Coup de grâce \ˌkü-də-ˈgräs\ is French for “blow of mercy” or an action or event that serves as the culmination of a bad or deteriorating situation. After three failed attempts to finish the Bridger Ridge hike with each attempt’s consequences and adventure becoming more severe, the Ridge delivered an astounding and dramatic blow on our fourth attempt. The unruly mountain delivered her coup de grâce, but without that French eloquence – it was more like ” FINISH HIM!” at the end of a Mortal Kombat match.
It’s a fine line between the determination to persist and missing the memo to move on to other endeavors. For my parent’s and me – we found that line, and we crossed it. Sunday, August 6, 2017, was our fourth attempt to hike the Bridger Mountains from Fairy Lake to the College “M” via the Bridger Ridge trail. The one day trek would stretch 20.55 miles over rugged unforgiving terrain with 6,800 feet of elevation gain and 9,500 feet of elevation loss.
Fourth Attempt: August 2017
“The Coup de Grâce”
After three previous failed attempts, we thought we could outsmart and schmooze the Ridge into letting us pass. We learned from our mistakes and prepared once again. We researched packing tips (like Rich Landers’ recent article) and beefed up our packs with better layers, improved nutrition, and restocked our emergency gear. We trained together with an amazing coach and friend – Gabe of The Fitness Pyramid. He coached us as a team and helped us with our cardio for those punishing uphill pulls, strength training for strong legs and a solid core to keep us balanced and moving forward on the precarious trail, and stability and strength for enduring knees. We were ready.
With our earliest start time yet, we hit the trail at 4:37 AM and began our immediate ascent through the darkness picking our way through the trees. I was immediately overwhelmed. I was sucking wind, already feeling the burn building in my legs, and trying to settle my stomach from chugging the last bit of coffee before hitting the trail. I don’t want to do this. I change my mind. This is going to be hours of torture. This isn’t fun anymore. I change my mind. I don’t want to do this. Now was this one of those gut-feelings and foreshadowing that this attempt was not going to pan out OR was it self-doubt creeping in? I genuinely thought this was self-doubt, so I kept it to myself and kept walking. I tried to wrangle in my fear. Just make it to the top of the saddle – you’ll feel better once you make it to the top. There’s a moment when you are climbing out the edge of the tree line and all you can see is a massive steep bowl with two domineering peaks on each side. I would be lying to you if I said I was not intimidated, but with each step, the doubtful self-talk subsided and the excitement, positivity, and affirmations began to take hold. Strong body. Strong mind. That was the mantra I synced up with my breathing and steps. With each step, the climb got easier and my mind got clearer.
We made great time to the top of the saddle, and my passion for this trail returned. I felt rejuvenated and was excited to be hiking the Bridger Ridge trail once again. I was already running through my head what I was going to say in a video in the parking lot at the end point. We picked our way across the top of Sacagawea admiring the enchanting other-worldliness of the Ridge in the early morning fog.
We thought it was odd that we had not seen any goats yet, lots of signs of goats but no goats. We continued on. We made it to the chimney cairn and dropped down the side. I stepped on a loose rock and it was like a ball bearing under my foot, instead of fighting it I just slide with it and sat down. Other than that, we had no issues picking our way down the loose shale where my mom had taken her nasty fall 2 attempts prior. Feeling good, we picked up our pace and made our way through the top of the tree line and alpine meadows.
At 7:58 AM, we came around a corner to a tight narrow bowl. We saw 3 mountain goats on the other side, two nannies and a kid. They were near the trail and began to move up and away from the trail as we took pictures from across the bowl. They were moving away and we continued on. We were actually commenting that they were “well-behaved goats” because they were moving away from us instead of pursuing us for salt and food like the aggressive food-conditioned goats that have been causing a ruckus in Washington and North Idaho.
