Monday, June 6, 2011

Helicopter Evacuation Skyline AKA PATC Wall

Sunday June 5, 2011
Fifty (50) Foot Grounder
Climber On Skyline AKA PATC Wall

Fairly late on Sunday afternoon ORMS staff was getting ready to start some scenario training when a call came into the park that a 50 plus year old climber had taken a fifty foot fall on Skyline AKA PATC wall.    Once again our planed for scenario training was replaced with a real response.   

A fifty foot grounder is a very serious fall which can produce relatively instant death.  I am told by a medical professional friend that the LD50(point where statistically 50% die) is a fall from 48 feet.  Even if the patient does not die from the immediate impact injuries that can result from the fall will be substantial.   There will be a high probability that the patient will be in for a serious fight for life.   Rapid delivery to modern medical facilities with top notch emergency trauma and surgical teams may make the difference between the patient's living and dieing.   

It was very fortunate for this patient that  ORMS had highly trained responders high on the mountain and that the weather conditions were such that they were not stressing the patient.  Most importantly the weather and time of day meant that  a National Park helicopter could respond and rapidly evacuate the patient to a modern hospital.

Based on the comment provided by the patient's wife he has survived and is on the path to recovery.    

Our hopes and prayers go out to the patient and all the follow-on medical personal that will be involved with the efforts to restore the patient to hopefully full health.

Events Leading To Fall
There were some initial reports but like many initial reports they probably have some inaccuracies.    Suffice it to say that a very experienced climber somehow thought they were on a secure line that was not secure.   When they went to put their weight on the line they fell fifty feet to the ground.    Please see the 9th comment below supplied by one of the patient's friends.

While Old Rag is within an easy day trip's driving distance from a lot of metropolitan areas,  it is not a city or suburban park!   It is back country!   Cell phone's generally only have service high on the Ridge.     The fastest means of requesting emergency help may be to send a runner out to the trail head.     Emergency Response teams will need to drive tens of minutes to trail heads and then spend 10s of minutes if not hours hiking themselves and equipment to the patient.     

On this day the patient was lucky both that ORMS had trained responders high on the mountain and one of the park's helicopter Eagle (one or two?) was available to respond.   Considering the location of the accident an incredibly fast extraction was accomplished and the patient was on their way to a hospital via helicopter not to many hours after his accident.  

Visitors to Old Rag should understand and act with the knowledge that there is a very high probability that the stars, planets and moon will not be as aligned as they were for this patient.     In the event of a serious accident or onset of a serious medical condition most patients will be facing two to three hours wait before the first help will reach them.   Placement in an ambulance for transport to a hospital may take an additional five to ten hours.     From time a non-ambulatory accident occurs on Old Rag until the patient arrives at the hospital it can take up to fifteen hours.   

Sorry about the quality of the following videos.

Dan Nichols one of the
Good Samaritans That Helped

The following two links have video footage supplied by Dan Nichols that is way better than mine.
See Dan's comments to this post.    He his friends and others mounted initial good Samaritan efforts before ORMS resources arrived.

Dan, huge thanks to you and your friends for all the response help and for sharing these great videos.


This first video is just a shot of some helicopter lift equipment being delivered to the ground personnel.   Not very exiting unless you are a responder looking at it for training purposes.   Best to just watch the second video.

The second video shows the patient being lifted with tag lines being manned by ground personnel.

The next pictures show some of the end of incident activities.    Even when it is felt that a successful helicopter extraction has a high probability the Incident Commanders will generally  rally resources assuming the helicopter extraction will not succeed.    With hiking times measured in hours they can not wait for one option to fail before initiating preparations for the contingencies.     Thankfully the contingency plans did not need to be exercised.     That said, right around the time the helicopter got the patient airborne,  teams of park employees were arriving on Skyline Wall with hundreds and hundreds of pounds of equipment.   Had the helicopter  extraction failed the response team was prepared for  a rapid and smooth transition to a long manual carryout.     

The next three pictures show many of the tens of folks who were directly involved in the robust flexible response for this patient.  

Good Samaritans   
Some with formal training for emergency response and some without.  Like Border Collies who just have an intense desire to help with the flock there are some who respond because it is in their genetics and they can not abide not to if they see someone in need.  
Note: While not exactly the same the SheepDog reference is an improve off of a concept of Sheep Dogs first espoused by an old retired Vietnam era Colonel and used by William J. Bennett - in a lecture to the United States Naval Academy November 24, 1997 and also used by author LTC (RET) Dave Grossman and also by video self help Internet author NutNFancy.

Both behind and before any response like this there are hundreds of man hours spent planning and preparing to make sure that the equipment and highly trained human resources will be available when needed.

  • Park management has to obtain budgets for equipment, training, and response pay.
  • Government and volunteer organizations prepare and train, prepare and train, then prepare and train some more.  
  • Other government and non-government organizations donate equipment.         
  • Not too be forgotten,  families and friends selflessly give up anticipated plans when their loved ones participate in these often long and arduous responses.


