One misstep in the deep woods in winter can change your life, in a second.
But it takes years of training, months of practice, weeks of preparation, and hours of detailed steps to execute a rescue. This story of one of those rescues in December of 2022 is shared with deserved pride by the rescue team.
Our favorite call outs are when we can definitively say we saved a life. Yesterday’s mission was one of those.
Our subjects were two college students – young, vibrant, talented athletes.
They got into trouble when one fell knee-deep through the ice at Sterling Pond. They struggled to settle on an exit plan but eventually decided to retreat back down the Long Trail. In their panic, they somehow missed the trail and got sucked way down into a steep-sided gulley (known as “The Chicken Shoot” for the locals among you.) Hypothermia was a factor at this point.
They couldn’t climb back up and they would have risked falling off an ice cliff had they gone any lower. They dialed 911 and by the time we reached them, one of them was fully immobilized by hypothermia.
The medics on our team focused on the more severely hypothermic patient, removing her wet clothing, providing dry clothing and boots, bundling her into an emergency blanket and feeding calories. They also lit a fire for a crucial source of heat. At this point we were looking at a long nighttime litter carry in technical terrain in winter conditions with two subjects – a very sobering prospect.
After an hour or so, while waiting for more manpower to arrive, our warming efforts started to take effect and the hypothermic patient began to revive.
Eventually both subjects were able to start moving under their own steam – with rope assistance to navigate the climb out of the gulley. They were brought down the mountain by ATV and bus cat and we all breathed an enormous sigh of relief.
Now for the preachy bit: if those young women had called 911 earlier, it would have been a straight-forward one hour extraction for two rescuers in daylight. Obviously hindsight is 20:20 but as a general principle we want people to be aware that they shouldn’t hesitate to call 911.
It could lead to something as simple as a phone consult with Stowe Mountain Rescue and some guidance in how to proceed. Allow us to help you assess your options. We would prefer to be involved earlier in the unpacking process before things get critical.
The other big takeaway is obviously that hypothermia is a risk to everyone in the backcountry. It doesn’t discriminate and can creep up and start to play a disruptive role in the decision making process.
For anyone facing hypothermia the key principles are to insulate yourself from the ground (with branches if necessary) – the ground is a heat-sucking machine. Remove wet clothing – this can’t be stressed enough. Consume calories and stay hydrated (assuming you’re able to swallow). Start a fire (which is where the whole “carry a fire-starting kit” comes in to play!).
Keep yourself moving - bust out the jumping jacks, run in place, etc. This will generate some heat. Obviously the best thing you can do for yourself is to dress appropriately before leaving the house.
Avoid wearing cotton, which is disastrous in the backcountry - and take lots of layers!
We’re all feeling very grateful today that the mission ended as well as it did.
Two nice warm dry college kids out there - that’s what we like to see!