Monday, August 2, 2021

Alone, Injured, Almost Dead: Survival Story in the Sierra Nevada

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It was the 5th of July, and the people of America flocked to barbecues and water parks. A guy named Gregg Hein was honouring the spirit of America’s Independence day (4th July) by doing what he loved best: getting out into the mountains on his own. Born and raised in a small town near the Californian suburbs, exploring the nearby Sierra Nevada became his obsession. Whenever he felt sad or frustrated, a long walk at a high elevation was his medicine of choice.

Hein had dropped out of an engineering college because he wanted to pursue his passion for the outdoors. He eventually regretted his lack of a degree, and in 2014, he returned to Humboldt State University to get a degree. Now, he had something to celebrate besides the holiday, a newly graduated cum-laude in environmental science.

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Hein had departed from his home and driven straight to Mount Goddard, a well-known hiking destination for explorers like him to celebrate the milestone. Around noon that Saturday, he signed the summit register, noting that he was only the third hiker to have done so this year. After snapping some photos, he moved his way down to the North Side of the peak, covered with broken pieces of rocks and boulders. Hein walked slowly to avoid any rock slides.

Suddenly, a three-foot boulder loosened by a rock came bouncing towards him. Before he could jump out of the way, the boulder smashed his right calf, knocking him onto his back.

With the calf bone jutting out the skin, he crawled onto the rock pile, leaving a trail of blood behind him. He was too injured to make it down the slope. He’d told his parents he would be home on Monday; they would wait until Tuesday at the earliest to report him missing. No one was likely to track him before then.

He would have to survive alone.

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His first mission was to get himself into cozy clothing that would ward off Hypothermia when the temperature dropped. He kept his right shoe off to reduce the stress on his shattered knee. Hein was bleeding heavily, but he knew that using a tourniquet could mean losing the limb, and that’s why he decided to wait until he had no other option.

After stabilizing the fracture, his next necessity was to find a place to camp. He shouldered his rucksack and tried to crawl on his butt towards the snowfield where he could lie comfortably, but the weight and bulk of the bag made it impossible to steer. He kept his gloves and fleece hat inside his pants and hung his headlamp around his neck. Then he left the pack and crab-walked away. He was eventually able to reach the snow-patch, where he found a spot to settle in.

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As darkness fell, Hein gathered up memories of the people he loved, his father, mother, sister, and a new girlfriend. He wondered if he would see them again. By Sunday morning, to his relief, the bleeding had almost stopped. He scrubbed the dirt from his leg with snow. Then packed more snow into the wound to flush out filth as it melted. Suddenly, he heard what sounded like a faint whoop of joy from the same direction. With his heart-pounding fast and adrenaline pumping, he yelled,” Help! Help! and tooted his whistle. However, he realised that the hiker was most likely miles away, and whatever had carried the voice to him did not work in the opposite direction. Sometime after the clouds flared pink and faded to indigo, he fell into another restless sleep.

Monday morning, Hein woke up from his slumber, but he was so tired that he could barely move. He stifled his disappointment and checked his wound. It looked terrible. Back at home at this point, his father was really annoyed with his son. Gregg had been expected home hours earlier, and he hadn’t bothered calling to say he would be late. He also mistakenly believed that a search could not begin until the subject had been missing for two days. So he held off on calling anyone.

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Tuesday night was cold on the hillside. Hein could hardly sleep due to the shivering. He could no longer move his right foot. Some motion returned on Wednesday morning, but the leg was clearly deteriorating. Around that time, his father phoned the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department.

By Wednesday afternoon, dozens of volunteers from the county search-and-rescue team were combing the wilderness from Florence Lake to Mount Goddard. Finding a lone hiker in an area covering thousands of miles, however, can take time. Hein allowed his thoughts to stray for the first time since his ordeal had begun. He lay there brooding about how little he’d accomplished in his life– no wife, no kids, no career.

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On Thursday morning, his leg was frozen, stiffer than ever. While he was lost in his thoughts, Hein heard a strange buzzing sound. Looking up, he saw a chopper in the distance and felt a rush of hope. But the chopper disappeared. Minutes later, another helicopter from Yosemite flew over Hein’s campsite. This time, the pilot looked out the window and nodded.

The chopper touched down by the lake. Hein struggled to keep himself from weeping as three trail-crew men hoisted him into the cockpit. By nightfall, Hein was lying in a hospital bed, his family gathered around him. Over the next few months, he faced multiple surgeries. But he kept the leg. He got messages and visits from forgotten acquaintances and strangers.

This is what it took for him to feel finally at home.

 

 

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