Originally written 6/16/15.
For part 1, click here: http://nerdseye.com/2015/10/26/adventure-13-my-40th-birthday-part-1/
All Pixabay photos used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/deed.en
All photos from Flickr used in accordance with this Creative Commons license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode
The trail continued around the side of Nymph Lake, and we followed it as it ducked back among the trees. At this point, the path was level, and the snow had melted from the half of the path closest to the water. That meant that you had a choice: you could walk on top of the slippery packed snow, or you could slog along through the gooey brown mud created by the mixture of snowmelt and dirt path.
I don’t like getting muddy, so I chose the snow. Ray sort of alternated between mud and snow like a man trying to choose the lesser of two evils, only to find that they’re both equally horrible.
The path curved around the far side of the lake and then rose sharply. We climbed up the first incline, paused for a drink where the trail leveled off for a bit, and then splashed through a little stream that cut through the snowpack. Ahead of us, we could see that the trail turned to the left, but whatever lay beyond the bend was hidden by trees.
Well, what lay beyond the bend was the next incline (cue scary foreshadowing music!). This hill had several charming features:
- It was the steepest part of the trail so far.
- It was also the narrowest part of the trail, being only about two feet wide.
- To your left, as you climbed the hill, there was a drop-off. It wasn’t sheer, but if you slipped going up the trail it was going to be a long and painful time before you came to a stop.
- The trail was several feet deep in snow.
- To make matters worse, there were no trees on this hill, so the path was completely exposed to the sun. That might sound like a good thing (you know, the sun melts the snow so that it isn’t snowpacked anymore), but right then the melting process was at a dangerous stage: the snow was soft, unstable, and slippery.
It didn’t occur to me that going up this hill might be a bad idea. I viewed it more as a fun challenge. That probably doesn’t say good things about my sanity.
This is what the hill looked like to me.
Ray, however, thought that the hill was unsafe, and climbing it didn’t change his opinion. He decided on the way up to tell me, once we stopped, that we should turn around and go back. He sort of wished he’d told me that BEFORE we climbed the hill.
This is what the hill looked like to Ray.
Now, you’re probably imagining that one of us slipped and fell down the mountainside while hiking up this incline. But we didn’t. We both made it safely to the top, where the path leveled off again.
I was in front and made it to the top first, and I saw that there was a big rock outcropping off to the left with a gorgeous view of Nymph Lake a couple hundred feet below. I made a beeline for this rock, and I stood on top of it taking pictures while Ray finished toiling up the hill.
It was spectacular up there. The dark green oval of Nymph Lake, looking small and jewel-like, lay nestled among the pine trees, framed by the snow-capped gray peaks of the Rockies. Above me was a dramatic mix of blue sky and white clouds, with the sun shining warm on my face. For a moment, I was alone on the rock, and I breathed in a deep breath and felt incredibly happy.
The fateful view
But the trail was busy that day, and I wasn’t alone for long. Two young women joined me on the rock, talking as they looked out at the amazing view.
“And I was like, ‘It’s not OK to just cancel on me at the last minute.’”
“Oh my God! I know!”
I had a brief fantasy of being a Donald Trump-style millionaire so that I could buy my own mountain that I could have all to myself. One where I wouldn’t have to share my transcendent moments with other people.
Suddenly, my fantasy was interrupted by a loud noise behind me, like an enormous thud. One of the other women on the rock said, “Oh my God! Are you all right?”
I turned around. Ray was sprawled on his back on the rock, his arms and legs flung out and the backpack stuck awkwardly underneath him.
Later, he told me that he’d just taken a step onto the rock to join me. The rock was relatively flat compared to the slope we’d just hiked up, and nothing turned under him or slid or anything like that. But as he stepped he heard a pop, and then his knee gave out and he fell down.
This wasn’t completely out of the blue. Ray’s had some issues with his knee for the last five years or so, dating back to a martial arts class where one of the other students hit him full force in the knee and it swelled up like a balloon. The orthopedic specialist he saw at the time said that he’d probably partially torn the meniscus, and he went through some intense physical therapy for several months to see if they could strengthen it without having to do surgery. Things seemed to go well with the PT, so they thought that the meniscus was healing on its own, but every now and then he’d have trouble with the knee giving out during exercise.
You see, doctor, I was in the middle of a martial arts demonstration when this guy drove over my legs on a motorcycle…
Now it seems likely (say the doctors) that the hit actually tore Ray’s ACL as well as damaging the meniscus, but Ray’s leg muscles were keeping the knee stable enough that they couldn’t tell. Apparently, this isn’t as bizarre as it sounds; three of Ray’s friends have also torn their ACLs but not found out about it until much later. Over time, Ray’s meniscus started buckling, and every time his knee gave out it got a little worse.
That day in the Park, the weakened meniscus tore again. The doctor said that the meniscus was so damaged by then that it could have torn anytime; it was just a fluke—and our bad luck—that it happened when it did.
Of course, we didn’t find out the specifics until several days later. Right then, all Ray knew was that his knee had given out, and he was in a lot—A LOT—of pain.
