Climbing Fall In 9 Lakes Basin + SAR

  • Updated: August 25, 2011
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

August 25th to 27th, 2011

This entry details the events immediately following a 25 foot fall deep in the Sierra and my subsequent helicopter evacuation and hospital visit.

For the events of the 6 days 9 peaks leading up to the fall see here.

For what came after and my eventual knee surgery 4 years later see here.

As mentioned in the previous entry the day had started with Amin Faraday, Jen Blackie, James Barlow, and myself camped in 9 Lake Basin 6 days into a spectacular climbing trip.  We all went to do Lion that morning and then Jen and I continued on towards Triple Divide Peak while Amin and James went back to camp to rest for the following days.

After summiting Triple Divide Jen and I were headed back towards camp.  This involved scrambling down the southern ridge until we could drop back into 9 Lake Basin.

Looking down at 9 Lake Basin
Dropping back into the basin proved annoying difficult.  Each time we thought we had a way it cliffed out and we had to climb back up and try a different spot.

Then we came to one that looked more promising.  Jen didn't think so but I was stubborn and climbed down to check it out.

View from the bottom taken later
It almost worked.  I climbed down one short questionable section before it ended in a drop just big enough that I didn’t want to try jumping down and risk a broken ankle.  I yelled up to Jen that this wasn't going to work and started back up.

The section I’d found questionable on the way down wasn't any easier going up.  It was a small dihedral with a steep slab lacking much in the way of features to climb.  I managed to get a foothold in the crack and went for it.

It didn’t hold.  I slid down, didn't have anything to catch myself, and went out of control.

I skittered down the slab, went off into the air, and after a roughly 25 ft fall hit the rocks below.  I remember thinking distinctly as I went off into open air that I was going to break my legs.

I don't believe I lost consciousness though it gets a little fuzzy around the actual impact.  The good news was I'd landed partially on my pack which had absorbed some of the impact.  The bad news was there was stabbing pain in my ribs and I was having a very hard time breathing.

Jen was still up above and out of sight when I fell.  She heard the rock fall and me cry out.  I managed to yell up to Jen that I’d taken a fall and to be careful coming down before becoming distracted by the fact I felt like I might lose consciousness. 

Jen says it took her about 15 minutes to get down to me.  I don’t remember sitting there alone for that long but again I was slightly distracted.

I was still struggling just to breath and when Jen made it down to me and wasn't completely sure I wasn't still going to black out.   I’d managed to re-position so my head was between my legs but any movement caused such intense pain I was completely unable to breath for long agonizing seconds.

At some point I tried to stand and it was readily apparent I couldn’t bear weight or bend my right knee past a certain point.  I wasn’t going to be able to walk out of there. 

As an added bonus Jen was going to have to run for help which meant I was going to be alone out for at least a few hours until James and Amin could get to me from our camp below.  This was before I started carrying a SPOT device.

Additionally I’d fallen on a scree slope and the nearest flat patch was down by the lake maybe 100 ft below.   My initial attempts to move made it clear that was out of my range.

There was a small depression against the wall I’d fallen off of maybe 5 feet away.  I had Jen pull one of the emergency blankets from my ten essentials bag (after an incident in Death Valley a few years back I carry two) and spread it on the ground after doing what she could with the rocks.
Getting over to it wasn’t a fast or pleasant process.  Every move made it all but impossible to breath for agonizing seconds.

Once I made it over we did our best to prop me up in a neutral position using my pack and wrapped me in the rain jackets and insulating layers from both of our packs.

I went through with Jen what she’d need to do.  First she had to get back to camp and have James and Amin hurry back with sleeping bags, pads, and whatever else they could bring.  Then being the fastest hiker of the group she was going to need to hike over Kaweah Gap to the Bearpaw Ranger Station some 10 miles away and let them know what had happened.

I had Jen repeat a description of my injuries back a few times and then she took off.

The next few hours felt like an eternity.  I was perched on some uncomfortable rocks and every time I shifted to try and relieve the discomfort I ended up sliding down off the pack and dislodging the jackets around my legs.

