Before anybody reads the rest of this story, I gotta admit that it’s a morbid one and a little darker than I typically like to share outside of my inner circle. I feel like I need to put it out there though. I haven’t been able to really come up with any new thoughts as I can’t seem to get past sharing this story and it’s time to finally get my blog back up and running. To be honest, I’ve been crippled with writer’s block the last few months and thoroughly ignoring this blog because of it. I’m on an ICU rotation right now, and I’ve had a rough month up there to say the least. Just this morning, our team withdrew care on a terminally ill old lady and I watched another life leave this earth. I’m feeling a little dark today and it’s time to finally get this out there and dump a little of my own emotional turmoil into this millennial’s journal aka blog. Hang on.
We worked our way up the canyon and through a tunnel of green. Clouds rumbled overhead, and it was hard to tell if the gray above would bring rain or not. The weather had been incredible the last few days and we seemed due for some precipitation. I wasn’t mad though as a short day sounded fine by me. My body was worked from the last few days of getting after it. Riding the whole enchilada, trail running through Arches park and getting worked on some cool crack climbs down at Wall Street made for a big weekend camped out in Moab. My body was starting to really feel the fatigue of the cumulative effect of overdoing it for my post-fourth year med student fitness level -or lack thereof. Luckily, I was headed up Ferguson canyon for a day of some easy climbing with my two buddies to teach them the basics of belaying and sport climbing. The plan was for the kind of day where 5.8 would be the warm-up, super proj and cooldown all at once.
It was early April and I was having the time of my life. With some luck and finagling, I managed to set up a wilderness medicine rotation in Utah for the end of my fourth year as a little treat to myself for managing to survive med school and match into residency. 2 weeks of an Advanced Wilderness Life Support (AWLS) course through the University of Utah and then 2 weeks with the Salt Lake City Search & Rescue team were on the docket. As an added bonus, I managed to tack a little extra time onto each end of the trip for some dearly missed outdoor adventures in the Utah wild. After my last ‘real’ (read: 2 weeks of minimal-commitment-maximal-enjoyment-half-days-only of family med) rotation of school I hit the road for Utah. To add to the excitement, I also managed to reconnect with one of my old friends, Alan, and I would be staying with him in his home in SLC for the month. Both of us had about a week off and the plan was to get after it in the mountains.
For those that don’t know Alan, the short version of the story is that he’s one of the most badass dudes I know. He’s putting up huge first ascents in the Himalayan and Alaskan ranges, guides year round in Utah in all forms of alpine climbing and skiing and is an absolute machine in the mountains. The best part is that he does it with some of the darkest humor, sharpest wit and the calm focus of a zen master. He and I climbed together for a short bit in college, and I’ve spent some of the best days with him in the mountains. We hadn’t had the opportunity to climb together in years with med school and his crazy guiding schedule, and I was super stoked to try and keep up with him in the mountains for a few days before he was heading up to Alaska for his next grand adventure.
After just a few short weeks into my Utah trip, I had already gotten to do some awesome adventures with him. We climbed a big mixed route in Big Cottonwood canyon, froze our asses off on some multipitch rock in Little Cottonwood, I rode some trails around Deadhorse Point State Park and then I got my ass handed to me crack climbing in Indian Creek. I had trained as much as possible for the months leading up to my trip, but bouldering at the local gym and running the impressively flat trails of Ohio couldn’t quite match the Utah scenery. By the time Alan flew out to AK, I had tapped well into my reserve tank. My hands were ‘gobied’ to hell (climber speak for missing an abnormal amount of skin), my muscles ached like they hadn’t in months and a nice easy day at the sport crag was about all I could muster. Side note: thanks for the place to stay and the awesome adventures together Alan and Emily, I’ll be back to SLC for another round soon!
Anyway, back to the original story. As we walked up the trail, I was thinking about what the officers had said to us in the parking lot. When we pulled up to the trailhead, we had noticed there were a number of search and rescue vehicles in the lot. There was a large trailer full of SAR gear and team members talking on radios and organizing equipment along one side. There was also an officer and a small group people on the trail with the mountain backdrop talking to reporters. It was hard to tell exactly what was going on, but it was clear something was up. As we started toward the approach trail, one of the officers handed me a sheet of paper with some missing person identifiers. We asked him if we were okay to climb here and he ensured we were fine, but asked us to be keep an eye out for a missing young man. There was very limited information shared about him other than he had gone missing a few days prior after letting his family members know that he was headed out hiking. The family happened to be there at the trailhead and they shared that the missing kid had a texted a picture of some early spring flowers from one of the upper meadows about 4 days earlier, but no one had heard from him since. You could see the concern in the parents’ eyes and the fatigue from days of searching and hiking along the canyon looking for their son. The missing kid’s brother was there too and he looked to be about the same age as my own. You could tell he was scared, but he had his arm around his mother doing his best to appear strong and assuage her worries. We said that we would be happy keep an eye out for their son/brother, shared our condolences and wished them luck. As we were walking away, the officer with the family added that the missing person had a bright red backpack with him and told us to keep an eye out for this as well to help focus the search efforts.
