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Good Samaritans on Mt Washington

Tuckerman Ravine, Mt Washington
Tuckerman Ravine, Mt Washington

I took part in a rescue effort last week on Mt Washington, trying to revive a man who collapsed on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, we believe from a heart attack. There were about a dozen of us altogether, performing CPR and assisted breathing for nearly 2 hours until Gorham EMS arrived on the scene with an AED (defibrillator) and tried to revive him. Sadly, they arrived too late and he was pronounced dead at the scene.

When I arrived on the scene, my friend Martin and I were climbing up Mt Washington to begin a 2 day trip in the Northern Presidentials. We were about a mile, just one mile, from the Pinkham Visitor’s Center, when we saw a commotion ahead on the trail with a half dozen people kneeling beside a man who was lying on his back on the rocky trail.

The first person on the scene had been an ICU nurse who arrived a minute or two after the man collapsed. He had organized a small group of people, all trained in CPR, who’d stopped their hikes and pitched in to try to resuscitate the man. It was a remarkable scene. When I saw what they were doing, I dropped my pack and told Martin that I had to stay and help.

More people arrived, also CPR trained and we lined up, taking turns performing CPR and mouth-to-mouth in order to keep the man’s body   and brain alive until an AED arrived to shock and restart his heart. We needed all hands: CPR is very hard work and doing it for 2 hours straight is inconceivable without multiple helpers.

We worked as a well oiled machine during the incident, using our training to improvise a breathing mask, keep the count going, and rotating in when people got tired. Everyone was completely focused on prolonging this man’s life until EMS could arrive and resuscitate him, but we still shared a few smiles when we flubbed the compression count, unable to articulate “24,25,26,27..30” fast enough to keep up with the person doing the compressions.

I was really impressed by the people who chipped in to help this man. Three of them were eagle scouts, all young men, trained in CPR. I talked to them after the incident and I was really impressed by their poise. Another nurse joined the group, a magazine editor, a policeman, and several others who left the scene after EMS released us and before I could learn more about them. Complete strangers who spontaneously answered the call and then dispersed.

Learning CPR

I have written about learning CPR here on Section Hiker and encourage you to take a Red Cross course in how to perform it. If you are with someone whose heart stops suddenly and goes into cardiac arrest, performing CPR is the best chance they have to retain brain and bodily function without future impairment.

In urban areas, the first 7-10 minutes before EMS can arrive are really the most important. If you can keep a person’s oxygenated blood moving through their circulatory system by pumping their heart for them, you can keep them alive and vastly improve their chances of having a complete life when they are revived.

Wilderness Medical Services

It took Emergency Medical Services 2 hours to reach our patient despite the fact that we were only 1 mile up a trail from the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center at the base of Mt Washington. That’s a sobering fact of life with emergency assistance in a backcountry location; help is seldom available in an urban time frame and it may take hours or even days before it can arrive.

Some other factors to consider:

Consider the potential communication hurdles: We had extremely poor cell phone reception during this incident, despite the fact that there is a cell tower on Mt Washington. I tried phoning 911 several times, but my calls kept getting dropped because the signal was so poor. We ended up sending people down the trail to the visitor’s center and up to Hermit Lake ranger station to get help, though one caller did get through by hiking up the trail to a better cell location.

Consider the effort level required to perform CPR for 2 hours non-stop: If your heart stops in a Wilderness area or if you have serious physical issues, you’d best hike with enough people who can sustain your life until help arrives, know about your medical issues, and are trained in CPR and Wilderness First Aid. If CPR is required, a small group cannot sustain CPR compressions for very long without further assitance. It is simply too exhausting

Consider the access issues: We were 1 mile up a rocky trail and the only way for EMS to reach us was on foot. When EMS arrived, it was clear that they had run up to the incident scene. Don’t assume that you’ll be picked up by a helicopter in the backcountry.

Good Samaritans

While the outcome of this incident was tragic, I was genuinely moved by the selfless efforts of the people who tried to keep this man alive until emergency services arrived. I think that says something about hikers and the kinship we feel with each other. I’ve met many many people who have helped me or others in the backcountry, just because it’s the right thing to do. Thank you.

 

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18 comments

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience. Very moving. Thanks for helping.

    My friend and I have discussed the possibility of having a backpackable AED a few times.

