Dozens of rescuers from public and private organizations pitched in to save the life of a fallen ice climber near Twin Falls, Idaho, Jan. 28, 2022. Coffee or Die Magazine composite by Joshua Skovlund.
Idaho paramedic Chad Smith arrived at his Twin Falls home after a 36-hour shift. It was just before 6 p.m. on Jan. 28, and Smith needed some rest.
Then, his cell phone vibrated. The alert urged rescue units to save an ice climber who’d fallen about 30 feet.
Neither Smith, 32, a field supervisor for the Twin Falls-based Magic Valley Paramedics Special Operations Rescue Team (SORT), nor anyone else knew exactly where the climber had tumbled. They only knew that the call originated from the area near Shoshone Falls, the “Niagara of the West,” a roughly 25-minute drive east from Smith’s home.
“They didn’t know the area they were in, other than they were under some power lines by Shoshone Falls,” Smith told Coffee or Die Magazine.
— Jared Ropelato (@Rope_photo) February 6, 2017
They knew two other things. Snowfall had clogged the two entry roads to Shoshone Falls. And the park was undergoing a dangerous temperature inversion.
The normal weather pattern had flipped, and the air grew warmer as the altitude rose. A fall to the bottom of the Snake River Valley meant a descent into subzero windchill.
Twin Falls Fire Department personnel arrived first from the west, and an engine got bogged down in the snow. Another SORT supervisor, James Pennington, radioed the other rescue crews to gather at a residential subdivision near the park. Those roads had been plowed.
Smith threw on his cold-weather gear and motored his RZR all-terrain vehicle there, hoping to be joined at the rendezvous point by dozens of rescuers from the fire department, Magic Valley Paramedics, Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Office, and the nonprofit Twin Falls County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue.
When his phone pinged, Brian Stone, 38, had finished helping out an adaptive climbing class at the Gemstone Adaptive Climbing gym and was coaching his four kids on the wall. The Magic Valley paramedic loaded his children into his vehicle and drove to the rendezvous point. His wife met him there to take their children home while Pennington briefed Stone.
Theron Thomas, a 43-year-old rescue technician and paramedic, brought the SORT rescue truck. Rescue technician and paramedic Adam Enock and his partner, emergency medical technician Braydon Ahrens, brought an ambulance to the plowed subdivision.
They were soon joined by the Twin Falls firefighters. After their engine got stuck, they trudged into the park but couldn’t find a fallen climber, so they hiked out to meet the others.
Knowing snowdrift blocked the park’s west entrance, Smith decided to investigate a different trailhead. It was where one of the injured climber’s companions had hiked out to call 911.
Smith contacted the caller and learned the injured climber was off to the side of the waterfall. Spray squirting through fissures in the frozen falls had soaked the 26-year-old victim, so his friends had pulled him away from the water.
He also learned that the man’s ice cleats got stuck in the frozen falls, causing him to fold over himself on the way down, and his breathing appeared labored.
That wasn’t a good sign. Every minute rescuers spent getting to him made it less likely he might survive.
But at least the rescuers now knew where the hurt climber was. He didn’t tumble down the majestic Shoshone Falls. He fell down Bridal Veil Falls, a frozen two-story flume formed by a stream off Dierkes Lake.
It eventually drains out under a road leading to a parking lot.
To get there, the rescuers would need to hike about a third of a mile, toting their heavy rope, climbing anchors, medical bags, and other equipment. They’d stage at the mouth of the canyon, then descend another half-mile over boulders and ice.
“When we were hiking down, we kind of had a Plan A and Plan B, because if the helicopter couldn’t land, then we had to get this guy out,” Smith said. “Either by going up the waterfall or hiking him out to the trail we hiked in on, which was not an easy hike.”
At the staging point, Stone, Smith, and two members of the Magic Valley Paramedics SORT team paired up with four Twin Falls firefighters and began the perilous descent alongside the waterfall.
As they neared the injured climber, Smith could see that the man’s friends had removed his wet clothes, covered him with their coats, and wrapped him in a couple of blankets.
Frozen Bridal Veil Falls Idaho Springs Colorado pic.twitter.com/ZyWQnBZPwz
— ?? Solo Serenity ?? (@PatriotSalute) January 23, 2020
The firefighters scuttled down the icy cliff to pinpoint a spot where an Air St. Luke’s medical helicopter could land. Stone began figuring out where he could anchor a pulley system to lower the injured man past the rocks and water to reach the landing zone.
Smith went to work on the climber. The paramedic noted at least one broken ankle and what, to his touch, felt like a broken section of the spine. He started an IV line into the man’s arm and checked his heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen ratio.
Smith saw no signs of deadly neurogenic shock, which often accompanies spinal cord injuries and severe blood loss. The climber received fentanyl and ketamine painkillers, and his breathing seemed to calm down.
They loaded the injured man onto a scoop stretcher to prevent further injury or paralysis and swaddled him again in blankets before lashing him down for the trip to the landing zone.
The Air St. Luke’s medical helicopter landed. Its flight paramedic, Isaac Baker, and flight nurse, Cheryl Bice, hiked up to the team to assist with treatment and to lower the patient to the helicopter. Bice joined Smith with the climber. Baker helped Stone finish anchoring to the ice a pulley system to bring the man down to the landing zone.
To finish the low-angle rescue, the team needed to traverse about three-quarters of a football field down a frozen creek to reach a frozen sandbar off the Snake River, but one that was strewn with boulders.
Stone controlled the speed of the stretcher’s descent by tugging on the pulley system. Smith and the others escorted it so they could heave the stretcher over the largest rocks.
They stopped twice.
“So we had to actually unbundle his arm to get to the IV and give him the pain meds, and then we would bundle him back up,” Smith said. “So each stop took probably three to five minutes to actually give him pain meds.”
It took 20 minutes, but they got the injured climber into the helicopter. Baker and Bice hopped into the chopper for the 45-minute flight to the Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center in Idaho Falls, where the hiker was listed as in stable condition.
As Stone watched the aircraft fly off, he knew the day wasn’t even close to done. They had to hike back up the mountain to pack away all the equipment they’d used to save the man’s life.
“There’s that daunting like, ‘Oh man, now we got to get out of here,’” Stone said.
Joshua Skovlund is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die. He covered the 75th anniversary of D-Day in France, multinational military exercises in Germany, and civil unrest during the 2020 riots in Minneapolis. Born and raised in small-town South Dakota, he grew up playing football and soccer before serving as a forward observer in the US Army. After leaving the service, he worked as a personal trainer while earning his paramedic license. After five years as in paramedicine, he transitioned to a career in multimedia journalism. Joshua is married with two children.
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