Also as the sun was going down I was getting colder and colder.  After an hour or two I was shivering uncontrollably which was causing me to tense up.  When I tensed there was a sharp pain on the left side of my chest and I was unable to breathe at all.  I then had to force myself to relax before I could breathe again.  Fun times.

For a while I could see down the slope and look for the others but as I shifted and slid off the pack bit by bit my view was eventually limited to the sky and the rock directly above me.  When I wasn't immediately in fear of suffocating this made for a surprisingly boring time.  I distinctly remember lying there looking up at airplanes flying high above.

After what seemed like an eternity I heard James yell from below that they were coming.

James and Amin had been back in camp relaxing when Jen arrived around 7 pm and told them that I had taken a fall.  They’d done an admirable job of gathering food and supplies and climbing back up to me with heavy loads.  

"Hey guys, I have a great idea how to ruin the best trip ever..."
As soon as he got to me James jumped into action and after some significant effort on their end and discomfort on mine they managed to get me on top of two sleeping pads and wrapped in two sleeping bags.  I finally started to feel warm again for the first time in hours.

"I've seen better daaaaaays..."
Amin was actually carrying a SPOT device which is capable of sending out an emergency 911 signal that should result in help being sent.  Unfortunately the battery had run out earlier in the trip while he was using it in tracking mode.  Fortunately we had a number of spare AA batteries between us.  Unfortunately those were alkali batteries and in a design decision that in no way improves my already skeptical view of the unit’s reliability it only takes lithium.  Fortunately James had some lithium batteries in his GPS.  Unfortunately these were a bit rundown and soon after he put them in Amin reported the unit was flashing the low battery indicator and there was no way to tell if the signal was getting out.

Jen had left running for the ranger but we didn’t know if she’d made it.  We had a beacon going off until the battery was done but we didn’t know if the signal was getting out.  Beyond that there was nothing to do but wait.

I didn’t get much sleep that night.

Day Seven:  A Long Night, My First Helicopter Ride, and I Swear I’m Not Homeless

The fall had happened around 5 pm Thursday and it was basically dark by the time James and Amin reached me.  Even if the emergency signal had been received it was very unlikely a rescue crew would fly at night.  Despite that I was really hoping it would.  Breathing issues and all.

That hope went away sometime around 11 pm and I did my best to just get through a rather uncomfortable night.  Fortunately the weather was relatively mild.

The next morning the sun came up and there was still no sign of help.  We starting to think about what we’d do if neither the SPOT nor Jen had managed to get out.

At 7:15 a helicopter swooped in and James and Amin flagged it down with their sleeping bags.

After yelling down to us and verifying we were the party that had both sent a runner and activated a SPOT they dropped a ranger to help us.

This was Melanie (or Melody, none of us can remember her exact name.)

She had her work cut out for her as I was rather tucked in against the rock wall making it impossible to just lift me out directly.

Right about then Jen arrived.  She’d made it to Bearpaw the previous night only to find that there was no ranger anymore due to budget cuts.  There was however someone with a radio and she spent the next two hours repeating the story to a sequence of people before they finally agreed to send a helicopter in the morning. 

She slept a few hours, woke up at 4:30 am the next morning, left a note, and hauled ass back to where I’d fallen having spent the entire night wondering if I was ok.

She said when she got back to the fall site and heard me attempting to joke with the ranger she was very relieved.  (I of course would argue that I was quite successfully joking with the ranger...)

Melanie/Melody had a collapsible backboard which she did her best to manhandle me on to with the help of the others.

She also put me in c spine precaution despite the fact the fall had happened 15 hours ago and I’d been ambulatory afterwards.  Best to be safe.  Once I was on the board they had to carry me a short distance so the helicopter could lift me out.

With no small amount of effort the four of them managed to get me a short distance away to a flat rock where the helicopter could pick us up.  It was a precarious carry due to the uneven terrain and a few times I thought I was about to add some more vertical descent to my running total for the incident.

