By Malcolm Watts
My story starts in Assateague, the Maryland seashore State Park, where my wife and I were on vacation with our daughter Beth and grand-children, enjoying sharing the beach with the wild ponies that live there. OnThursday, July 2nd, I set off for the Half Moon campsite at the top end Tigiwan Rd., just north of Vail in Colorado, arriving around noonon July 4th. My intent was to climb the last on the list of my two centennials of the high-est 100 peaks in Colorado. I had started climbing them after a second hip replacement at the age of 70. I’m now 78 and yes, my family regarded me as both crazy and OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder). I replied to them that they are lazy.
On arrival at the campsite, to my complete amazement, after having driven past 200 parked cars, there were several camp sites free. The weather proceeded to crater with only a few hours each day rain free.
On Thursday July 9th the forecast said there was a window of no rain from 2:00 am to about noon. So I set off at 3:00 am to re-explore the route up Mt. Holycross Ridge (I had tried twice before in 2013 but got rained out) with no intention of summiting because of my lack of altitude acclimatization. To my surprise I got onto the 13,000 ft. Ridge which leads from the Notch to Mt. Holycross Ridge summit at around 11:00 am. There is a shelter at the Notch for pilgrims to overnight or rest for their view of the Holycross delineated in snow.
After reviewing my position and goals, I decided to hike about half an hour towards the summit and then de-scend a talus slope (talus is a mix of boulders ranging in size from a football to a house) towards the grass strip be-tween the beautiful Tuhare Lakes at about 12,000 ft. The weather showed no signs of rain and was sunny at times.
The talus slope of about 1,000 ft. is similar to perhaps 1,000 slopes I've descended during my hiking life and distinctly easier than many. Indeed, the Ridge route is only a Class 2 (hiking routes are graded 1-4 before they become tech-nical needing ropes) and since I was by myself, I decided to descend and felt I was doing all the prudent things.
Halfway down, with perhaps 500 ft. to go to the flat grass, between the lower and upper Tuhare Lakes, I slipped and fell forward about 10 ft. hitting my right femur on a rock ridge. I slid another 5 ft. to come to a stop. Having gathered my wits and given myself a stern talking to, I stood up, only to discover my right leg could not support me and promptly fell/slipped about another 10 feet. After review-ing my position, I got out my cell phone which displayed no service! Then I tried my SPOT device, whose service contract I'd just renewed and whose batteries I'd just replaced. The SPOT does 2 things: - it says via satellites, to SPOT and notify my nominated people that I urgently needed to be rescued. It provides coordinates of EXACTLY where I am. Unfortunately, there is no feedback mechanism confirming that my message has been received.
I then remembered the book with a title something like “Touching the Void", which describes an unbelievable self-rescue in the Andes and decided to see how much of the ap-proximately 500 ft. I could slide down, on my backside. My location in the middle of a talus slope was not very visible and I thought that if I could get further down I'd be much more visible. I set off. After 15 ft., I found that I'd lost my cell phone. It must have slipped out of my pocket. At huge personal cost I tried to reverse the 15 ft. without success. Why did I try this move? I was relying on my Spot, because sometimes one can regain reception.
So off I go again. Moving my right leg by lifting it up with my good leg or by using my hands to lift it up. Pro-gress, even one inch took a great personal toll, in terms of pain and energy. As I descended, I pressed the SPOT help button about 6 times in case they had not heard my first call for help and that they would know I was still alive.
At about 300 ft. from the grass, I'd had enough. The bottom was torn out of my hiking pants and as I discov-ered later my backside was severely grazed. As I continued to descend, I consoled myself with the thought that hypo-thermia was supposedly a painless way to go. I found a little ledge, took out my vivid orange bivy bag and got into it with huge difficulty. I found myself addressing my leg as a separate person, named "Jordan," wondering if it had to share my bag and whether it needed food.
My guess is that it was about 6:00 pm when I settled in for the night. I still had plenty of food and water. My major goal was to put my waterproof trousers on. Although they unzipped to the waist, I found getting "Jordan" into the right space nearly impossible, hence zipping my bag up around my head but was likewise impractical. After about 30 minutes of fitful struggles, a large military helicopter appeared and flew around me and then vanished. I later learned that this one was indeed searching for me but couldn't see my brilliant orange bivy bag. At least it gave me hope.
