Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Owl's Head: Stay and Play, Evacuate, or Rapid Evac.?

View from the slide
Owl’s Head is the most remote of the New Hampshire 4000fters. Even taking the shortest route it's an 18 mile hike and that includes a two mile bushwhack. (more on that later)

The most discussed aspect of Owl’s Head, aside from its remoteness, is the lack of a marked summit trail, the "path " to the top being a 1500 foot vertical climb primarily up a narrow rock slide. On the scary-rock-slide scale where the North Tripyramid Slide is a 10, the Owl's Head slide probably rates a 6. Of course having it covered in ice raises the rating a point but with our trusted microspikes firmly fastened on we ascended through the rubble and ice, enjoying some great views of a snow-covered Franconia Ridge and reaching the peak around 1:30.

Since the summit is forested there's not much to see, we were back on the slide in no time. It was as I was slowly negotiating a tricky patch of ice that I heard something behind me and turned to see SD somersault down a small gully to my left. After the first flip his descent slowed but then he flipped again before wedging himself between two scrubby little life-saving trees before the gully dropped another 10 feet onto solid rock.

Taking in his crumbled form, his "oh shit ", the blood spots on the snow above him and the blood running down the side of his head, my first thought was how lucky it was that we took the wilderness first aid course last weekend. My second was a refrain from the class, "a head injury is never an option to stay and play, it is always an evacuation. The only question is it merely an evacuation, or is it a rapid evacuation."

Then I moved over to his side and almost punctured him with my microspices. We both quickly did the initial assessment and determined that nothing was broken. Thankfully he'd been carrying the backpack which probably protected his back during the fall. The next big issue was his location. Were he to loose consciousness, and with the blood still dripping down his head that was a possibility, there was no way I could stop his further fall down the slide. It was only then when we were carefully swunging his legs down to the ice that I noticed his shattered hiking pole. The shaft was broken off right where the pole entered the handle, making it completely useless. (Also making it's structural failure the possible cause of the fall). So now we had a guy with a head wound, on the side of rock slide, on a mountain 9 miles from the nearest road, and only 1 hiking pole.

View from the summit
Once we had SD onto a relatively flat area I took a longer look at his head. On the top right was one gash maybe an inch long from which most of the blood was dripping. After cleaning it out with some snow I was thankful to see it didn't look deep and the blood was already starting to slow. Bad news was a large bump was also already starting to grow. On the front left of his head there was also a spot, the size of a quarter, that was skinned bare. It wasn't bleeding but it too was starting to swell. I made little ice packs out of snow and held them to his head for a little while all the while remembering how our first aid instructors had warned us against snow burn but also how they'd insisted that with any head injury you must keep the swelling down. And right now on the side of a mountain my biggest concentric was keeping the swelling down so I could get SD safely down to the base of the slide.

I was also trying hard to remember at just what point a head wound went from a regular evacuation to rapid evacuation, along with wondering how, if we did need to do a rapid evacuation, I could get help. We had  been passed by another hiker who was still on the mountain, so I knew that we had one option for getting help if we needed it. But that was our only option, you can forget calling 911 or the ranger station. There's no reception in this valley.

 At this point SD said he felt fine, and while his pupils looked good, the bumps were still swelling. I gave him one of my poles and we continued slowly down the slide stopping every five minutes or so to put a little snow on the cuts hoping to stop the swelling. It took about half an hour to reach the base and I took a little sigh of relief. At least now if he became dizzy we were somewhere safe. He was also looking and acting fine even getting back to his annoying self by pretending to have a heart attack. I strongly disallowed any further pretend illnesses!

With the first stage of the evacuation over, Evacuation Stage Two, was now underway. We were 8 miles from help and SD still had two growing egg shaped bumps on his newly bald head. We opened the Toblerone bar, cleaned out some more blood, spread antibacterial gel on the wounds, had some more chocolate and decided we'd take it slow but start heading back. If all went well it wouldn't get dark until we were at our planned tent site, about three miles back down the trail, close to the river and at the intersection of the trail and the bushwhack.

 Broken pole
A little down the trail we were passed by the trailrunner who'd passed us earlier on his way up the mountain. The first time we saw him he had only paused long enough to say hi. This time he stopped and chatted, asking us about our hike and our plans, all the while looking us over pretty closely. I'm not sure if he spotted the blood on SD's jacket, or hat, or if he'd spotted the blood back on the slide but he didn't leave us until he was sure we were okay. I was sad to see him go. He was our last known chance to get help. In retrospect I probably should have sent out word with him that if we weren't out by mid day tomorrow that someone should come in. But SD was looking fine, making great time, and I was sure we'd be back in cell phone range when we got to the proposed tent site.

We weren't. We made the tent site in time, but there was no phone reception. Still we had accomplished Evacuation Stage Two and SD's condition was improving. By the time dinner was finished, the swelling was actually going down and while his head was sore he didn't have a headache. All that remained was to spend the night (waking every two hours to check his condition) and walk out the remaining 5 miles in the morning.

We arrived at the car by 10:00am the next day having safely evacuated with a head injury. Looking back I guess we did okay. We certainly were lucky that it wasn't worse. We were also lucky to have just completed the wilderness first aid course. While the injury wasn't too serious we both knew what to look for and how to handle it. And I didn't have to freak out - too much.