The backboard was placed in a large reinforced bag that was then velcroed shut except for the area right around my face.  It looks disturbingly like a body bag from the outside.

Everyone else had to back off and the copter fired up and dropped a weighted line.

I was hooked in along with Melanie/Melody and we had a short ride down to the lake.

This would have been incredibly fun but I really couldn’t see much being being closed up in the body bag.  My view was of the sky and the bottom of the helicopter.

A video of this can be seen at: helpfully named by Barlow in such a way as to cause heart attacks to friends and relatives when he posted the bloody thing on Facebook afterwards.  Gee thanks James...

They dropped us down by the lake (surprisingly gently all things considered) and loaded me inside the helicopter.  I assumed I’d be riding in the cage outside but I got the deluxe ride.  Sadly I couldn’t remember the M.A.S.H. theme to sing as all this was going on.

This was actually my first helicopter ride.  Of course as I was strapped down to a backboard unable to see anything other than Melanie/Melody’s visor and the radio plugin on the ceiling but why dwell on the negative.

Jen on the left carrying my pack
The helicopter took off leaving Jen, James, and Amin behind to break camp and transport all the gear back to the trailhead.  This meant they’d all be carrying very heavy loads as almost all of my gear was in my pack or back at camp.  It would take them about a day and a half to get back out to the Mineral King trailhead and drive down the mountain.  On the plus side most of the food we brought in was eaten by then.

The helicopter landed in Ash Mountain where I was transferred into an ambulance which took me on a 40 minute ride down the road to Visalia and the Kaweah Delta hospital. 

The EMT in the back was a really nice guy.  His first name started with a J but again I don't remember what exactly it was which is too bad.  I told him about my website so hopefully if he ever reads this he’ll drop me a line.

One of the first things he asked me was how attached I was to my clothing.  Considering my only replacements were sitting in a vehicle that I wouldn’t be seeing for a day or two at best (not to mentioned I go through gear fast enough without anyone purposefully cutting them off) my answer was that I was pretty damn attached.

He helped me out of the jacket and said he’d argue on my behalf for them not to cut my pants off.  Again, nice guy.

He put an IV in with impressive skill considering the ambulance was driving down winding mountain roads and we had a good long time to chat before we arrived.  Unfortunately he couldn’t do much about the backboard which was fast becoming my rather singular and painful focus.

Among other things I found out he was actually leaving for a month backpacking in Ireland soon.
We talked about the fall and he commented I seemed to have gotten off rather light considering the distance I’d fallen and I started to think towards getting out of the ER and what I'd do at that point.  I was also starting to think on the fact I hadn’t had much to eat recently and the conversation turned to what the best Mexican food in Visalia was.  (Priorities!  It didn't look like I was going to die and I'd been climbing a whole lot the last 7 days.)

J The EMT was nice enough to ask around and track me down later in the hospital to give me a piece of paper with the name and address of the restaurant on it.

Of course about this time it dawned on me that I was going to have a small issue.  My phone, wallet, ID, credit cards, and cash were all in my vehicle at the Mineral King trailhead.  Its remote enough taking a taxi back up the mountain would be prohibitively expensive even if I had the car key I’d left with Jen and company.


EMT guy was nice enough he actually stuck 20 bucks in my pocket and told me to go get some Mexican food once they let me out.  He officially became my favorite EMT ever.

They rolled me into the ER and had me in a room immediately.  I was begging to get off the backboard in between apologizing for my rather fragrant state to whoever would listen.

A doctor came in along with a gaggle of people with the word Student written in big bold letters on their name tags.  After setting his business cards on my chest (remember I was still tied to the backboard)  he proceeded to address the students and explain his course of treatment instead of giving me any real information.

Ever seen Scrubs?  It was basically like that except less amusing.

They did finally rule out c spine injury and take me off that infernal backboard.  When my abused rear end hit the thin substandard hospital bed I’m pretty sure I was so happy I proposed marriage to the entire room on the spot.

