My Wifeís Account of My Accident

 

 

This is our first night home and I am going to attempt to tell the miraculous story of the mountain rescue of my husband, John, and my son, Scott.  I am getting so many loving phone calls from you all, but it is a bit overwhelming, so I am going to attempt to put it all in this email.  Iím sorry this is so long, but I am trying to recapture the last two harrowing days before I start to forget it myself.  And I hope in the process to show you the awesome power of how the Lord worked in this situation.

 

You may or may not know by now that my husband and 20-year-old son left at 5:30 am on Saturday morning to hike Mount San Gorgonio in the San Bernardino Mountains.  They are both experienced hikers and had adequate gear for this strenuous 17 mile round trip hike to the summit at 11,500 feet.  They were prepared for snow and ice hiking, having ice axes and crampons (those spike things which attach to the bottom of your shoes) as well as snowshoes.  They knew that a storm was predicted for later in the day, but felt this extra challenge was doable.  John is (or I should say, was) scheduled to hike the back side of Mt. Whitney, with ropes, ice axes, etc, on a guided hike with a reputable mountaineering company, in early April.  He took the hike to San Gorgonio to prepare him for the more strenuous Mt. Whitney trip.

 

John and Scott were about 2/3 of the way up the mountain when it began to snow.  They stopped for a while to put on crampons, and continued hiking.  It was around 2:00 pm.  They were planning to hike only for a short while longer due to the snow falling, and were then going to turn around and make their descent.  The trail was getting hard to see, but they could still make it out.  Scott was ahead of John when he heard a rustling and the sound of brush breaking.  He turned around in time to see Johnís by-then-unconscious body sliding down a very steep ravine into a watershed area.  We still donít know exactly what happened to cause John to fall, but he probably just slipped off the trail.  John has no recollection of any of it.  He fell feet first, but face down.  He hit a tree early on, which Scott feels caused him to lose consciousness, and then careened down the approximate 150 foot slope, launching over a large rock and falling in a heap at the bottom.  Scott made his way down the 40-50 degree slope, carefully using his ice axe and crampons, which was no small feat.  He found John still unconscious near a small, mostly ice-covered creek.  After about 10 minutes, John seemed to regain consciousness.  He opened his eyes, and moved his lips, but could not talk, and did not move any of his extremities.  At this point, Scott thought John was paralyzed, and he began to wonder how he would be able to get him out, or even if John would survive, or even if Scott himself would survive.  A very heavy load for my beloved son.  Scott was Johnís first angel that God sent during this ordeal.

 

Immediately, Scott began yelling for help and also using his whistle to send an SOS signal.  Scott is an Eagle Scout and his prior emergency preparedness training did help.  Scott made a very difficult climb up the opposite side of the ravine (there was no way he could climb back up to the trail) and used Johnís satellite phone to call 911.  There was no service for regular cell phones in this area, and even the satellite phone was very patchy and would cut off.  Scott made this climb several times to keep calling 911.  Scott also activated Johnís personal locator beacon, which John had purchased at my request, for his climb to Mt. Whitney.  This is a device which hooks into NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which then relays an emergency call to the Air Force and other government agencies.  (This was how I found out that John was in trouble.  While shopping at the mall with Jill, I received an emergency call on my cell phone from Air Force Rescue in Florida, who told me that the emergency device had been activated, but they didnít know where John was yet, and wanted information from me, which of course I didnít really have.  But thatís another story.)  The personal locator beacon gives the coordinates via a satellite passing overhead approximately every 20 minutes.  What Air Force Rescue didnít know was that the search and rescue was already put into motion locally after Scottís 911 calls.  It took a few hours before these agencies all got coordinated.

 

After about two hours in the ravine, Scottís whistle call was returned.  Two female hikers heard Scottís distress whistle from up above on the trail.  At first they were reluctant to come down into the ravine, as it was just too treacherous, and easily could have resulted in their own injury or possible death.  But eventually they hiked part way down the trail and were able to climb back up into the ravine to reach John and Scott.  These were the next two angels that came to Johnís aid.

 

Miraculously, these ladies had a tent and two sleeping bags.  They had originally planned to spend the night on the mountain, but turned back due to the bad weather.  It was snowing hard by now, and getting darker.  The foursome huddled inside the two-man tent, which provided warmth and much needed shelter from the snow.  They were confidant that a rescue team was on the way. At one point, they could hear a rescue helicopter circling around above them, but it was too snowy to see anything.  Sadly, they heard the helicopter motor wane, becoming softer and softer, and then the cold darkness surrounded them.

 

Scott said John moaned in pain and was still obtunded (medical term for being out of it.)  John slept fitfully while in the tent, and has only limited memory of being there.  Scott was happy to have other adults around him, and he began to feel that they would indeed survive the night.

 

Meanwhile, I left the mall immediately with Jill and raced home to get the only clues I had which told me of Johnís location.  It was a whirl of emergency phone calls back and forth to the Air Force Rescue, as I provided details of where I thought John was.  I searched the internet for hiking trails to San Gorgonio, and was fairly confident of the route they had chosen.  Around 3:30, the Air Force finally connected with the local search and rescue operations which were based in Forest Falls, where Forest Home is located.  I spoke with the San Bernardino Deputy Sheriff who was in charge of the base of operations.  I decided to drive up to the base and await the safe return of my husband and son.  Jill came with me, as well as my best friend Gabrielle Knox.  The sheriff told me that if we were coming up, he would call in a chaplain.  This had an ominous sound to it, but I agreed.  We were told that we should go to the ranger station just down the mountain from Forest Falls, and they would come pick us up, as we didnít have chains or four wheel drive.  It was clear with no snow at the ranger station, and it was difficult to imagine that there was a snowstorm just ten minutes up the road.  But as the emergency vehicle took us up the mountain, the snow began falling, then covered the road, then covered everything around us.  It was a winter wonderland, and would have been beautiful under different circumstances. There is no way I could have made that ten minute drive in a regular vehicle.