  1. Hello Friends, I'm the wife of the climber who fell, Dave Rockwell. He's out of surgery for a broken pelvis, ankle, and elbow. He actually joked to me that this may set his climbing back a thanks to you all

  2. Many thanks for letting us know that he is doing well.

    Sharing such an intense experience creates bounds between responders and patients. Other than any feedback that helps us to improve future responses we really do not have a need to know how our patients do after they leave our care.

    That said, we are always concerned about the welfare and rapid recovery of those we help and it is always good to get news of how they are doing.

  3. Thanks for the report Bob.

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Mrs Rockwell,

    Glad to hear Dave is doing well! I was one of the hikers nearby that reached Dave quickly as Andy called for help and was able to offer assistance to the mountain crews throughout the mission. Everyone involved did an outstanding job including Dave for being a real fighter! Bravo Zulu. I was able to get a few videos of the mountain crews prepping Dave for the helicopter and then the lift itself.

    Not much action in this video but at about 0:40 the video shows the rock where the fall occured and demonstrates the terrain over which Dave was carried. v=aE_kfuxfWkg

    The next is a higher view of the chopper lift. v=uCHWcy_wPts

    Best Wishes to Dave and his friends and family!

    Dan Nichol

  6. Fixed links.

  7. Dan,

    Your videos are awesome. Many thanks for sharing. A huge Bravo Zulu to all that helped.

  8. Dave's friends in Seattle are grateful to the skilled and loving/caring heroes that saved a truly great man's life.

  9. Thank you for the rapid response; because of this the outlook is much brighter than it could have been.

    Although I was not present, I have climbed with Dave many hundreds of times across the US and in all sorts of conditions. We are talking about a very experienced climber on a route that known to him and easy for him, a reminder to all of us that rock climbing is serious stuff, never to be taken lightly.

    He is a careful climber. He is not new to the area or route. It's ironic that Dave and I authored the climbing guide to Old Rag located on the sidebar of this blog.

    He always professed a deep distrust for ropes and their use in rappelling an lowering. He would rather have his hands on rock, in control. Ropes, though strong, are less instinctive than climbing and demand mechanical thinking. Somehow--the details are not known at this time--that process broke down. We do know that simple rappel and belay errors account for the majority of serious climbing accidents; mechanical thinking when placing anchors and setting ropes must be our watchword.

  10. Glad to hear the climber is recovering and in good spirits! I've shared the help extract over on Hawksbill Cabin too.

  11. There have been an unusual number of experienced climber accidents this past year - most due to uneven rappel ropes. Rappelling and lowering are high risk points within climbing due to your 100% reliance on anchors and ropes and warrants extra caution. As another climber with long experience I look forward to hearing the details and hope Dave recovers well and fast.

  12. I heard about this accident from John Gregory. Needless to say I am extremely glad Dave is doing well. If this can happen to a true expert and vet like Dave, it's a reminder how careful we all need to be.

    Thank you to all the rescuers and to Bob for posting this vital information. Best wishes for Dave's speedy and full recovery.

  13. dave rockwell here, typing with one hand from nursing home bed. yes, the careless s.o.b. himself. now that i am on the mend to a much better physical future than i deserve, i face the impossible task of adequately thanking all those involved in this highly skilled rescue. in case there's anyone out there that doubts the value of the rigid litter, know that i have several small spinal fracture which could so easily have paralyzed me without it and its skilled handling. i will be wearing a molded back brace whenever upright for the next few months.

    what can i possibly say? thanks again everyone.

  14. Dave,

    So glad you are doing well enough to post. It is always great to get feedback on what was done well and what needs improvement. Thanks for the thanks. Some of that thanks goes back to you since in my opinion the patient is the first and only involuntary member of the rescue team. Patients do not volunteer yet their role is the hardest job. They need to directly and most intimately manage the pain and injuries. The patient is the only team member who can administer the force-of-will and the desire to survive and recover. After the team breaks up at the end of the rescue the patient ends up being left in charge of the hard work of the ongoing healing and recovery. In truth the team's final marks can not be written until the patient is done with recovery. The best thanks you can give the rescue team is to optimize your recovery. God speed that tough ongoing work. Now get back to work ;-) and get better just because we are playing in the mountains does not mean your off the hook.

  15. Sorry to have not followed up directly, Dave. Folks - I am family-related and NOT a climber. But like so many non-athletes I have watched TV (far, far too much). Bear Grylls always does it right when he *seriously* reminds viewers about being careful, being prepared, planning for bad outcomes in advance... So I/we realize that climbers, rescuers, hikers all share this mindset which perhaps the rest of us lack... So all who read this blogspot of Bill Look's must know how much my side of the family truly revere you, for your selflessness, dedication, practice, expertise, training, self-respect and so much more.

    Now as for you, Mr. Laid-back Dave: what do the physical therapists think about cycling - getting ready for it; its benefit as on-going P.T. and as body-building; etc. And what would they think of the Row-Bike !??

    Hey, that is something to look forward to!

    My deepest love for you, a "truly great man".

    Bill Marston, Philly