I stood in the deep, untracked snow between the edge of the snowmobile road and Turkey Creek ravine, because from there I could see everything: the crew on the road, readying the Orion and preparing a landing zone for the helicopter, and the crew in the ravine, working frantically to package our patient. My job was to communicate between the two groups, and that was not easy.
“Get an ETA on the patient reaching the road,” Glen called over to me. “The Flight for Life chopper is at the Vail Pass parking area, and they don’t want to launch until we have a time estimate.”
I called down to the medical crew and got four different answers.
“Twenty minutes!” one of them shouted.
“No, better not be twenty minutes, make it ten!”
“Which is it?” I shouted back. “Ten or twenty?”
“I don’t know!” someone answered, a hint of panic in his voice.
“Leave us alone!” someone else shouted.
I turned helplessly back to the group on the snowmobile road. “Maybe twenty minutes?” I said. Cale spoke into the radio, “We don’t have an ETA, but go ahead and have Flights launch as soon as they’re ready.” I heard Charles trying to relay the message to command. Radio communications were so weak on Vail Pass that we had posted him at a mid-point to relay between us and the parking lot.
Our patient was screaming again. “I can’t breath!” she shrieked. “Get me off my right side!”
“I know, I know, hang in there,” Scott said as he and the other four rescuers tried to shift her to her left side. I felt bad for Scott. He’d been one of the first arrivals, but his paramedic training wasn’t much use without any medical equipment. We hadn’t even had oxygen until another team arrived from command, many minutes later.
The medical team must have found a better position for our patient, a 48-year-old female snowmobiler who had somehow plunged off the road into the ravine, because she was quiet for a few minutes. I tried to get an ETA again, but this time no one responded. They were busy packaging her in a vacuum splint, getting her ready to haul up to the road. I resumed tramping a path between the ravine and the road with my snowshoes while the rest of the road crew readied a rope to haul her up. We didn’t have a litter, so she would be on a backboard with the rope attached and haulers on every side.
I tried to figure out how the accident had happened as I tramped back and forth. The snowmobile road was groomed, straight, wide and flat. It had still been daylight at the time of her crash, nearly six hours ago. Her tracks went at a gradual angle off the road, across twenty feet of flat ground in untracked snow, and then down another fifteen feet into the ravine. Her sled lay mangled in the creek, and she had been found lying on the bank. We didn’t know the extent of her injuries yet, but we knew they were severe, perhaps even critical. I’d heard one of our more experienced snowmobilers speculating that she must have panicked and hit the throttle as she dropped into the ravine. That didn’t explain how she went off the road in the first place.
There was commotion from the ravine as the patient began to scream in pain again. There were no words this time; just deep, guttural expressions of agony. I heard someone, maybe Scott, start to panic.
“When is the chopper gonna get here?” he shouted. “She’s going red, she’s going red!”
In a less critical situation I might have responded sarcastically. The chopper would have been here already if someone had given me the damn ETA I asked for. But this wasn’t the time.
“It’s in the air!” I shouted back. “Are you ready to move her?”
Someone handed me the end of the rope, and I tossed it down into the ravine. We lined up and got ready to haul. My five teammates in the ravine clearly had a tough task ahead of them; despite our efforts to stomp out a trail leading up the embankment, the snow was deep and there wasn’t much room to maneuver. They started by trying to carry the backboard, but the two rescuers on the outside kept falling off the trail and back into the ravine. Then they began to heave the patient up the trail, one throw at a time, breathing heavily. The woman screamed with every heave. We hauled on the rope as hard as we could, but it didn’t seem like we were helping much. When she reached the top, we were able to carry her the rest of the way to the snowmobile road and the waiting Orion.
Glen had arranged a couple of snowmobiles facing each other to light up a landing zone on the road ahead of us, and he stood in the middle, waiting to land the chopper. While we waited, I took a good look at our patient. Packaged in the vacuum splint and propped on her left side, little of her was visible but I could see she had broken bones in her face. Her eyes were closed, and she appeared to have lost consciousness. The oxygen mask over her nose and mouth rattled as she began to snore. I looked around at the faces of the medical team in alarm, trying to determine if this was a bad sign. Was that really just snoring, or was she going into agonal respirations? But I didn’t see the same alarm on anyone else’s face.
Red and green lights appeared in the sky from around the corner of a high ridge. The chopper. It made a wide circle above us, and then disappeared behind the same ridge. We waited in tense silence. After a few seconds, someone said, “He didn’t like the LZ. He’s not coming back.”
We were silent again, absorbing this tragic possibility. I didn’t need to have any medical background to know that she would not live through the eight-mile trip behind a snowmobile.
After another few seconds the red and green lights reappeared. The relief was palpable. I think a few of us even smiled. As the chopper landed, we started up the snowmobile and towed the Orion very slowly up the road. The Flights nurse jumped out and greeted us, briskly sizing up the patient as she approached.
“We’ll have to take her to Summit Medical for assessment,” she said. “We can’t do anything here with her packaged so tightly.” I didn’t care where she went; I was just relieved to have her out of our hands and headed for a trauma center. As the chopper took off with our patient, I crouched in the blowing snow, head between my hands, wondering if she would make it.