Why I never hike alone

by Jane Koerner

The boulder was the tallest in a field of tabletop-size stones, seemingly undisturbed by the passage of centuries. It had the stature to have borne witness to a solstice ceremony at Stonehenge, a human sacrifice at Teotihuacan.

I must have brushed it with my right elbow when I looked back to check on my friend, Drew. We had just climbed some unnamed peak in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, and he was making his way down -- in running shoes -- testing the trustworthiness of each step, or so I hoped. It wouldn’t take much to launch a missile attack that would sweep him off the cliff below.

One second the boulder stood upright; the next second, it toppled, pinning my right leg. The shock of the blow threw me on my back, and the weight of the boulder registered instantly in a tsunami of pain. My right leg was caught below the knee in a tightening vice.

Stifling a scream, I sat up and pushed. The boulder did not budge. I pushed again, encouraged by a tremor that suggested a lessening of resistance, a possibility of release. Wishful thinking. I leaned back, pressed my buttocks into the boulder underneath to maximize my leverage and rammed the rock on top with a hip and shoulder butt. The rebound knocked me flat and the boulder bore down, crushing more calf muscle.

I’d heard Drew’s shouts two hours ago when I scrambled up the chimney to the summit ridge. He’d had to duck to avoid some flying pebbles. Could he hear my shrieks now? Another friend had long since disappeared over the next rise, no doubt racing for the truck. Would my screams reach her? I probably hadn’t shrieked this loud or this long since my mother gave birth to me.

Barb arrived first and knelt by my side, watching helplessly as I flopped on my back, exhausted by the pain. The slightest movement on my part increased the pressure on my leg. Barb barely weighed 100 pounds -- no contest -- with a ton of quartzite.

I heard the click-click-click of advancing hiking poles as Drew approached, panting. He dropped the poles, knelt beside me and shoved with all his might. The boulder tilted towards me. I cursed in three languages and wailed from the pain, the fear. We were three and a half miles from the car, 2,700 vertical feet up. It would be dusk by the time my friends hit the road, hours after sunrise before the arrival of a search and rescue team. The steep, rocky terrain ruled out a helicopter landing.

Drew studied the position of the boulder from every conceivable angle. Then he squatted as if he were competing again in a collegiate wrestling match. Relying on the laws of physics rather than blunt force, he braced himself with his muscular thighs, hugged the boulder tight and pushed with his arms and chest. The boulder gave slightly, shifting in the right direction, until finally, at last, there was just enough space to drag my leg out. I rolled up my shredded, bloody pants leg, expecting to see exposed fibula. I was numb below the knee. The skin was torn in several places, the calf double its normal size, but no bone protruded.

I swallowed a pill from Barb’s supply of Percocet and another from Drew’s, and they got me up on my left leg, one on each side of me. Using their shoulders as crutches, I hobbled 100 feet down the talus, to a snowfield. They packed some snow in my rain jacket and wrapped the jacket around my calf, now the size of a watermelon. Three hours later, they bundled me into the back seat of Drew’s pickup for the one-hour drive to the only medical clinic within 50 miles, in Lake City, Colo.

Next morning, the orthopedist in Gunnison examined the X-rays. “You’re lucky. No broken bones. One inch higher and I’d be scheduling a knee replacement. One inch lower and I’d be reconstructing your ankle joint with plates, screws and a bone graft.”

“How long could my leg have withstood that much weight?” I asked.

“An hour maybe. Then we’d be amputating -- not that there’d be much to amputate at that point.”

He showed me how to check for impaired circulation, a dangerous side effect of massive swelling. I followed his instructions religiously. Two weeks’ confinement in a wheelchair with my raised leg frequently wrapped in ice, followed by another two weeks on a walker seemed inconsequential, a mere inconvenience to be borne with a sense of humor.

Two years later, whenever I hike in shorts, strangers on the trail sometimes ask about the crater in my calf. If they’re from Texas, I tell them I was kicked by a moose. If they’re hiking alone, I recount the real story as a cautionary tale. Do not hike off-trail by yourself.

Jane Koerner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives in Fairplay, Colorado, and still hikes, though with greater humility.

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