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Santa Fe Baldy Ski Accident

January 23, 1988

Trip Leader and Author: Dennis Brandt

Participants: Dave Barlow, Richard Robinson, George Rinker, Pat Kennedy, Barry Smith, Al Bouchier, Billy Campbell, Mary Stinecipher, Jan Studebaker, Elizabeth Kelly, Greg Brickner, and Dennis Brandt.

In January 1988 Dennis Brandt lead a Los Alamos Mountaineers ski tour up 12,662’- high Santa Fe Baldy via the Winsor Trail. On the return, Elizabeth Kelly suffered a broken leg about 2/3 of the way down the mountain. This was a dramatic and dangerous situation that offers some important lessons for future Mountaineers outings.

The trip got off to an unplanned late start, 9:30, from the Santa Fe ski basin parking lot, caused by extremely slow bus traffic heading up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin. The bus company at that time was using old underpowered buses that could muster 15 miles per hour up the hill - at best.

In 1988 climbing skins were somewhat of a novelty to many of the local skiers. Those who had them used them to climb up to Raven’s ridge and later up Santa Fe Baldy. Others relied on sticky wax. The wax users were slower, having to take a lower angle of attack on the mountainside. The first skiers were on top by 12:40 p.m. but couldn’t tolerate staying for more than a couple of minutes due to the bitterly cold and icy winds that are typical in January. Slower skiers tagged the summit over next 30 minutes or so and immediately departed to begin their descent. The group assembled in the lee of some rocks before beginning the descent together. The descent was quite challenging due to the typical hard wind slab conditions near the summit which later transitioned a treacherous breakable crust before reaching soft snow. At about 11,650 ft., just above the transition from breakable crust to powder snow, and 650 vertical ft. above Puerto Nambe, Elizabeth Kelly fell and broke her fibula at the ankle joint. She had buried her left ski tip and fell in a twisting fashion. It was 2:20 p.m.

Around 3:00 Dave Barlow and Barry Smith, our two fastest skiers, were sent to contact the State Police. The remaining group was still waiting for stragglers to arrive at the accident scene. Dave made it to the ski basin parking lot in just over 1 hour, an amazing speed! Others in the group who left later took nearly three hours to cover the same distance. Barry stopped along the way to talk to a camper named Dan Clark, who agreed to bring his tent, a catalytic heater and some food up to the accident site because it looked likely that people would be on the mountainside for quite awhile.

Elizabeth was in considerable pain. Knowing that it would be a few hours at best before she could be rescued, Jan Studebaker gave her a Tylenol 3 tablet at about 2:30. It took about 30 minutes to take effect. Richard, Al, Greg, Jan and Dennis worked until 3:30 making Elizabeth as comfortable as possible in the cold, wind and snow. From our collection of gear donated by various group members, they kept her reasonably warm with a down jacket, an insulated sleeping bag liner, a space blanket and day packs, which were used for ground insulation. They also had four chemical warming pads and a metal hand warmer which were put to good use. They did not wish to remove the boot from the broken leg but were successful in keeping that foot warm by wrapping a warming pad against the outside of the boot with an ace bandage. A makeshift splint was prepared with pieces of wood which were gathered at the site and her feet were elevated.

Elizabeth was in light shock and was having strong shivering spasms even though she felt warm. Any touch or movement of the broken ankle resulted in agonizing pain. By 3:30 the pain killers began to take effect and she was OK as long as the ankle was undisturbed. As her pain diminished her spirits picked up and she stopped shivering. Dan Clark arrived with his tent and heater and helped to set them up before departing. Elizabeth was gently moved into the heated tent around 3:45. It was looking more and more like a small group of skiers were going to spend the night with Elizabeth without the benefit of sleeping bags or sleeping pads in a minimally heated tent.

When George and Pat arrived at 4:00, having made a slow and careful descent, a meeting was held to decide who would stay and who would leave. It was decided that George, Al, Jan, and Dennis would stay with Elizabeth. The others left at 4:40, getting back to the trail head around 7:30. George Rinker had training as an army medic, Al Bouchier had advanced first aid training, Jan Studebaker was Elizabeth’s boyfriend at the time and Dennis Brandt was the trip leader.

George moved into the tent with Elizabeth. He was a wonderful help to her morale. He gently checked the condition of the injury and decided to remove the uncomfortable wooden splint. His professional demeanor and good cheer calmed her and put her in fairly good spirits.

Everyone’s spirits went on a roller-coaster ride when a State Police helicopter appeared at 4:55 and flew directly toward and over the group but without any acknowledgement. The helicopter then descended and hovered for some time at Puerto Nambe but did not land due to deep snow. In the mean time, Al and Jan raced down the mountain on their skis in a futile attempt to talk to the pilot. Before they got there, the helicopter took off, circled the basin a few times, and left the area. While the pilot was circling Dennis tried to use a signal mirror that he didn’t know how to operate, and George tried to light a tree on fire with fuel for the heater. These antics would have been comical were it not for the seriousness of the situation. No one was confident that the pilot had even seen the group. In any event it was gone. The knowledge that the four skiers would probably have to spend the night without sleeping bags had a depressing effect on everyone – especially Elizabeth.

