Sustained good weather, finally! It was going to be a big weekend. North Twin on Friday, the south buttress of Cutthroat on Saturday, and Big Kangaroo on Sunday. Natasha and I left the house 4am Friday morning, the car loaded with gear and food. Little did we know our plans for the weekend would be changing.
We reached the gate at 6am and found that it was open. We were tempted to drive through it, but we didn't want to come back to a locked gate, so we mounted our bikes instead. I fought the monotony of logging roads by seeing if I could ride all the way to the North Twin spur road without pushing the bike up the steeper parts.
After hiding the bikes we followed the spur road to the subsequent boot path which terminates in class 2 terrain where the west ridge narrows. Class 2 interspersed with class 3 moves quickly turned into solid 3. Olivine rock is the most grippy stuff I have ever set my hands on. Good holds seem hand-crafted and just about everywhere. This is what makes the Twin Sisters range my favorite scramble playground, this being my fourth trip to the area. We used mechanics gloves to protect against the rough sticky rock.
As with the South Twin, difficulties on or near the crest can be avoided by traverse-scrambling slightly lower on the south face. Occasional cairns hint at the route as it follows exposed ledges and crosses numerous ribs and gullies on the south face. After crossing several of these ribs and gullies we came to an obvious end of traverse options. It was time to go up.
There were several possible lines. All appeared to be a mix of class 3 and class 4. We picked what looked like the easiest way and made adjustments as we went. We passed several more small cairns.
Natasha asked me if she should stay further back in the gullies in case of rock fall. I told her that sometimes it's better to stay close behind so that if a rock gets going, it doesn't have time to build up much speed. Overall the rock was very solid but a few loose pieces were present in the gullies. She stayed close behind and I was careful not to dislodge anything when I was leading.
Then I heard her yelling in pain. I turned around and she said, "I just broke my finger". What?! She was in the middle of a class 4 section which looked precarious from my vantage above her. "I think I broke my finger, I really need to get through this tough spot". She struggled to get through the difficult move without use of her left hand. Eventually she made it through and then rested on the small ledge next to me. She told me that I had dislodged a fist-sized rock and that it had fallen just 4 feet and landed perfectly on her left index finger.
Damn it! I felt terribly guilty and also worried about how we were going to get her down safely without the use of her left hand. Scrambling back down the west ridge would now be completely impossible. We would have to descend the steep snow slope on the north ridge, but that had been our plan all along and thankfully we had the gear for it. But would she be able to arrest without a strong left-handed grip on the ax? I knew the snow on the north ridge was very steep and accidents have happened there before.
First things first. We had to finish the route to reach the north ridge. Natasha was temped to take the glove off immediately and examine the damage. I thought it was a bad idea. It might freak her out, and furthermore we needed to finish the class 4 before her hand swelled so much she couldn't use it anymore. Luckily, we were only a few hundred feet from the summit. Although extremely painful, she made it to the top.
We found a spot out of the wind and gingerly removed her glove. The finger was ruptured, split open from the nail to the second knuckle. On the under side, a sliver of bone appeared to be protruding from a small hole. A compound fracture? I could also see signs of internal bleeding. I wrapped it gently in gauze and then helped her put the glove back on to protect it.
We didn't waste any time. We put our crampons on and got the axes out. She had to downclimb the north ridge. There was no other option. I led down, facing in, double kicking each step to make sure it was deep and secure for her. She did amazingly well. She said that the cold from the snow on her left hand was helping. After descending 300 feet, the slope lessened and wee were able to turn around and face out.
Traversing down and to the left was not easy for her since she couldn't hold the ax in the left hand. After some struggling we came back to the boot path and then the spur road. At the main logging road we decided to trade bikes because my brakes are easier to squeeze than hers are. It was then about 25 minutes to go another 7 miles back down to the car. Our round-trip time was 12.5 hours.
I drove quickly to the emergency room. The doctor had to cut the glove off because of swelling and dried blood. An x-ray revealed a fracture but what had appeared to be exposed bone was merely soft-tissue. Thank goodness it's not a compound-fracture! We were both very relieved. They cleaned it up, trimmed off the dead skin and wrapped it up. She was given a script for Vicodin and Doxycycline, but she opted not to fill them since we already have doxy, also used to prevent malaria, left over from our Asia trip, and she would rather just take ibuprofen. Throughout the whole ordeal I was amazed by Natasha's good attitude even though I knew she was suffering from the pain.
In hindsight I think of how many times I've been hit by rocks that were fist-sized or bigger. All I've ever gotten were bruises. Could we have done something differently? This incident has made me think again about the dangers of mountaineering and I have had to take stock on what is most important to me. What would we have done if the rock was bigger or the injury more serious? What if she hadn't been able to downclimb from the summit? These thoughts give me pause and I don't have all the answers. Are we going to stop climbing after this incident? Absolutely not. Will we always do what we can to minimize the risk? Absolutely.
Adam, I can hear in your words how shaken this accident has left you. I think it is harder to handle the emotions that well up when it isn't you, but the other person, who is injured. Especially a loved one. I once had to get a girlfriend out of the mountains with a shattered wrist, so I think I can guess how you are feeling about now.
I am just happy to know that it wasn't worse, and that you were both able to get out of the situation safely. Natasha seems like a heck of a gal - but that isn't so surprising if she's keeping up with you!
I hope her finger heals well, and that you can both enjoy climbing together soon!
-------------- "Forget gaining a little knowledge about a lot and strive to learn a lot about a little." - Harvey Manning
It was actually a spoon from a Taco Bell we had stopped at the day before. I remember thinking, "this might come in handy some day." Broke my left middle finger 24 hours later from a lava rock that fell off a wind wall while I was taking down the tent. Broke off the mouth end of the spoon and a little electrical tape made quite a good splint. I should've turned around before attempting the summit (didn't make it and finger healed weird) but lesson learned (don't trust those damn wind walls). The hardest bit was trying to use the ice axe on icy sections. (shudders)
I guess in your situation there were some things to think about. I'm not sure what you could've done differently... if she was further away you may have had time to say "rock" but at that point dodging it would have been critical and I don't think you knew it had dislodged. Sometimes you win the lottery and sometimes you get the loose rock. To repeat others, I'm glad it wasn't worse and thanks for sharing.
Such a very good report! Thank you!
We really appreciate your concluding thoughts. We've had similar experience . . . including one with a painful exit ending with a day in the emergency room this past Easter. As a party of 2 we have talked about this a lot. Since Christmas we have been carrying an Inreach Satellite communicator. It's small & light and has exceptional coverage.
Hope you guys continue to have a wonderful time in the mountains! So glad you were able to get down ok!
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She is! Don't take it too hard, Adam. Everyone knows the risks when we go out, and you used your best judgement in that particular situation. If she was lower, perhaps the rock would have taken her off her stance.
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