The other women and I stood looking down at Ray where he lay sprawled on the rock.
Like this, only not as furry and cute.
“Are you all right?” one of the women asked.
“No,” he said.
“Do you want us to help you up?”
“No,” he said again. “I think I’m going to sit here for a few minutes and then I’ll see if I can stand.”
The woman looked doubtful. “We could help you back down the trail.”
He shook his head. “Thanks, but I’ll be OK.”
“All right,” she said, still doubtfully, and the two women continued on the path.
I squatted down next to him. “What happened?”
“My knee gave out.”
“What do you want to do?”
“I’m going to lie here for a while until the pain gets a little better, and then I’ll stand up.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“You might as well finish your hike. I’m done for the day, obviously, but since I have to sit here for a few minutes anyway, you should go on. When I feel better I’ll start back for the car on my own.”
It felt wrong to just leave him like that. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” he said, brusquely. “I really want to be alone right now.”
So I went. He had food, water, and his cell phone in the backpack, so he wasn’t helpless, and it was clear that he wanted to suffer in solitude for a while without me hovering. But it still felt wrong.
I went another ten minutes or so up the trail, but all the fun had gone out of the day for me. I was miserably worried about Ray, guilty for leaving him, and concerned, in a more practical way, about splitting up our little group, since he not only had all our food but also the keys to the car.
When I reached a pretty little waterfall at a bend in the path, I took a picture automatically, but my heart wasn’t in it. I turned around and went back.
I found Ray sitting on a rock about fifteen feet from where he’d fallen. He had decided, as soon as I’d left, to go ahead and hike back to the car, but, in the twenty minutes I’d been gone, he’d only made it as far as the rock.
“It’s bad,” he said, when I asked how his knee felt. He didn’t just mean the pain, which he told me was excruciating (and, being a tough guy, if was admitting to hurting at all it must really be bad). He meant that he knew the injury was serious.
We were in trouble. Ray is not a small man: 5’10” and 250 pounds. I’m 5’3” and 115 pounds and, while I’m at least averagely strong, there was no way I could carry or support a person twice my size—even on a smooth, level trail.
Photo credit: Army Medicine, https://www.flickr.com/photos/armymedicine/6104337716/
And the trail we were faced with was anything but level. The snow-covered hill below us was as steep as a slide and about the same width, with a serious drop-off on the right. Added to that was the fact that a steady stream of people was climbing up the hill, clogging up the already narrow passage.
Both of us are good problem solvers, but it was hard to imagine how anyone was going to get Ray down from here.
However, we couldn’t just sit there and do nothing. “I’m going to go get the rangers,” I said.
Taking some food from the backpack for sustenance, I hiked down the incline. In the half hour since we’d first come up the hill, the snow had gotten softer and softer, and now the surface of the path was pitted with craters like the moon. Great. I navigated the slope safely enough, but it was one more challenge for anyone trying to move Ray.
I reached the bottom of the hill and splashed through the stream that cut through the snowbank there. It was then that my worry-clouded brain finally cleared a little. I realized belatedly that this wasn’t a novel from the 1800’s, where the concerned but stalwart heroine would have to hike all the way back down to civilization to summon the cavalry.
Although, if I got to ride a horse and be chased by pterodactyls…
This was 2015, and I had a cell phone. Duh.
I sat down on a handy rock and pulled out my phone. There was a signal. Thank God! I looked up the Rocky Mountain National Park website, found a contact phone number, and called it. A friendly operator listened to my story and forwarded me on to the emergency dispatcher, who took my name and phone number and the details, such as they were, about my location.
“Will your husband need to be carried out on a litter?” the dispatcher asked. “Or do you think he can make it out with a pair of crutches?”
I was visited with a sudden image of Ray—or anyone, honestly—trying to go down that slope on a pair of crutches. Then I imagined two people trying to carry Ray on a stretcher down the slope. I might have laughed hysterically. I can’t really remember.
“The trail is snowpacked and very narrow,” I said. “I really don’t know how they’re going to get my husband out.”
“I have to tell the rangers what equipment to bring with them,” the dispatcher said, somewhat stiffly.
I think I might have offended her. I hastily explained that I wasn’t trying to be unhelpful; I just didn’t know what was going to work given the conditions. I thanked her very much for all her help, and she said in a friendlier voice that the search and rescue team would be heading up to us, and she would give them my phone number so they could call me if they needed to.
While I was on the phone, a largish group of teenagers came by and stopped on the rocks where I was sitting. They started chasing each other and screaming. “Josh! Tell Charlie to stop poking me!” “I just stepped in the stream and got water all inside my boot!”
I had to stuff a finger in my ear so that I could hear the dispatcher on the other end. It was a reminder to me that the rest of the world doesn’t stop for my personal emergencies.
It also might possibly have led to some homicidal fantasies…
When the dispatcher hung up, I headed back up the hill, wishing that I’d remembered about my cell phone before I’d come down the dang thing. We couldn’t afford to have anything to happen to me. But I reached the top just fine and told Ray that search and rescue was on its way.
And then we waited.
