Anatomy of a Mountain Airlift: How Rescuers saved a man’s life in the Wilderness
(Lander, Wyo.) – The call came in at 2:30 p.m. on May 13th. A 37-year-old antler hunter on the Wind River Indian Reservation was taking off his pack at an elevation of 8,200 feet on Bear Peak in the St.Lawrence Basin when his .45 caliber pistol accidentally fired, the bullet tearing through his lower right and upper left abdomen.
Fortunately, the antler hunter had two companions with him, and one raced to to find cell phone coverage to notify the BIA’s Wind River Police of the mishap while the other attempted to stop the man’s bleeding
“The WRPD asked for our assistance,” said Bill Lee of Fremont County Search and Rescue’s Lander Division. “But the SAR helicopter could not land where the accident occurred. It was a steep burn area and the rotor wash would have blown over the deadfall. It was a safety issue, both for the patient and the SAR Team.”
Lee said the injured man was accessible only down 1,500 feet of a Tallis Slope (loose rock) that had many deadfall trees and standing dead trees from a recent forest fire.
“We sent in a Hasty Team, which is the first team that responds to such an incident, so they could assess the situation and report back,” Lee said. “A Classic Aeromedical helicopter delivered the initial three member Hasty team to an elevation of 9,700 feet on a ridge high above the accident site. Down in the valley, 10 other SAR members helped with logistics, communication and planning the extrication with WRPD Police Chief Will Matthews, Tribal Fish and Game and other officers.
When the victim’s condition was known, and it was serious, two other SAR teams that had been on standby were ferried to the ridge, again by the Classic helicopter. The two teams arrived on Bear Peak at 10:50 p.m. and both climbed down to the accident scene together.
“It was determined it would be better to short haul the victim out as trying to haul him up the slope would most likely have injured him further,” Lee said, but darkness then descended on the scene.
A short haul is when a helicopter hovers high overhead and drops a 100 or 150 foot line to the team below who then hooks up the patient in a litter. The ship then flies the injured, and a team member, to a waiting medical helicopter.
The first on the scene Hasty Team helped with stabilizing the patient, monitoring his medical needs and provided first aid.
“We knew we had to get a ship up there, and we contacted the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security and the Wyoming Air National Guard,” Lee said. “The Adjutant General approved release of a Blackhawk helicopter that could hoist the victim out of the scene. He did so in a very short amount of time.”
Meanwhile, the victim had lost a lot of blood and the teams at the site did not have plasma or blood and kept watch over him while his condition worsened. “His brother and friend kept a fire going, we controlled the bleeding as best we could and kept him alert,” Lee said. “He was talking with us some of the time.” Lee said the man had been “packaged up” awaiting the ship, meaning he had been placed and secured in the litter.
“It was intense,” Lee said, “We had minimal medical supplies, we were equipped for wilderness medicine but not for Advanced Life Support. Our task was keeping him alive until the ship arrived. We were aware of our limitations, we had to improvise and we could only give him water. This man was one tough customer, he held up.”
Lee said the team on the site tipped the victim over when he had to throw up and succeeded in slowing his bleeding from the two wounds and internal damage. “We continually monitored his pulse and temperature.”
“At 4:26 a.m. we heard the sweetest noise of the Blackhawk from Cheyenne coming in. At 5:33 we were able to get the bundled patient onto the short haul line and the Blackhawk lifted him to a Classic Ship at the forward command center, that then air lifted him to Casper. They arrived at the Wyoming Medical Center at 6:00 where a trauma team was waiting.
“We did our job, we got him to the hospital alive,” Lee said.
Following the incident, the SAR team held an extensive debrief. “It was an after action review and lessons learned,” Lee said. “We put all of the pieces of the puzzle together, which allows better closure.” He said the rescue “was almost text book” in its operation. He also noted that the SAR teams had never worked in that area before, and it was at night. “To navigate at night in unfamiliar territory was a real test.”
Lee said when the teams on site learned that a Blackhawk was coming, “it raised everyone’s spirits. We just had to be patient and do the basics.”
After a training exercise with the Tip Top SAR Team’s helicopter from Pinedale over a week ago, members the Lander team met for 90 minutes and reviewed all the supplies they could or would need for a future case like Bear Peak’s. They finally agreed on a small pack for the Hasty Team, to be followed with other medical items by support teams.
SAR members who participated included Judson Strom, Darcy Englert, Rich Rochelle, Bill DeClue, Cal Anacker and Bill Lee.
Lee said Fremont County SAR personnel are a real asset to the community. “We are blessed to have the quality of the people we have to do this,” he said. “It’s a real tribute to our community.”