A few weeks ago, within the span of three days, two rattlesnake bites—and subsequent rescues—occurred in Yosemite’s wilderness.
The first rattlesnake bite was reported on Thursday, August 27. At 8:50 am, the Yosemite Emergency Communications Center (ECC) received notification from a national emergency coordinating center that a backpacker, located in the Glen Aulin area, had used their satellite messenger device on behalf of another hiker to request assistance for a “snake emergency.” The full story emerged as the backpacker and responding ranger in Tuolumne Meadows exchanged text messages: the day prior, around 2:30 pm, a man was bitten by a rattlesnake while fishing barefoot in the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne. The subject, in his mid-30s, had stepped onto a rock, causing it to shift under his weight, and suddenly a rattlesnake—apparently underneath the rock—bit him on his left foot.
The subject was backpacking with his wife, and, with no one else around, they tried hiking out together to get help. They soon realized that hiking out wasn’t an option for the subject. Before setting off alone to seek help, the subject’s wife had the presence of mind to pin their location on her phone; later, being able to report the exact coordinates to the park rescuers made it easier for the responding California Highway Patrol (CHP) helicopter, H40, to locate the subject (Yosemite’s contract helicopter, H551, was on a fire assignment at Point Reyes National Seashore at the time of both rattlesnake incidents). At some point, another backpacker had happened upon the couple and stayed with the subject while the subject’s wife started hiking. She hiked through most of the night, taking a short nap when she was overcome by fatigue, then continued until she found a backpacker with the satellite messenger device. Aside from the coordinates, the subject’s wife also provided a thorough and accurate description of the subject’s clothing and equipment.
CHP’s H40 inserted one of their crewmembers by hoist (a metal cable that is attached to a motorized drum, used to lower and raise loads) to the subject’s location. Once the crewmember put a harness on the subject, H40 returned to the scene, hovered overhead while the subject and crewmember together were hoisted up to the helicopter, and then flew to the park’s helibase at Crane Flat. The subject was transferred to a park ambulance where a paramedic treated him for dehydration, nausea, and pain. He then was transferred to an air ambulance, which flew him to a Modesto hospital. The subject received two doses of the antivenom CroFab and is expected to be discharged from the hospital today or tomorrow (more than a week after being bitten).
“We were on the trail, hiking by ankle-high shrubs, when out of the blue—with no rattle, no hiss, no sound whatsoever—a snake struck.” —Recollection of hiking companion
On Saturday, August 29 at 12:27 pm, the ECC received a 911 call reporting a snake bite to a hiker’s left knee. The subject and his two hiking companions were a few miles up the Chilnualna Falls trail in Wawona, hiking through steep terrain. The snake struck the hiker’s knee (versus the lower leg or ankle, which is more common) apparently because the trail was level with a steep uphill slope on the left side. After he realized he had been bit, the subject saw the snake, including a rattle on its tail, making its way on and off the trail and heading downhill towards his hiking companions. The fellow hikers backed up until the snake left the area, and then approached the subject. They helped him hop to a flat place to sit down; another hiker reached the scene, had cell service, and called 911. The subject’s friends and other bystanders discussed whether to apply a tourniquet; they decided to put one on the subject’s left leg above the wound. A few minutes later, once they were connected by phone to a park ranger-paramedic, they were advised to immediately remove the tourniquet. Applying a tourniquet to a limb that has been envenomated blocks blood flow and can lead to tissue damage (for the same reason, do not apply ice to a rattlesnake bite).
A two-pronged rescue response was initiated. The Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks contract helicopter, H552, was in Yosemite and made a reconnaissance flight to locate the subject. Both the helicopter rescuers and the subject’s hiking companions pointed out later that the bright red t-shirts two of the hikers were wearing made it easy to spot the subject and his companions from the air. Meanwhile, a ground team began hiking up the trail. They arrived on scene as the helicopter, on the ground at the Wawona golf course a few miles away, was rigging for a short-haul rescue (personnel are suspended underneath a helicopter by a rope). The ground team relayed the subject’s condition to the two park ranger-medics who would be short-hauled to the scene: the subject was pale and sweating, his blood pressure was low, his heart rate was fast, and he reported feeling dizzy and nauseated. Soon after, the H552 began the short-haul mission, inserting the two rescuers to the scene. They put the subject in a specialized, robust harness. H552 then returned to the scene, hovered overhead while the three attached themselves to the line, and short-hauled the team to the Wawona golf course.
The subject was transferred directly to an air ambulance, who treated him for dehydration, nausea, and pain (sound familiar?) en route to a hospital in Modesto. Six days later, the subject is still hospitalized and expects to be discharged in another day or two. He has received four doses of CroFab, and reports that the swelling in his leg has actually become worse and the range of motion for his knee is limited.
This summer season, there has been a noticeable uptick in rattlesnake bites in the greater Yosemite region. These two cases provide a good opportunity to review advice for how to handle an encounter with a rattlesnake:
- Keep your distance. Rattlesnakes can strike only a distance equal to half their own length.
- Watch where you step or reach with your hands. Use extra care when opening and closing food lockers.
- Stand still if you think you hear a snake. As soon as you’ve located the snake, move away.
- Beware of snakes without a rattle—baby rattlesnakes don’t have rattles and adult rattles can break off.
And, finally, some do’s and don’ts if you are bitten by a rattlesnake:
- Remain calm and move slowly to keep your heartrate as slow as possible
- Seek medical attention
- Apply a tourniquet
- Apply ice to the wound
- Attempt to suck the venom out of the wound