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A bad day in the Badlands

“Injured Hiker from Pennsylvania Rescued”

July 3, 2012
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The June 8th headline comes from the Associated Press, and the injured hiker is me. More specifics are detailed in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal: “A Badlands hike took a turn for the worse for a 57-year-old Pennsylvania man Thursday morning when he slipped and got stuck in a rock crack near a steep overlook on Notch Trail.

“A UH-72 Lakota helicopter from the South Dakota National Guard and an air ambulance responded to extricate Dave Johnson, who was hiking alone when he ventured off the trail, slipped and fell down a crack in the rock face,” said Steve Thede, deputy superintendent of Badlands National Park.

“A ground rescue team removed Johnson from the rock and strapped him to a litter, and the Guard helicopter carried him to a nearby parking lot, where he was airlifted by ambulance to Rapid City Regional Hospital.”

Grand plans

I had big plans for that Thursday. I was on my own for a five-day road trip after attending the American Society of Safety Engineers’ annual conference in Denver. I had gotten up before sunrise on Thursday to hike a few short trails in the Badlands National Park, a 244,000-acre barren and beautiful wilderness of buttes, spires, jagged sawtooth ridges, and rock layers painted in colors of sand, rose, gold and green.

The plan was to cruise the Badlands Loop Road and then head west to Wall, S.D, home of possibly the world’s largest drugstore; Deadwood, a frontier mining town from the 1870s preserved in the Black Hills; Sturgis, where the annual motorcycle rally in August draws more than half a million bikers; and then on up into North Dakota to the Theodore Roosevelt National Park. The day would end in a comfy bed at the Rough Riders Hotel, originally built in 1884, in Medora, N.D.

But first up was Notch Trail in the Badlands. “Moderate to strenuous,” was the description in the park’s visitor guide. “Not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.” That was enough to get my juices going. The trail is only a 1.5-mile round trip, estimated to take 1.5 to 2 hours to complete. I parked my rental and headed off through a canyon. It was probably around 7 a.m., but I don’t wear a watch. I left my cell phone in the car because I couldn’t get reception anyway. I also left water bottles behind because I figured to be back before the cool early morning gave way to rising prairie heat. I wouldn’t need my backpack for this short hike, and took with me only my 35mm Nikon camera.

“Note: For your safety, it is extremely important to carry water and tell someone your itinerary before you depart” emphasized a guide book. But when you’re on a solo road trip who do you tell? I could have left word at the ranger’s office, but the thought never crossed my mind for a hike less than 2 miles.

You talking to me?

I also ignored other safety tips. “Wear sturdy boots or shoes to protect your feet.” I wore an old pair of Asics running shoes. I wasn’t going to be doing any serious climbing. “Be careful when exploring buttes. The rock surface is very unstable. Falls are the most common cause of injury in the park.” Turns out I put too much trust in the rugged but fragile rock, and was fooled by the softness of such hard country.

After meandering through a bizarre and beautiful lunar-like landscape — something out of “Planet of the Apes” — I climbed a log ladder and followed trail markers along a ledge to the Notch, which looks out over the White River Valley. Except I didn’t know the Notch, the trail’s end, when I reached the spot. There was no signage, and I had made it to this point in probably less than half an hour. I looked for further trail markers, and began to wander off the trail without realizing it.

I slowly climbed my way up a short rock wall. My hands grabbed at hard clay-like outcroppings and my feet negotiated rock chunks and small boulders. Then suddenly — accidents always seem to happen in a flash — I was in a mid-air free-fall for six to eight feet. Damn straight Badlands rock is soft and unstable. The one thought I recall in that millisecond: I’m going to land hard somewhere. I must have blacked out on impact. Next thing I know I’m stretched out on my back in the rubble of a small ravine; camera ten feet behind me; camera lens ten feet below me; blood dripping into my right eye; my hands are numb and I’m pretty sure my right thigh bone is broken.

I can’t stand up. The right leg is useless except as a source of pain. The movie, “127 Hours,” with actor James Franco trapped in a crevasse after a fall quickly crosses my mind. For a few seconds I delude myself, downplaying how badly I may be hurt and thinking if I can only get up I might be able to hobble all the way back to my car. Then I realize how crazy that is and chalk it up to a possible concussion. No, I am definitely going to need help.

Sitting in limbo

It takes a while, up to two hours perhaps, I have no way of knowing, before help arrives in the form of two hikers from Belgium. Thank God for globalization. They give me water and stand in a way to block the sun. I’m surprised when I croak out words how dehydrated I am. It’s still mid-morning. More reinforcements arrive: a smiling man I guess to be in his 60s, his son, and his son’s three young boys. The son calls 911 and fortunately has a stronger cell than I do because the call goes through.

Maybe it was because I was probably the first downed hiker of the season and first responders were looking to shake off some rust; whatever, I attracted quite a crowd: the local fire department from Interior, S.D., Badlands Park rangers, ambulance crews from nearby Kadoka and Philip, the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, the South Dakota Highway Patrol, a Black Hills Life Flight helicopter crew, and the National Guard. I felt more guilty or stupid or whatever with each arriving rescuer.

“This is the season for it. Every couple of weeks, something happens… somebody gets stuck in a place where they can’t go up or down, so we’ll go out with some ropes, and a ranger gets them down,” Thede, the park deputy superintendent, told a reporter.

The rest of the story

I’ll let the Rapid City Journal tell the rest of the tale: “A ground rescue team removed Johnson from the rock and strapped him to a litter, and the Guard helicopter carried him to a nearby parking lot, where he was airlifted by ambulance to Rapid City Regional Hospital. Johnson was listed in fair condition at the hospital Thursday night.

“Badlands rangers practice rescue scenarios such as Thursday’s regularly, Thede said, and Johnson’s rescue was ‘picture perfect.’

“’We practice this stuff,’ Thede said. ‘It really does pay off in a case like this. If he hadn’t been found or if he had been left up a long time, it probably would have been worse.’” Indeed.

I did get off easy: three fractured ribs, bruises 57 shades of purple, but no broken leg, arm, wrist or neck; no concussion.

What will I do different the next time? Oh, the things one is supposed to do the first time around. Give Mother Nature and the visitor’s guide more respect. Bring the backpack with water bottles and the cell and a map. Wear better gear. Scale back plans for the day and take it slower. Still, we each learn lessons in risk our own way. “I’m a 52-year-old coming from Indianapolis next week. Tell them to keep the engine warm on that helicopter,” wrote a commenter to the Journal article.

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