Slayton: Hiker rescue

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(HOST) The Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York is one of the largest wilderness areas in the country. Recently, commentator Tom Slayton and a group of friends found out what happens when someone gets hurt, miles from roads, shelter, and medical care.

(SLAYTON) As every hiker knows, going down any major mountain is harder than going up. Experts will tell you that most accidents happen on the way down. Some friends and I inadvertently proved that particular point, on a recent hike deep in the Adirondacks.

We had climbed our objective – Saddleback, a tough mountain, guarded by sheer rock faces and steep ledges, and were headed down, using our hiking poles, nearby trees, and sometimes the seat of our pants to navigate the steep rocks.

At the bottom of the last face, Karin, the youngest and one of the fittest of our group, took a little jump down. But she missed the landing and fell – hard on some rocks – twisting an ankle. She screamed in pain, and then lay there moaning.

We quickly wrapped her ankle, but she was pale, obviously in shock, and unable to walk. We were high on a mountain, two miles from shelter, five miles from the nearest road. We would have to call for a rescue.

We had a cell phone, but deep in the mountains, there was no signal. Linda, the fastest hiker in our group, and I were detailed to go for help. We began running for Johns Brook Lodge and the nearest working telephone.

In the meantime, Scott, our resourceful and strong-as-an-ox leader, quickly devised a plan for getting Karin off the mountain: the four strongest men would take turns carrying her piggyback. Fortunately she was small and light.

It was a tortuously slow process. Karin, the piggybackee, was in good spirits now, cheerfully joking with her beasts of burden – with occasional yelps of pain as her injured ankle hit a rock or tree in the rough descent. This went on for more than two hours.

In the meantime, Linda and I had reached John’s Brook Lodge and called in the cavalry – or in this case the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and a State Police helicopter. The chopper brought in Ranger Pete Evans, who brought Karin the remaining half-mile or so to the lodge. There, he splinted her leg and fitted her with a harness, and the helicopter came roaring in.

The chopper dropped a cable with a hook, and suddenly, Karin was airborne! Up into the aircraft she went, followed by Ranger Evans. The helicopter then turned down the valley, and was gone.

We found out two days later that Karin had suffered a broken ankle. Her 2009 hiking season is over. Fortunately, because there was no negligence or recklessness on our part, Karin’s family won’t be billed for the rescue.

But we all learned something as a result of her fall. First, accidents can happen, even to the best of us. Second, because no one panicked and a good plan was carefully executed, we were able to help ourselves: Karin got closer to assistance. Third, there’s a reason for mountain emergency units: our thanks go to the New York State Public Safety Department and to Ranger Evans for quickly and competently coming to our friend’s rescue.

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