Have a Nice Trip? See You Next Fall.
We have spent the last week hiking through the start of the San Juan mountains in Southern Colorado. The experience was a bit jarring for me, and after witnessing two search and rescue evacuations, our group decides we will take an alternate, and hopefully safer, route moving forward. We take a zero day in Pagosa Springs then continue north.
Two Roads Diverge…
Our first day out of town in spent following the “red line”, or the proper CDT. The snow is still plentiful, and while we are spared any dicey traverses or glissades, it is still slow going as we posthole constantly. We make fewer miles than anticipated but we know that tomorrow we will turn off the red line to continue on the Creede Alternate, where the elevation will be low enough to avoid the snow. At the end of our day, we find a cozy place to camp near an alpine lake surrounded by snow capped peaks. We comment on how remote and untouched the area feels, and how we would never stumble upon such a beautiful camping spot if we weren’t thru hiking.
The next morning we leapfrog with a few other hikers that are in the area. Some will be continuing forward on the red line, and some are taking the Creede route like us. We are a few miles in when we come to the turn off, and we take a break here. We look north along the red line longingly. It is too late to change our minds- we don’t have enough food packed to take that longer route. A hiker who was familiar with the area tells us we will need to come back to hike the San Juans later, claiming it is the most beautiful stretch of the CDT. I don’t feel too regretful though. I am eager for some easier hiking and looking forward to making miles again. We say goodbye to the hikers heading north on the red line and I can’t help but wonder what challenges lie ahead for them. I can only hope they stay safe.
Everything Changes in an Instant
Our app informs us that the first two miles of the Creede Alternate runs through an area of blowdowns, but once the trail reaches the valley things will be easy and straightforward. We pick our way down the mountain slowly. The forest had been annihilated by pine beetles, and there isn’t a single live tree in sight. It also appears to have seen some wildfires in the last few years. Charred, black trees cover the ground, and the trail is impossible to find. We are headed down a steep slope and the ground is loose beneath our feet. For me, it is a three-points-of-contact-at-all-times sort of challenge, and the going is slow. Eventually, we stop trying to follow the trail and decide to just head in the general direction we know we are supposed to go: down the slope and towards the creek running through the valley below.
I am moving slow, as usual, picking my way carefully over fallen trees. My legs are scraped and bleeding in several spots. Wiz is about 30 feet ahead of me. I can tell he could be moving at a much faster pace but he is putzing along, waiting for me to catch up. I watch as he clambers over a pile of dead trees that resembles a fallen Jenga tower. I am pulling out my phone to take a picture when all the sudden, he falls. A log under his foot had rolled when he put his weight on it.
“Are you okay?” I shout out, putting my phone away.
“No,” he responds, and my heart sinks. A million scenarios run through my head.
“What happened?” I am trying to get closer.
“I mean, I am fine, but I am not.”
“Are you bleeding?” I can’t help but think he has been impaled by a broken branch.
“No, it’s my wrist. I fell on my wrist.”
I am frustrated at how long it is taking to get to him. I drop my pack so I can climb over the dead trees more easily. I make it to his side, he is still face down in a pile of trees with his pack on. I help him remove his pack so he can get up, then I see his right arm. The wrist is twisted at an awkward angle, almost a spiral. He grimaces and comment that he thinks it’s broken.
I manage to stay calm (his calm demeanor helps) as I confirm that there are no other injuries. I want to make a splint but he insists that we get down to the valley first. I suggest leaving his pack, and I can come back and get it after we have him settled and more comfortable, but he insists that isn’t necessary either.
Slowly, we make our way down to the valley. He is grimacing with each step and making bad jokes to ease the tension. He isn’t too distraught but I can tell he is in a lot of pain. We make it to the creek, and I have him soak the arm in the cool waters. I message Taco, who is ahead of us, on my Garmin and ask him to wait for us at the next water source. Wiz lasts about 1 minute with his arm in the creek. “It’s too cold,” he complains.
I am trying to figure out next steps when Peppermint passes by. I call him over and share the bad news. We discuss the possibility of the wrist being dislocated rather than just broken but I am not even sure if a wrist can dislocate, and I am certainly not going to try to relocate it without being sure that it isn’t a broken bone. Instead, I collect all the bandanas that the two of us have. I find our Tyvec ground sheet and fold it several times, making a flat but firm base for the splint that matches the width and length of Wiz’s arm. I use the bandanas to tie the Tyvec to his arm, hopefully applying the correct amount of pressure. We get Wiz back in his pack then I use my leggings to fashion a sling. He remarks that this haphazardly made splint and sling reduces his pain noticeable. I give him an Ibuprofin for good measure.
