Man slid 1000 feet

February 13, 1981
Tahquitz Peak area

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By Walt Walker

It was a beautiful day for a hike in the mountains and two young men took advantage of the weather for a day hike to Tahquitz Peak. Eric Nelson and Ricky Park had hiked up the South Ridge trail to the peak where they ate lunch. They then started out the ridge towards Saddle junction. While they were traversing a snow slope Eric slipped and began a sliding, tumbling, rolling fall that almost ended in tragedy better than 1,000 feet below. Eric's painful trip was stopped by a four inch diameter Pine tree.

Ricky called out to his friend and was joyful to hear Eric answer back. Eric related that he was injured and needed help. Ricky yelled down that he would go for help. Ricky made a speedy descent back down to Idyllwild. The Riverside County Sheriff's Department was advised of the situation and they called RMRU. Discussing the incident with the SO it was decided to have Don Landells fly directly to Idyllwild. It was a known injury situation on difficult terrain and it would be mid-afternoon by the time we made our way to the injured lad.

Kevin Walker and I arrived in Idyllwild at 1405 hrs. with the No. I van. Jack Bowman pulled in right behind us at Camp Maranatha. He was followed by Mr. & Mrs. Ralph Nelson (Eric's parents), and his friend Ricky. I asked Jack to run base while Kevin and I packed our gear and interviewed Ricky. From his description it sounded like Eric had fallen of the backside (south-eastern) side of the Tahquitz ridge.

It was 1417 hrs. when Don arrived in one of his Bell jet Ranger helicopters. I briefed Don on the situation while Kevin loaded our packs. Don applied the power and we were off and on our way towards the peak. We searched back and forth along the backside with negative results. We flew over to the other side and started searching below the notches with the same results. At 1432 hrs. I radioed to base to have the informant ready as we wanted to put him in the front seat of the bird.

We picked up Ricky and headed towards the peak. Flying along the backside again we quickly learned what I had suspected. Eric was on the other side! Again we flew over to the area below the notches and at 1449 hrs. Kevin spotted Eric weakly waving. Don and I briefly discussed the situation and it was decided to drop Kevin and Ricky off on the ridge and then return to look for a helispot. They were dropped off and Don flew back and began looking for something to put a runner down on. The major problem was the lack of main rotor blade clearance due to the steepness of snow covered slope.

At 1453 hrs. Don put a runner down on an ice covered boulder and I slowly slid out of the bird and onto the rock. Don pufled away and headed up to pick up Kevin and Ricky. Only four minutes later Don was back and Kevin climbed out onto the same boulder. While Don returned to base, Kevin climbed up to a large tree to set up a belay anchor, while I put on my crampons. It was now 1517 hrs. as Kevin belayed me the 175 feet over to Eric.

All the time (six minutes) as I was climbing over, Eric complained of being cold and that his back hurt him. I thought to myself, "it's good that he is still feeling and talking." Arriving at Eric I could see that his lower right leg had both bones fractured, it was obvious due to the deformity. I immediately secured Eric to the Pine tree with a nylon sling. As I began my examination at 1525 hrs., Don lifted off from base with Bernie McIlvoy and Pete Carlson aboard along with the rescue sleeping bag and a Hare traction splint that I had requested.

TENSE MOMENT - As the main rotor blade wash, from the hovering helicopter, was blowing downward, RMRU member Jim Fairchild photographed the drama from the helicopter piloted by Don Landells. The picture does not accurately show the steep ice slope where this mission occurred (below the Tahquitz Notches). (L to R) RMRU member Bernie McIlvoy grabs his ice axe for balance, while injured hiker Eric Nelson shields his face and RMRU member Walt Walker struggles to secure the litter after it was delivered by the helicopter. This was the first rescue of this type in the annals of RMRU's 19  year history. (photo by Jim Fairchild)

Continuing the examination I was concerned of possible head injuries because Eric did not respond well to my questions. As soon as I finished with the examination of the head and torso I put my fiberpile jacket on Eric. Due to the precarious position that Eric was in, I could not take his wet clothing off. Upon finishing the examination, I had found: possible wrist fracture, possible hip and/or upper leg fracture, extreme tenderness of the abdominal area (probable internal bleeding), definite fracture of both right lower leg bones, severe shock and advancing hypothermia.

