How Mountain Education Saved My Friend's Life

Katie Bono Jun 8th 2020
  • Hayes Range in interior Alaska

This spring, four of my closest friends and I were involved in a serious accident in the Hayes Range in interior Alaska. We were on the slopes of Mt. Skarland, moving through a low-angle scree and talus band connecting two snowfields. After a week of storms, the weather system had abated just enough for us to head up this mellow, half-day objective before we were plunged into another series of storms. The terrain was so low-key that we hadn’t even brought ropes or climbing gear beyond crampons and ice axes. As we picked our way up through the loose rock, one of us dislodged a salad-plate-sized rock, which in turn triggered a much larger 3’ diameter boulder. Ilana Jesse was at the back of the group and quickly moved out of the way. At the last minute, however, the rock bounced unexpectedly to the side and crushed her hand, ripping her left palm open simultaneously.The ensuing rescue took 6 hours from accident to hospital. It could have easily taken 12 or more, and I’m incredibly grateful for all the aspects that allowed it to be so much faster.

  • Gearing up for the climb

After the impact, we all immediately scrambled to aid Ilana. The impact had ruptured an artery. The pressure she was applying with her other hand wasn’t enough to stop the bleeding, so we used a ski strap as a makeshift tourniquet to get it under control. we then activated an inReach and the SOS button on a satellite phone. While we waited to hear back from outside help, we did our best to keep Ilana warm, fed, and hydrated, but this was all made very complicated by her injury. Ilana had suffered extensive damage- she had exposed muscle, tendons, and bone, and her hand, which seemed to have little structural support from her wrist, dangled limply. Ilana, who has both given birth and had kidney stones (both oft cited as extreme pain examples), said later that this was by far the most pain she’s ever experienced. Eventually, we were able to get her pain under control by using both percocet and dilaudid, both strong opioid pain medications that Ilana had brought in her first aid kit. This turned out to be vital to the rescue effort—we were eventually told over the satellite phone that no SAR personnel were available to help in the rescue, and that we would have to get Ilana to the incoming helicopter with only our own resources. We were also told that we would have to get her to the pickup point—1,200 feet below us, with unstable shale bands and steep snow slopes between here and there—before night fell, or the helicopter would leave.

“Drawing upon mountain experience, technical rope rescue skills and some impressive fitness on the part of Alex and Alan…we performed roughly 8 full rope-length lowers to get Ilana to the base of the slope.”

Thankfully, we were able to accomplish this. Drawing upon mountain experience, technical rope rescue skills, and some impressive fitness on the part of Alex and Alan, who both made round-trip shuttles back to camp for more gear, we performed roughly 8 full rope-length lowers to get Ilana to the base of the slope. We made a sling-harness for Ilana because she wasn’t in a position to put on a true harness, and we splinted her hand using ski straps and an avy shovel. We did the lowers using a combination of bodyweight/person and snow-picket anchors. Once at the base of the slope, Ilana was able to walk, with help, across the flat ground to the waiting helicopter. The pilot told us later that we were within 10 minutes of his allowed fly-time.

  • Roped up and skiing the Alaska Range

From there, Ilana and I were helicopter-ed to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. The surgeons there decided to transfer her to Seattle Harborview Hospital, a Level 1 Trauma Center, due to the extensive damage her hand had sustained. Ilana will be going through a series of reconstructive surgeries for her hand, but it’s looking more and more likely that she will be able to keep most of her hand, which is a huge improvement from her initial prognosis.

"This experience was the most intense rescue I’ve ever been involved in, and it’s made me immensely grateful for the background and tools that the five of us had."

In addition to mountain experience, we had significant backcountry medical education. Among us, we had one Trauma/ER nurse, three Wilderness First Responders, and one Wilderness First Aid certification. We also had two ex-guides among the group, 2 inReach devices, a satellite phone, and a comprehensive medical kit. On the whole, we had significantly higher levels of medical, rescue, and mountain experience than many alpine climbers. Because of our medical background, we were able to keep Ilana from losing too much blood, going into shock, or losing consciousness, all of which would have threatened the rescue efforts and Ilana’s life. We also had significantly more rescue and first aid gear: I don’t know many alpine climbers who climb with a satellite phone (versus keeping it at basecamp), and I also don’t know many who have access to or bring multiple strong opioids, which Ilana did.

  • Mountain Rescue Helicopter

To me, this rescue speaks volumes about the value of putting yourself in the position to succeed when things turn south. I’m not saying that I know all the skills or that I’m as experienced as I could be. But I am always trying hard to learn new skills, gain experience, and bring the right equipment to keep my friends and myself safe in the mountains, and I try to climb with people who share the same mindset. Spending a weekend learning rope-rescue techniques or a week taking a Wilderness First Responder course is never as fun as taking that time to go off adventuring in the mountains, but it’s well worth the time. In our case, it gave us the tools we needed to evacuate Ilana safely and gave us the freedom to focus on executing the best rescue possible.

  • Pre climb jumps before Climb