I suggest hitting the SOS button, but Wiz refuses. It is 15 miles to a forest service road, and 25 miles to the town of Creede. His pain level is at a 2 or a 3, and a broken arm doesn’t impact his ability to walk. We decide to move forward.
Coordinating an Evacuation
We meet Taco and Purple at the next water source. I retrieve Wiz’s food from his pack for him, then feed myself. Then I get busy planning. I message a friend from my Garmin and ask her to research medical facilities in Creede, since I know it to be a small town. She responds that there is a family clinic. I look up the coordinates for the forest service road that we will come to in 15 miles. I try to look up driving directions from Creede to the forest service road but don’t have enough resources to find the route. I am trying to decide if I could message someone from home, have them call someone, anyone, in Creede, and see if they can coordinate a pick up at the forest service road. But Wiz insists that it isn’t necessary and that we can hike the rest of the way to town. I am coming up short on a cohesive plan to get picked up, so I agree.
His spirts are high as we move forward. The trail does get easier, as promised, and we are able to hike at a normal pace. We listen to podcasts together, as a distraction. We only take one or two brief breaks after lunch- the mosquitos have chosen today to make their debut appearance, and they are relentless. It is a hot day, and while most of the trail is flat the few climbs that we have are exhausting. Wiz doesn’t complain once. I check in on his pain level periodically. In the early evening we make it to the Forest Service Road. It is a formal trail head and I take note of name, saving a photo of the information kiosk there. We move forward, exhausted. More mosquitoes are coming out as the sun creeps towards the horizon. I suggest hiking through the night because I know it will be uncomfortable for him in the tent and the injury will only hurt more in the morning, but hiking another 10 miles that night seems impossible as well.
I consider pressing the SOS again but I am not sure if they will send out a helicopter, and we don’t want to cause that much of a fuss for a relatively minor injury. Finally, I notice a spot of service on my phone. I call 911, but Wiz protests- he doesn’t want them to send an ambulance either, he would rather hike through the pain than get that bill. My call won’t go through so it’s a moot point. We continue hiking up the road, and for the next two miles I call 911 every time I see a bar of service. Finally, I am able to get a call through. I stand still, nervous the service will cut out. The mosquitos swarm. I am able to explain the situation to dispatch, explaining it isn’t an emergency and we don’t need an ambulance but that we would very much like to not walk the remaining 10 miles into town. It takes 14 separate 911 phone calls, as the service continues to cut in and out. The mosquitos are horrible, and Wiz does his best to swat them away while I am on the phone.
By the 14th time my conversation with dispatch gets cut out, I give up. I think I have gotten the message across and I was able to provide exact coordinates, the name of the Forest Service Road, and where we are in relation to the trail head. We set up our tent right there, and wait. We enjoy the relief from the bugs, and munch on some snacks. After an hour, an ATV pulls up and a Search and Rescue officer greets us. He thanks us for staying in the same location that we provided for dispatch and lets us take our time to pack up.
On our ride out on the dirt road we have a pleasant conversation with Terry, our rescuer, sharing the details of the experience. Our conversation is interrupted by a large black figure in the road: a full grown bear is startled by the vehicle and runs off, but in the same direction we are going. We are unintentionally on his tail for a full 30 seconds before he turns off into the woods.
When we make it to Creede we are presented with a whirlwind of logistical complications. We learn the local medical center won’t be able to fix his arm and we will just be sent to the ER a few towns over. We call the ER and learn they are very busy that evening. We decide to wait until morning to go, but the local motel is full. Terry offers for us to sleep in his camper, which we are incredibly thankful for.
The next morning, Wiz’s arm is more swollen and he is in much more pain. We are trying to figure out the best way to get to the ER (there isn’t any sort of taxi service) when Terry offers me the keys to his truck, asking kindly that I not steal it. We pile into the intimidating diesel vehicle and I drive to the neighboring town of Del Norte. The ER waiting room is empty and they are able to see Wiz right away. I coordinate with Wiz’s parents, who are 5 hours away in Boulder, to be picked up. The doctors put Wiz under so they can set his arm, and then wrap it in a soft cast. He has a break in his Radius bone and they anticipate 6 weeks to heal.
We make it back to Creede to return the truck, and have a few hours to enjoy a beer with our friends and some other hikers. We toss around different ideas of how to continue forward- how long it will take to get the hard cast and then if we can hike with a cast or not. I am not optimistic about the ability to keep hiking but my spirits are high.
Heading Home Again
Finally Wiz’s dad arrives. We say goodbye to our friends and head out, bound for Boulder. I’m not thinking too far into the future. I am just thankful to be out of the woods and to have received medical treatment. I look forward to a shower and warm bed, and make plans to take us out for pedicures tomorrow. I don’t want to think past that right now. Exhausted, I fall asleep in the back seat of the car.
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