Again addressing the students instead of me the doctor explained he didn't like to take x-rays for a person as young as me.  When I helpfully pointed out I couldn’t breathe or bear weight on my right knee he reconsidered and ordered x-rays of my knee and chest.

Next he tried to give me morphine.  I said no to that quite strongly since I didn't have anyone around to take care of me when it knocked me out.  He then changed that to a supposedly mild pain shot but I don't think he really accounted for the fact I hadn't had anything to eat or drink all day except for a granola bar and a small gulp of water.  Nevermind I'd been exercising strenuously at altitude for 6 days and was a bit lacking in sleep.  It really knocked me on my butt.

I vaguely remember getting x-rays of my knee and chest and getting several visits from some nice ladies from the financial counseling department there to talk about how I'd pay since I didn't have insurance.  They didn’t seem to quite believe me when I said that despite appearances I was  a software engineer and fully insured.  I kept falling asleep in between these incidents.

That’s how I ended up getting assigned to Mike the social worker. 

I liked Mike.  He actually said it wasn’t uncommon for this to happen when people were hurt in the park and started to go over options with me.  I had been starting to get images of ending up at a homeless shelter when someone mentioned there was a Marriott across the street.

Marriott loves me.  It has something to do with 75+ nights spent in the hotel this year and somewhere north of 50+ annually over the last 4 years or so.  I had plenty of reward points that could pay for a room I just couldn’t didn't have anything with me to prove who I was.

Mike took my information and went off to argue my case.

The nurses seemed to find it amusing when I kept commenting that they were probably going to dump me out by the dumpster but that I’d made sure to get the EMT’s promise they’d pick me up and take me for Mexican food if that happened.  Never hurts to have a backup plan.

At some point I woke up to just the doctor sitting by the bed.  He said that according to the x-rays all the major bones seemed to be where they were supposed to be though he couldn’t rule out hairline fractures.  His rather succinct diagnoses is I’d come off very lucky and was just “really beat up”  He also said I looked like I needed a bit of rest after what I’d been through so they were leaving me in the room for a while before I’d be discharged after they cleaned my wounds and gave me another pain shot for the road.

I didn’t want to be disagreeable but I was forced to point out I couldn’t really sit up or walk.  His response was to send in a nurse with crutches and a knee immobilizer.

Right about the time the nurse was having me practice with the crutches in the hall in front of an older woman in a stretcher who seemed to be in far worse shape than me Mike came back and said Marriott had been very accommodating and had a room waiting for me across the street.  Wohoo!  No dumpster for me! 

(I actually think they would have sent me to the YMCA if I hadn't had a place to go.)

Of course I had to get over to the hotel which is how I met Richard the mental health officer.  In addition to getting a ride in a helicopter and an ambulance now I was going to be chauffeured in one of those cars with the caged back seat.

Mike made a comment at this point that they tell all the mental ill patients they are taking them to the Marriott when they are carting them off to the nut house.  Again, I liked Mike.  Also laughing is hideously painful with broken ribs.

Getting me off the bed in to a wheel chair and into the vehicle was a painful production but I soon found myself being wheeled into a relatively fancy Marriott hotel.  They ladies at the front desk were very accommodating giving me freebies from the market and doing their best to see I was looked after.

I was wheeled into a room on the 8th floor where Richard left me.

Lying on the bed I was intensely aware of just how dirty I was after the last 6-ish days.  With no small amount of effort I managed to make it to the shower and proceeded to scrub out the wounds the hospital never cleaned with a nice white Marriott washcloth.

Of course my clothes were filthy.  Looking around there were bathrobes in the room but other than that I was faced with putting slightly disgusting lake washed clothes back on.  At this point the hotel staff had been checking on me and when I asked if they had any clothing around they actually sent someone out to Walmart and grab me a shirt, shorts, and underwear which was absolutely amazing.

