“Hello, you’ve reached 911, how can I help you?” “Oh hi, I’m Michelle, I think I just broke my ankle on a hiking trail in the lakes basin and my phone is about to die…”
The cold was seeping into the gap between my jacket and jeans as I leaned back into the hillside, rocking back and forth with my hands cupped under my knee in an attempt to keep the pressure off my lifeless ankle. It was approaching the three quarter hour mark since my 911 call, and I was getting more nervous and scared with each tick of the clock. I resisted the urge to keep checking my phone, the bright red low battery light taunting me. I knew if that went, then they would have no way to reach me. Not that I had service anyways. I was lucky the 911 call connected. “Why didn’t I pack my external battery?”, I kept asking myself over and over again. The mantra of this competing with the “Why did I remove my shoe spikes?”
In reality I knew I had removed them because I hadn’t been near a patch of snow and ice for a mile and a half. There was just this one small two foot section on the connector back down to the cabin. I have a bad history with ice and Mammoth Lakes. A fifteen-year battle with a recurring shoulder dislocation was my penance. With this past history in my mind, I was being careful. I, in fact, was in the process of going around the patch, making a low duck under a tree branch, its green needles brushing gently against my cheek, when my heel caught on an edge of black ice and sent me spiraling down the steep terrain. I heard my ankle pop three times, like champagne corks going off simultaneously on New Year’s, then saw my foot flop limply in the wrong direction. This imagery that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I have always had a problem with gravity.
It had been one of those perfect Sierra mild winter mornings. The sun was a hard diamond in the sky above Lake George as I sat on the dock watching the water shimmer in the late morning light. It’s thawed depths miraculously clear and ice free on this early December morning. I had almost stayed at the cabin to read outside in the sunshine, but with a storm approaching and winter finally deciding to join us, I knew this was my last opportunity for a hike to the upper lakes before next summer. If I had only stayed at the cabin. Another endless stream of self- blame battering across my brain in time to the throbbing of my foot.
I was calm when it happened. I knew immediately that it was broken. That flop coming again to my mind’s eye, causing my stomach to roll over in sympathy with my ankle.
I had noticed a hiker in the distance as I started down the hill, and immediately started screaming for help at the limit of my vocal capacity. My hoarse cry, alarming to my ears in its desperation. If only I had a whistle. Another litany of “what ifs” plaguing my pain addled mind as I quietly hoped for a responding call. I had water and a fleece layer, which I immediately covered myself with, the shock already setting in with uncontrollable shaking. I’m not actually sure my teeth had ever chattered before. My knees certainly on a ski run in Chamonix, but my teeth? It’s funny how so many experiences you read about that you can’t actually picture, are surprising in their accuracy when it happens to you. I tried not to panic. They were coming. 911 had been reached. I had also finally gotten a text out to my friend Jen who lived in Mammoth, and my boyfriend back in Los Angeles, so they at least knew where I was, if search and rescue failed to find me.
It’s all going to be fine.
It was right around the hour mark that I started to get scared. The low winter sun had made its way behind the mountain and the temperature was dropping. It had to be around forty degrees now. My gloveless hands, still in a death hold on my knee to keep it steady, were ice cold. I heard sirens approach up Lake Mary Rd. Finally, I screamed in my head, the calvary have arrived. Until, I heard them head off in the wrong direction. “You’re fine, you are FINE.” I breathed to myself softly. Hearing anything, even my own exhausted voice was soothing.
I decided to carefully scooch myself down the hill to the actual trail. I wanted to make sure I was easy to see for the emergency team. I heard something coming from the direction of the trail. A soft whisper of movement. Please let this be the team and not a late season bear I thought to myself!
What does one do if one is immobile on the ground and a bear turns up? I’m not sure that has been covered in any wildlife literature I have read. Does one just stay quiet and hope they don’t notice? Does one call out “Hey bear!” to make sure they see you? But in calling out “Hey bear” what do you do if they do see you, start moving in your direction, and you can’t back away? What if the “Hey bear” surprises them and they charge you? Does one then roll into a ball?
This wasn’t a very healthy line of thought for someone incapacitated, so imagine my delight when I saw a hiker coming around a downed tree a little way down the trail! What luck?! I couldn’t believe more than one person was out hiking this random trail in winter. His expensive clothes and gear pack lending to an experienced hiker. I called out to him “Hello, excuse me!” I was beyond excited to see a person. I hadn’t, till this moment, realized how the aloneness of the situation was wearing on me. No matter that I knew people were coming, and knew others knew where I was, I had that thought of finally I am saved!
He casually sauntered over, no surprise or alarm in his bearing. I hastily explained to him, “Hi, I fell and broke my ankle and am waiting for the emergency responders, did you see anyone when you came up the trail?” “No,” he answered in a put out German accent, “But, it’s only like ten minutes to the bottom.” I was taken aback by the tone of his response. Implying that somehow it would be no problem to make my way down a steeply switch backed trail, alone, with a broken ankle. I’ve slipped and fallen on that trail with TWO working feet!
