A tale of two hikers.
We pull in to a gravel parking lot and begin to get our packs ready for a 3 day hike that would take us from Blue Mountain (just southeast of Palmerton, Pennsylvania) to the Delaware Water Gap; where the Delaware River cuts through Kittinany Mountain at the PA-NJ Line. After some last minute adjustments and finishing our coffees; we start walking north on the Appalachian Trail.
Northbound would actually be more accurate. The Appalachian Trail stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Maine is obviously north of Georgia, but it is also considerably east of Georgia. The stretch of trail we plan to walk on actually runs West to East.
I sit down on a rock to catch my breath and wait for dad. We’d only walked a half mile or so, but we had climbed nearly 400 feet. Like much of the trail in Pennsylvania, the climb was extremely rocky, not so much a trail but stepping from boulder to boulder. The mountain was covered in a thick fog this morning and visibility was limited. After a few minutes, Dad caught up. He didn’t sit down.
“Are you good or do you need minute?”
We start walking. To our left, the trees opened up and an exposed outcropping of rock jutted out over the side of the ridge. Beyond the rocks there was nothing to see but swirling white mist. “Beautiful view,” I note to Dad before moving on.
The next time I would see my dad, he will be standing on crutches.
After a stretch of trail that was more rock than trail, the trail improves. I pick up my pace to take advantage of the improved terrain. The trail dips and then climbs and eventually levels out at 1500 feet or so. The weather is gloomy, but the walking is good.
Dad walks across a rocky section of trail, ahead he can see a better stretch of trail. He comes to a large boulder, it had a flat surface but was angled relatively steeply. He considers going around briefly, but instead steps on the boulder.
The difference between tragedy and trivia is so small that sometimes its hard to find at all. It’s difficult to accept that what will occur hundreds of times without incident, will occur another time with serious repercussion.
As he steps on the boulder one foot slips, he slips two, maybe three feet. His other foot, however, remains firmly in place. His left foot ended up laying next to his hip. Although he had felt a stab of pain when he fell, he isn’t in any pain as he lays there. He tries to lift his left leg, but it simply doesn’t respond. He calls out for help, but no one answered.
He picks his left leg up with his hands and moves it to a more natural position. He tries to stand up, but the left leg still isn’t responding.
The trail is level and in good condition. I can’t believe it. Pennsylvania has a reputation for being rocky and treacherous. I had walked, at one point another, every step of the AT in Pennsylvania except for this stretch and had experienced the what seemed like every kind of rocky trail possible. I had expected this section to be as bad or worse than any of the others, yet the walking is easy and I am making excellent time. It looks like luck is on our side.
Dad sees that his knee is beginning to swell rapidly. He rearranges himself so that he can lean on his pack and elevate the knee.
I stop for a drink of water. I estimate that I’ve walked about mile since I’d stopped at the top of the climb.
The swelling has gone down, but it is becoming increasing clear that this isn’t a problem that is going to get better by itself. Dad pulls his cell phone out of his pack and dials my number. It goes to my voicemail.
“Jeckles, if you get this message you may want to turn around. I’m in need of some assistance.”
He hangs up the phone. He knows that my phone would be turned off to conserve battery and that I’d have no reason to check it. It is unlikely that anyone was going to find him and even if they did, they wouldn’t be able to move him anyway. He needs help. He dials 911 and explains his situation. The 911 dispatcher took the information and says that the search and rescue operation will start immediately.
I stop to take a drink. The trail is good, the walking is easy and I feel great.
Ed, a 12 month employee of nearby Blue Mountain Ski Lodge, finds my dad. He radioes the others searching for him and soon they are putting a make shift immobilizer, made of cardboard on his knee. They bring a gurney and proceed to put him in it. They then begin to discuss the best way to get him off the mountain.
“You guys are gonna have fun carrying this 220 pound body off the mountain.” jokes Dad.
“What? How much did you say?”
“That’s a shame, our limit is 219. Let’s go fellows, nothing we can do here.” retorts one of the rescuers.
Five good old boys carry Dad on the gurney on the AT till they reach a clear cut that allows power lines to run to the ski lodge. They tie a rope to the gurney and slowly lower it down the steep slope that is the side of the ridge.
After being lowered, Dad is put in the bed of a pick truck. They drive down a gravel road to the waiting ambulance.
Dad is admitted to the ER at Palmerton Hospital. He is one of two patients.
I take off my pack to take a break. I’ve walked just over five miles and there is supposed to a spring near here. I eat trail mix and jerky, while looking at the map. I estimate that we will arrive at the shelter around 2:00 PM.
