A fall, an injury, and an intelligent response


A hiking companion passed along a story about a hiking accident in The Taos News (June 20–26, 2019). You can find the story online here. There’s a happy ending: the victim will make a full recovery.


Ms. Jamie Ash was alone in the Combine-Hondo Wilderness near Taos, headed back down from a snowshoe adventure, when she reached a “loose, dusty part of the trail on a steep slope.” She slipped and landed on top of her foot. “I heard a crack,” Ash told the Taos News. She could still walk, and she knew that she could get cell coverage in another mile, so she opted to self-rescue rather than activate her personal locator beacon. After taking 1500 mg of acetominophen (a triple dose!) to reduce the pain, she began limping back, using her trekking poles for support. Once in cell phone range she called her partner and kept hobbling along. When her partner and a friend showed up, the friend took her pack. By eight that night they were back at the trailhead. It had taken Ash five and a half hours to cover the four and a half miles (7 km) between the injury site and the parking lot. Ash then waited two days to see a doctor, only to find out that her ankle was broken.


Talk about a tough cookie.


My main takeaway from the news story was that Ms. Ash had done many things right. “She had a first-aid kit with her, hiking poles, a personal locator beacon, a headlamp for when it got dark, extra warm clothes, food, water and a cellphone, and she had let someone know where she was going and when she was due back.” Sounds like someone who know the Ten Essentials. Also, Ms. Ash was in good shape. And once the injury happened, she came up with a response plan based on her assessment of the injury (she could still walk) and her knowledge (she could get back in cell phone range by walking a mile). 


In addition, Ms. Ash scores well on the obvious “what if?” If the injury had been only a little worse, she might have been immobilized out of cell phone range. For a solo hiker, that can be fatal. But since she was carrying a satellite-based locator device, she had an answer to that. By letting someone know when and where to start looking for her, if she went missing, she had a reasonable chance of being rescued alive even if the locator didn’t work.


For my own list of the essentials and principles that will help you survive a mishap on the trail, please click here


Each person is going to handle such a situation differently, and one response is not necessarily “better” than another. The important thing is that the response be as considered, and as based on advance planning, as Ms. Ash’s. Having said that, I wonder why she had such a bad slip and fall despite her trekking poles. I’ll point (sheepishly) to the first time I took trekking poles on a hike. I was bombing along on a level section of trail, carrying the poles instead of planting them, and slipped on an icy patch. I twisted my ankle and, like Ms. Ash, wound up using the poles as substitutes for crutches. A painful lesson about actually using the darn things, as soon the trail gets the least bit tricky.


Also, if I ever twist my ankle and “hear a crack,” I’m going to assume that something broke. Even if something didn’t, a serious soft-tissue injury to a joint needs to be treated like a broken bone. The affected part of your body needs to be immobilized and you need to not put weight or other stresses on it. If that’s not possible given your available first aid supplies and gear, your best bet may be to stay put and call for a rescue. Otherwise, you risk increasing the long-term damage from the injury. In the same situation, I probably would have pressed the red button on my communicator.


The news story also carried a statement from Taos Search and Rescue. “If there is any significant risk to life or limb then call 911 immediately. Taos SAR, as well as all other New Mexico SAR teams, are all volunteers. We do not charge for rescure, so if there is any doubt as to the immediate safety or health of the individual then SAR should be called.” The statement then discusses different satellite locator beacons, and states that they are “tremendously helpful” during searches. The statement closes with, “It’s important that once the device is activated in an emergency that the subject stay put until help arrives. Moving through a search area makes our job much more difficult.”