The Grand County Emergency Medical Services (GCEMS) is being recognized for its work to save the life of a base jumper during an accident in 2017 — the busiest year on record in the history of the department.
On Wednesday, July 11, the GCEMS team will travel to Draper to be honored with the “Incident of the Year Award” from the State Bureau of Emergency Medical Services. The incident for which the first responders are being recognized occurred in the backcountry, at the lower Gemini Bridges area on Sept. 2, 2017.
Grand County Search and Rescue, Classic Air Medical and several other first responders also helped. Together, the first responders spent more than 11 hours in the backcountry with the critically injured base jumper, until the Department of Public Safety could safely hoist the patient the following morning.
GCEMS Captain McKay Vowles was closest to the area when the first responders were dispatched to the accident.
“It was kind of lucky that we were already on the highway wrapping up another call when this came out. Response time was very fast because we were already out on U.S. Highway 191,” Vowles said. “I drove straight to the scene. When I got to the scene, and I saw their flashlights sort of shimmering on the mountain, I realized just how difficult that this call was going to be because they were so high up on the scree field, and the scree field was so steep.”
A scree is a steep, rocky area at the base of a cliff, and the lower Gemini Bridges scree slope had no clear path to the patient among the loose rock and large boulders. Vowles scrambled up over 600 feet of the scree field; other first responders soon followed.
“He was wrapped in his parachute,” Vowles said. “His friend had taken off their belt to use as a tourniquet. It was not very effective, so the patient was going into shock due to a high amount of blood loss. The very first thing I did was take out one of our tourniquets to put on his leg to stop that bleeding.”
A few minutes later, Robin Reibold, emergency medical technician, and Britney Bastian, a paramedic, arrived and began to take the injured man’s vitals. Vowles started two IV lines to try to raise his blood pressure.
The first responders told the State Bureau of Emergency Medical Services that “the patient was calm, but in a great amount of pain: He had wrist pain, shoulder pain and left leg had an obvious closed fracture. The right leg just below the knee was still oozing blood, the bottom half of his leg was hanging on by some skin with most of the leg being amputated, the right foot was cold and pulseless,” they wrote in their report.
Craig Sanchez, a member of Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR), also arrived at the scene. In total, Sanchez said 10 members of the search and rescue team helped, and was quick to point out that technical climber Brett Sherman oversaw the onsite operations.
“It’s tiring, but adrenaline keeps you going in that situation,” Sanchez said. “It was hard to get supplies up to the area where the patient was, so we were doing drops for food and water.”
Classic Air Medical landed at the site’s command post to assist.
GCEMS Director Andy Smith said pilot Kody Henderson had to get as close as safely possible to the cliff wall and hovered close to the ground while a GCSAR member in the helicopter passed bags of equipment to the rescuers huddled on the scree slope.
“I’m so proud of our team of paramedics and EMTs who operate in the extreme environments of this area, trying to literally save lives,” Smith said.
Smith said that without finding any adequate anchors, GCSAR had to place many bolts using a hammer drill for several hundred feet along the base of the cliff, and they found the most accessible route down was to traverse 200-feet across the scree field to where the angle of was not as steep for the lowering.
As the first responders tried to carry the patient down the scree field, they realized the risk was too great — the patient was in too much pain, and losing a lot of blood; a second tourniquet was put into place.
Smith said that after about an hour and only moving 75 feet, the decision was made to stop trying to lower the patient from the scree slope for both the safety of the patient and the rescuers. By this time, the first responders said it was 1 a.m., and they made the decision stay overnight with the patient.
“The GCEMS team and five members of GCSAR stayed on the mountain with the patient, and the others, including myself, were going up and down carrying gear that we didn’t need anymore and demobilizing as they brought the patient down,” Sanchez said. “EMS kept the patient alive for 14 hours on the side of the cliff, basically, until we could get there and the (Department of Public Safety) helicopter could come in the morning.”
Around 7 am, after for more than 11 hours on the side of the mountain, the Department of Public Safety’s hoist helicopter arrived and set up for the hoist mission, Smith said. The helicopter lifted off with the rescue technician on the hoist and lowered the technician down to the rescuers and patient. The rescue technician and rescuers loaded the patient into their hoist bag and called the helicopter back in.
Hoisting the patient and rescuer out was much more difficult because of the proximity of the helicopter to the cliff face, the first responders said. The helicopter held a steady hover with only about 50-feet separating it from the face of the cliff.
The patient was hoisted successfully down to a third helicopter that included another classic air medical
crew, the report to the State Bureau of Emergency Medical Services states.
The first Classic Air medical crew had been on scene throughout the night and it was decided it would save time and be safer for a fresh flight crew to come in, Smith said.
The patient was flown to the trauma center in St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, where the patient’s leg was surgically amputated, and he spent seven days in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) before being moved to a rehab unit.
“Last year was a really bad year for base jumping accidents,” Vowles said. “I think we responded to six, and a couple of those were fatalities. They’re usually pretty … due to the major impact of base jumping accidents, they’re almost always critical.”
“We saved a life,” Sanchez said. “It’s not always life-saving situations, sometimes it’s minor injuries, but it’s very regarding and purposeful to be thanked by the patient and the family … I think it’s great (GCEMS) is being recognized. That’s a tough job, and again, they’re on the side of a mountain saving this man’s life, and it was interesting to be a part of it and they did a great job. Hats off, definitely.”
Vowles said 2017 was the overall busiest year on record for Grand County EMS; the call volume is continuing to increase, he said, and is up 30 percent to-date over 2017.
“We are busier than we’ve ever been, and we’ve had more traumatic accidents than we’ve ever had in such a short time, and it’s causing a huge strain and stress on our small department’s resources,” Vowles said. “It’s difficult to respond to so many extreme backcountry calls. For a rural EMS department that runs so many critically injured backcountry accidents, that are very time and resource consuming, it is becoming more difficult with our current resources.”
Smith said that GCEMS is working hard to meet the increasing demands, and recognized the GCEMS team for continuing to do incredible work every day.
“This incident is another example of the dedication of not only EMS, but also of Grand County Search and Rescue, Grand County Sheriff’s office, Grand County Dispatch, and our local Classic Air Medical helicopter,” Smith said. “This gentleman is alive today as a direct result of these agencies working together. I’m always humbled by the incredible work of these men and women.”
“Incident of the Year Award” for Gemini Bridges rescue; Call volumes at record level
“We saved a life. It’s not always life-saving situations, sometimes it’s minor injuries, but it’s very regarding and purposeful to be thanked by the patient and the family … I think it’s great (GCEMS) is being recognized. That’s a tough job, and again, they’re on the side of a mountain saving this man’s life, and it was interesting to be a part of it and they did a great job. Hats off, definitely.”