Part 2 – Getting Out of the Woods
*Warning* – Gross pictures at the end of the post…
The pain was manageable at this point, but my ankle was swollen to the point where it was uncomfortable against my boot. I could still wiggle my toes and there was no numbness so I decided not to mess with the boot right then.
I lay in the tent for an hour or so when I heard voices coming down the trail from the North. The father/son team had returned. They offered to assist me down the trail by having me put my arms over their shoulders and then have me hop along. I agreed to try. I figured that the closer I got to the trailhead the better off everybody would be.
We tried their way for a bit, but the trail was too narrow and they were slightly built men and they were breathing hard within minutes. We then tried to rig a crutch using more of my sleeping mat and tying it to the top of the hiking pole. No joy there. The “crutch” kept sinking about eight inches into the wet ground when I put my weight on it and was useless.
After five minutes of that I removed the sleeve from the makeshift crutch and borrowed one of their poles and set out the same way I’d been doing earlier. Put the two poles out in front of me and jump. Repeat. One pole or the other would always sink four to eight inches into the ground when I put any weight on it, which meant I had to yank the poles out of the ground every time I moved forward. One of them stood in front and one behind as I moved, so they could catch me in case I fell.
We moved like this for well over an hour. I drank lots of water and took plenty of rest breaks. My right leg was extremely tired by this point and I kept inadvertently hitting my broken left leg on roots, rocks and whatever else lay in the path. I was slowing down considerably and I told the guys that I wouldn’t be able to go much further. The son offered to get my gear for me and departed rapidly up the trail when I told him that would probably be for the best.
It must have been close to 4:30 pm when Brandon finally caught up with us. He said that I’d covered at least a mile, which I didn’t think was too bad since there were trees across the path and a couple of brooks that I’d had to navigate.
They set my tent up for me and as they worked another hiker showed up and asked if I was the Jarhead. I assured him I was and he said that June had caught a ride with some people to a forest ranger station and was bringing in help, hopefully this evening. I thanked him and he set off again headed North.
After the tent was up I told the father/son team to take off before it got dark. They set out and once again I crawled into the tent and put my leg up. I’d taken three ibuprofens right after I’d broken it, but now I could really feel it. All the abuse I had given it working my way over the trail was catching up with me. I was also getting cold because I’d been wet all day and I was no longer working plus I was undoubtedly in shock. I dug into my pack and pulled out my thermal shirt and wool sweater and quickly changed into them. I also drank water to replace what I’d lost in the last couple of hours of activity. I pulled a poncho over me and relaxed for the first time in hours.
I was warm, dry, my foot was elevated and I was eating some small candy bars to restore the energy I’d burned. All in all I was feeling pretty good and decided that if I had to spend the night in the woods that I’d probably be ok.
At this point I started noticing a little numbness in my foot. I could still wiggle my toes, but my foot was swelling to the point where I had to do something. Moving slowly, I removed the top layer of the splint and then the twine that held the bottom layer together. Once I could see my bootlaces I was able to untie them and start to loosen them up a little. My boots have an interesting device that allows them to become untied without actually loosening the boot itself. In order to loosen the laces you have to pull the laces down and then feed them through the device. Now usually this is pretty cool, but when you’re laying on your back in the middle of the Appalachian Trail with a broken leg connected to it, it suddenly doesn’t seem like such a great idea. I loosened them until the tingling went away and at then retied my boots and put the splint back together.
As I lay there mulling over the days events I heard a helicopter in the distance. At first I didn’t pay any attention to it, but eventually it worked its way closer and closer until I became convinced that it was looking for me. It flew over fairly quickly and while I could see them I knew that there was no way they’d be able to see me through the dense forest canopy.
The poncho I’d covered up with was bright red. I opened up the tent and every time they flew over I waved it back and forth hoping they’d be able to pinpoint my position and relay it to the ground crew that I knew must be on the way to find me. At one point the helicopter was orbiting so close to me that I could see the pilots elbow as he leaned out the window looking for me. They never did see me.
Frustrated I crawled out of the tent and started building a small fire out of pine cones, boughs, needles and anything that would burn. When they got close I’d throw some wet pine needles on it to create smoke. Due to some atmospheric trick the smoke stayed below the canopy of trees and just moved south.
I was standing by the tent on one leg raking pine needles into a pile with my hiking pole when I heard voices from the South. I looked up and a man and two boys came around a corner of the trail. They saw me and waved.
“Hey! Have you seen the guy with the broken leg?” the older guy asked.
I laughed. They couldn’t see my splinted leg because the tent was in the way. “That would be me.” I replied with a grin.
“You’ve got a broken leg?” he asked dubiously as they walked up to me. His name was Bob and he was hiking a couple of days with his boys to give them a taste of the outdoors. Bob announced that he’d stay with me until the paramedics showed up and proceeded to help me build up the fire. His boys went off towards the river to see if they could signal from the open.
