by Colin Aina
As I absorbed the gravity of what Ben had just told me, I had a rush of great concern with some subdued panic mixed in. I immediately went into assessment mode, rattling off a checklist:
- What are we going to do?
- Should Jay and I continue on?
- How are we going to get Ben down?
- Should I call for rescue?
- How long will it take for the local SAR (search and rescue) to get to us?
- Ben's going to be pissed?
- How is he going to run his business?
- This is a crappy way to spend a birthday?
- How long will it take him to heal?
This checklist went through my brain in a flash, I then yelled above to Jay what had happened. "Wait, what?" he said. I yelled it again and he understood. "Okay, let me make an anchor and rap (rappel) down to you....ah man, this is bad." The panic in his voice was evident.
Jason repelled down to me and discussed our next plan of action. The first and obvious move was to get down to Ben fast. We constructed an anchor from which to attach our rope and lower to him. By the time I got to Ben he was sitting on the ledge, not visibly in pain, but he did have a look of defeat on his face. He described what had happened: "I placed a cam in the crack and clipped the rope to it. I then reached above it to the next handhold and my gear sling clipped into the rope and it tugged me down." As confusing as this seems to comprehend in writing, it's almost as complicated as he told it to me. (I met up with Ben a few weekends ago and he had to describe it again, because it was still confusing even all this time later). If this had happened with 10,000 feet of air underneath him, there would not have been an issue. Ben would have just gone for a ride...a "whipper" we call it (see below), and Nick would have caught his fall as he belayed him. You are substantially more likely to injure a leg closer to the ground due to the stretch in the rope extending as your bodyweight stretches out.
Ben had taken Hydrocodone shortly after sustaining the fall, which surely subsided the pain and calmed the nerves. Like myself, he carries a small first aid kit on all outings (6P's!). I visibly assessed his ankle and noticed there was no swelling and I immediately thought this to be strange. He gestured that there was pain in the medial shin. I concluded that the location of the pain as well as lack of swelling eluded to a fractured tibia. We discussed the plan of action and quickly getting him off the ledge was key. We agreed that calling for help was out of the question for a number of reasons; waiting for help, putting others at risk, and the fact that there were 3 of us that were capable. But, the strongest reason is that in the White Mountains, the cost of a search and rescue bill goes right to the rescued party. It can involve the local police, volunteer SAR personnel, and even the local National Guard if necessary. I've heard of rescues costing upwards of $3000...no thank you.
Ben readied his gear to rappel down the 100 feet back to base. He was very calm given the situation and was able to manage the rappel on 1 leg. I shot this quick video after he headed down...
When I made the second rappel to the base, Nick and Ben were fashioning a splint out of rope and sticks to stabilize the leg. I was truly concerned for Ben and I could mostly think about what his recovery would be like and how much this would affect the coming ice climbing season. He couldn't put any weight on this leg and had to hop as Nick held onto him as they headed down the talus field of boulders and loose rock to the campsite parking lot. I didn't know at the time, but getting him back to the lot was going to be much more arduous than I expected.