  2. Despite the outcome you should be proud of your efforts.

  3. Great effort on your’s and everyone’s part. Sadly, sometimes people die. Probably could open up the discussion about having AED’s at huts and visitors centers. What if an AED was available at PNVC or Hermit Lake shelter? I carry a SPOT but that doesn’t guarantee response time. 2 hours of CPR is a monumental undertaking.

  4. I can’t imagine the effort that went into performing CPR for 2 hours, and the emotions you and the other volunteers must have felt when that effort wasn’t successful.

    Thank you for sharing this, and for being willing to take the time to stop and help. Regardless of the outcome, your decision to try to help speaks volumes about your character!

  5. Thanks to you and the others that participated Philip. As they were rushing me in for my six-artery bypass, after 600 miles on the AT, they told me there was a good chance I could have died out there. To be honest, I was okay with that. I’ve had a life that I don’t feel could be any better. I’ve been blessed with wonderful family and friends, and I’ve lived 65 years of wonderful outdoor adventures.

    Hopefully, this poor fellow was able to fulfill many of his life’s dreams as well. We’re all here for a short time and all we can do is make the best of it. Even though he may not have known any of you, in a way, he was with friends and people that cared. We can’t ask more than that. Thanks again Philip.

  6. Sobering story – our wilderness can be brutal. Did EMS give any reason as to why it took 2 hours?

    • I consider 2 hours fast. I was taught in Wilderness First Aid that you should expect 1 hour of travel EMS/SAR arrival time for every 15 minutes of walking you do from a trailhead with a road. We were an hour up the trail, so I would expected at least 4 hours to have elapsed before EMS/SAR arrived – in other words they got there pretty darn fast. The Tuckerman Ravine Trail is mostly boulders, so I’m amazed that they got up there as soon as they did.

  7. Thank you for posting this. In spite of the outcome it is an inspiring story. In this day and age with so much self absorption and people not wanting to “Get involved” it is refreshing that there is still a considerable population who will set their own interests aside, prepare themselves with the necessary knowledge and training, and do all they can to keep someone in distress alive. In the remote areas where the services we are all used to having close by are not so accessible it is so much more vital that all of us not only pay attention and help when it is needed, but that we take the time to prepare ourselves with the knowledge and training and at least minimal supplies to be effective in an emergency such as this story is about. Congratulations to all those who were prepared and willing to be present and involved.

  8. When hiking, especially alone, the hiker must be aware of the surroundings and make decisions that prevent injury; but, even the most cautious can get hurt. For this reason, hikers should learn basic first aid and emergency practices, including CPR. Many agencies such as the Red Cross provide these services for free. One never knows when or where the opportunity to be a Good Samaritan may rise.

    Thank you for this reminder.

  9. Philip, this is an excellent post about your experience. I read about the incident, but to learn more about what was involved and happening on the trail in that moment is very interesting. This goes to show that in the backcountry, and on the trails we hike, we never know what we’ll come across, and it makes it that much more of a reason that I or anyone should get this training soon. Thoughts and prayers for the victim, and I’m sure his loved ones would be grateful for everyone’s efforts if they read this post.

  10. It’s good to know that so many people were willing to help out for such a considerable duration. My experience has been that most people are more than willing to help when the need arrises. Kudos to you and the others for your efforts. I gotta sign up for that CPR class!

  11. From what I can understand CPR has a very poor success rate in the field.
    In hospital it may be a different outcome but even there it is not guaranteed.
    Altogether it sounds that you and the others did a great job even though the outcome was unsuccessful.

  12. I have taken CPR training a few times over the years. The first time was in the Marines. The most recent was with an experienced paramedic and it was by far the best. When someone questioned why the number of breaths and compressions changed he explained his understanding of the reasoning but went a bit further. He said if we ever get it a situation where we need to provide CPR to a victim there is a good chance the victim is not going to survive. He did not say this to discourage us from trying to help but so that we would not blame ourselves if the victim did not survive.

    He did a good job instructing us on good technique but explained even if we were not perfect what we were doing was a lot better than nothing.

    Thanks for being trained Earlylite and doing what you knew was right.

  13. That is a sad fact of being in remote locations, timeliness of medical services. It is always nice to see that there are so many people who are willing to help out a complete stranger. It gives me hope that there are still decent people in the world. This shows that there is just one more reason to be CPR certified. This is one of my goals in the next year is to do some sort of formal wilderness medical training or CPR training. I have a basic understanding of first aid, but it would be nice to actually be “certified”.

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