We were 3/4 of the way through the bowl on a narrow ledge. I was in the lead, followed closely by my dad, and my mom right on his heels. We passed a small rock out cropping when my mom let out the most horrific scream I had ever heard. As I whipped around, I saw a cantaloupe-sized boulder bounce and launch off the trail between my dad and me. I saw my mom leaning over the edge flailing her arms – she looked like she was rolling the windows down in an old car. Being top heavy with her pack on and with how far she was leaning over the edge, she absolutely should have fallen head first off the side of that mountain, but miraculously she didn’t. The only explanation I have is that God put his finger on her forehead keeping her on the trail.
As I made my way towards her, half my brain knew what happened and the other half my brain was still trying to figure out what the fuck just happened. My mom was repeatedly screaming “WHAT WAS THAT?! WHAT WAS THAT!?!” She took a step back from the edge of the trail, leaned against the rock outcropping, and favored her leg. I said “is that blood?” It was just like in a western movie when the gunslinger thinks he escaped the gun fight unscathed, only to pull back his coat to reveal a tiny drop of blood on his shirt, then blood rapidly expands and soaking his shirt as the rough and tough cowboy collapses. That was my mom.
This was the moment I realized what I already knew – she had been hit by a falling rock dislodged by the “well-behaved goats” that were currently 900 feet above and behind us bedded down and watching the excitement on the trail below. We didn’t even hear the rock falling. It was airborne off the steep terrain. She had been hit by a jagged cannonball.
My mom began to slowly collapse, and in a panicked voice said “I’m going to faint. I’m going to faint!” We laid her down on the trail, and hindsight we should have tried to move her in case there were more falling rocks, but seeing the goats laying down not walking across the loose rock eased our minds. My dad, the fast-thinking fast-acting first responder, rolled up her pant leg and immediately ran his hand up the back of her calf and held it right below her knee. He turned to me and said call 911. The deepest red blood I had ever seen ran like water from between his fingers. My mom turned a grayish pale color no living person’s skin should be and she became disturbingly calm. She was in full blown shock. I grabbed my phone and by the grace of God, I had cell service in that EXACT spot on the trail. At 8:01 AM I dialed 911.
At this point, I still haven’t seen the wound only the blood. We all thought she was going to bleed out. My dad said when he turned around when he heard her scream there was a bowling ball sized jagged rock careening down the mountain just below my mom. As he kicked in toe holds on the steep hillside, we all agreed that this was it and we would not be attempting the Ridge again. My dad applied pressure to the wound, and I grabbed supplies out of our packs. We had emergency blankets and extra clothes to keep her warm and prop up her leg. We even wrapped our extra wool socks around her face and neck. We had ample first aid supplies, and with early and consistent pressure, my dad was able to stop the bleeding and dressed the wound in gauze and medical tape. My dad turned toward me and away from my mom and mouthed to me “it’s bad.” His silent message was just as frightening as my mom’s scream.
For the first time, I witnessed my invincible parents become vulnerable.
I have never seen my dad genuinely afraid until that moment. He’s been a State Trooper for over 30 years, and he has seen more than most. If he thinks it’s bad and he’s afraid, then you damn well better be shaking in your boots.
We were all on edge literally and figuratively. While perched on that narrow ledge, we were all barely hanging on to our emotions, our cool level-headed team atmosphere was one rogue tear away from utter panic and chaos. Waiting for signs that Search and Rescue were near was a long and torturous wait. I kept walking up around the corner to try and catch a sign that help was near. My mom was deteriorating fast, I knew going into shock can be fatal.
In the meantime, I had been in contact with dispatch and SAR. They had a Life Flight on the way and a ground crew assembling to come up via Ross Pass, and SAR was trying to find a “second bird.” Soon we could hear the percussion of a helicopter, but our relief was short lived. It never came around the corner and shortly after the sound was gone. With a lump in my throat and on the verge of tears, I tried to keep it light-hearted and calm reassuring my mom that SAR was almost there. My dad kept his cool and used our supplies and his body to try to keep my mom as warm as possible. We were at almost 8,000 feet in the wind and crisp morning fog. It was cold enough to see our breath. Once again, we heard the reassuring cadence of a helicopter approaching. Soon a bright red Life Flight helicopter came around the corner. They hovered for a moment and left. It was bittersweet. At least they knew exactly where we were, but who knew how long it would take for them to reach us.
