Nearly 50 years ago I was saved by a good friend and a friendly cayuse Angel from certain death in the high rocky mountains.
My danged old leg is aching today as it does from time to time in the spot where it broke long ago. The ache has set me to recalling some hard times and good lessons in life. I just hope that my grandchildren will enjoy reading this story as it might just help them in facing hard times and by knowing that such times often become some of the best of times.
The day those nearly 50 years ago started out like many early fall days in the mountain west, clear blue sky and just a dusting of snow on the highest peaks. Where I was trekking in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah we were on the trail to a peak 11,000 feet in elevation. The fall was in full swing and the aspen trees were in their golden glory. Those aspens would soon be left far below us as our destination was well above treeline.
My best friend Michael and I were out for some challenging mountain trekking that day but we were accustomed to it and saw no difficulty in our plan to climb that high peak getting in and out covering maybe 20 miles and more than a mile of vertical rise in one long day. We had to first hike in many miles before we began the climb on the peak and we were not prepared for an overnight so we’d have to make it back out that day. Even so we’d not be back at our car and trailhead before darkness set in.
The day was glorious and everything was going great and I was keeping up with Michael in spite of having broken my leg in a severe skiing accident the previous winter. I’d been out of the full leg cast healing that broken leg for some months and like the teenage mountain man who I was had been tramping up and down a lot of mountains even having begun with hiked on crutches as soon as I was out of the cast.
Then came a day that seemed like so many others. Mike and I had been spending every possible moment in the wilds and mountains for years and had climbed this peak a number of times. The peak offered few technical difficulties, more of an extreme hike than a climb, no hang and dangle rope work very strenuous to the extreme just our cup of tea.
Around noon I had nearly made the summit of the peak and Mike was a few yards ahead of me at the summit. As I walked from the steep slope onto the summit block I stumbled and in an instant my ‘bad leg’ broke, both bones making a distinct crack. I collapsed to the ground gently by doing a deep knee bend on my good right leg and called to Mike to come give me a hand. He bounded over wise cracking that I looked like a wounded deer and was sure good at faking it. Being my best friend and having been skiing with me when I shattered the leg the previous December I said “well shit, my damned leg just broke again.” “No way he exclaimed” but I knew he could tell from seeing the pain in my face that I was not fooling.
Now Mike was the best friend a guy could have and a true kindred spirit. We were western outdoorsmen to the ninth degree mountaineering, fly fishing, desert jeeping, hunters, and all around total outdoors to the max. Mike wasn’t the most knowledgable about broken bones, there I knew more than he having broken more than a few of my bones over the years and that damned left leg of mine I had really messed up so I knew exactly what it felt like when shattered. There was no way I was going to be able to get out without first a good splinting of my shattered bones and then getting off that high elevation peak. There was more weather on the way and for certain within 24 hours there would be considerable snow where I lie.
Being at such a high elevation far above treeline there was nothing to use as a splint so after I managed, with Mike’s help to sort of fit myself in between some rocks so I would not roll off the steep slope Mike headed far far down the mountain slope to treeline to find some pieces of wood to splint the leg of a 6 foot 2 inch mountain man. The splinting wood would need to be substantial. So down Mike went moving fast down a couple thousand feet of elevation to the treeline. There he found an old rotting log which cooperated with some bashing in lending some big slabs of curved rotten but also somewhat sound wood. Some hours after leaving me Mike returned with the splint wood. It worked great though looked for all the world like the world’s most massive splint, that massive character later to become a blessing.
The next thing on the agenda as the day was rapidly passing was to get me down into that treeline region where I could survive the night. The method of climbing down that substantial peak was anything but elegant and graceful. I sat with my face looking down the slope and then in short few awkward movements crab walked down the slope on my two hands, butt, and one good leg. Mike did his best to take the weight off my broken and splinted leg and hold it just off the ground for each short crab walk bit I could bear. The pain of the shattered leg was the controlling factor and I could only move a few feet at a time before being overcome by the pain to the point of near fainting. After a few minutes rest we’d crab down a bit more. Hours passed, for me it seemed like the legendary melodramatic eternity, but we made it into the tree line.
We knew there was a trail even further down the slope and after helping me set myself as safe and secure as I might be Mike set off at a fast pace to find the trail and head out to the road to get help. He’d not reach the trail head and road until well into the darkness so there would be no help for me that night. It was sure to be a challenging night certainly below freezing and likely with snow by morning. Luckily I had a good amount of great high mountaineering clothing so unless I went into shock I would stay warm and I had ample water and high energy foods, like today’s granola bars. But I knew I was in for a long hard night as no rescue team could possibly reach me before noon the following day at best.
The pain of broken legs is severe at first, then over the course of the next few hours and up to about 48 hours, it gets worse and worse. I’d broken my leg before so I knew this well. I’d not been stranded in the high alpine mountains with such an injury before without a sleeping bag or any pain medications but rather whisked off of the ski resorts slopes into the prompt comfort of hospital care in my previous broken bone encounters. I was not looking forward to that night but also fairly confident, or perhaps over-confident, that I could and would tough it out.
