Waterfalls Canyon Part II

by Matt Fraker on August 17, 2012

After enjoying the time at Wilderness Falls, I decided to head on out. From where I was, I was pretty sure I would have seen either Jessica or Seth come into this upper area. I knew I had to find a different way down, and did not know what this was going to entail. I decided that I would stay to the cascade this time going down and see where that got me. The bushwhack going back towards Columbine Cascade was a little shaggy, but not too bad. Some of the route got a little “cliffy”, as in I was close to little cliffs that dropped into the cascade. Whenever I would feel that exposure, I would move north away from the cascade and keep descending.

Eventually I arrived at the wicked slope next to Columbine Cascade. I actually started from a point where I could see the water going over Columbine. The slopes near the waterfall had scrubby pine and deciduous covering. I had done downclimbing slope descents before using the live branches on these shrubs. And that is what I did here — grab a branch, gently slide down; grab a branch, gently slide down, repeat. And make sure the branch has live pine needles or leaves.

Other than one open exposure to get from one scrubby covering to another, the descent went relatively well. I got pretty scratched up and my hands were a mess; but it got me to where I could descend on my own two feet. Periodically I would whistle loudly and yell for Seth and Jessica. I had tried very hard to find them before my descent along Columbine; but this area was huge and I could easily have missed them in numerous ways. I honestly felt like they might have headed on out, so I boogied down the original slope that was mixed in with the trees, climbed down the moist thickly grown forested slope we had arrived upon, and finally came out on top of the gentle portion of the canyon. From this point I was still very high up and could look down on a large section of lush canyon. While taking deep breaths and relaxing with the beautiful view, I saw at about 300 yards the biggest Black Bear I have ever seen in my life. This beast was not like the big dog sized Black Bears of the more southern morainal areas. This was like watching a black SUV idle through the meadow. It was a perfect, if only too short, bear sighting — far enough away that I was totally safe; and yet all the excitement of seeing one in the field. EXCEPT…he was heading above where I had to go. So I decided to chill a bit and let him go his happy ursine way.

My phone, which had not had service, startled me — it was Seth. He asked me where I was and when I told him he was surprised. He was still way up on the slopes where I had left him. He thought he would have seen me coming out. I told him about the bear, and that he needed to get his ass down here. We agreed that I would sit tight and wait for him. He had not seen Jessica since we split up. I told him I’d text her to see how she was doing, which I promptly did:

“Hey I’m back down in the high meadows. Seth and I will wait for you there. Let us know ur ok!!”

Shortly after sending this my phone rang — it was Jessica.

“Hey…I’m not ok…I fell. I radioed Teton Rescue. They are sending in ground rescue.”

She sounded completely out of it. I asked her all the basics — Where was she? What was hurt? Could she move? Could we get to her? Did she have her pack and water with her?

She was confused as hell. She told me she had lost it on the slope traverse and slid down over a small cliff; she thought she had broken both of her feet or ankles. She had her pack and her water, but she was scared to move because she felt she could go farther and/or over another cliff. She gave me ground rescue’s number. She said she was keeping in communication with them. I told her to hang tough and drink her water then I called poor Seth and told him what happened and that he better go back up there and see if he could find her while I wait for ground rescue to show-up. Seth agreed.

Ground rescue?? This was freaking me out. It would take them three hours to even get to where she was IF they could get to where she was. I headed up onto a rock promontory to await there arrival. But when a helicopter came buzzing into the canyon I knew I could stop worrying. Teton Rescue’s exploits out here pulling people off of cliffs, mountains and backcountry are legendary. The helicopter went up the canyon, searched for her and found her, and then came back to recon an extraction plan for her. Just as they landed in the canyon, the two ground rescue rangers also arrived into the canyon:

The two ground rescue rangers told me to stay put while they were going to head up to find Seth. If the helicopter could not get to Jessica, then the four of us would have to try to get to her and carry her to a place that they COULD get to her. While they marched on up, I went down to the four man rescue team and watched them set-up to get to Jessica. Their plan was to put a member named Schuster in the “dope on a rope” position — he would free hang about 100 to 125 feet below the helicopter and they would try to drop him in on Jessica for assessment and extraction if possible. Two pilots would take him up there. The fourth was going to have to go down and see if the rangers had successfully created a landing zone down at the lakeshore. He and I stood back while Schuster went airborne:

After they left, the Teton Rescue guy I was with started taking off his flight suit.

“I didn’t realize I was going to have to go by land on this — I’m sort of embarrassed; I’m about to run out of here without any bear spray. How the hell did I forget bear spray?!? This is not a good place to go running without that — whaddya think my chances are?”