My mom quietly said my name calling me over to her. With her eyes closed and ashen skin, she looked like she already had one foot in the grave. I thought she was about to tell me her last words. It was this precise moment that I truly thought my mom was not going to survive this Ridge attempt. I thought she was going to die up on that mountain. Thankfully, it turns out she still had a bit of feisty life left in her. Even in her compromised state, she knew I was already planning my return to the Ridge. She called me over to make me promise her that I would never hike the Ridge again. Earlier, when I had agreed with the group not hike it again I was mentally crossing my fingers, but now I had to promise her and mean it.
I hiked around the corner once again to see if I could see the ground crew – my mom was fading. I stood on the trail looking into the last bowl before Ross Pass searching for a sign that help was close. I couldn’t see anything. I turned to walk back, and I heard the sound of a distant motorcycle. It sounded like they were going slow like they were picking their way through technical terrain, it wasn’t the typical screaming dirt bike that we normally encountered at Ross Pass. Is that help on a motorcycle coming our way? I couldn’t see the bike and in the tight tree-covered bowl and I knew the trail was not motorcycle friendly, so I thought my mind and my ears might be playing tricks on me. I walked back to my parents and told them that I thought I heard a motorcycle coming our way but wasn’t sure. Moments later a motorcycle came around the corner, and the rider looked like he was expecting to see us there.
I asked him “are you Search and Rescue?” He chuckled and said, “Not Search and Rescue, but here to help.” Dave the Hero Motorcycle Rider was a local fireman and was down at the trailhead coming up for his monthly ride when he saw the SAR team assembling. He asked them what was going on and if he could help. He could get to us faster than the ground crew that was taking four-wheelers up to Ross Pass then hiking the rest of the way in, so SAR gave him a pack and radio. He hauled up the mountain for nearly 15 miles and picked his way through the dangerous single track to reach us.
My mom was sitting up and with a more lifelike hue to her skin. Dave was the beacon of hope that we so desperately needed. Shortly after Dave’s arrival, there was the all too familiar rumble of a helicopter. A black helicopter came up the bowl wobbled in the air then immediately took a hard turn down and to the left. This scared the shit out of us. We thought it might crash. Dave told us we might have to wait a few hours for the air to warm up so the helicopter could get enough lift to safely get into the narrow bowl. The helicopter landed just out of sight in a nearby saddle.
About 15 minutes later, the helicopter fired back up and was returning. This time, however, there was a black dot hanging below it. As it got closer we realized that it was 2 paramedics hanging from a 100-foot rope from the bottom of the helicopter. The pilot expertly dropped the 2 paramedics on the narrow trail and returned to the saddle to wait. The paramedics approached with giant brick packs.
They assessed my mom and gave her the options for getting her off the mountain. She could either be carted out to Ross Pass which the paramedic informed her would take hours and put everyone’s life at risk because of the dangerous trail conditions or she could be “short-hauled” to the valley below where an ambulance would take her to hospital. She replied, “I think I can walk.” One of the paramedics talked some sense into her, and she agreed to be short-hauled. The paramedics took their giant brick backpacks and pulled out two large thick vinyl bags. They wrapped her up in a wool blanket, slid her into the first vinyl bag, then into the second vinyl bag that would be hooked to the bottom of the rope. Often times in the news and movies, we see a nice metal basket that’s lowered down, the patient is loaded into the basket, pulled up into the helicopter, and flown to safety. This was not that kind of rescue.
As they were wrapping my mom up like a burrito, the ground crew got to us. I noticed two of the guys looked very familiar. We all kind of looked at each other and one of them looked at my dad and exclaimed “NO WAY!” What are the chances that 2 of the ground crew from this rescue were from the rescue last year?! They said the week before they were talking about us wondering when we would be back to hike the trail again. They laughed and said, “next year, call us ahead of time, and we will hike with you from start to finish!” Our reunion was cut short because the helicopter was on its way back to haul my cocooned mom off the mountain.