I’ve snacked and I feel rested, yet dad hasn’t shown up yet. He should have been here by now. I decide that if he doesn’t show soon, I will backtrack and see if he isn’t stopped some where behind me.
The Carbon County 911 dispatcher tries to contact me on my cell. Volunteers coordinted by the Fire Chief attempt to locate me on the trail. They don’t know my exact location, but Dad has helped them to narrow it down to a ten mile stretch of trail, between where he fell and the shelter we planned to camp at.
I grab my trekking poles, but leave my pack, and start back tracking. I reason that maybe Dad has stopped for to take a break somewhere behind me. I walk a mile without any sign of me. There is no longer any doubt in my mind, something is wrong. Dad is hurt or lost.
I fight down the panic and the urge to sprint down the trail that comes with it. My backpack, which has my cell phone and my car keys in it is a mile in the other direction. I decide that I will need, in all likelihood my keys and phone, so I turn around and walk back to my pack.
I return to my pack and immediately get my phone and turn it on. I check my voicemail first and hear Dad’s message. I hang up and try to call him but there is no answer. I leave message to tell him that I am on my way.
That panicky feeling begins to rise again, his call was from 8:27 he’s been hurt and alone for over three hours. Leaving my phone powered on,I strap on my pack and begin to walk as fast as I can. Before I’ve gone a half mile, I misstep and painfully roll my ankle. I fight down the panic, telling myself that I can’t help anyone if I hurt myself.
The ER doctor gets the X-rays back. Dad has separated the tendon that connects his patella to his femur.
I’ve walked a mile and still see no sign of Dad. I fairly certain he must be near where I had last seen him, but I have no idea what his condition is. I stop and try to call again. Still no answer. I call my voicemail again hoping to pick up some detail I had missed in his message. I discover that there is a second message.
“Mr Jeckles, this is Carbon County 9 1 1. When you get this message please call 9 1 1!”
I feel a sense of relief that 911 is aware to the situation, while at the same time it confirms my fears that Dad is injured, perhaps severely.
After a few attempts I am able to connect to 911. The operator seems to be aware of our situation and transfers me to Carbon County 911. The dispatcher informs me that dad has “wrenched” his knee and is at Palmerton Hospital. He believes that they will release him soon. He wants me to get off the mountain so that they get me to my father.
I tell him that my truck is about four miles from my location and that I can get there in about 2 hours. The 911 dispatcher would like me to be off the mountain, sooner than later. After a brief discussion, I help him pinpoint my location. I’m near a clear cut for a large set of powerlines crossing the mountain. He asks me to follow the powerlines down the north side of the ridge. He’ll have the Fire chief meet me at the road at the bottom of the ridge.
I follow a rough ATV track down the slope. Before I’ve gone far, the Fire Chief calls my phone. He confirms that he will meet me at the bottom. He says that it will take him 30 minutes to get there and that he will lose signal as he drives down the mountain. He will call me when he arrives.
The trail I had been following ends. I start bushwack down the side of the ridge. This section is extremely steep and very overgrown. I consider calling 911 and telling them that I can’t go down this way, but in a funny way, I don’t want t let them down. So I push on. I can see below where another ATV trail picks up, I just need to get past the steep descent.
The further I go, the mover overgrown it gets. I slip and fall several times. I now know I should not have proceeded this way, but I’m too far down to go back. I have no choice, I’m committed. As I near the end of this steep section, the Fire Chief calls. They’ve spotted me and they are sending a local up with a “four wheeler” to meet me. All I can pitcure is myself strapped to the back of an ATV, but I don’t argue, I’m exhausted.
I reach the bottom of the steep descent and begin to walk down the ATV trail. My legs are shaking from the exertion of the climb down to this point. I am bloody from countless little cuts from the brambles I made my way through. And I am luck that I didn’t hurt myself worse going down that slope.
I don’t walk far before I see an old Ford Ranger spring from the tree line. I throw my pack in the bed and hop in for a hair raising ride down the side of the mountain.
We reach the road and I get out. The Fire Chief is waiting for us. He shakes my hand and looks me over. He apparently decides I’m okay.
“So… you guys drove all the way from Maryland to walk on a trail on this mountain?”
I have no doubt that he has no idea what the extent of Appalachian Trail really is, even though he lives within a few miles of it.
He drives me to my truck, and then I follow him to the hospital.
After a little re-arranging, we get my dad situated in the back seat of the truck and begin the four hour drive home.
He will need surgery to put his knee cap back where it belongs, but he’ll be fine.