Somethign like an hour or two after Mike headed for help he suddenly reappeared and with him came three cayuse angels with their ‘cowboys’. What a sight for sore eyes. The men were deer hunting and after looking me over said the only thing to do was to get me on one of the horses and head down the trail to where they had their trucks and horse trailers some many hours on horseback away. It sounded good to me and it sure was the right decision but little did I know just how challenging it would be to ride a ornery cayuse of a horse out of the high rocky mountains with a shattered leg.
Once they got me on the horse which took two tries, as the pain knocked me out on the first try, we were underway. Two men rode one ahead of me and one behind while the owner of the horse I rode led the beast by the reins, Mike following up behind the group, he was pretty beat from the effort of helping me but in fine shape.
One thing for certain is that old cayuse of a horse was nothing short of an angel in disguise. But while being an angel he was still a horse traveling down incredibly rough mountain terrain. Every step the horse took was a jarring one and my shattered and massively splinted leg was dangling free and unsupported on the left side of the horse. With each and every step both bones of my lower left leg separated and snapped back together inside my agonized flesh.
I could manage this for a hundred yards or so before I had to ask for a bit of a break from the repeating agony. After a brief rest we’d be on our way again, the cowboys and Mike were all very concerned about being able to get down before the weather turned terrible. And there was a very dramatic face of a mountain to cross where the trail became treacherous and was barely wide enough to walk on and the drop off on the downside was hundreds of feet of thin air to the rocks below.
We made good progress and as the daylight was dwindling we reached that treacherous stretch of trail. Of course at the very narrowest and most treacherous part of the trail that danged old cayuse put his right front foot over the edge and started to tip over. In an instant he bucked hard and leapt back onto the trail landing hard with all four feet and leaning into the mountain. The only problem was that there was a nearly sheer rock face at that point of the trail and there wasn’t quite enough room for my splinted leg and the horse and me in that tight spot. With a loud whinnying horse and a loud cracking and crunching sound of my splinted leg my cayuse angel and I were safe on the trail instead of being over the edge and falling to our certain demise.
I was not doing well and as the motion stopped the cowboy with the reins of my horse pivoted and holding onto the horse’s neck to keep himself from falling off the edge of the trail reached up and pushed me back into the saddle. I was white as a ghost they said and falling off the horse toward the abyss. A few more yards ahead we reached a wider spot on the trail and one of the other cowboys came up to me holding his hand out. In it were two aspirin which he offered, saying “hey fella looks like you’re in a lot of pain maybe these will help.” Yeah sure two aspirin, no chance of that helping but I thanked him and took them anyway.
It took a few more hours to make it down that mountain trail astride my cayuse angel and in the last of the light of day that kindly horse frequently glanced back over his shoulder at me with a friendly twinkle in his eye as if checking on me and assuring me we would make it. It was quite dark and there were flakes of snow beginning to fall by the time I was lifted off of the horse and loaded into the back of a 4×4 pickup for a bouncing ride down miles of rough road to a more well-travelled and paved roadway. Soon a house was found, a call for an ambulance made (this was well before the time of cell phones) and an hour or so later the ambulance loaded me up for the ride to a hospital.
I never even learned the names of my cowboy saviours and worse the name of that angel of a horse. They dropped me off and then got about their own business of getting the rest of their group and horses loaded up in trucks and horse trailers and heading themselves home. It was one of those old west kind of moments when everyone just does what is necessary and doesn’t ask or expect anything in return but the satisfaction of having lent a helping head to a person in need. I sure hope they gave that horse of mine a fine measure of his most favorite horse food that night and a good brushing to shine up his halo.
At the hospital I arrive at there was a great commotion when the receiving medical team saw me being wheeling in with half a fallen log wrapped around one leg and looking like I had been through an ordeal. The doctors heard the story from Mike who had accompanied me and while my family was being called were gawking at my appearance. The rotten log splint was the center of great attention and discussion and debate as to what to do with it. Take it off before an x-ray or after… In the meantime doctors and nurses and emergency team members were parading past the gurney I was on where my splinted leg had been lashed to the gurney. They were all admiring the most massive and rustic splint they had ever seen. More than a few commented about it being a very impressive splint that must have been hard for me to handle. When they heard from Mike that he thought the splint had saved me when the horse bucked me and splint into the cliff overhanging the most terrible precipice imaginable they all agreed any lesser of splint would have not resisted the crushing force of the bucking horse and I’d have gone over the cliff.
The x-ray showed that my broken leg was indeed the not yet year old leg fractures which while seeming to have healed well had not and had simply come unglued. The orthopedic surgeon arrived after another hour and when he saw me and my splinted leg and x-ray became more than a bit concerned. What the hell is this guy doing here like this, he needs an IV and morphine right now and lets gets this unbelievable splint off of him and onto my wood pile. The attending ER room staff noted that my family had not been able to be contacted as that since I was not quite 18 yrs old they had dared not treat me without permission. The old orthopedic surgeon said, “the hell with permissions let get him into surgery and get to work.” I was soon put under with anesthetics and when I awoke the next day aside from having a giant plaster cast from the tip of my toes to my groin on my left leg and the pain it all seemed like a dream.
Good friends, old west cowboys, angels in the form of horses, and a take charge doctor who is more concerned for a patient in need than the legalities proved for me that sometimes the worst of events and times become not so bad. Fifty years later now I can say that experience with my cayuse angel and best friend have served me well as an avid outdoorsman I’ve been able to help others in similar times of dire need.