I was finally helpful. I handed him one of mine.

“Holy s$#! — you carry two?!? God dude — you’re the man!” And with that he jogged two miles out like he was on a neighborhood run.

Now all alone, the sun had gone behind the mountains. Great. We were getting really close to the bear witching hour when the cooling shaded canyon would get everyone up and out for their crepuscular foraging. As I sat back on my pack, waiting for further instruction or company, I heard some clumsy, obnoxious rustling about 50 to 100 yards towards the cascade. I knew it was a bear. I stood-up and called Seth to give him an update; but really I was just trying to make noise.

Not long after, the two ground rescue rangers, Christine and Dan, and Seth made it back to the high meadows. The two rangers told me that on the way up, they had seen a huge female Black Bear with two cubs and pointed to where I had heard the rustling. They were both pretty anxious to get out of the canyon; but we were stuck waiting until Teton Rescue told us we could leave. Schuster had made it to Jessica; she was stable, and somehow he was able to move her to an extraction location. We were told to exit the canyon and get to shore. Schuster put Jessica in the “Scream Suit”, hooked her up to him, and off they went 100 feet beneath the helicopter to the shoreline landing zone, flying over us as we made a rapid exit from the canyon:

I noted two things to my three companions. First — I don’t ever want to be the reason Teton Rescue has to come in. Second — if I ever AM that reason, take cover if I am flying over you in the “scream suit” unless you want to get poop on your heads.

Knowing from the radio that Jessica was going to be ok, we finished a wicked fast bushwhack out of the canyon with the two rangers yelling “Hey, bear” all the way out.

Once at the shoreline, we relaxed and waited for the ranger jet boat to come get us. Here are Christine, Dan, and Seth shoreside:

and here are two hikers happy to be in one piece, and knowing Jessica was now safe:

Here is a scale shot that shows both hikes — Snowshoe Canyon to the left or south, and my Waterfalls Canyon route on the right or north; from this it is clear what effect the deadfall in Snowshoe Canyon had on our ability to get anywhere:

Today, August 13th, I bought Jessica lunch and got the detailed run-down on what happened.

She was trying to get to the same two giant pine trees that I had rested upon but from above the pocketed cliff faces. The slope was freaking her out a little bit and she missed a step and went sliding hard down the loose talus slopes and went over about a 20 foot drop, landing on her feet, breaking her left foot, and rebounding back into the cliff face. She hit her head violently against the cliff face, then kept sliding and somehow managed to stop herself from another possible cliff drop. There, while lapsing in and out of consciousness, she managed to radio Teton Rescue. She had water, but had no protection from the sun. The end result was two fractures to her left foot, a concussion that even today still left her with fluid around her brain that they are watching closely, some pinched nerve type damage to her spine, and heat exposure. She is up and mobile, and overall doing very well, excepting for continued pain from the fluid and from her back. While she was laying there after her fall, she thought she heard a young woman screaming; she thought someone else was injured up there, or that she was delirious. Then she realized she was hearing a Mountain Lion.  She has no idea how or where it was at; but — laughing about it now — she was like, “Seriously? On top of everything else, I’m gonna get eaten??”

After Seth and I returned to the Marina, we were questioned by a ranger and then released. He and I went to Signal Mountain Lodge for a margarita and a huge plate of their nachos. We didn’t say much. The marg helped unwind the mental sinew that had been so taut, and for the day we had only eaten the rodent treats that one takes in the backcountry.

I drove back to Novotny’s place and slept hard. Sunday would be a computer catch-up day. Tucher and I bagged out on their couch in my sleeping bag.

Had we screwed up by separating? I don’t think so. Seth had to stop and regroup lest his altitude issues worsen (they in fact improved after his nap). She was originally going to go alone. Plus had we been with her when she fell we wouldn’t have been able to stop her or get to her from what it sounds like. She had the radio and she had her water. I still think she had the experience to be up there; but I don’t know.

Could I be proud of my accomplishment with a clear conscience? I was, but with humility. You never conquer the backcountry or the mountains; it is a place that lets you in and maybe lets you out. The more remote the place, the more humility one should bear with them. My brother climbed everything out here. Between his climbing experience and my backcountry experience, we’ve given a lot of thanks over our years to these hills. I think both of us felt like if our luck ever runs out, well what better place to have that happen?

The next morning, I awoke to a Tucher still bagging with my sweat stained hat placed upon his head by one of the Novotny children:

It was a cozy totem of being someplace safe…

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