August 18, 2013
On Saturday, July 6, at 3:30 p.m., the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) received a 911 call reporting a subject with a leg injury near the base of Bridalveil Fall. Over the next several minutes, the ECC received further details that the injury was possibly an open ankle fracture.
The subject, a 48 year-old male, along with his nine-year-old son, had hiked to the viewing platform below Bridalveil Fall. The pair then left the established trail to scramble up the boulder field toward the base of the waterfall (left), bypassing signs that advise against leaving the trail. Although the boulders were dry, they were still extremely slick; over the years, the boulders have been polished smooth by water from Bridalveil Fall (even rescuers that day, wearing approach shoes with sticky rubber soles, had trouble with their footing). The subject and his son made it to the base of Bridalveil Fall, which is approximately one-eighth of a mile, with a 200-foot elevation gain, above the viewing platform. There they took pictures with another father-son pair they had met along the way. When they all turned to head back down, the subject was immediately concerned about his son slipping and falling on the rocks; the subject explains, "I was trying to get ahead of my son and map out the best course to take. That way I thought if my son lost his footing, I'd be able to stop his fall." At one point, the subject had to scoot across a large boulder to reach his son; all of a sudden "my foot caught, I started sliding and then tumbling down the rock, and then I fell over the edge...I thought I might die." The subject took a 15- to 20-foot fall, landing on his back on a boulder below (the subject already suffered from chronic lower back pain and had two implanted neurostimulators). The subject, referring to his pain level, recounts "on a scale of one to ten, I was at a 38." The other father-son pair, along with the subject's son, scrambled down to the subject; soon other bystanders arrived to offer assistance.
Within 20 minutes, emergency responders arrived on scene (right) and found the subject lying where he had landed, below the large boulder. The subject did, in fact, suffer an open (compound) fracture to his right ankle. Both stabilizing the traumatic ankle injury and managing the subject's off-the-charts pain proved challenging to the emergency responders; even with pain medications, the subject was almost constantly writhing and screaming in pain. The response team maintained spine immobilization by packaging the subject into a vacuum body split. Rescuers then loaded the subject into a wheeled litter and, with low-angle rescue gear in place, began descending through the boulder field. Progress was slow due to tricky footy for the rescue team and the subject's pain levels; after about 15 minutes, the team leader ordered the team to stop and advised the incident commander that a short-haul operation would be required. Yosemite Helitak, using the park helicopter (Helicopter 551), extracted the subject by short-haul from the Bridalveil Fall boulder field and flew him to El Capitan Meadow (below). At El Capitan Meadow, the subject was transferred to an awaiting air ambulance helicopter, who flew the subject out of the park, to a hospital in Modesto, CA.
Four weeks after the incident, the subject is still in a wheelchair and unable to bear any weight on his right foot, but his wife reports that he is "recovering slowly." He stayed in the hospital for nearly two weeks after his fall, and went through two surgeries on his ankle. A few days into the subject's hospital stay, doctors discovered that his right wrist was also fractured, so his right arm is in a cast. The subject acknowledges that his accident could have been even worse, and is grateful for the kindness of bystanders: one visitor literally took the shirt off his back and the hat off his head to offer the subject relief from the penetrating summer sun. The father-son pair whom the subject had befriended earlier stayed by the subject's side, offering prayers and comfort and looking after the subject's son until rangers and members of Yosemite Search and Rescue took the nine year-old into their care. In looking back on his accident, the subject offers the following advice to hikers: "The risk just isn't worth it. Always put yourself in a position where you can take care of your children. Don't take your kids up there."