the splint and then get it taped up securely, but E withstood it really well.
The next step was to get E into a ‘screamer suit’ ready for her ride down to staging. Matt produced this large roughly triangular diaper that wraps up the patient and clips to the long line. It was quite a challenge for E to lift herself while we wiggled this under her and then clipped the three corners to a common flight rated locking carabiner. It was easier for me to get into a second ‘suit’ and by then Matt had the packs all set to go: our ski poles were clipped and all the pack buckles fastened. A few brief instructions to me on the clipping to the long line, then just lean back. Heli came in, we clipped, and we were UP and AWAY!
The pilot flew slowly and the winds were incredible; it was much warmer than I anticipated. A long flight brought to the staging where the ground ambulance was waiting. Time~ 1610. Quickly E was loaded onto the stretcher and then into the ambulance. I gave some basic info to the KR crew (names and ages) and walked about 500m back to E’s car. I thanked Matt and Duncan and Kevin(?) for their tremendous work in helping us off the peak. Matt said they had not been busy the last few weeks at all, and they were glad to get out again.
I drove E’s car to Foothills Hospital. The ER staff was great. Very courteous, not very curious about ‘what the heck were you guys doing up there in the middle of January’ or even what was the mechanism of injury. They were just concentrating on the task of treating the patient. The ankle was dislocated and broken; I headed off to the nearby waiting room. I thought myself clever in that I had stuffed my leftover lunch into my coat pockets before leaving the car. I nibbled on those while waiting. Around 2000 she was back (with a realigned foot),. Then there was a long period of waiting before we found out E was going to admitted but they wanted fresh Xrays to see how the alignment looked. Off to radiology, then up the elevators to the unit. Pretty weary, I drove home and had a quick bite before going straight to bed.
Approx Incident location 5661100N;624300E Elev 2060m.
I want to offer some thoughts about things that went well, and things that may need improvement. We also learned some things that were available to us, but we didn’t know about them.
We had two communication devices with us: a smart phone and an InReach satellite messenger (SM) beacon. I was able to get a cell phone signal and reach Kananaskis Rescue (KR) through 911. I could hear the KR centre clearly but the wind made it very hard for her to hear me. I tried huddling inside my coat (and other contortions) to shelter the phone. She asked for my name, location, phone number, and nature of emergency. As she repeated that info to me, I was aware that the phone number was wrong. And then the connection was lost.
The Take-Away: If you reach emergency response, you may only have one chance to give them info. At our location the cell signal was not constant and the high winds were a big problem for the accurate transfer of info. It is possible to get a small simple device to protect the phone microphone (aka Wind Gag/Dead Cat), but you might be able to create a DIY substitute using a fabric glove, mitt or a small piece of foam with an elastic.
We had a good supply of chemical hand warmers. It’s really important to give the injured party a heat source (no matter how small). The mid-winter weather was very warm +8C.
I almost always carry a climbing helmet on scrambles and was wearing it at the time. Although I didn’t fall, the risk of a stumble was just as great for me. Modern helmets are very light – put it in your pack!.
We had a reinforced solar/space blanket. Very important to retain warmth and keep out of the wind.
We were well equipped with extra clothes, proper boots, gloves/mitts, and toques.
My injured companion stated that while we were waiting for assistance, my hands-on approach to providing situational information, comfort (such as it was) and verbal communication was really important. I didn’t hide any important info. I told them about dropped cell phone signals, SM signal initiation, heli approaching & looking for landing site. I let them know: I am going 20m over to the ridge to be more visible to the heli, I’m on my way back, I’m right here with you. I rubbed arms and unaffected leg and back to let them know of my presence and give a bit of heat generation. They really appreciated all those things.
Things for improvement.
These things would be helpful in a variety of ways. You may decide differently for your trip, and that is part of the “Freedom of the Hills”. There is no referee to enforce rules, and no Court of Appeal if it goes sideways. I would consider adding sit pad for comfort and to insulate from the ground; Maybe figure out some wind protection for the phone.
Things we didn’t know (or had forgotten)
- If you have cell coverage, you might be able to send a text message. BUT do not assume that those will be delivered. In our case, the initial text to my partner at my home was not delivered, but the following texts were delivered. That led to some confusion about the purpose of messages and how the recipient could help us in relaying info.
- Both the SPOT and InReach satellite messengers use the same emergency call centre in Houston. Their response will likely be to contact the emergency responders in your area. In Canada, this generally means Houston will call the RCMP. Then they will call the contacts listed on the profile of the SM user to inform them the SM has been activated. They will have a preset list of questions for the contact person, but are not likely to be very familiar with your mountain activity. The InReach does have two-way text message capability and it can be paired by Bluetooth to a cell phone making the message typing a lot easier.
- The more information your SM contact has about your activity, the better: trip destination, what vehicles are being used, number of participants, and what type of gear do the participants have with them. Some of that info may not be known when you leave the carpool lot, but a passenger could phone or text it while travelling. Maybe even take/send a photo which would show the license plate, model and colour of the vehicle.
- The emergency responder can make use of a photo you send them from the site. If you don’t know how to send a text photo, take some time to learn that skill.
- If you are in cell coverage, the emergency centre operator may ask for your position. Your cell phone likely has a compass feature. If you don’t know how to display this feature, learn it. Although you may not be able to move due to the incident, that feature will often give you a Latitude/Longitude that the responders will need.
- Your headlamp. A good way to attract the responders, especially a helicopter. Switch to the brightest or pulse setting and point it towards the responders.
- Pain Control. This is a tricky area. You may not be permitted to carry strong pain meds. It is highly likely to be an issue if there is a significant injury. Maybe the injured person has their own pain meds. Otherwise, I have no advice and mention it for your pondering. You could have an entire pharmacy with you, but still not have exactly what the patient needs.
As simple as it sounds, you and the folks at home need to know how to get help!
State that you have an alpine emergency and require rescue services within: (Waterton/Kananaskis Country/Banff/Yoho/Kootaney/Jasper/Glacier Park )
If you have cell coverage, you may wish to dial directly.
The phone numbers below were current as of Summer 2014.