If something bad happens to you on a hike and you’re alone or with a friend, would you be able to self-rescue, or would you need to contact search and rescue and request help? That is a question I ask myself whenever I go hiking. It dictates the routes I take and what I carry in my backpack. Calling for help is the last thing I want to do because our local search and rescue teams are volunteers and calling them out puts their health and safety at risk, especially now with the added complication of the Coronavirus Pandemic. I’d only do that if it was the last resort and I really mean as a last resort if I couldn’t crawl out of the backcountry by myself.
Badly Sprained Ankle
This topic is fresh on my mind because I seriously injured myself recently on a strenuous hike and hiked out on my own power without having to request search and rescue assistance. I was descending Mt Jefferson, the third highest mountain in the White Mountain National Forest when I heard a loud pop! and twisted my ankle, miles from the nearest road, just above treeline, on a very rocky trail called the Castle Trail. I was scrambling over one of the rocky outcrops on the trail called castles when I put my foot down on a tree route and my ankle collapsed under me, rolling my foot sideways way beyond its normal range of motion. That popping sound is a characteristic of a serious sprain, the most serious kind, and the one that takes the longest time to heal.
I knew it was a bad injury, but once I confirmed that there were no bones sticking out, I decided I would try to hike out on my own power or at least get as far as I could toward a road in case I had to be carried out on a litter. While I had some pain, the swelling hadn’t kicked in yet and I could still put weight on the foot. I thought about calling my wife or sending her a message on my inReach satellite messenger but decided not to, until or if, it was necessary. There was no point in worrying her if I could get out on my own power. She’s the person who I leave all my trip plans with and will call 911, which is how you initiate a search and rescue call in New Hampshire if I’m overdue on a hike or backpacking trip.
Emergency Decision Making
I am trained in Wilderness First Aid and one of the realities that they drill into you is that it takes one hour for help to arrive for every quarter-mile you are from a trailhead. I was 2.7 miles from the nearest trailhead which meant I’d have a long wait for help to arrive. It’s not like a city with 7-minute ambulance response times. That’s why you need to be as self-sufficient as possible on hikes. I knew there was a caretaker at one of the RMC camps on Mt Adams about 1.5 miles away and he could probably get to me pretty quickly if it was an emergency and he had his radio on. But a fully staffed rescue team would probably take much longer to muster and arrive. I’d packed enough extra insulation to spend the night out if I had to as a precaution, which I do on all of my above-treeline hikes.
I knew that the pain would increase when the swelling kicked in and that I needed to get a move on before that happened. I couldn’t turn around and climb back up the mountain because that would take me even farther away from a road. Continuing down the Castle Trail I was descending would have required 3.5 more miles of hiking to the highway at the Bowman Trailhead off Rt 2, but I decided that was too far and getting a litter up that trail if I needed one, would be difficult and very time-consuming. Even if I did make it to the Bowman Trailhead, I’d be stuck there without a car and without cell phone access, since I know there’s none there. Getting anywhere, especially during the Pandemic would be difficult since no one in their right mind is picking up hitchhikers, people are not giving friends rides, and there are no other means of transportation in the area, private or public. My wife and I have one car and I had it.
I reasoned that the best course of action was to hike out The Link Trail, which was 1.6 miles to the Caps Ridge Trail. That would put me 1.1 miles from a major trailhead, should I need to call in SAR assistance. I’d also parked my car there. That section of the Caps Ridge Trail is below treeline and reasonably easy to hike as White Mountain trails go. Getting a litter up and down it wouldn’t be trivial, but it seemed like the best option if a littler would be required. Time was of the essence because once the swelling kicked in, my ability to walk, let alone hike, would cease.
This topmost section of The Link Trail is a little challenging to hike, narrow, and full of roots and rocks, but I’ve hiked it before, so I had a good idea of what to expect. The trail maintainers have also been through this year and cleared out the winter debris. My ankle ached, but I still had decent mobility, and the swelling still hadn’t kicked in. I made to the Caps Ridge Trail after an hour and decided to keep going the 1.1 miles to the trailhead.
I was relieved when I made to my car. I drove home, praying that the injury would be minor and heal quickly. But by the time I got home, my ankle had swollen up and was the size of a Navel Orange. Bruising has started to appear on the skin around the ankle and it’s still swollen. I iced it all last night, alternating with compression and elevation, but it hurts like the dickens this morning, and I can barely walk. We’ll see how today goes, but I’m thinking that a hospital visit may be warranted to see whether a cast is necessary to immobilize it. Yes, it bums me out because I’d had some big plans for hiking this summer, but it is what it is. I’m sure I’ll be back on my feet in a month or two. At least it will give me a chance to catch up on some fly fishing, while I strengthen my ankle again.
Can You Self Rescue?
I thought I’d lay out my reasoning for others to see in this article. I think it’s important that hikers and backpackers consider the risks they incur to themselves and others when hiking and have the ability to self-rescue themselves or their companions if necessary. It is easy to become complacent about your ability to get help in backcountry areas now that so many people have satellite messengers and personal locator beacons, but nothing has really changed except your ability to communicate. Search and rescue teams are still staffed largely by volunteers and it takes as much time to reach victims as it always has because they have to hike in on foot to reach them.
There’s a lot of emphasis in the hiker, backpacker, and trail runner communities about minimizing the amount of gear you carry in order to travel as fast as possible, but not so much on your ability to make good decisions in emergency situations or the need to carry enough supplies and gear that you can stabilize a patient, including yourself until help can arrive.
- Do you have the wilderness first aid training necessary to make good accident mitigation decisions in the backcountry?
- Do you have the right navigation tools and information to know which way to go?
- Do you carry enough gear to stabilize a companion or yourself until emergency help can arrive?
Shit can happen to anyone in the backcountry, no matter how much or how little experience you have. But there are some outcomes you can influence if you’re better prepared.