The helicopter hovered and they hooked my mom and one of the paramedics to the metal ring at the end of the 100-foot rope. You know that the rescue is extreme when the SAR ground crew is watching in amazement and filming the rescue on themselves. At 10:22 AM, the pilot lifted them off the trail and headed down the canyon to the valley below. I am not sure was more overwhelming – the relief knowing that she was going to be safe or the flood of emotions that I had been keeping at bay this whole time.
My mom was on her way to the hospital, but my dad and I still had to get off the mountain. We hiked out 3 1/2 miles to Ross Pass, rode on 4-wheelers down about 5 miles of overgrown single track, then rode down another 5 miles in a truck on a road that I would have never thought a truck could make it up, once on the highway we had 23 miles to our car, and finally we were dropped off at our car and headed to hospital. It took us almost 3 hours to get off the mountain and to my mom. Reunited at the hospital my mom told us about the helicopter ride. She said she felt like she was only a couple feet off the ground, and it was quite serene. She couldn’t see anything but the bottom of the black helicopter and the clouds floating by. She said she couldn’t even hear the helicopter. For someone who is afraid of heights as much as her – I was shocked to hear that she enjoyed the short-haul.
I will admit that when I saw my mom’s leg wasn’t stitched up yet I was morbidly excited because I really wanted to see the wound and take pictures. What I saw was not even in the realm of what I thought the injury could possibly be. She had a massive avulsion to the back of her right calf. An avulsion is an injury in which tissue is forcibly detached. If you are easily grossed out I would highly recommend you do NOT Google it. The rock did not rip my mom’s pants – curious right? The rock hit her with such force that her leg exploded from the impact. My dad told us that when he rolled up her pant leg the flesh was hanging and his hand was covered in chunks of fat and tissue when he applied pressure to the wound. My mom was patched back together with 11 internal stitches and 23 staples. The pictures of the injury are too graphic to share without warning. I have created a private password protected page where you can view the pictures if you choose. You can see the injury pictures HERE with password gross view at your own risk.
After it was all said and done, we had done our best to mitigate the inherent risk that comes with playing in the great outdoors, and still shit happened. We did our best to be prepared. We trained harder, and we learned from our mistakes. The Bridger Ridge was our white whale that we loved to chase.
I am grateful that the Ridge allowed us to experience some of her unbridled wild adventure – although towards the end it was a bit too much for my taste. I am grateful that we were adequately prepared and were able to take care of my mom until help arrived. Most importantly, I am eternally grateful for Dave, Taylor, Jeff, and the amazing staff and volunteers of Gallatin County Search and Rescue. Their speed, professionalism, effectiveness, and servant hearts saved my family…twice. Thank you!
I would also like to thank Rich Landers for sharing our story and defending us against critics, and I would like to thank Gabe West and the Fitness Pyramid for coaching us in preparation for the hike – I don’t think all the rowing and kettle ball exercises in the World could have helped us avoid this. Thank you to all the medical personnel in Bozeman that helped repair my mom’s leg. Thank you to all of the medical personnel in Spokane that have continued to help her heal and recover. Thank you to all the friends and family who have kept us in your prayers, sent cards and flowers, and shown my mom how much she is loved.
Mom – I am blown away by your grit. You are the strongest woman I know. I am lucky to have you for a mother and a role model. You inspire me every day. And I am pleased to tell you for all the gray hair I gave over the years that you have been paying it back 10 fold during this ordeal. Thank you for being a good patient and even better mom.
Dad – Remember how you always told Vaughn and I when we were little if there was no blood and the bone wasn’t sticking out then stop crying? Well, there was a lot of blood and your tough wife didn’t shed a tear. You are her rock (no pun intended). Without you there, it probably would have been a very different outcome. Your strength and calm resolve in the face of crisis is phenomenal. You continue to teach me how to be capable and level-headed even in the most extreme situations. Thank you for setting a great example and for not raising me to be a candy-ass.
I love you both! xo