The biggest downside (outside the fact I couldn’t go for Mexican food and had to settle for pizza) was without ID I wasn’t able to get pain pills since I didn't have an ID and the hospital had never given me that second pain shot.  The front desk brought me Advil from the market which unfortunately didn’t really make a dent in the pain.

It was another long night though I have to admit the pillows were a bit of an improvement over the rocks of the previous night.

Day Eight:  God I Hate Television

With broken ribs and lacking any real painkillers it hurt to even lie on the bed in most positions.  I had no books, no phone, no internet access, and no way to contact anyone beyond a cell number for James where I left word of where I was.  I debated contacting my parents via an operator and a collect call but decided that would just worry them and I was better off waiting for my friends.

The only way I had to pass the time was the TV so I ended up watching waaaay to many episodes of some banal show about people who write parking tickets and impound cars.

I finally ordered an overpriced pay per view movie at about 2 am to get a bit of relief.  This is when I found out one of the best ways to get the front desks attention when staying at a hotel was to order a pay per view movie with no credit card on file.

A little after 1 pm Saturday afternoon there was a knock at the door and Amin and James were standing there.  (Jen was driving around the block trying to find a place to park my car.)

After we swapped stories we went and turned in my prescription for pain pills and while we waited went to the Mexican food restaurant that had been recommended.

Marriott was very kind through the entire episode.  The room was paid for with points but they were nice enough to comp everything but one meal and the movie.

Jen drove me home while I sat in the passenger seat wishing the pain pills were much stronger than they were every time the vehicle hit the slightest bump. 


In the end I made it back home after 8 days with 9 peaks, a messed up knee, some very painful ribs, and a large bottle of pain pills.

My boss at Crown gave my full support and let me work from home for the week instead of flying right back out to Boise.  Downright civil of them.  

Unfortunately this little event put a rather big dent in my end of summer climbing schedule.  I was reluctantly forced to cancel my trips to climb Temple Crag and Gayley and another outing to Mineral King to get Florence and Vandever over the following weeks.

Injury-wise the ribs were a constant remainder for the next few weeks of why it’s a bad idea to run afoul of gravity.  Eventually they died down to the occasional twinge and slowly faded away completely.  It was only at this point that I realize how bad the knee was.

It would bend and could bear weight after a fashion but was swollen and had what felt like free floating bodies squishing around inside.  An eventual visit to a knee specialist informed me that those were either cartilage, a cyst, or something else but not to worry since they weren't interfering with the joint and it was generally considered more harmful to cut in to remove them than leave them in.

As always taking it easy is somewhat of a challenge for me.  I spent one weekend home and then was getting out.  After one week at home I flew back to Boise for work and managed to float the river even though it hurt.  A lot.

I also managed to go paddling into some sea caves off Anacapa the next weekend.

About a month after the fall I actually did climb another mountain.  I'd planned to lead a group up Starr King in Yosemite with Jack Kieffer and I was concerned the trip would fold if I canceled.  It was slow and painful.

Fortunately I had a lot of help from friends carrying my gear and more...

And I even made it up the two technical pitches though I batmanned to give the knee a rest.

It's not something I'd really recommend.

I spent the first few weeks waiting to hear from the SAR folks but never did.  My insurance knocked the ER charge down to a reasonable level though the ambulance was another story.  I was initially billed $3k before eventually getting an insurance discount and another for paying cash it was down to $1k.

Note to self, next time I take a fall like that have the SAR folks drop my backboard off at the side of the road with my arm untied so I can hitchhike…

While I was back out climbing the damage caused by the fall was long lasting.

I grimaced through a lot of pain, climbed a lot, and eventually 4 years later it became bad enough I went in for knee surgery.  For that whole saga you can read here.

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  1. You have great friends. Glad you made it out ok. I'm hoping to try the HST this year and I really would like to try one of the Kaweahs.

    Not sure why you turned down the morphine tho :P

    1. It was a great group to be with when something really bad happened.

      That's awesome you're doing the HST. Mount Kaweah is basically right off the trail but if you can plan a day to camp on the bench underneath Red and Black I'd highly recommend it.