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Eyewitness describes injured backcountry skier rescue



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Dalton Harben, age 32, of Newton, Penn., who badly injured his knee on April 14 in a backcountry ski accident on Mt. Washington was plucked from the steep icy slope by a National Guard helicopter, hovering in gusting winds. (Photo courtesy of Wendy Bridgewater) (click for larger version)
April 21, 2010
CRAWFORD'S PURCHASE — Dog sled maker Carl Brown of Whitefield and his sister, Wendy Bridgewater of Waitsfield, Vt., plus her husband Ben, daughter Lisa, and two friends were all eyewitnesses to a spectacular helicopter rescue of an injured backcountry skier on April 14 in Mount Washington's Ammonoosuc Ravine.

"I do not get to ski with my brother often; it had actually been a year," Ms. Bridgewater wrote in an e-mail exchange. "I was so thrilled that he had climbed up and skied the Cobb Gully on April 3 that I knew I had to get over there before the 'Ammy' melted out too much."

Ms. Bridgewater notes that her brother has had some health issues, but said, "He did really well — and got to ski on Mount Washington with his niece for the first time. We knew that the weather was going to be marginal for soft snow that day, but it was a day that worked for us all. He was feeling good, and we knew a late start would be helpful. We also figured it was going to remain frozen up high due to the winds, and we thought it best to only go as high as it was soft. We had no thoughts of summiting.

"When we arrived at the Cog's Marshfield Station that morning, we were surrounded by four or five carloads of other Mad River Valley locals. All are frequent Mount Washington spring skiers — very skilled and experienced. We skinned up on our tele-skis right from our cars.

"On the way up we were passed by a couple coming down who warned us it was still frozen up high and windy.

It was the next person heading down who alerted the sextet that a skier was seriously injured.

"Kenny Bryant told us it was pretty firm when he'd come down the Gully and that someone had had a binding malfunction at the top of the South Gully and fallen about 800 feet, dislocating his knee," Ms. Bridgewater said. "He assured us there was already an emergency help call in and plenty of people with him. I think he'd witnessed the fall and was pretty shaken by it, so wanted to be out.

"He said we might have better luck having soft snow as it was now approaching noon.

"We continued up to where we could look up the South Gully and see the group attending the injured skier about two-thirds of the way down.

"We did not want to get in their way, so stopped to eat our lunch.

"After we finished eating and had climbed almost up to the injured skier, the rescue team passed us on their way up from Marshfield Station.

"Right about then the group with the injured skier started to yell to us not to come up because they were going to land a rescue helicopter up there.

"I had a good idea they could not land one on a slope that steep, but we found a place near the trees on the left side where we could hunker down and stayed there watching for about 45 minutes.

"The Black Hawk National Guard medivac helicopter showed up just after the rescue team on foot had passed us," Ms. Bridgewater recalled. "Two rescuers were cabled out of the helicopter, sliding down below the injured man, releasing the cable, and then climbing up to him.

"After a short time they winched the injured man up into the helicopter," she wrote. "You could see him trying to support his leg on the way up.

"When he got near the 'copter, he spun around like a top for many revolutions. We all felt for him, as that must not have been fun.

"Finally, they got him to stop spinning and got him quickly up into the helicopter, shut the door, and took off quickly for the

(Littleton Regional) Hospital.

"The chopper pilot did an amazing job staying in one place, hovering in the wind that was gusting up there.

"The chopper came back to pick up the two rescuers who had cabled out of it earlier. They slid most of the way down the gully first and were both hoisted up at once.

"The rescue team from the base headed out and seeing us still going up, they said, 'We only want to come up here once today, so don't any of you get hurt, okay?"

"We replied, 'Okay!'"

"It was quite the scene to witness," Ms. Bridgewater explained. "I've skied on Mount Washington for years, grew up in North Conway, and never before seen that happen. It made all of us consider our moves more carefully. From the reports we heard from witnesses to his fall, he was really lucky that is all that happened to him. Apparently he tumbled really fast down that gully."

In a debriefing e-mail to Androscoggin Valley Search and Rescue president Mike Pelchat, AVSAR volunteer and Lancaster native Ben Miller of Jackson, wrote, "I was surprised to learn a chopper was on the way. But, wow, he fell around 1 o'clock and was in the ER by what, 4 p.m.? Pretty amazing — cell phones and helicopters!"

Mr. Brown figured out how to e-mail Mr. Harben on Sunday evening and heard from him that he had broken his right femur in two places, shattered his kneecap, and tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus.

Martin Lord Osman
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