October 25, 2008

Birgit’s Rescue

The Waterfall and the helicopter

The Overland Track, in Tasmania, is one of the World’s top hiking destinations. Fitness enthusiasts from across the globe tackle the six day hike to experience the isolated but breathtaking views of mountains, lakes, volcanic craters and spectacular scenery. However, the experience of absorbing this visual smorgasbord is inexorably connected to conquering the physical demands of the track and surviving the sacrifice of life’s little comforts.

Brigit Koerting, my dear friend, and I, were booked to undertake the track the first week in December. Preparation had been intense with weekly training regimes and regular rehearsals to ensure maximum preparation. Great motivation!

The challenging slopes of Mt Coo-tha were a perfect setting for our second major training exercise. Late one recent Saturday afternoon, we attacked the steep inclines with great enthusiasm, working to master our heavy backpacks.  Any stress we felt from the steep climb was lost in the intense conversation – catching up on life at Virgin Blue! We reached the Simpson Falls’ crossing on the down hill run, not far from our first rest stop.

Birgit, sure footed and confident with her flash new hiking boots, stepped onto the rocks without hesitation. But before she could take a breath or even pause in our conversation, her right foot had slipped from under her and, to my extreme alarm and dismay, was disappearing down the waterfall on her backside!

“Jesus”, I cried (actually I think I yelled it quite a few times) before holding my breath, waiting for Birgit’s bobbing torso to come to a stop. But it didn’t, she just kept sliding and bouncing down the rock face! Finally, about 20 metres down, Birgit thankfully came to a rather jarring full stop.

“Ooooh, Aaaaar, Ooooh!” was all I could hear. Groaning and moaning, what wonderful sounds, she was alive, and conscious. I ripped off my back pack and scrambled down the slope after her hastily but tentatively, fearing I might end up on top of her. A young man, fortuitously approaching the falls from the opposite side at exactly the right time, managed to reach our distressed Birgit before me.

Broken bones? Broken back? A quick examination from a medical novice did not bring any comfort except to ensure that no bones were visibly protruding. The nice young man (I never did find out his name) was quick to ring 000, while I fumbled with Birgit’s Blackberry trying to remember how to use it – without my glasses.

By the time the rescue crew arrived (which seemed to take forever), I knew Birgit was OK, maybe bruised, maybe sore, maybe a fracture here or there, but OK. Especially when she confided, “You know, having a bit of extra padding comes in handy sometimes!” I knew the worst was over, her sense of humour returned. But Birgit, and all her gear, was still at the bottom of the waterfall. She was in a lot of pain. Her right ankle was distressingly damaged and it’s circumference growing before our eyes.

The rescue crew was matter of fact. It was business as usual for them. A quick medical assessment deemed it unlikely there were broken bones but night was closing. Birgit was not in a good state to walk out and the nearest vehicle (in fact there were two fire engines by this time) was some distance away, along a narrow, uneven and sometimes quite steep, track.

Bring in the helicopter! It was the only way to retrieve her safely from her precarious position. The helicopter, holding a steady position, created a mini hurricane in the forest. I had to hold on to a tree trunk to prevent being blown away. The wind was so intense and frightening that two of the rescue team wedged Birgit between them to prevent her being blown further down the waterfall. “I can walk out! I can walk out!” she cried to no avail; the decision made; the rescue unstoppable.

Fighting with the wind, I just managed to see Birgit disappear into the belly of the helicopter through the gyrating tree line – to be safely delivered to hospital minutes later.

Birgit’s attention in hospital was immediate – well, she had been brought in by helicopter! No waiting in public hospital queues for her. Fortunately, the x-rays confirmed no broken bones. We needed time to digest what had happened. The only way to end the day was with a bottle of bubbly…or two.

The end outcome? Our Overland trip has been postponed and we have both learnt an important lesson in basic safety, care and FOOT PLACEMENT! Birgit is working to heal her bruised and battered body. I know with her determination and good sense she will be back on the trail as soon as possible.

 

>