I never thought I would have to actually use what I learned on NOLS to help someone injured in the backcountry. It’s a bit ironic that a situation arose about a month before I am taking my Wilderness First Responder course, but I did what I could, and at least I now know that WFR can actually be useful. So here’s the story of the eventful weekend:
Osha from Colorado and I both were traveling to El Bolson on the same day, and we both wanted to do some trekking, so we planned a three day/two night trek to Cerro Hielo Azul and Cajón del Azul. Both of our destinations had refugios nearby, or little guesthouses with a kitchen, some hostel-style beds, and a campground. We planned to camp, but since neither of us had a stove, we decided to survive off of sandwiches for the entire trip. So the night before we left, we made some hummus from garbanzo beans in the store, cooked up some lentils and rice for the first night, and bought sandwich fixings: avocado, cheese from the feria, bell pepper, and cucumber. The amount of food ended up being perfect (with some mate to supplement, of course) and I definitely did not get tired of sandwiches.
We left El Bolson on Sunday via taxi to reach the trailhead. The trail ran along a teal blue river with white rocks lining the bottom, then crossed a rickety suspension bridge and began its 1000-meter, 15-kilometer ascent to the Refugio Cerro Hielo Azul. Lids of cans painted rust-red with yellow designs or circles in the middle served as the blazes that marked our way. We passed through many different environments: mossy forests, more tropical areas with bamboo undergrowth, and areas with rich orange clay soil. It felt so good to surrender to the rhythm of my steps once again and to let my mind flitter hummingbird-like from thought to thought without analyzing or dwelling. The light wind and drizzle that began halfway through the trek allowed us to stay cool throughout the uphill, and we reached the Refugio right before it really rained.
The Refugio sat alongside a river that falls with sky-blue water from a glacier above. Rocky and sharply-peaked mountains, like all of those in the Andes, formed a bowl around the Refugio and the verdant meadow next to it. Rough half-trunks of trees created the walls of the buildings, and cross-sections of trees laid into cement formed the floor. We stayed in el quincho, a shed with only the necessities: a loft for sleeping, a picnic table, and a wood-burning stove to heat the place at night. Since there weren’t many people staying in the main Refugio (less rustic accommodations, with mattresses and a kitchen) we spent the evening in there. We ate homemade bread and joined mate circles with the other trekkers. Most of the other guests were from Argentina, so we practiced our spanish a lot and even learned Truco, an Argentinean game. The night reminded me of all I love about backpacking: the other trekkers, the art of staying clean in the backcountry, the delicious food, packing a pack each day, and escaping from cities and tourism and moving quickly for a bit.
In the morning, we hiked about 500 meters up to a glacier, intending to make the trip a two-hour hike and then to continue to the next Refugio. The path climbed steeply over boulder fields, and much of the trek required the assistance of a hand or two to scale larger rocks. It felt like the passes in Alaska again, where you concentrate on each step to prevent yourself from sliding all the way down the mountain.
We had visited the glacier and were returning to the Refugio when we heard, “HOLA! HOLA!” shouted from the rocks above. We stopped to listen. The only words we could make out were “HOLA” shouted over and over again, so we assumed that the group of four guys who we had met at the top were communicating. Osha shouted up, “ESTÁS BIÉN?” and we heard no response. We were about to go down and not worry about it when Osha decided to try to run at least to a higher vantage point just to make sure everything was okay; we didn’t think anything could actually be wrong. At that point, one of the four friends appeared on the top of a cliff. “MI AMIGO CAYÓ! NECESITA AYUDA!” he yelled. We both took off, heading straight towards the point where the friend stood as quickly as possible while still being safe. I scaled about 15 meters of nearly-vertical rock, fueled now by adrenaline as opposed to common sense.
We reached the two friends to find one lying in a small creek with his hands covered in blood, groaning and entirely unable to move. Upon our arrival, the friend of the injured started down to the Refugio for help. In retrospect, it would have been best to first spend five minutes analyzing the situation and sending the friend down with some sort of a note detailing what was wrong and asking immediately for a stretcher, because the friend really knew nothing about the condition. Oh well… we did what we could. Soon, another one of his friends arrived to the sound of the calls, and the three of us – Osha, Julian, and I – were left to deal with Robertino. He had strayed from the trail and from his friends in favor of what seemed, to him, a more direct route, and had slipped on the top of this cliff. The slip sent him careening down from a point about 10 meters above where he now lay, and he had turned something like three times in the air, and fallen here. He couldn’t move his right leg or his hip, so he just stayed curled up in semi-fetal position against the rocks, but nothing in his neck, back, or head seemed wrong. A miracle. An insane miracle.
