First PLB Rescue in the Grand Canyon
By Jason Sherman
Finally, the annual summer backcountry trip had arrived. Three fellow backpackers and myself planned to hike at Zion NP and Grand Canyon NP. This group has been hiking together for 4 years with over forty 14,000’ peaks and numerous multi-day backcountry trips between us. After several years of Fourteeners in Colorado, we thought it was time for a change. The trip consisted of a day hike in the Zion Narrows and a 3-day rim to river trek from the Bill Hall trailhead on the Canyon’s North Rim.
Beyond a flat tire a few miles from the trailhead, the first day was progressing reasonably well. That was until we reached Surprise Valley; the temperature had risen above 110°F and the 3 gallons of water I started the day with was quickly running out. About 8 miles into the day, my legs began cramping. First my quads, then hamstrings, and eventually every muscle in my legs cramped at the same time.
We made a decision to change our route. Get to Thunder Spring, refill the hydration bladders, sleep and make the turn in the morning to hike out. We arrived at the spring around 10pm the first night and camped on a switchback. The next morning I felt better, but not normal yet. We started early the second day and made it back to Surprise Valley before the cramping began again. With the heat of midday approaching, we opted for the shade of some large rocks and a long rest before the evening hike out.
My condition had not improved after several hours of rest. With an elevated heart rate, taxed breathing, and the now continuous muscle cramps, everyone realized I would not be able to make the 3000ft ascent out of the canyon. At this point we decided to activate the PLB. An hour later, around 7:15pm, two members of the group began their ascent. They planned to hike out and notify a ranger of our location as backup to the PLB. Now the two of us that remained had to decide what to do if no one arrived that evening. As we begin to discuss the plan, we hear the sound of a helicopter in the distance. The two guys hiking out were 500ft above us and saw the SAR chopper first. They turned back so everyone could regroup.
An hour and forty minutes after activating the PLB, the Grand Canyon SAR had located us, landed and hooked me up to an EKG. From my EKG blood pressure, they could tell I was not doing well. The SAR team checked out my three friends and gave them 5 gallons of cold water and several pounds of ice for their hike out.
After being transported to Flagstaff Medical Center, I discovered that along with obvious dehydration and heat exhaustion, I was suffering from rhabdomyolosis. Rhabdo is basically a breakdown of the cellular walls of the muscle that allows toxins to spill into the blood. These toxins degrade kidney function and can cause permanent damage if left untreated. Rhabdo can be triggered by a number of things, one of which is heat exhaustion. When I was admitted to the ER, my kidney function had decreased to 20%. Luckily, and with the help of 11 liters of saline, they were able to flush my kidneys and I was out of the hospital in a couple of days.
Without the PLB, there is no doubt that I would have suffered irreparable kidney damage if I were even able to make it out of the Canyon at all. My father and I had talked about PLB’s several months prior to the trip and what an indispensable piece of gear they could be. Fortunately for me, he rented one and had it sent to me just days prior to the trip. As an Eagle Scout, I have always known that being prepared is paramount to a safe, successful outdoor adventure. From now on, a PLB will be part of that preparedness on backcountry trips.
The PLB I carried on this trip was an ACR TerraFix rented from PLB Rentals, LLC (www.plbrentals.com).
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