 

At the base of operations, we were taken into a small room with about 10 rescue personnel, a couple of computers and a two way radio.  It was sparsely decorated and very chilly.  The rescue base team members were a friendly lot.  They were from four or five different rescue agencies in the area, and were all volunteers. They showed us on a 3D computer image where they thought John and Scott were.  They seemed optimistic.  But as the hours wore on, we realized how painstakingly slow the rescue teams were progressing.  It was pitch black in a snowstorm, and they moved with the aid of head lamps which illuminated the ground in front of them, but little else.  Conditions were treacherous for them as well.  I wondered who these people were, who would hike into the icy darkness all night long, who would voluntarily put their lives on the line to save another.  These were the next angels whom God sent to rescue my men.

 

At the base of operations, Jill and Gaby and I drifted in and out of a tortuous sleep, alternately being hyper-alert to every screech of radio static, and then succumbing to total exhaustion, more emotional than physical.  I felt like I had walked into a Discovery Channel Special on mountain rescue.  With surreal detachment, I watched the base rescuers perform their duties.  The hours drew on, and still no contact with John and Scott.  There were 18 rescuers in all on the mountain searching for them, and it was taking so, so long.

 

Then, finally, around midnight, the first rescue team made contact.  We heard the assessment of Johnís condition, that he was alert and oriented, complaining only of shoulder pain.  A cheer went up in the base station, and the mood became more optimistic.  It took another hour and a half until all the rescue teams had reached John and Scott.  The last team to arrive was the one with the sled-type gurney which was used to bring John down the trail.  While waiting for the other teams, the rescuers were able to build a fire in the snow, in the middle of a snowstorm, with snowflakes illuminated as they danced to the ground.  Scott said it was beautiful.

 

John was strapped into the litter, covered with many layers of clothing and rescue blankets.  Only his face was visible in this protective cocoon.  The rescuers alternately carried John or slid him along the narrow trail.  Scott and the angel ladies hiked together, sandwiched by rescue personnel.  It was a long, arduous return to safety.  They left the accident site at around 1:30 am and didnít make it down the mountain until 6:00 am, having spent the entire night on the mountain in the snow.  At the trailhead, a four wheel drive ambulance with chains greeted them, and took John down the mountain.  They stopped to pick me up along the way.  I was so excited to finally see my beloved, so jubilant.  I expected to jump into the back of the ambulance and plant a big kiss on Johnís cheek. But nothing could have prepared me for what I saw.  Johnís face was battered and bloody, as if someone had taken a sledge hammer to it.  His right eye was completely swollen shut, red and puffy.  He had numerous abrasions.  A photo is attached (not for the faint at heart), which was taken in the hospital after a few hours, when the swollen eye was actually starting to improve.

 

Itís getting late, so I will jump to the present.  John was hospitalized at Loma Linda Medical Center overnight, and was released today.  He has a posterior dislocation with comminuted fracture of the head of the right humerus (a broken arm in pieces at the shoulder joint.)  A CAT scan revealed two small intracranial bleeds, not surprising in light of the severe head trauma which he suffered in his fall.  Neurologically he is intact, and there has been no further bleeding into his brain.  We see an orthopedist tomorrow, who feels that John will need surgery with a partial joint replacement, as the humerus is too badly damaged to repair. 

 

Which brings me to my next set of angels: you!  When I first got the call from NOAA, I made only three phone calls to friends asking for prayer chains to form.  Now it seems as if the whole school, even all of North County, has been in prayer for my family.  Words canít express my gratitude.  I literally had a horde of angels praying me through this whole ordeal.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart.  Please continue to pray for John and for Scott, as they recover from this amazing trial.

 

In this ordeal, I was continually aware of the presence of God.  There were no coincidences.  Here is where I see the hand of God at work:

 

         John bought the personal locator device to be used in the Whitney hike, but brought it along on this trip just because.

         John had a satellite phone, an ancient relic by todayís standards, yet still crucial to his rescue.

         I saw the googled directions to the trailhead sitting on Johnís dresser the night before, and I copied them ďjust in case.Ē  If I hadnít, I would have had no idea where John had gone, other than vaguely to San Gorgonio.

         When John planned this trip, he wasnít sure if Scott would go with him.  If Scott couldnít go, John would have hiked it alone, for training for Whitney.  If he had been alone when he fell, he would have died.

         I praise God that John survived the initial fall.  Given the circumstances, he is incredibly blessed to be alive.

         If the angel ladies had not come by at the exact moment that Scott blew his whistle, they would have passed by and Scott would have been stranded in the ravine with some very tough survival choices to make.

         The angel ladies had a tent and sleeping bags, which kept them all alive through the night.  They would definitely have suffered frostbite and could have had severe hypothermia without this protection.

         I praise God that there are rescue personnel who volunteer for this kind of work.  There was really no reason why any of them had to be there.  They were there just because they like this kind of work.  I am amazed at their self-sacrifice.

 

I know there are more ways that God worked in this ordeal, but I admit I am getting too tired right now to remember them all.  Thank you for taking the time to read my thoughts.  I really needed to get this down on paper, as it has been such a profound experience.

 

Please continue to pray.  I will keep you posted on Johnís surgery as well as the emotional healing of our family.  And thank you, thank you, thank you for being such awesome prayer warriors.

 

To God be the Glory,

 

Karen Vaughan