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[at-l] Derailed at Blue Mountain - Part One



Derailed at Blue Mountain - by Robert Tomlinson

October 9, 2002 - 9AM. It had been a great backpacking trip so far - we had
covered almost twenty miles over two and one half days, with two and one
half days to go. Much rainier than we had experienced in previous trips, but
really nothing too bad. But as we left Blue Mountain Shelter that morning,
continuing south on the AT, it was very foggy and I noticed that the ground
was pretty wet. Two of the group had already gone ahead - Bette and her son
Tom - expecting to be the slowest and wanting a head start on what was to be
our longest hiking day. Then us remaining three, with me in the lead and
Greg and Noel, our strongest hikers, right behind.

We expected just a little bit of downhill at the start of the day and then
were looking forward to an extended section of fairly even terrain, which
had been a bit of a rarity so far in this trip. As I eagerly hit the trail
and headed down, Greg remarked that I was obviously eager to tackle the day
and jokingly called me "a horse". About one hundred yards down, I passed the
little water source that we had nicknamed the Golden Arches, after the
crossed trees that marked the spot. I remember thinking that after that
point the trail looked like it dropped off steeply, but as I got closer it
seemed to be just an optical illusion caused by some boulders in the middle
of the trail, that weren't really that tall but obscured the continuing
trail from the angle I was standing. I stepped on the boulders and before I
knew it I was sliding feet first - I was going down and put my right arm out
behind me to stop the fall. Other than being a little embarrassed, this did
not seem to be that bad a fall - just down on my butt like I had done more
than a few times before. I then felt a little pain from the heel of my right
hand and realized it had hit the rocks - I'm not sure my butt even actually
hit the ground. At first when I inspected my right arm and hand, nothing
appeared to be unusual. But when I turned my hand over - palm up - it was
bent very strangely, causing part of the wrinkled area where the arm
connects to the hand to almost disappear. I also realized that my fingers
were in a half-closed claw and would not open further.

I never had a broken bone in my 45 years, but I instantly knew what this was
and what it meant. I looked up the trail to see first Greg and then Noel
behind him, coming down the trail behind me. I said "Guys, I broke my wrist"
and I remember Noel saying "no", as in "you must be mistaken". Greg by this
time was standing still, watching me from the top of the not-very-tall rocks
I had just slid down. And before he could say much, he started to slide down
those rocks also, but caught himself without falling.

The guys went into action, taking my pack the rest of the way off and Noel
insisting I take some Advil he offered me with a swig of my Gatorade, as
well as to put on my jacket. I remembered that I had a long gauze strip
bandage in my pack (which I debated every trip as to whether I should take
or not), but not exactly where. After a couple of misdirections by me, Greg
finally found it and started to wrap my wrist - Noel came up with some duct
tape to finish off the job. By now, I was a little woozy and a little
panicked but not much and thankfully it stayed under control.

Then we started to strategize, at first excitedly but quickly settling down
into a rational discussion. After we quickly considered our options, it
became clear that our best bet was getting me to the main highway we had
crossed the day before at Unicoi Gap, about 2.5 miles back up the trail.
Although this might not seem that close to some, we had not been that close
to a highway for most of our trip so far and would not cross the next main
road for another two days. Most of the way back was downhill, but it was
steep (from about 4000 feet down to less than 3000 feet), wet and slippery
just like the terrain we were standing on - so, as has been well said
before, I was not out of the woods yet.

Here's the amazing part. As I was deciding whether to try to carry my pack
out or just leave it at the shelter with a note, Greg said that he would
carry my pack out, and his too. That was a total of 60 pounds and an
additional 5 miles of strenuous hiking added to Greg's already long day. My
Kelty pack has an external frame, so Noel and Greg lashed Greg's frameless
"Go Lite" pack to the top of mine, sideways. Noel and Greg agreed that Noel
was to hike ahead, brief the rest of the party what had happened and stay
with them until Greg caught back up, hopefully at that night's camp, which
to complicate matters was not yet decided but had only been narrowed down to
a few options. But it was important that Noel continue on, since he was
carrying food and equipment that he was sharing with the other two. Also,
since we had learned a hard lesson about the treacherous terrain, it was
important to pass that on also.

Greg hoisted my pack, with his pack now lashed on top, and we were off.
Leading the way, and cradling my bad hand with my good, I carried only my
Gatorade bottle and, for some reason, Greg's water canteen. At first the
trail went back uphill, and then was fairly level for a bit. Then began the
relentless rocky and wet downhill, heading down to Unicoi Gap. Watching
every step, I picked my way down the trail, worried that I might fall again,
or even worse that Greg might fall and wipe us both out. I never was in
shock, but the injury throbbed pretty badly sometimes and I felt mildly
nauseous or lightheaded almost all the way down. We chatted some, but mostly
just watched our footing on the trail. Greg was talking about staying with
me even after we reached the road, but I told him that I had no problem with
continuing on by myself and that I was sure I would be able to hitch a ride
to a hospital fairly fast in my obvious condition.

In less than two hours, and with no further mishaps, we were at the bottom
of the mountain and standing by the road (Highway 75). We crossed over to
recheck the directions to the nearest hospital, printed on a sign in the
parking area. I had remembered reading these directions, along with the
other information on the sign, in some abstract theoretical way when we had
crossed through there the day before. Now reading with new interest, I try
to focus on the directions so that I can relate them to whatever hapless
stranger I wind up getting a ride with. There are too many roads, numbers,
and distances, so I condense them in my mind as "go into Helen, take the
road north to Hiawassee, and then go 11 miles west on Highway 76 to Townes
Hospital".

............................... to be continued
............................................................