“Oh,” I flustered, “It’s just that it’s been over an hour since I called and no one’s come and my phone is almost dead.” This was greeted with a blank stare. Obviously not my knight in shining armor. I realized at this moment that he had no intention of offering me aid. I shifted tactics.
“How long are you hiking for?” I inquired. Since this was an unpopular trail, and also completely off season, I knew he couldn’t be going far, although his gear implied a journey of expedition level. He said he would just be hiking for an hour or so. “Okay,” I responded, “would you mind coming back this way in case they haven’t found me? That way you can at least let Tamarack Lodge know where you saw me?” He begrudgingly said “Okay.” and then continued on like he had never come across an injured hiker alone. I think he possibly broke every hiker code ever invented. It was almost laughable, although at this moment I didn’t find it very funny. Neither did search and rescue when they eventually found me.
This was the first time in my hour on the mountain that I got really upset. I couldn’t believe he had actually just left me. The feeling of abandonment was overwhelming. No inquiry if I was okay, needed anything, wanted him to call 911 again. NOTHING. I understand not wanting to interrupt your big hiking plan, but this was an uninspiring off season trail, not Mt. Whitney! The tears were right there as I saw his back retreating into the dense woods. Panic was sitting right next to them holding their hand, both ready to leap off the cliff of hysteria together. I knew crying wasn’t going to solve anything. I tried to shift into anger at the unempathetic hiker, but in the end, I was only angry at myself for landing in this situation.
The woods were silent after he left. The loneliness setting in as the chill crept into me from the frozen forest floor. I started to think about what I would do if I wasn’t found. Could I realistically crawl my way down the switchbacks and somehow drag myself to the cabin before dark? I had closed someone’s under deck storage doors on one of the cabins above me as I passed earlier, their broken latch secured with a pine twig. Could I drag myself up the hill the shorter distance and take cover in there? I had seen a tarp. Would that provide enough warmth and protection for overnight freezing temperatures? Even though the day was mild, it was still winter in the Sierra Nevadas.
I knew it wouldn’t come to this, Jen was on her way and knew exactly where I was, if search and rescue didn’t beat her. But the producer in me felt better making a plan, instead of sitting there thinking about the ankle and its unnatural angle.
I heard voices. Several of them. I saw the leader coming around that same fallen log, his large pack and uniform confirming these were finally the emergency team.
“Over here” I called out to them quietly as a bolt of pain shot through my ankle. Their arrival somehow signaling my foot that it was now perfectly acceptable to let all the hurt loose. “Are you Michelle?” a rugged man calmly asked me. He introduced himself, “Hi, I’m Joel.” As the rest of the team made their way up the final slope, their breath coming fast with the exertion of carrying packs and a stretcher up the vertical terrain.
“How long have you been waiting?” one of the mountain rescue team asked between large inhales. “Around an hour and a half I think….” I muttered through chittering teeth, while trying to do the math in my head, even that slight movement sending a bolt through me. He was very disappointed and apologized, “911 sent us to the wrong location, we thought you were over by Panorama Dome.” “Really?!” I exclaimed. “I gave them super specific info about the trail and where to access it from.” He was pretty exasperated when he responded “They didn’t give us that, we finally pinged your cell phone and figured out where you were.” Thank the gods for technology I thought. This was another lesson in how even 911 isn’t infallible. It also unleashed another dive into self-loathing. If I had had my battery-pack I could have stayed on the phone with them. That probably cost me about an hour on the frigid mountain.
There was a hurried scramble as the rest of team gathered. Backpacks were placed on the needle covered floor, and the red litter was set down nearby. The questions began… “What’s your name?” “How old are you?” “Can you explain how you fell?”
My answers were coming in a jerky chattering speech I had never heard before. I kept apologizing. “I’m sooo sohhray, I donnnn’t know why myyy voooice is shaaaakkking soooo much.”
“It’s perfectly normal, you are in shock. You are okay.”
I’m okay. I’m okay. They are here, you are fine.
The boot removal was not okay. I had untied my shoe as soon as I fell, knowing I had broken it. I thought about taking it off immediately, but what if I had to drag myself down the hill? As they inched the stubborn leather off my foot and I gasped, I realized it didn’t actually feel as terrible as I thought it would. I was just, well, terrified. Adrenaline is a miraculous thing. It is amazing how our body has these little built in escapes for dealing with trauma. “This isn’t bad” Joel comforted me, “I’ve had to remove ski boots from broken ankles before.” I thought back to my lifelong struggle to just get my ski boots on. Wincing and twisting and pushing. I can’t imagine trying to remove that stubborn pile of plastic from a broken foot.
The sock however was a different matter. They discussed pulling it off, I stopped them immediately. “Jussst cuutt ttt it” I chattered. “Are you sure?” I believe Joel responded. Never in my life as a procrastinator has a decision been made so clearly and precisely.
They examined my foot while I steadily looked in the other direction. The pulse was the important part they told me, an X being marked with a sharpie where they located it on my foot. “If we didn’t find a pulse,” Joel explained, “then you would be heading out on a helicopter to Reno.” I learned a lot of things about ankle fractures that afternoon. One of them being that if you lose your foot pulse you could lose your foot. I was to learn a lot more about this later that night….