Broken femur, minutes ’til dark

Nelson, a friend from Saskatchewan, shares a recent incident: a serious femur break 30km from the trucks at 4pm near the Fernie area.  Nelson is well organized and prepared however in the course of the evening they used most everything in his pack and could have used more.  While the SAR team remarked that they were one of the most prepared backcountry snowmobilers that they had ever rescued, Nelson still felt incredibly vulnerable.  He recognized that they were just lucky.  It would have been a struggle to keep the group comfortable and safe had they been forced to overnight. 

It doesn’t matter how experienced you are or how conservative you may be, these are all situations that you could face on any riding day.  Curious what we pack?!  CLICK HERE for a listing.  Leave a comment at the end of the article and share the unique supplies that you carry.  Let us know brands that you trust.  There are always cool, new products coming out on the market.  For the most part you get what you pay for, but maybe you have found great deals on high performance gear…be sure to share your secrets.  As a community of mountain riders it improves the safety and the image for all of us in the sport when the riders around us are skilled and prepared.

Let us know of an overnight experience that you may have had.  What worked, what didn’t work and what have you changed since.

Hi Lori, Sorry for the delay

I often get pulled into discussion with our riding partners about the weight of my backpack and “is that stuff really necessary?” “that’s crazy” etc. It was quite ironic that the fellow (we’ll call him Bob) who broke his femur 30 kms from the truck had asked that very question the night before his first day’s ride. I commented on his flimsy and stubby shovel and he asked what I had in my backpack. I threw him my gear list.  It’s a list that I pull out each day I ride so I remember the last minute things and things that may have been pulled out to dry overnight.  The back pack items which do not need drying stay in the pack for the season and the spare clothing is shrink wrapped to guarantee its dryness and to save space in the pack.

Bob did have quite a few of those items in his backpack but certainly not all of them.

What follows is a brief rundown of our incident. 

The time was about 16:00 and the day’s ride for the 3 of us was nearly done. One of the riders (Bob in this case) was quite inexperienced and was struggling with getting stuck all day. We were in the trees for the most part for two reasons. First, it’s the most fun and there were no tracks in there.  Second, it was our first day riding in the Fernie area and even though it had not snowed for a week or so, we didn’t have a good feel for the snow conditions and the risk of avalanches without some learning first. There were some avalanche concerns due to the weather in the recent past.

After assessing the snow a bit earlier in the day we did venture out onto some smaller open slopes which were well supported, mostly to give the inexperienced rider some fun without getting stuck every 2 minutes (literally!!)  He had some fun but still managed to get stuck often. By this point in the day we were getting tired of digging him out constantly, so we let him dig for a while before we would go help. His last stuck took him a long time to get out and he was thoroughly frustrated by the time he was free. He commented that he was not going to get stuck for at least half an hour. The type of slope we were playing on was an open slope except for a few scruffy trees. It had a small ridge, then dropped slightly, then climbed again onto the main part of the slope. His fateful run started with him carrying as much speed as he could so he didn’t get stuck. This was considerably more speed than his previous runs partly due to the good traction on the packed track. When he hit the gentle roll he left the snow and realizing he was carrying too much speed, he let off the throttle and nosed into the bottom. The distance he fell would be about 10 ft in total, just barely off the snow surface. We think the crash went like this:  he hit nose down and his knees drove forward into the sled with his feet on the running boards. His momentum carried his body over the hood with his leg under the handle bar and his knee pressed up against the sled. His femur and the handle bar broke at the same time as he flew over the hood. The sled came down the hill at half throttle and crashed at the bottom into some small trees still at half throttle.

We couldn’t see ‘Bob’ and called up on the radio to see if he was ok. His reply was prompt but he thought his femur was broken. I went up the hill to check and the other rider went to deal with the still running sled.  ‘Bob’ was in a lot of pain and if he moved the leg at all he was in agony. He had a large bulge at the inside of his hamstring which felt like mangled flesh and blood. Fortunately no blood was getting through the skin. We had a quick discussion about the options and I headed for the top of the nearby slope to check for cell service (spotty at best). After that failed we decided the risk of bleeding was too great to try to evacuate on our own. We used a SPOT Communicator with a GPS to text a help message out through the SPOT system. This was a helpful tool because it allowed 2-way communication. We were able to let (Search and Rescue) SAR know it was a broken femur, that a helicopter could land nearby, and that we had flares. This SPOT device did take quite a bit of one person’s time to process messages but it was very helpful none the less.