We nodded in approval and started our way up the trail. I had heard in my AWLS course that there were frequent rescues in the canyons surrounding Salt Lake City. There are millions of people that live within 15 minutes of some of the worlds best hiking, biking and rock climbing and because of this there are always people getting hurt in the mountains and requiring rescue. Supposedly, SLC SAR is one of the busiest teams in the country. To me, it sounded like just another missing hiker and I continued up the trail trying to internalize and ignore the negative start to what was hopefully going to be an otherwise awesome day.
An ominous gray hung in the sky and a cool wind was snaking down through the canyon as we hiked along. Apparently a few feet of snow had dumped over the weekend while we were down in Moab and things were much colder and wetter than I had originally expected. All the same, we made our way up the canyon quickly and found ourselves staring up at the tall granite walls looking for some cool, easy routes in no time. After the typical guidebook decoding and are you sure that’s the 5.6 not the 5.12 next to it banter, we got busy climbing. My two buddies, Kevin and Anthony were like kids in a candy store. The excitement of taking people out climbing for the first time is always infectious. For me, teaching new climbers means being on the sharp end with some sketchy belaying and having to tap into the for-the-love-of-god-that’s-a-lot-of-slack free soloing mindset, but nothing makes 5.6 sport routes more exciting than thinking you could die at any moment. Regardless, any risky belaying is always made up for by watching first time climbers try extra hard and overcome their own evolution-engrained, primordial fear of falling. We ticked off a few climbs and I could tell that both Kevin and Anthony were catching the climbing bug. My body still hurt and I was freezing after grossly overestimating the temps, but I was in no rush for anything else. For me, it’s really hard to beat a day out in the woods, climbing up tall rocks with good company.
After a while at one of the more popular areas, we hiked further up the canyon so I could show Kevin and Anthony my true favorite: crack climbing. We talked about how cams worked, I showed them how to find good placements and even let them climb a dirty 5.4 crack on lead and clip some preplaced gear on their own to show how different is to climb above your own protection and not just clip to bolts in the wall. They thought it was pretty neat, but I could tell we were all starting to tire out. It was time for some warm food and getting back to civilization. After I let both guys climb the last route, I ran back up one more time to set up a rappel off a tree above so I could clean all the gear. As I was hanging high up along the canyon wall and fiddling with the anchor setup, some one called from down below.
“Hey what’s that up there?”
I’m not one for distractions when I’m hanging that high above the ground, but I couldn’t help but holler back down to the other two.
“Hey what’s up down there?”
Kevin and Anthony were talking to another hiker that had just come up the trail. He was pointing up and behind me to something in the cliff. I looked above, but didn’t see anything.
“You see that up there?” he yelled again.
I looked, nothing.
“Nah I can’t see anything.”
“No, up there in the crack, what is that? Is that a red backpack?” he yelled with excitement.
You gotta be fucking kidding I thought to myself. My eyes scanned the cliffside, but I couldn’t see a thing. My mind raced. A red backpack? Is that missing kid here? What’s going on? He must be just seeing things. Man, I hope nobody is hurt. I got a sinking feeling in my gut..
“I don’t see anything!” I said nervous and frustrated that I couldn’t tell what the guy was talking about.
Kevin and Anthony were with the hiker talking and pointing and I couldn’t tell what was going on. Fuck it, let me get down from here and then I’ll figure out. No sense in hanging here and getting hurt myself. Plus trying to yell back and forth between the ground and high up a route is incredibly ineffective. I always feel that it’s a game of frequent repeats, catching ~4% of what’s actually said and the consensus that the guy on the other end of the rope is an ass. I worked my way down and started pulling cams out.
Halfway down, I hear another yell.
“Look there’s a guy up there!”
What the fuck?! There’s a guy in the cliff? I scanned again. I couldn’t see a thing. My mind raced faster. Is there a guy up there? Fuck. Is he alive? Wait is the guy up there hiding from something? Please don’t jump. What the hell is someone doing up in the cliff? Why can’t I fucking see anything? I rushed to pull the rest of the gear.
Kevin and Anthony both started bushwhacking up one of the off shoots from the main canyon in the direction the hiker originally pointed. They all were yelling that they saw someone in the cliffs and were heading up.
