Saturday, October 15, 2011

Hell in the Sky (part 3)

"Guys, just so you know, I may throw up."

Photos by MCSN Andy Jandik

Berumen's knee was bloody and swollen, and her attempts at bending her leg or putting weight on it resulted in severe pain. She wouldn't cry, but throwing up was not out of the question. All attempts to help her walk had failed. The steep terrain meant we couldn't keep her upright without losing our own balance.

Looking down at her, a thought crept up on me. The night before, a park ranger had told us about a rescue that had just occurred on Helens. A woman had become separated from her family in blizzard-like conditions, and was forced to spend the night up here, alone.

With no other options, Berumen began to butt scoot down the rocks. It was a brutally slow process, and a heavy fog was making it difficult to find the correct path back down. If we cleared the rocks at the wrong point at the treeline, we'd never find the trail back through the forest.

Berumen inches along while we figure out the best way down.

Chief Mike Jones went ahead to scout the way down, while the rest of us did what little we could to help our injured shipmate.

The rocks wouldn't end. 

Every ridge we cleared opened up to two more. Hours passed and the sun began to make its exit. The temperature was dropping fast.

Wind-blown ice formation on a trail marker.

Some good news came when, at Master Chief's direction, Jandik made a splint from one of the walking poles, using bandages from our first aid kit. When the terrain gave us brief respite, Berumen could walk a bit with our support.

Despite the situation, morale was good. Our team was strong, and Berumen's determination was nothing short of inspiring.  Then the fog cleared.

A trail marker can be seen to the right.

The beauty of what we saw was stunning. And it made our hearts sink. We had so far to go to the treeline.


It was about 5:30pm when I looked up to see Master Chief McMillan standing on top of a nearby ridge. He was trying to radio for help, with no luck on any channel.

We were making tactical decisions, steering Berumen around hundreds of rocks. Master Chief was thinking strategically. The big picture was...there was a good chance we wouldn't make it to the trees before the sun set.

Shouting across the rocks, Master Chief coordinated his contingency plan. Chief Jones and Petty Officer Thomas Siniff would get down to camp, grab two tents, and haul ass back up. He then asked for volunteers to stay with Berumen overnight, while the rest of the team went for help.

Berumen clearly did not like the idea of staying on the volcano overnight. For the first time since her fall, she was about to cry.

"Don't worry about it Ashley, let's get to those trees."

Master Chief assesses the situation, and takes steps to keep his Sailors safe.

We kept moving.  Berumen was covered in mud, and her arms burned from the exertion of sliding herself along.

"My butt's getting really beat up by these rocks!"
"Yeah but how many people can say they scooted down Helens?"

At 6:30pm, we were closing in on the trees. Up at the treeline, Master Chief was radioing me:

Master Chief: "Chief has to verify this is the right trail."
me: "It's not the right trail?" ....
Master Chief: "We're good to go, head towards me."
me: "Thank God. Let's get off these damn rocks."

Petty Officer Ashley Berumen, frozen hair and all.
I can't describe how good it felt to put my hand on a tree again. We joked that now Berumen had hundreds of friends to lean on while she hobbled along.

But we weren't in the clear. Sunset was on top of us.

Trees that had shielded us from rain that morning now blocked the sunlight. The trail rose and fell. Roots snaked across the path, threatening to take Berumen off her feet. It was obvious she was running out of steam. The temporary adrenaline rush of getting off the rocks was fading as fast as the light.

The forest was silent, an occasional bird call floated above.

With Chief and Siniff waiting at camp, Master Chief took over supporting Berumen. Timberlake and I went ahead, to get warm clothes in preparation for Berumen's arrival.

Thirty minutes later, I began to worry. Timberlake and I were moving fast, but still hadn't reached camp.

"I don't remember this trail being so long.
If it's taking us this long, how much worse will it be for Berumen?"

Finally, we rounded a corner and saw the parking lot. The journey was over for four of us. Timberlake went to change into dry clothes. I kept thinking about Jandik, Master Chief, and Berumen struggling along in the dark, with two flashlights to lead the way.

So I did the only thing I could think of to help them. I pulled my Jeep up to the trail head, rolled the windows down, and turned the radio up as loud as it would go. Standing in the rain, I watched the trees as the music penetrated the darkness.

Seaman Andy Jandik, who had the wits to keep taking pictures.

Thirty minutes passed, and they didn't appear. Chief told me to stay out of the woods.  Adding more people to a dark, narrow path was too risky.  Finally, on the radio:

Master Chief: "We can hear music."

At 8:30pm, after 12 hours on Mount St. Helens, Berumen emerged safely from the most harrowing experience of her life.  We met her with cheers to wake a volcano.

You may be safe in front of that TV, but are you making these kinds of memories? 
Chief Mike Jones.
Chief made it look easy.

MC3 Thomas Siniff.

Siniff, first guy to climb Helens in the snow while wearing jeans.

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