Life Interrupted . . . Forever Grateful for the SOS Button

I’ve always prepared a bit more than the average hiker for emergencies. I promote and mentor risk mitigation. In fact my most popular blog post is specific to this subject, Dear Friends and Family. I live this philosophy and as a result felt better about my situation when I found myself in need of help. 

So what happened?

I was hiking northbound on the PCT. I’d camped at Mirror Lake in Three Sisters Wilderness the previous night.

After hiking about five miles that morning, I found myself falling down a slope. I have absolutely no idea what caused me to fall. The trail was in good condition, flat and wide with no real obstructions. My wrist took the full force of the fall. It was obviously dislocated. 

To Activate the SOS on my inReach or NOT?

My legs were fine. I hadn’t hit my head nor did I have any bleeding. The pain and discomfort was manageable. I had exit options involving less than 10 miles of hiking. I didn’t want to push the button but I knew I was in shock and shouldn’t be making decisions. Thankfully I didn’t have to. Hot Lips and Caveman became my angels. Although I was hiking solo, they were at the right place at the right time and ultimately sacrificed their day for me.

The Waiting Game

This is where I was so happy to have two-way communication via my inReach. I knew my SOS was received and help was on it’s way. It took four hours for an EMT to arrive. 

Just because a helicopter arrives doesn’t mean quick or easy extraction. In this case even though I had helicopter insurance, my condition didn’t warrant a ride. Furthermore, hot temperatures made lift challenging and as such the helicopter departed immediately leaving Jason behind to escort me to a trailhead. 

Jason’s job was to evaluate and stabilize my injury. A SAR volunteer was on a backpack trip nearby so he was solicited to help with this process. Why am I smiling? It might have been the pain medications I’d been given my Hot Lips. The EMT did not carry medications. I had some in my pack but Hot Lips was able to access her supply quicker. Word to the prepared: stock something stronger than ibuprofen for these situations.

The next to arrive on scene were two volunteers on horseback to carry out my pack. 

Once my pack was loaded, we began the 8.5 mile hike to the nearest trailhead. It was now about 7 hours since my accident and 5.5 hours since activating my SOS. 

I ended up with quite a large rescue crew with some coming from the west side, Lane County, and others coming from the east side, Deschutes County. We met up with a team of 5-7 volunteers who’d hike in about 4 miles from the trailhead. The team included a doctor who evaluated my condition and who had additional pain medication available. About 2 miles from the trailhead we met another horseback team who’d brought a horse which would have been used for my evacuation had I not been able to hike.

The ambulance was waiting for me at the trailhead. I arrived at 9pm, a full 12 hours after my accident and 10.5 hours after activating my SOS. One of the most helpful items I had with me to relieve stress and expedite care was a typed page with all my emergency, medical and surgical information so those helping could take a photo, copy or transcribe what they needed. It included my name, address, allergies, medications, past medical/surgical history, emergency contacts, medical insurance, etc. 

I landed at St Charles Medical Center in Bend at 10pm. They rushed me in, gathered vitals, x-rays and treated my dislocation. I was discharged at 1am. Thankfully I had my emergency contacts set up with inReach. Dispatch stayed in contact with them regularly and as a result my niece arrived at the hospital shortly after I did. 

A Different Kind of Nightmare

While I was scheduled to meet with a hand surgeon the next morning in Bend, my insurance had other plans. Since I travel extensively, I knew my plan only covered emergencies out of network. Once I’d been discharged from the emergency room, my condition was no longer considered an emergency. Thus I had to find my way back to California. Had family and friends not been available to help, this would have been a true nightmare. As it was I made it back to Redding just as the Carr Fire erupted, with 38,000 homes evacuated including mine, and 1,000 lost . . . thankfully not mine. The community was in the midst of a major crisis with most businesses closed including medical and surgical facilities. After a few more days of fighting with my insurance, I finally got an out-of-area referral to Sacramento where I had surgery at UC Davis. 

Sometime you just have to laugh about the ridiculousness of the situation. 