My mind rewound quickly to the little bit of first aid that I had learned on NOLS, so I started taking notes about the situation. Vitals, medical history, name and phone numbers, signs and symptoms… I wrote down whatever would be useful in case he passed out for some reason. I asked him ridiculous questions like “Who’s the president of Argentina?” (which, when he had gotten far enough away from the shock of the fall to laugh a bit, he playfully made fun of me for) to test his consciousness. From then on, besides taking more vitals, our only jobs were to keep him warm and awake, though he kept saying that he felt tired and asking us if he could sleep.
The wilderness doctors finally arrived, and after a quick survey, radioed down to the Refugio asking for a stretcher. The three of us waited with him while the others planned a route to descend the almost-500 steep and rocky meters down to the bottom carrying a man on a stretcher. A helicopter evacuation was not an option in Argentina. When the stretcher arrived with more strong arms, we completely immobilized him by strapping him to the board with rope and taping his legs together. As we lifted him onto the stretcher and tried to tie him down without putting pressure on his hip, I learned a whole slew of new ways to swear in Spanish.
With seven of us, we could put three people on either side of the stretcher and have one controlling the rope uphill of the stretcher to give a safety net if multiple stretcher-carriers fell. The first leg of the journey was uphill, so the doctors somehow used rock climbing equipment to bolt a pulley system into a rock uphill so that someone could help pull the stretcher up with a rope. We shuffled slowly uphill, tripping over rocks and over each other and all the while trying to tilt the stretcher as little as possible to avoid hurting Robertino more. At the top, we took a break, all panting and stripping off layers, even though it had started to snow a little bit.
We hoisted him up, then traversed before our trajectory dove steeply downhill. Here, we were basically skating on loose rocks and gravel, so every time we dug our heels in they would slide about half a meter further down from where we had initially put them. I wore my light running shoes, so rocks from above rolled down to bruise my ankles and calves and the smallest stones filled the heel of my shoes. Everyone fell a couple of times, but the strength of the other five was such that the stretcher would only tip slightly until the person who fell righted themself and took their place back alongside the stretcher again. We took breaks, and when we continued down again, we maintained the utmost concentration to not let Robertino or the other helpers down by falling or not carrying some of the weight of the stretcher.
About halfway down, replacements met us, and I, the only member of the carrying team who was not a burly man, switched out and carried a backpack of gear instead. The procession continued downhill, now including about five alternates trailing behind the seven carriers. Robertino barely complained, and even joked from time to time, although being strapped to a rocking and jolting board could not have been comfortable for him.
The procession finally filed into the Refugio, placed the stretcher on the floor next to the warmth of the wood-burning stove, and all collapsed onto benches and chairs. Osha and I had started up the mountain at 10:30, reached the site of the injured at about 1:00, and by now, after a descent of two or three hours, it was about 5:45, and we had not eaten since breakfast. We ravenously devoured our sandwiches outside, since Robertino wasn’t allowed to eat and also was hungry. About half an hour later, a new group started down towards El Bolson (a three-hour walk without a stretcher), met some firefighters halfway, and finally reached the hospital, we heard, around two in the morning. Robertino had fractured his hip, as expected, but otherwise was pretty uninjured. What a crazy combination of something so horrible and something so incredibly lucky, Osha and I commented afterwards.
Needless to say, we decided not to continue on to the next Refugio that night, and instead stayed in the Refugio as guests of the owner, a kind woman who had been the rope-bearer on the entire way down. We ate a lot of food and played bananagrams in English, Spanish, and Spanglish with other Refugio guests to decompress. Finally, this morning we walked down the same way we had climbed up and took the bus back to El Bolson.
Well. That was a lot to write (and a LOT to experience, too). This morning, we looked up at the mountain and pinpointed the exact point of the fall, the patch of snow next to where he lay, and the path we took to descend. Neither of us could believe that we had actually carried the stretcher down the entire way. Now, I am relaxing in El Bolson for the night – showering and repacking – before meeting Dario and Laura, the owners of the farm that I will be working on, in Cholila tomorrow. Sending love to all and wishes for health and safety!