Is uncertainty a driving factor behind the Adventure? Yes you know what you are setting out to do. you go through the rigors of checking your gear and planning your routes and trips. The tickets are paid for and you know to a T on the map where you are going . When you know it’s going down and your walking out the door without even thinking. “Well I wonder where this adventure is going to lead me this time.”  Just carefree as the wind blows.

This story takes place in the back country of the Wind River range. The Winds as many call it is a section of the Rocky Mountains that runs southeast to northwest through Wyoming. It’s one of the toughest terrains around and can be unforgiving even to the most experienced of outdoors men and women. These mountains attract climber and backpackers from all over the world. The solitude of the outdoor life is very alive in the Wind Rive Range.

Island lake In the background is Titcomb Basin

We spent the days hiking through valleys  looking up at granite spires that towered overhead. It’s like walking through a painting looking around in awe every step of the way you knew you where someplace special.  That day was no different as we approached Titcomb Basin. The trail opens up to shear cliffs and cascading glacial waterfalls into Lower Jean Lake. A very pristine place carved out by glaciers as they moved through the mountains during the ice age. It was late afternoon when we found a good spot to camp on a little grass island next to a boulder. surrounded by trickling runoffs from the surrounding mountains.

Titcomb Basin

I walked over to a waterfall coming out of this ridge line made of boulders. I needed to refill my water and wash up so I made my way over. Looking up I could see giant peaks and in the distance looking south. I could make out the previous peaks where we came from. No sooner I got there I saw a figure on the ridge waving and making its way down to me sending little boulders rolling  down the side of the ridge. It was a good twenty minute descent through loose rock. As he approached I noticed the man in front of me was covered in blood. I asked this stranger with concern. “What’s going on? Are you alright?” This was the start of an event unfolding. You might call it a fate encounter but the coincidence of Kevin, Charles and everyone that else in this story was too good to be true.

The “stranger” ( because I did not catch his name). Told me how he had to self arrest down this glacier that he pointed up to. Mind you this was vertical glacier that he came down. The Stranger gathered up  a set to come down the way he did. Hats off to him for taking action and making a courageous decision to get immediate help to his buddy. The backside of the mountain looked daunting with shear cliff features. That was part of the reasoning behind the blood and the other half of the story the Stranger explained.

The Stranger and Max were out fishing for the day high in the alpine. When they decided to descend they came down the backside of the mountain back into Titcomb Basin. As Max was making his way down  a boulder fell on and landed on his leg. Max sustained a compound fracture leaving him unable to continue the descent. Eight more feet and he surely would have fell a very long ways to his death. The Stranger told me he rendered first aid care to Max but noted with discernment his buddy needed help .The four us gathered around and we quickly realized the gravity of the situation.   Dusk was fast approaching and the time to act was ever present.

The Stranger pointed out to us where Max was on the ledge. Right then I knew this day just got allot longer as looked in that direction. The Stranger was in a motivated state and headed out with purpose to get the word out. He quickly left but got some words out that his plan  was to head to there camp below. I really didn’t know what he was doing. There was no cell phone service. He had a slim window of opportunity to get the word out to any emergency personnel.

The thought that somebody was up there on a mountain ledge with the odds going against him out in the elements hit home. Quickly I thought about Max’s situation and put myself in his shoes. I grew up hearing stories of people back here disappearing for months only to be found pinned under a rock 20 feet from water. We were roughly 20 miles in the back country and the chances of someone coming in a timely manner were not high. The temperature drops up in the high country even in the summer. With the granite mountains and the year round glaciers it can put a person into hypothermia especially on a cliff ledge not prepared for the stay warm. The situation called for urgency and action expecting this injured man to be spending the night up there all alone was not a good thing.

We quickly agreed to make a pro active choice to get up there and see what we could do for this man. There wasn’t much talking about the plan of action except to get up there. As I shoveled my face full of food, grabbed my water and was out Charles was already making trail up the rocky ridge the Stranger had came down. Kevin and I followed suite. As we made our way past the waterfall over the ridge. The scene was surreal looking up at the mountains all around and the melting glacial runoffs converging into a waterfall at the top of the ridge. We walked on snow ice then rock hopped the rest of the way after we made it over the ridge. It was decent hike to the glacier taking us forty five minutes.

I looked around and yelled for max looking for some sign on the mountain. He waved his arms and yelled down to us signalling his spot on the cliff. He looked like a tiny dot on that mountain ledge. We were determined to get his spot so we strapped on our crampons and decided to head up. Let me take this time to explain I had never used crampons a day in my life. We weren’t using any gear other than our ice axes. Charles made way a head of us. He’s one of those take charge kind of guys you know what I mean!  Kevin is coaching me up on crampons till I got the hang things after that we were flowing. For me this was about to be the most exposure I had on a mountain side. We made our way up 400 vertical feet of glacier to step off onto the granite ledges to free climb an additional 200 more or less vertical feet. Once I took off my crampons I felt confident with the free climb. I had some boulder and sport climbing experience that got me through the rest of the climb. After climbing a bit I wound up on a ledge looking down and I didn’t see the ground.  I could see out where we came from at the base of the glacier. At that point I needed to commit to a move over this lip to continue to ascend with the group. I knew the stakes where very high at this point and the name of the game was don’t fall. I was buzzed from the adrenaline at this point every move was made with intent. I threw my leg up over this  lip it didn’t feel right with the loose rocks and sand. I decided to egress and recommit for a second go at it.