I was confused and flustered. I just wanted to come down and figure out what was going on. I don’t know exactly where it comes from, but there’s always been this mode I flip into in situations like this. My thoughts were racing and the intensity knob went straight to 11. I thought we were in the middle of a rescue now. I was thinking we had found this missing young kid and we needed to make sure he was okay. His family was literally at the trailhead and I was excited to think that maybe we could reconnect everyone. I rapped off the rest of the climb and got back to the ground. I headed up around the cliff base and yelled up to Kevin to see what was going on.
“Kevin, what the hell is going on? Where is he?”
“DOA” he yelled back.
“DOA, this is going to be a recovery.”
I was confused. My mind raced. Wait, you said there was guy in the cliff. He’s fucking dead? What happened? There’s a dead body out here? Why in the fuck did we have to fin…
Another, different voice interrupted my chaotic thoughts.
“What did he say?”
I turned looking to see where the new voice had come from and I locked eyes with the father of the missing hiker from the trailhead standing in the riverbed at the base of the cliff. He looked at me and asked again, “What did he say?”
I turned and yelled back up to Kevin.
“Kevin, what’s going on man?”
“DOA, Anthony is going to go get the SAR team. This is going to be a recovery.”
My heart sunk. I turned to the father. I looked for words.
“We found his body..
The father was knocked to the ground by the news. He collapsed. He screamed and started wailing. I had never seen grief so powerful in my life. He just kept screaming Why and No.. After a few seconds of this, he jumped up.
He yelled at me, “Take me to him. Now.”
The man was fat, sweaty, soaking wet and mud caked from throwing himself on the ground. He was gray and had not shaved in days. He was in a pair of tennis shoes and looked impressively out of place in his environment. The hill between Kevin and I consisted of boulders precariously perched on a muddy hillside choked with trees. I was scared to let this brittle old man try to tackle on this terrain, but he insisted. I did what I thought was right and helped him through. I caught him as he repetitively fell down amongst the rocks. Multiple times he tumbled before I could catch him, but he furiously kept on moving. He ripped at tree roots, grabbed the soft Earth with his bare hands and clawed at the hillside to get to his son. We made it to the base of the cliff and there it was.
There was his dead son. He threw himself alongside the body and cried. He grabbed at his son and held his corpse. He cursed the sky, the heavens, his creator and cried with an intensity that I could never describe.
I just stood there. I was in rescuer mode. Young doctor mode. The state of existence I have to tap into when I stand at the bedside of dying patients. The one I need to see gore, trauma. The one where I watch people die. You learn quickly in medicine how to have a external appearance of calm stoicism in order to keep those around you from falling apart. I stood there with no reaction.
It wasn’t fucking working on the inside though. I saw his zip-off cargo pants pockets bulging with all sorts of camping shit that outdoor magazines insist is necessary for day hikes. His pocket knife. I saw his high end softshell jacket. I saw his camping boots. I saw a patient, a corpse dressed like a hiker. He looked like my friends. He looked like my brother. He looked like me. But there he was. Dead. Just fucking dead.
And there was with his father ripped to pieces clenching his cold, dead body wishing it would come back to life but it wasn’t working.
And there I was. Orange helmet with the peeling stickers. Matching harness. Cams hanging on the loops color-coded to keep my rack from getting mixed with my friends. Blown out 5.10 approach shoes. My favorite Prana pants with the hole in the right leg. Green Houdini jacket that stunk like BO. Bleeding, taped hands caked in chalk.
Where was my stethoscope? Where were my scrubs? Where were the fluorescent lights? The curtain outside the room? The nurses? The monitor with the vital signs ticking across the screen? Why wasn’t the patient on a cot propped up to 30 degrees and talking to me? Where the fuck am I?
From out of body, I saw myself standing there. And at the same time, I saw myself laying there as the corpse. Who am I?
That could be me. He was out looking for the same experience and happiness in outdoor recreation as I was just minutes ago. But now he’s here dead. He was probably the ‘outdoorsy’ dude who bought all the cool stuff from REI. He took pics of pretty flowers to send to his family and that he’d probably post on instagram later once he had cell service. #nature. He was a brother. He was a son that worried his parents with his adventures. I saw me and me was dead. I tried to wear that callous coat of a doctor’s emotional armor, but it didn’t work. I just kept seeing me. I couldn’t make sense of it all.
The brother showed up too and I walked him up to the body. The cycle repeated itself, this time all I could see was my brother, Wyatt. The two cried in each others arms. I saw my family. It cut straight to the core again.
Surprisingly, I didn’t cry. I just stood there in the rocks on that muddy hillside in the underbrush. I said the same stuff I say to all the families of dying/dead family patients. Condolences. Bullshit things we say to try to pretend to make things better. Mental duct tape.