As the sun was going down, another smaller helicopter flew around me, and then directly over me as I waved vigorously. The damn machine then flew around the mountains, doubtlessly enjoying the sunset and cumulus cloud views, but not rescuing me. After what seemed like forever, it landed and deposited people on the grassy patch be-tween the two lakes, again renewing my hope. Eventually the appropriately named Christopher emerged, having tak-en about an interminable 30 minutes to reach me. He was helmeted with big backpack, saying "are you Mr. Watts?" I don't clearly remember what I said next but it was probably a mix of "am I glad to see you" and a "what took you so long" with the emphasis on the former.
Shortly after the arrival of the appropriately named Christopher, Steve appeared with helmet, big backpack and medical gear. He asked if I was in pain and did I need an injection? I said "yes, yes" to which he replied we ought to focus on the rescue - damn I was hurting. Next, the helicopter hovered overhead generating what seemed to be hurricane force winds as I clung on to my possessions. A stretcher was let down. The helicopter departed. By this time the weather had changed and drizzle/hail had started to fall. The two rescuers very gently rolled me onto the stretch-er and then took what seemed to be 30 minutes to strap me in, using typical climbing webbing and karabiners. What was most noticeable was that any, even a light touch on "Jordan," resulted in me yelling at them, but immediately followed by my apology.
Eventually, with me shivering uncontrollably because I was half out of my bag, the helicopter returned and I was hoisted. Because there was only one thin wire cable, I spun around like a top before being hoisted aboard by what seemed to me a teenager! The helicopter is run by the National Guard, and they use rescues for training exercis-es. Apart from relief of getting off the mountain I'd hoped for some warmth. It was a false hope. The crew were friendly but the helicopter appeared to have no doors, hence open to the elements, blade wind and noise.
It took only 10 minutes to get to the ambulance at the start of Tigiwan road, and many cheerful faces plus warmth - AND painkillers. They needed 3 attempts to establish an IV for blessed pain meds of which several were tried with some most welcome success. The only negatives were that I had to be moved from the recue stretcher to the ambulance stretcher and then again to another stretcher in the hospital. Each move was very painful. Why can't they all use the same stretcher? I was then driven to Vail. The expectation was that I'd have surgery at their hospital, but after several X-Rays it was determined it was outside their competence so I needed to go to Denver's Porter Hos-pital, a 1.5 hour drive.
The time line as far as I can establish is that my eldest daughter Isla (42), was contacted (by SPOT) about 4:00 pm, EDT, 2:00 pm Mountain time. She then contacted rescue services, who were ironically attending a memorial ser-vice and then they set off. I was lucky that this all happened in daylight. Isla then contacted my wife and my other children namely George(43), Beth(36) and Claire(33). My son George and youngest daughter Claire immediately bought air tickets before knowing if I was alive or rescued, with the intent to rescue me, bury me or ensure I was get-ting good medical help. My wife arrived the next day.
I remember arriving at Denver, and slept and awoke to find myself at Porter Hospital on Friday July 10th and met a very friendly young surgeon by name of Jason Jennings. After more X-rays he explained that only my femur was broken (I’d imagined it was my hip too), and that he’d have to do extensive surgery to replace my existing artifi-cial hip. He would have to get customized hip socket bearings from the Rothman Institute, in Philadelphia, where I’d had my hip replaced in 1992, which meant he could not operate until Monday. He also explained that he expected his patients to go on an ascent of a 14,000 ft. mountain next summer to show they had fully recovered. It sounded a vote of confidence in his surgery and a good idea to me.
The surgery went well and after rehab in Denver, my daughter Isla came out to fly home with me. Because of the seriousness of the surgery, I was not allowed to put weight on my leg for 3 months. It felt like being in prison. I was "released" on October 5th and am now back to hiking for up to 3 hours. Hallelujah!
People have been most critical of me hiking alone. Interestingly, I had planned to have a partner but he cancelled. However, without my SPOT, I'd probably be dead. It would have taken a partner 4-5 hours to get back to the campsite. After the partner would send an alarm any rescue attempt, because of darkness, would have probably had wait until the next morning. Bt that time hypothermia could have killed me. So even with a partner or even in a group having a working SPOT device is essential!
Was I scared? Not really, I’m used to doing risky things all my life, like my hobbies of spelunking as a teenager, and then rock climbing until age 32. My specialty at work was starting up large petrochemical plants. Somehow these activities inured me of being frightened. On that eventful Thursday, July 9, I just accepted that my injury had hap-pened and I’d see how it would play out. By the way, I did not write any last notes as I was rescued before the idea crossed my mind.