Looking down from where we started

The move was sketchy knowing in the front of my mind if I don’t stick this there’s no coming back from falling over the ledge. Once I was over the lip I was free to concentrate on the rest of the way to Max and the guys. Kevin and Charles had managed to make it Max to no surprise I was bringing up the tail end.

 

vertically exposed on a cliff face

Once I drew near the group  I noticed the vein of snow that Charles and Kevin crossed was particularly steep and I thought twice about that move looking down where the snow ran off to. The ledge didn’t need another body on it anyway as the space was already crowded. My full attention was on keeping alive throughout this ordeal. I decided to hang back the fifteen or twenty feet away on my own ledge. We communicated back and forth about whether we take max down using a rope and harness that was in stowed in a bag. By the time we reached Max’s position on the ledge the light was fading behind the mountain. We were preparing for an all night stay on the cliff side.

While we stood around we all chopped it up and I took pictures and selfies chilling on this cliff. Certain that nobody was coming till morning as Search and Rescue does not fly at night time in the mountains plus the Stranger is still hiking looking for help . It’s too dangerous to chance flying into a mountain side. Just as we came to that conclusion we heard the thud  noise of a helicopter in the distance coming from the basin. The chopper looked like a toy in comparison to the surrounding terrain. The search and rescue helicopter deviated right towards the other side of the valley and eventually made there way around to us to find four guys on ledges. We had only been up there 45 minutes so to us it was a welcome surprise. It was such a relief to see that green and white helicopter from Tip Top Search and rescue.  They let us know they seen  us with a right to left signal and disappeared back into the basin.

The Stranger truly saved the day. If it wasn’t for him Max being rescued would have taken allot longer than it did. He managed to find enough reception and had just enough battery to call 911 and get the word out. He was able to communicate Max’s exact gps coordinates  from his watch. Then was relayed to Tip Top Search and Rescue  and that allowed them to find us so quickly.

Bracing for take take off. photo credit Kevin Hawley

Not long after the rescue crew left we could hear the helicopter making it’s way back to us. This time a single rescue personnel was attached to rigging rope. The trick for the pilot was landing the rescue personnel on the ledge without hitting the mountain terrain in front of him. The pilot was a smooth operator setting the first rescuer down on the ledge. Once the rescuer landed to asses the situation the helicopter left the scene. Then came back with another rescuer landing on the ledge swapping out places. The search and rescue put  Kevin and Charles work assisting Max into harness and the litter. As you can see not even the rescuers on the ledge had much room for error.  Dusk was literally at the doorstep and no time was wasted with each lift. Once Max was all set to go and the crew was ready to get him out of there with the final lift. One of them turned to Kevin and asked if we were alright. Kevin replied saying stating the obvious that it’s getting dark and we have to descend. The rescuer just replied. ” You’re going to have to wait til tomorrow!”

Photo taken from ledge with Fremont Peak in the background

The helicopter lifted of with the rescuers and Max in the Litter hanging by the rope. The pilot maneuvered backing away from the mountain turned and flew back into the basin disappearing behind the mountain. Leaving us to get back down the way we came back.

The ledge I had went straight to the glacier and I told Kevin and Charles that was probably our best bet. They agreed and made there way to the ledge above me. In the midst of them trying to get to my ledge. A good sized boulder and rock fragments broke loose sending them crashing right where I had just been standing. That was eye opener that we weren’t out this situation just yet. We donned our crampons and made our way down. Charles was down in no time. Me on the other hand had the shaky leg. I stepped out onto the glacier and just seen the exposure all the way down to the bottom where we needed to go. Kevin was great at coaching me through the descent as my lack of experience in crampons was obvious. I pushed through and we made it down to the base of the glacier were it was now dark.

 

The helicopter lifted of with the rescuers and Max in the Litter hanging by the rope. The pilot maneuvered backing away from the mountain turned and flew back into the basin disappearing behind the mountain. Leaving us to get back down the way we came back.

Photo by Kevin Hawley

The ledge I had went straight to the glacier and I told Kevin and Charles that was probably our best bet. They agreed and made there way to the ledge above me. In the midst of them trying to get to my ledge. A good sized boulder and rock fragments broke loose sending them crashing right where I had just been standing. That was eye opener that we weren’t out this situation just yet. We donned our crampons and made our way down. Charles was down in no time. Me on the other hand had the shaky leg. I stepped out onto the glacier and just seen the exposure all the way down to the bottom where we needed to go. Kevin was great at coaching me through the descent as my lack of experience in crampons was obvious. I pushed through and we made it down to the base of the glacier were it was now dark.

Making it back to camp was a relief. Looking up at the night sky I gained a new level of appreciation for life and helping a stranger in need. The skills that  Tip Top Search and Rescue have were on full display that late afternoon. The hard work that the Stranger had to put in to just get the word out was an amazing feet of heroism. Kevin and Charles are experienced mountaineers that know how to hold there own I’d trust them on any adventure outing.

Written by Justin Hilton

Post Statement ( This story was the inspiration behind the re-branding of EXSO WORLD. )