Anthony had run back down the canyon to notify the officers and SAR team, and showed up shortly thereafter. Kevin and I stayed and helped coordinate things with the SAR team. The shell shock of that moment left and what happened next as a blur. People came, things happened, we gave statements, we stayed to make sure we couldn’t help with the carryout, externally we did what we needed to do. Inside was emotional chaos.
Eventually another hiker came down from above with a red backpack. He too had seen it hanging in the cliffside above. He was the one that the original hiker spotted in the cliff. All the stories and puzzle pieces together made it seem as if the missing hiker had gotten off trail, lost his way and slipped from the cliffs above falling to his death a few hundred feet below. None of the searchers could find him as he was well off any established trails in the canyon pinned to the cliffside by the trees at the base. No helicopter could have seen him from above with the thickness of the brush and he was probably buried by the snow over the weekend anyway. By whatever stroke of fate, Kevin, Anthony, myself and these two other hikers all ended up being in the right time and place to find the lost kid. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do. It was too late. Like Kevin said, this was no rescue, it was a corpse recovery.
Eventually as the acute reactions and emotions wore off, we packed up our gear and started back out of the canyon. We all hiked out in silence. About halfway back down the trail, we ran across the SAR time hiking in. Inside I wanted to tell them we found the body to try to make myself feel as if I had done something significant or positive, but that felt like Grade A bullshit. Instead we gave the universal man nod, wished them luck, tried to help direct them to the body and answer any questions. I was impressed by their demeanor and how the team worked. They were hauling in an impressive amount of gear and functioned with purpose. I overheard them planning to be out well into the darkness retrieving the body. The sun was falling fast and they knew the systems to get the body down that hillside would be complex and time consuming. I wondered how they all felt about going in for a body retrieval as we headed in opposite directions, but I figured I’d save that thought for later. I had my own emotions to deal with.
To be totally honest, I pushed all these emotions away by the next day. In medicine, particularly emergency medicine we experience such a roller coaster of emotions that we learn how to quickly push things out of our mind and move on. After a day or two, I went back to climbing and enjoying my grand UT adventure. After four years of hard work in medical school, I was going to enjoy my time in UT no matter what happened dammit. Did I forget what happened? Nope not at all. I simply deposited the check in the psychological trauma bank and planned to withdraw later. I guess this month in the ICU is me finally getting me to cash in. As I’ve gone back and reflected on this story, I’ve come to a few realizations that have made me want to share such a dark, traumatic story with you all.
The first is quite simple in that it slaps my idea of the invincibility of youth straight in the face. Unfortunately, I’ve witnessed plenty of life-ending injuries happen to perfectly healthy young people with greater frequency than I care to admit. In all honesty, I have taken some stupid and unnecessary risks in my own life, but by no means do I want people to stop pursuing their own adventures. I simply want my collective family and friends to be cognizant of the risks that they subject themselves to. To me, the best wilderness medicine is prevention. Double check your knots and anchors when climbing. Don’t ski high-risk conditions. Check the weather. Take what you need with you to stay warm/dry/fed/safe. Make a backup plan. Don’t fucking text and drive. Keep yourself around. If you’ve managed to read this far, I promise that I care about you and I want you to stay here on this planet with me for awhile.
Beyond that I also learned how much I use my ER bubble to systematically process the tragedies of the world. When I stand in the trauma bay in my doctor clothes surrounded by other medical people, it’s easy to objectify patients. It’s easy to turn them into vital signs, procedures, lab values and medical conditions. It’s the way we are trained to think and gives us the ability to function amidst such terrible situations. It sounds heartless and desensitized, and I won’t disagree. However, I don’t think it is wrong. It’s a sort of coping mechanism and we use to survive this job. I think the learning point is just to be cognizant of this desensitization. When I look back and see myself stripped of that medical suit of armor, I can see how vulnerable I felt and it’s given me perspective and an idea of the emotions loved ones go through in these terrible sorts of situations.
And you know if nothing else, that dark day back in April paired with my young career in medicine have taught me that life really is short. I’ve been in a dark place over the last few months. I’ve had a black cloud over me in residency so far that has been great in learning how to care for sick people and rack up procedures, but I’ve also watched some terrible things happen. I of course do all I can to try to ‘save’ these people, but that life or death determination is often not in my hands or in any medical person’s. I’ve learned that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow or even the rest of today. We will never know when our time will come. It’s grim, but I try to spin it to a positive. Life is short, but that just means it’s that much more important to fill it with the good stuff. Eat tasty food. Drink good beer. Do epic shit with your friends. Have great sex. Laugh more. Keep your collective close. Love with reckless abandon. Make life the most exhilarating adventure possible so that no matter when it ends, you know you made the most every minute.
Contemplating our own morality is tough, what do you all think?