As it turned out, the pilot had dropped off a search and rescue volunteer named Tom Donihi, who proceeded up the mountain to render aid. Tom, who had a radio and a first aid kit, but no rescue equipment - received a radio message from the pilot that the helicopter had been ordered back to base because it wasn’t allowed to operate at night. The pilot then said that he would return very briefly, just before absolute darkness, to pick up Elizabeth. He allowed five minutes to get her to Puerto Nambe for the pickup, a task that would normally have taken 30 minutes.

George gave Elizabeth another Tylenol 3 to prepare her for a bumpy ride to the rescue site. Al and Jan quickly decided that the space blanket that Elizabeth was laying on could serve as a makeshift sled using a pull-harness that was patched together from pieces of nylon webbing, cord, and rope that were scrounged from the packs. Meanwhile Donihi put a cardboard splint on her lower leg. The helicopter returned to hover and wait for the patient to be delivered to Puerto Nambe. She was lifted onto the space blanket/sled, instructed that she had to help brake and steer while holding her leg in the air, and was promptly whisked down the mountain at astonishing speed with Al pulling. Dennis, unencumbered by a sled had difficulty keeping up. Tom followed at a much slower speed. Al, a very skilled skier, never fell. Elizabeth helped brake the speed with her hands and arms as she was told to do. Her leg, of course was constantly being painfully bounced around while she held it in the air.

A minute or two later, when slope began to level off, Al turned over the towing duty to Dennis while he skied ahead to let the State Police pilot know that they were on the way. On this flatter terrain the space blanket soon tore apart. Dennis and Elizabeth chose to abandon her pack and the space blanket at this point and Dennis tried to use the harness to drag her on her back through the snow while she pushed with her arms and one good leg. Then the harness broke.

Al returned after contacting the pilot. It was fully dark when Dennis and Al began skiing over rolling terrain toward the hovering helicopter with Elizabeth between them, clinging to their shoulders and hobbling along. Mainly she used her arms because the snow was too deep for her to put any real weight on her good foot. On the up-hill sections this mode of transport didn’t work so Dennis and Al made her crawl and drag herself in spite of her piteous cries and incredulity that they would make a woman with a broken leg do such a thing.

Donihi caught up with the threesome as they neared the helicopter which was hovering a few feet above the snow. The four of them entered the prop wash, which was a surreal storm of noise, light, and blasts of snow and ice crystals. The pilot lowered the helicopter to the snow surface to stabilize it as Elizabeth lunged for the door and was pushed inside by her comrades. Tom followed her in, waived off his skis and poles and shut the door. The helicopter took off. It was 5:45.

Fifteen minutes later, Elizabeth landed at St Vincent hospital where the emergency room doctor called for x-rays which showed that the fibula had broken but that the bone pieces were all perfectly aligned and swelling was minimal. She was given a temporary cast and sent home.

George, Al, Jan, and Dennis gathered up the gear that was left and skied out, arriving at the ski basin parking lot at 9:00 p.m.

Bad karma still plagued the party. The car that Greg Brickner loaned to Pat Kennedy to drive to the hospital suffered a flat tire – and a dead battery, en route to the hospital. Pat changed the tire and someone jump started the car. Amazingly Jan’s car also had a flat tire after leaving the hospital. More amazingly, Pat got to change Jan’s tire too. (Back in those days, women of the Los Alamos Mountaineers weren’t coddled). When Elizabeth got home she discovered that she had no house key, because it was still in her pack in another car. Barry Smith, being of slim build got to crawl through her doggie door to the greetings of Elizabeth’s protective Doberman, which she inexplicably named “Puppy”. Fortunately Barry was not dismembered.

Lessons Learned:

Were it not for Dan Clark’s donated tent and heater, the accident site would have been a great deal more uncomfortable. A very light tent is a good thing to have for remote trips like this.

Chemical heat packets were great for keeping Elizabeth comfortable and out of shock. Carrying several of these on a winter outing is a very good idea.

A reasonably large number of experienced outdoorsmen with a wide range of expertise and plenty of group equipment proved to be very valuable. There was a spectrum of skills including speed, strength, first aid knowledge, search and rescue experience, good companionship and collective outdoor wisdom which proved to be essential to the successful outcome of this accident.

This trip got off to a late start, a factor that ultimately endangered the group. It is important to be willing to re-evaluate the trip objectives if there isn’t a sufficient safety margin in the remaining time.

In 1988 the group had to rely on a swift courier to initiate the rescue. These days cell phones can be a terrific aid in obtaining a timely rescue in an outdoor accident, if you are lucky enough to be in a location with cell coverage. Unfortunately there still isn’t cell coverage where this accident took place.

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