And give thanks to friends and family who understand, and who’ve gone out of their way to assist in my recovery. Let’s say I have a lot of pay-it-forward debt.

Shit happens. Life is full of risk whether I’m out hiking, taking a bath or driving a car. I choose to manage risk and prepare for it but I also choose not to let it rule my life. As soon as I’m able to hold a hiking pole, I’ll be back out there adding miles to my resume. Until then, I’ll be working to rebuild strength and dexterity in my arm, wrist and fingers. I was so happy the first time I could make a ponytail (the things you don’t realize takes two hands) and even more so when I could braid my hair. 

Good thing I have a lot of blogging to catch up on since typing is great therapy. 

Tips:

  • Wilderness first aid training is beneficial. A hiker who’d just taken the course made this excellent sling out of my rain jacket. He also soaked my buff so I’d have a cold compress for my wrist. 
  • If possible hike to water before activating SOS. We knew there was a creek and meadow a couple miles from my accident site. I immediately soaked my arm/wrist in the creek and then used my pack liner bag for soaking during the long four-hour wait. I couldn’t have found a better place to wait vs in the middle of a recent burn where I fell and where it would have been less likely I could have gotten a signal out. It’s also a good reminder of carrying sufficient water in case you’re stuck somewhere for a day or two awaiting help.
  • Know your emergency device. I’ve been using mine for about five years and had it paired with phone for easier texting and access to my contacts. I’d read the FAQ’s and had spoke with a couple of hikers who’d had to activate the SOS. I knew what to expect. Take time to set up your emergency contact online. Consider getting the helicopter insurance as it’s not always provided as a free service. Carry an external battery and don’t drain in case you need it to recharge your phone or inReach in an emergency situation.
  • Carry resources to help with exit options. While I was carrying Halfmile Maps which don’t show much beyond the PCT, I had also downloaded a much larger area to my Gaia app. The couple who helped with my sling also had a NatGeo map which we reviewed for exit options. 
  • Carry/wear a rescue color. By the time the helicopter arrived there were about 10-15 hikers around. My friend Ron’s shirt was the only one they could see. I’ve since been told that bright blue is the best as it’s not a color found in nature. Other ways to get attention are a signal mirror, a mylar emergency blanket or by taking flash photos.
  • Do the work in advance to help SAR help you. This will also help in the case of a medical emergency. Dear Friends & Family, If I become a Missing Person . . .
  • Make a donation to your local SAR, consider becoming a volunteer, and definitely make a donation to the ones who responded if you ever have to push the SOS button. If you want to make a donation on my behalf, here are the links: Lane County SAR and Deschutes County SAR.

 

 

21 thoughts on “Life Interrupted . . . Forever Grateful for the SOS Button

  1. Honestly don’t know what I would have done differently. I have a SPOT, so I think I would have been very hesitant to press SOS since without the ability to text, it could convey my life was in danger. I really don’t want to invest in a different device, especially if you have to sync with a phone, since I never have mine on or available, but now I am thinking about it.

    • You don’t have to sync the inReach SE or Explorer with phone, it just makes it easier than texting via the old flip phone type typing. I hear the new mini needs to be synced. I think the SOS works without it but you wouldn’t be able to text.

      I know we’ve talked about how long we would wait if we didn’t know. I don’t know that I could have or would have had Barbara and Mike not been there. I’m pretty stubborn.

  2. Thanks for sharing the details of your ordeal. I’m curious if you had any idea at the time of injury as to the severity of the fracture or that it would require a metal plate and multiple surgeries. I’m glad you got help right away. But I get confused about how to know when to call for help or to hike out on your own.

    • I knew it was serious because of the dislocation but otherwise I had no idea. If we were together I’m sure we would have quite the discussion before hitting the SOS button, but then again we are both take charge people when we need to be and would put our LTHAD philosophy first! Definitely no black and white answer.

    • I think we all hate thinking about injury and accidents so taking time to prep is hard to prioritize. It’s a bit like when I had to be fire evacuated from my house a few years ago. I stood there like an idiot having no idea what I should pack. But afterwards I made a couple plastic tubs, labeled fire evacuation and included list of stuff to include that wasn’t already packed. It made it stress free and easy for my neighbors when I wasn’t home for evacuation this time.