First we needed to stabilize ‘Bob’ and try to keep him warm. A tarp was positioned under him as well as we could do without moving ‘Bob’ too much.  A big pair of mitts was put on his hands.  All jacket liners and sweaters were stuffed into his clothing, a 2 person bivy sack was pulled over and tucked under him, a neck tube covering his neck and face, and spare socks covering anything that was getting cold. It would have been very helpful to splint the leg and put him into the bivy sack on top of the tarp, and then pull him into a hole to keep him out of the wind but the pain and risk of bleeding were too great. We shovelled a snow wall around him to break the wind, and cut trees down we thought might get in the way of the helicopter. We marked out the heli-landing and hoped it was big enough (none of us had any helicopter experience).  We brought some of the branches over for more protection. While this was going on we knew through the SPOT that SAR was assembling but it sounded like it was a ground crew. I sometimes carry a small stove and fuel which sure would have been nice on this occasion to heat water and place warm bottles next to ‘Bob’ to keep him warm. He was cold but surprisingly didn’t go into shock. We heard a helicopter in the distance and our spirits were lifted. It was to the south of us and we fired a flare off when it seemed to be heading in the wrong direction. We couldn’t see it due to a large mountain in the way but hoped the flare would go high enough.  Just about that time we got info on the SPOT that it was too late for a helicopter so we assumed it was just coincidence that the chopper flew by.

We continued with shelter and other preparations for overnighting knowing daylight was running out. Near dark we heard a chopper again, this time to the north and we could see it in the valley over the road the truck was parked on. We had sent that information as well but mostly for the ground SAR team. We shot a flare and immediately saw the chopper drop a lot of elevation till he was much lower than us. We didn’t know what that meant so we shot another flare. As he came closer we turned on our headlamps to flash and started the sleds. He landed at about 17:50  just above ‘Bob’. We had to rush to get the helicopter back in the air due to darkness, so it was a cruel and frantic group effort to get him in there but it was the best option. The pain must have been something else. He gritted his teeth and kept his eyes closed and all we could do was pat his shoulder and tell him “this is gonna hurt!!”

When the chopper left we could see nothing without a headlamp so we gathered up all the gear, vacuum bags etc., and looked for some of his missing gear from the crash. 
(We found everything I think!)

I cannot express the relief I felt laying face down in the snow, hands freezing, ears ringing and shit blown all over the mountain as that helicopter lifted off with our friend in it.   We had used pretty much all of our resources and needed more, especially had we been forced to overnight.   As prepared as we were we would have had to make some very tough decisions had the chopper not been able to rescue.

We have been in touch with Fernie SAR since the incident, mostly to thank them for their outstanding contribution, and also to talk about what went well and what didn’t. They said we were probably the most prepared group they had ever rescued and I have had people comment that we should feel good about that. In reality I don’t feel good about it because we had used nearly all of our resources and were saved by an outstanding effort of a group of dedicated volunteers. We felt very vulnerable and naked up there on that bare mountain slope as darkness fell, our friend shivering and in pain.  I would have felt a lot better about our situation had we ended the evening with adequate supplies.  This would have increased our confidence had we needed to spend the night maintaining our friend’s health until medics arrived.

In this case the SPOT and the flares were the key. Without either one we would not have been found in the daylight, and it could have been a very different outcome with someone’s life at stake.  The feeling was overwhelming.

‘Bob’ was flown to Fernie, transported to Cranbrook for surgery, and is recovering at home now with a large metal rod and some pins in his leg. We recovered his sled the next day and all is well thanks to some gear, some knowledge, and SAR who were there to help in our time of need. The mountains are a very beautiful place and the outdoor recreation we participate in is like no other, but those mountains can also be cruel and unforgiving. You can never be too prepared!