A mother shouldn’t learn that her son suffered a head wound in a blog post, but that’s what happened.
Josh Mumm and I had been talking about making an alpine (one day) attempt on the Goat Rope traverse into the Wosnesenski valley all summer. I’d nearly given the idea up when he called me on the Friday afternoon before my final weekend in Homer. “I’m thinking about doing the Goat Rope tomorrow, you interested?”
The route is one that I’d done with Kenton Bloom two years ago. Kenton and I had done it with heavy packs over four days. Because we were route-finding we had the gear for almost any terrain we might encounter: packrafts, crampons, pitons and a hammer, harnesses and 35 meters of rope, sleeping bags, camp stove, etc. The trip Josh and I envisioned would leave most of that gear behind, except for the packrafts: we wanted to get in and paddle out in one day.
Josh and I had run and skied together in high school. Earlier in the summer we restarted our camaraderie by climbing Mt. Truuli — the highest peak on the Kenai Peninsula and a mountain which my grandfather, Yule Kilcher, had climbed as a member of the first ascent team. Josh is a man of few words, whose understated style seems to mimic his family name. When he does speak, he is always clear and to the point.
We had started the day later than we should have, but I’d wanted a full breakfast. My dad delivered us by boat to the trailhead at 9:30 am. We lost the trail for nearly an hour halfway up the steep starting face. After that, we made reasonable time and reached the high-point of the route, which looks down into the Wosnesenski valley, around 6 pm. I was excited to be at the top, and hoped we might reach the bottom in two hours. Josh was more realistic and said “I prefer to assume descents will take longer than I want them to, and be happy when they end up going quickly.” This subtle difference in perspective, I’d soon learn, is important to staying safe.
The remainder of this post recounts the events that started about 3/4 of the way down from the summit. It includes graphic descriptions of bodily injury.
At the moment of impact I felt my neck buckle and my teeth chatter: “Fuuu@#!”
“Did a rock just hit you on the head?”
“Yea,” I replied as I opened my eyes and regained my senses, “but I think I’m ok.”
I touched my head then looked at my hand. There was blood on my fingertips and a narrow stream immediately began pouring from my eyebrow. There was an instant where I admired the smooth, delicate thread of red suspended before my eye against the backdrop of the Woznesenski glacier. A blood-spattered mess was forming around me. I pressed my hand firmly onto the wound, probably said more words, and pushed through the alders to an opening where Josh could take a closer look.
Unfortunately, he couldn’t really see through the mess to identify how big the wound was, but the bleeding mostly stopped after only a few more minutes. We briefly debated calling a float plane to meet us at the lake 1 hour below us, but ended up agreeing it probably wasn’t necessary. If the situation got worse between here and the lake, we could still call for a plane. We placed a bandage and a wool hat over the wound, and continued our descent.
By the time we reached the lake the hat was soaked-through. The clot that had formed under the hat was about 3 inches in diameter and felt like a thin soggy mushroom sitting atop my head. Every few minutes it oozed plasma down my neck.
Josh and I checked in again and discussed our situation. It was getting dark, but we thought there was just enough “midnight-sun dusk-light” to navigate the river safely and arrive at the mouth by 2 am. My dad had said he would stash our sleeping bags, a tent, and some food there; but I suspected he was planning to pick us up. This was the decision point: we could stay at the lake and call for a last-minute plane (that might not come until morning), or we could paddle down river as originally planned.
I pulled the hat off and Josh reinspected the wound as best he could. The bleeding was minimal. I texted my dad to let him know we were running late, then we inflated our rafts, paddled out across the lake, and down the river.
The water was high and, considering the stressful situation, the paddling was fun! The first half-mile — ‘the rock garden’ — is the most exciting part of ‘the Woz’ river, and we could see well enough through this section to navigate safely and efficiently. As we dropped onto the slower portion of the river, where the risk increases due to the presence of numerous logs, we quickly realized it was too dark to continue.
We pulled out our rafts and Josh quickly built a driftwood fire while I checked messages. My dad was waiting at the river mouth for us, and his phone battery was almost (already?) dead. I let him know we were staying the night, unsure whether he would get the message.
We ate from our dwindling food supplies, and positioned ourselves on either side of the fire. Throughout the night I constantly shifted my distance from the fire. Initially, I positioned myself at a distance that was hot and still far enough away to prevent my clothing from melting; as the fire died down I rolled toward it until it was time to wake and stoke it again.
Even though my wilderness medical training led me to the diagnosis that my situation was serious but non-emergent (i.e., I was banged up but I was going to be OK), it was still fairly disconcerting to sleep on a gravel riverbed without a sleeping bag while my head oozed blood into a wool hat. At the same time, each time I woke I was filled with overwhelming joy and gratitude. This place — amid the river and the stars, alongside a fire and beneath the mountains — is where my spirit breathes.
We set off down the river at dawn. The remainder of the paddle was an uneventful and fun navigating exercise. At the beach, there was my dad — asleep on the deck of his aluminum landing craft. Gratefulness, again, washed over me.
He and Josh made wisecracks about my haggard appearance as he packed his sleeping bag and we folded our rafts, then we motored for the harbor. Later in the day the ER doctor would stitch up an inch-and-a-quarter ‘laceration’ in my scalp, and proclaim that I didn’t have any signs of concussion.
While writing this entry, I’ve been reading Laurence Gonzales’ Deep Survival, about how and why some people survive wilderness accidents. I cannot help but compare my situation to the stories he tells and conclusions he draws.
I’ve been struck by his argument that “climbers are the only outdoor recreationalists who celebrate victory before completing the adventure”. They celebrate at the summit, before the descent. Gonzales goes on to point out that descending is more dangerous not only for psychological reasons (climbers have let their guard down), but also because it is mechanically more dangerous: momentum is in the same direction as gravity. Combine these factors with climbers’ hurry to get down, and you can see why most accidents happen on the descent. This clearer understanding of descent is the key lesson I am taking from this incident. That, and: “Wear a helmet, dummy!”