ACCIDENT SCENE - This was the scene of near tragedy for Eric Nelson (1) resting against a small Pine tree that stopped his 1,000 foot sliding-tumbling fall. Walt Walker (2) guides the helicopter, piloted by Don Landells, in to let off a RMRU Stokes litter, while Bernie McIlvoy (3) makes his way over and down to Eric and Walt. At the other end of the belay rope, was Kevin Walker (4), above Kevin making adjustments to the ropes was Pete Carlson (5). (photo by Jim Fairchild)

Bernie and Pete arrived as I finished the examination. They quickly climbed over to Eric and I. As we discussed my plan, Don was in the air again, this time with Jim Fairchild aboard along with one of our Stokes litters. Arriving at our area, Don hovered the bird while Jim lowered the litter to me. With the litter secured, Bernie, Pete and I put the Hare traction splint on Eric's severely injured right leg. While Bernie and I lifted, Pete slid the litter under Eric and we zipped the rescue sleeping bag closed. At 1536 hrs. we completed tying him into the litter. Checking Eric again I found the shock had increased and that the hypothermia was into the second stage as Eric was now not making sense when he spoke.

Bernie, Pete and I discussed our options which were basically two. Fly more members and equipment in (besides Jim, Rick Pohlers, Joe Erickson and Mary Bowman were also at base) and set up a hauling system to move Eric the 1,000 plus feet up to the top of the ridge. This was a slow and somewhat dangerous plan, due to the falling ice blocks. It also meant that we would finish the lift well after dark and quite possible not be able to fly Eric out in the dark. With Eric's deteriorating physical condition, this did not appear to be a very good option.

The other option was to ask Don to do something that he and RMRU had never done. Pick up the litter as a sling load underneath the bird and fly Eric to the top of the ridge. This also was not without danger. We had slung out numerous loads of gear and equipment with Don and he had flown better than 300 Tule Elk as sling loads with never a mishap. So we radioed out and told Don of Eric's serious condition and requested that he sling Eric up to the ridge. Don radioed back that if we thought it was that serious, he would do it.

The three of us rigged the litter for a horizontal pick-up and were ready when Don arrived at 1628 hrs. Don picked up Kevin and I and flew us up to Chinquapin Flat on the Tahquitz Ridge. We climbed out and secured a sling rope to the helicopter's bomb hook. Don lifted off and descended. He hovered over the litter as Bernie and Pete secured the litter to the sling rope. They signaled and Don picked up the loaded litter. All this time Kevin and I had been watching from above. In what seemed like an eternity, but was only 90 seconds, Don slowly flew up toward us with the litter slowly spinning at the end of the sling rope. Don gently sat the litter down on the snow at Chinquapin and moved forward and released the bomb hook. He landed the bird next to us and we loaded the litter into the back of the bird. I climbed in the back with Eric and Kevin got in the front and we lifted off at 1642 hrs. At first it was cold as the air rushed by the openings left by the removal of the rear doors. Then, as we descended the air became warmer until it was indeed quite pleasant.

Earlier I had talked via radio with Gary Fritzinger, owner of the Hemet Valley Ambulance Service. We had made plans to land at the Coors heliport in Hemet. Gary and his manager Dave King were waiting for us as we landed. We off loaded the litter out of the bird and carried Eric over to the waiting ambulance. I climbed into the back of the ambulance along with Dave and we drove towards Hemet Valley Hospital and its emergency room that had been advised we were on the way with Eric.

THANKS to 'teamwork' on everybody's part, Eric is alive today!

EDITOR'S NOTE: Eric went into surgery that night and was placed on the a critical list due to his injuries. Two days so later Walt and I visited him in the hospital. He was in traction, but in good spirits, and off the critical list. Walt recently spoke to Mrs. Nelson and she related that Eric is home and mending well.