  3. So glad you are alright, and impressed that you were so prepared as a normal precaution. Such injuries can be disorienting just from the pain, and logistics of evacuation can be daunting. Could have been worse as you say. Good choice to be on the PCT, which is fairly popular in summer, compared to all the off-trail hiking I do with only GPS, or nothing. I knock on wood but have never broken a bone or dislocated a joint. Yet I will stop by REI and look into the SPOT system some more.
    As for the Carr Fire, I hesitate to see the area where I grew up. In this case precaution reasonably means that wherever decadent brush is 20 feet tall, some regular thinning or prescribed burning should be done by the managing agencies before all 42,000 acres of National Recreation Area and beyond are smoked.

    • I too do a lot of off trail technical hiking and am grateful this injury happened where it did.

      You’ll want to compare spot to InReach. Last I knew spot didn’t offer two way communication not verification signal sent was received.

      You are right about forest management and the fires. Not only have we lost Whiskeytown but now the Delta fire has burned through the Sacramento River canyon near Castella.

  4. Jan, you are simply amazing! You’ve turned a very unfortunate accident into a learning experience for thousands of hikers. I’ll be sharing your wonderful blog post!
    I just hiked this section the first week of August. Sounds like you were north of Mesa Creek, near the Foley Ridge Tr junction; am I close?
    I would reiterate, never hesitate to call on SAR for help. As volunteers, we love what we do and want to help when someone is in your situation! It is NOT an inconvenience; each mission is training for the next mission.
    Thanks for this public outreach Jan. I hope you are back out there very soon.

    • Thank you for your feedback. It’s so reassuring to hear from SAR that I did the right thing. Jason was very reassuring also.

      We exited via Devil’s Lake Trail. We staged at Hinton Creek which is about 3 miles north of Mesa Creek.

      I’m planning to write an article for the PCT magazine to help hikers set realistic expectations regarding response times, etc.

      I battle in my mind frequently the staying put if lost and if I didn’t have two way communication. It would be tough to find myself in the situation of Inch Worm or Otter. I’d want to do my best to make progress toward exit.

      Thanks again for your feedback and most importantly your SAR participation.

  5. Wow Jan, another wonderful post regarding your adventure. For me, I can picture the scene because I know that area so well… but besides that, as another solo hiker, learning from your experience will serve me greatly. It was fortunate you had a couple of clear heads nearby who helped you problem solve the situation. I think that must have been the hardest part.. what to do in the face of the worst case scenario. An injury in the wilderness can mess with being clear headed, and is another risk of going solo I had not considered. Your level of preparedness is an excellent trail for us to follow!

  6. Jan, you are always such an inspiration – I’m catching up to this about six-weeks late, but better late than never. Really terrific post – chock full o’ details and excellent advice as usual. I hope you are feeling much better by now. My family’s home was destroyed by that crazy Carr Fire and I’m very happy yours was not! Looking very much forward to following your next adventure, as I am now a Bay Area bound gal and my hiking is confined to local environs around SF. 🙂

    • I’m still in shock about the Carr Fire devastation. I can only imagine how you feel. My new neighbors lost their home also. And now adjusting to life in a new area just adds to the stress and grief. It’s going to be a long recovery for many.

      As to my accident my recovery is coming along nicely. I’m 3+ months out and about to finish physical therapy. I started hiking again a few weeks ago. It’s going to take patience to regain fitness as I must manage swelling still and am limited on hiking pole use. I feel confident I’ll get back to near 100% range of motion and flexibility eventually. I’m still thankful everyday I didn’t hurt my legs or dominant arm or back or head . . . Best case scenario happened and hopefully that’ll be the last of major injuries.

      I’ve been back in my house about a month and after 7 months of being away and having to do a lot with one arm, catch up has been overwhelming but each week I’m making forward progress so that’s a great thing. Life goes on as they say. Wishing you the best as you continue to adjust to your changes.

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