I hadn’t ever really thought of the logistics of search and rescue in a national park before. It had taken Ray and me about half an hour to hike from the trailhead to the top of the hill. Even if the rangers were at the Bear Creek station near the parking lot, it was going to take them half an hour to reach us. If they were somewhere else in the Park, they’d have to reach the trailhead and then hike in. There weren’t any shortcuts. They couldn’t drive up to us. I didn’t even think, if Ray had been more seriously injured, that a helicopter could have made it up to where we were. There just wasn’t anyplace to land. So rescue was going to be a slow process.
That gave us lots of time for contemplation.
For a while, I sat on the rock overlooking Nymph Lake, trying not to cry. A chipmunk, used to handouts from tourists charmed by its cuteness, came over to see if I would give it some of my almonds. I didn’t, but I took some pictures. A girl from the loud group of teenagers (now at the top of the slope) tried to catch the chipmunk so she could pick it up and pet it, probably not realizing that chipmunks can be carriers of both rabies and bubonic plague.
“Katie, what are you doing? You’re going to bump into that woman and knock her off the rock!”
“Sshh! You’re scaring off the chipmunk!”
I hoped that the chipmunk would bite Katie’s finger and give her plague, but no such luck. It ran off into the bushes and Katie never caught up to it.
Aww! This model of the bubonic plague bacterium is so cute!
After a bit, I went and sat with Ray on a rock overlooking the slope. The pain in his knee, though still bad, was more manageable now that he’d been sitting still, and we talked about what we were going to do once the rangers got there. Both of us realized the difficulties involved in getting Ray down the hill. We also both realized that the injury was probably serious, and there might very well be surgery in Ray’s future.
“I’m worried that the rangers will force me to go to the emergency room in Estes Park today,” Ray said. “I really don’t want to do that. There’s not much they can do tonight if it’s an ACL tear, and then we’d have to pay for an ambulance ride and an ER visit. What I’d rather do is see if my own doctor can get me in tomorrow.”
I said that we could talk it over with the rangers once they got there. I also preferred having Ray see his own doctor in Denver, but it would depend on what the search and rescue team’s guidelines were.
“Once we get back to the car,” Ray went on, “all I want to do is go straight home.”
“Yeah,” I said, thinking sadly of my birthday pie. It didn’t sound like we were going to be stopping for lunch after all.
Someone from the search and rescue office called me once while we were waiting, just to make sure Ray was still OK. He asked if I was OK, too, which almost made me start crying again. He reassured me that the rangers were on their way; they’d had to drive to the trailhead, but they were on the trail now and heading up to us. I was extremely grateful to him, and said so.
I also got a couple texts from friends, wishing me a happy birthday. I wanted to write back, but my phone’s battery had been acting up (Ray had actually given me a new one that morning), and I didn’t want to waste it, just in case. And also, it felt a little surreal to be reading “Hope you have a great day!” texts while sitting on a mountain waiting for search and rescue.
So we sat there, watching people struggling up the slope. Some people fell. Some people stepped in unstable soft spots and sank up to their knees in snow. Ray said that he thought the rangers should close the trail. I thought privately that if people wanted to hike in these conditions, why not? We hadn’t seen anyone get hurt. Even Ray (in the crowning irony of the morning) had made it to the top of the hill, only to have his knee give out on a flat rock.
Some of the hikers coming up the slope now had the strangest backpacks I’d ever seen. They were hooked over their shoulders with straps like a regular backpack, but the back part was like a giant crash pad folded in half. The pad stuck out over the hikers’ heads, looking extremely awkward.
We overheard one of these hikers telling someone else that they were, in fact, giant crash pads, called bouldering pads. Rock climbers put them at the bottom of rock faces as a safety precaution in case they fall. I personally thought that the safety provided was probably mostly psychological, since I didn’t think a pad that you could carry on your back was going to keep you from breaking something if you fell onto it from three stories up. Besides, it was only maybe five feet across. How could you be sure you were going to land right in those five feet?
Yeah, that just doesn’t look very helpful to me.
It’s funny, the things you think when you’re in the middle of an emergency. Two young men passed us, talking to each other in German, and when they were gone, Ray turned to me and said, “I wonder what wooing sounds like in German?”
On my side, I spent a lot of time thinking about how much better the situation would have been if I’d been the one to get hurt, since Ray could have carried me down the hillside if he’d had to.
I also realized, a few minutes into our vigil, that I really, really needed to pee. Oh, well.
After about an hour, we saw three people round the corner at the bottom of the slope: two women in khaki uniforms that reminded me of Boy Scouts, and a man in a bright yellow jacket. These had to be the Rangers, I thought. Who else would be up here in uniform?
All three wore sunglasses, stout hiking boots, and enormous backpacks with various bits of gear hanging off them. They were obviously prepared for whatever might happen, even on an easy, well-traveled trail. Climbing up the snow-covered incline didn’t seem to faze them. They’d probably been through much worse.
“Hello!” the lead woman said as she reached the top of the hill. “Did you call for the Rangers?”
I had to restrain myself from flinging my arms around her neck and weeping with relief. The cavalry had arrived.
To be continued…