I was talking with Bob when I heard yelling from the direction the boys had gone. Suddenly they came around the corner with two forest rangers and an EMT. I’ve got to admit I was happy to see them. Eric, the EMT, asked how I was doing and I told him I was fine. He took my splint apart and checked my ankle and told me it was the best field splint he’d ever seen. I told him that the Marines had trained me for treating battlefield wounds and that some of that training must have stayed with me until I needed it. Eric also put an IV needle in my left hand at this point and gave me a shot of some kind of pain medication that gave me quite a rush for a second, but it helped with the pain.
About this time June showed up from the south with more EMTs. Another crew had arrived from the north and by this point there must have been at least fifteen people milling around on the trail at this point.
They asked if I was ok to move and I assured them I was ready. The EMTs said there was a stretcher if I wanted it, but I told them it would probably be easier if I “walked” and they agreed with me. One of the guys that showed up with June’s group was a weight lifter. Andy was in his mid-twenties and was built like a tank and he said that he could piggy-back me for some of it. I was reluctant, but agreed that it would probably be faster.
The rangers pulled out a map with access roads on them not shown on other maps. (Thanks a lot.) They determined that the fastest way out was back north a short distance and then across the river and up a hill to the access road.
While we’d been waiting one of the forest rangers struck my tent and packed my gear for me then June grabbed it and we all set out. We went North for a little bit with me jumping on one leg again, but this time with lots of support. When it was time to go off the trail Andy got in front of me and I climbed up on his back. He grabbed my thighs and hitched me up which caused my foot to flail around a little. He apologized and I told him that he just had to do what he had to do. So saying we moved off into the dense undergrowth.
We were descending towards the river when he slipped and fell back. He kept hold of my left leg and pointed it straight up in the air as we went back. Someone tried to grab us as we went down and slowed us down so that it was a relatively soft landing in the dense scrub. Andy got up and I made it down to the river on my own with assistance from Andy and another EMT.
Crossing the river was a bit of a challenge and in the end Andy and his friend chair-lifted me across. We crossed slowly and carefully with men helping to steady Andy and the other EMT. When we reached the other side they set me down and I set out on my own once again. There was a fairly steep hill with lots of fallen logs, jumbled rocks, and soft moss to fight against.
After we got through the difficult portion Andy once again lifted me onto his back. I had to admit that I was exhausted and I was astonished by his endurance and strength as he climbed the hill. Near the top we ran into some forest rangers that were clearing a path with chainsaws. They also had put out chemical lights to show the way, as it was now almost dark.
Just a few more feet and we were on the road where a four-wheeler with a trailer was ready to take me on the next part of the journey. I scooted to the front of the trailer and Eric put a pack underneath my left leg to help stabilize it. He then climbed up in the back with me and we set out.
We traveled another ten or fifteen miles over this rough logging road. There was at least one small stream crossing and lots of rough spots that would have been impossible for a regular road vehicle to negotiate. After traveling through the darkening countryside we finally made it to where the ambulance was parked.
They got a stretcher out and wheeled it over to me where I was sitting in the trailer. I managed to get over to it myself and then lay back in relief. The four-wheeler ride had been entertaining and the driver careful, but I was quite happy to be in a road vehicle with shocks where my foot wasn’t going to be bouncing around. Eric had been holding the toe of my boot for me, but there was still some discomfort involved.
Everybody gathered around for one last look at me and I thanked them for coming out. I shook hands with Andy and some of the other guys and then they pushed me into the back of the ambulance.
Eric took my vitals and was recording information on a sheet when a forest ranger knocked on the door and joined us in the back. He got my name, age, address and some other information then he looked at me and said, “I’ve got to say that it was a pleasure working with somebody with your grit out there today. You have a positive attitude, didn’t bitch about anything, and managed to get out a good deal of the way on your own. Not a lot of people do that and we really appreciate it.”
That made me feel a lot better about the whole situation I’d gotten myself into. The way I saw it was these guys were out there missing dinner and time with their families to rescue some guy who’d gone and broken his leg hiking the Appalachian Trail. The least I could do is make it as easy for them as I could. The pain was going to be there no matter what and I felt that I had a better chance of minimizing it if I did some of the traveling myself. Either way these guys were going to get me out of the woods so why make it a difficult situation for everybody involved?
The rest of the story is surgery, recovery, therapy and so forth. None of it very fun and most of it painful to some degree or other. Below is my ankle after the surgery. As you can see I had eight screws on the left side of my ankle and two pins on the inside.
Below is a picture of my leg about a month or so after the surgery. The cast had just come off. The swelling had gone down by this point!
So that’s the end of the story and if you made it this far sorry for the excessively long post.
I made a full recovery and a couple of years ago had the hardware removed because of shin-bang when I was ice climbing in plastic boots. (The edge of my boot was hitting the plate in my ankle.) These days I’m back to running and hiking and I’m still planning on making another bid at the 100 Mile Wilderness some day.
Anybody interested in coming along?
Jarhead Survivor’s Broken Ankle Story – Part 2
Part 2 – Getting Out of the Woods