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Mountain emergency tests East Fork paramedic

by Steve Thaler

The day started out uneventful. A six-mile hike with a 3,500 foot elevation gain to Trail Camp on the Mount Whitney Trail. Six hikers – Todd Wilcks, Tracy Heber, Jeff Zinn, Sean Thaler, Nick Summers and myself set out on July 29 to climb Mount Whitney. Eight hours later we arrived at the Trail Camp, elevation 12,000 feet. The camp, which sits at the base of the infamous 99 switchbacks, was the resting point for the night.

After setting up camp and eating a snack most of us decided to rest and contemplate the next days’ hike up to the summit. Immediately to the west of us, we could see a trail of hikers heading down the 99 switchbacks. Nick, feeling his second wind, decided to hike back down the trail to Consultation Lake to try his luck at fly fishing. At around 5:30 p.m., he returned and we all decided we should cook dinner and start preparing for nightfall. On the mountain, nighttime comes early. As the sun set, we serenely watched the hikers coming down off the hill, having made the summit I am sure.

It was at this time that things changed for us. A very panicked hiker ran to our camp and asked if anyone had a cell phone that worked. He stated that he needed to call down to the ranger station to get medical assistance for one of the hikers in his group. He said that a 63-year-old woman was half-way down the switchbacks, and in serious distress. We said that we had a paramedic with us – Nick Summers. Immediately Nick and Sean Thaler headed up the switchbacks to the woman’s location. The remainder of our group stayed back at the camp attempting to contact the ranger.

For the next hour, Nick, Sean and a group of four other hikers attempted to walk this elderly lady down the hill. By the time they reached us, hikers from all over the base camp were offering food, water and whatever else might make the woman feel better. It was now around 7 p.m. and the mountain was getting dark. The decision was made to attempt to get the woman down to Outpost Camp which sits at 10,000 feet. Nick and two other hikers assisted the woman in the slow and methodical walk down the hill. Unfortunately, her sickness prevented her from travelling more than a quarter of a mile without getting worse. The decision was then made to have her sleep in the Ranger’s shack rather than further risk her life in an attempt to try and walk her down the hill in the dark.

Nick attended to her needs, gave her food and water and left her with her husband for the night. It was now around 9:30 at night, and being completely exhausted from the days climb and the medical assist, Nick returned to camp and bedded down.

At around 1:30 a.m., we were awakened by a frantic voice calling for a paramedic. Thinking that someone else was in need of emergency services, Nick went outside and was met by one of the hikers who had been with the woman in the rangers shack. Nick was told that the woman’s condition had worsened and his assistance was needed immediately. Nick headed back down the trail to the rangers shack. Upon arrival, Nick determined that the woman was in a crisis situation.

He and two other hikers immediately began CPR, and after about 10 minutes, it was apparent that the woman could not be revived. While others remained with the woman’s body, Nick hiked back to our camp to retrieve a phone. Nick called the Inyo County Rangers Station and reported what had occurred and requested that they send rescue personnel at daybreak to retrieve the body. Nick returned to camp at around 3:30 a.m.

It was 5:30 a.m. when we all got up to hike the summit. Nick filled us in on the night’s events and confirmed that search and rescue would be up to rescue the body of the woman. Although stunned by the day’s events, we decided to try and put it behind us and do what we came out to do, hike to the top of Mount Whitney. Our group reached the 14,500 summit of Mount Whitney. After an hour at the top enjoying the views, we headed back down the trail to our camp. Three days and 22 miles later we contemplated our experience.

Summers, an East Fork paramedic, faced the challenge of a grueling hike only to be confronted with a medical emergency, during which he went above and beyond the call of duty. There was a reason he was on that mountain that day. Although the 63- year-old woman succumbed, her last hours were treated with the utmost care, medical skill, and professionalism. We were all proud of Nick that day as he assisted a stranger in need while faced with the challenges of pure exhaustion, lack of sleep, and no medical supplies.

There was a hero on that mountain that day and his name is Nick Summers.

Steve Thaler is director of juvenile camp services at China Spring Youth Camp and a member of the Minden Town Board.