Saturday, August 3, 2013

Tonga Ridge and the saga of the broken leg

The day started out bright and sunny and we were looking forward to an easy hike, just the two of us, at Tonga Ridge near the small town of Skykomish, Washington on the way to Stevens Pass.  This is in another section of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness.  My car has less clearance so we took Bob’s car because he knew once we got off the highway the county and forest service roads would be gravel and dirt.  The dirt road would climb up the mountain for about 8 miles before we reached the trail head at 4300 ft.  The trail is pretty steep right at the start but levels out at about 4800 ft and follows along the ridge line giving peek-a-boo views of snow-capped mountains and the forest.  It is very beautiful up there.  Note:  The trail head is completely unimproved, a very difficult turn around for vehicles and no facilities at all.  The nearest privy was at Ranger station at the foot of the mountain 9 plus miles away. 

A view from the trail

There had been a fire several years before resulting in some areas with little vegetation between the trees but new growth alongside the trail itself; however, most of the trail is in deep forest with plenty of undergrowth.  The trail is narrow and has rocks and roots like many of the trails we have been on previously. Lots and lots of Huckleberry bushes but no ripe berries yet.  The flowers were similar to ones we have seen before on other alpine hikes.  We noted with interest that the Lupine was almost finished but there were still some plants in full bloom.  There was a lot of Pearly Everlasting, some Rosy Spirea, Foxglove, Heather, Lousewort, Penstemon, the red Indian Paintbrush, Bunchberry, Fireweed and much to our delight a plethora of Tiger Lilies. 

Large Penstemon

Small Penstemon


Red Indian Paintbrush

We had seen both the Orange and Magenta Paintbrush on other hikes but this was the first time we came across the red variety.


Tiger Lily

We were excited to see the first Tiger Lily as they are considered somewhat rare.  Once we reached the meadows there were dozens and dozens of them sometimes one stalk would have five or more flowers on it.

Near the beginning of the trail

Up by the meadows there was much more vegetation.

We stopped at a meadow and had half of our lunch, proceeded onward and had the rest of our lunch at the second large meadow.  It was now 2:45 pm and time to start back.   We had gone about ½ mile and were still 2 1/2 miles from the trail head when disaster struck.  The trail had narrowed down with a steep slope off to the side.  I do not like heights and was concentrating on my feet afraid I would fall.  There was the sound of Bob’s boot hitting a rock, I looked up and saw him tumbling down the mountainside.  Fortunately the rocks and plants provided him with a way to dig in with one foot and stop continuing downward. 

The result of the fall was a dislocated thumb that he quickly popped back into place and a non-working right leg.  It was either a bad sprain or a break.  He told me that I had to leave him there and get help, not to try and get down to him because I would not be able to get back up the hill.  I tried the cell phone but there was no service.  Reluctantly I started back toward the parking area checking my phone every so often for a signal.  Nothing.  It seemed like a long time but was probably not as long as it felt that a young woman, Haley, came up the trail toward me.  I told her what had happened and she said that her phone sometimes worked so she would go up where he was and talk to him, try to call 911, and wait with him until help arrived.  I continued down, knowing that my phone would work once I got to the car.  We had tested the phones there before starting out that morning.  I felt significantly better knowing that Bob would have some company soon.  As it later turned out Haley had some experience with Search and Rescue and together with Bob’s first aid training they were able to make a temporary splint with Bob’s sit pad and Haley’s cord. 

I went another mile or so and met a woman, Julie, coming toward me.  Julie had a phone that could get service and she called 911 but Haley had already gotten through so help was on the way.  Julie wondered if I wanted to return to Bob but this was my longest hike so far at 6 miles and I was very tired.  If I did that it would mean a total of closer to 12 miles and I didn’t think I could do that.  She looked at me and agreed that I should just continue down to the car and insisted that she accompany me to make sure I got down the mountain safely.  She said my pole was too heavy and didn’t have the right kind of end then loaned me her trekking poles and showed me how to correctly use them. 

We met the first two firemen coming fast up the trail with first aid kits.  They stopped to talk with us for just a few minutes to gather a little more information.   It wasn’t too long that more firemen came up the trail this time pulling and pushing a litter on one wheel.  They said the Ranger and Sheriff were at the parking area and Search and Rescue people were on the way.  Bob would be off the mountain before it got dark.  Very good news indeed.  An ambulance was ready and waiting, the Search & Rescue van was open and had food, a bathroom, and all sorts of equipment.  Volunteers started arriving.  Everyone was unfailingly kind to me and more and more people ran up the trail to help the firemen bring Bob down on the litter.  It was almost sunset when he finally was down and being loaded into the ambulance and about 10 or 10:30 pm by the time we got to the nearest hospital, Valley General Hospital in Monroe.  The fall had occurred at 3:30 pm.  Since I had never driven Bob's car and did not know how to get to the hospital one of the firemen, Rob, was asked to drive me down off the mountain and to the hospital.  I do not think I could have driven down by myself.  I cannot thank him enough.

The King County Search & Rescue van

At last Bob is off the mountain

Getting ready to transport

The whole group who helped

End of story:  both bones in Bob’s lower right leg were broken.  The larger bone had a spiral break the smaller bone a line fracture.  The emergency room doctor tried to reduce the spiral fracture, set it, and re-splint it but said he thought it would need surgery to get it more perfectly aligned.  X-rays proved him correct.  Wednesday Bob had surgery to implant a titanium rod.  We came home Thursday afternoon.  His leg will be wrapped for about 6 weeks.  The rod acts as an internal cast.  He can put a little weight on it already.  The surgeon said he should be back hiking in about 3 months. 

Our grateful thanks to the two kind women, Haley and Julie, who first helped me and the wonderful Skykomish Fire Department, the King County Deputy Sheriff, the very kind and friendly Ranger, King County Search and Rescue, and all the volunteers who showed up to help.  We also express our thanks and appreciation to the emergency room doctors and nurses and the surgeon and the medical staff at Valley General Hospital in Monroe.   

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