During a difficult trail race, you sign up to be pushed past your comfort zone. In certain types of races, you can expect to be told to do new activities and translate your skills towards new challenges. With that challenge comes responsibility and risk. It’s both up to the race and the racer to figure out what’s the appropriate amount of risk, and how to minimize that. Let me tell you my story of mistakes from this weekend that culminated in—spoiler alert—a helicopter evacuation. The hope is that from reading this, you might learn how to avoid a helicopter ride in your future.

How it started…

This journey started about 20 hours into the SISU IRON, which is an adventure race where you complete a series of challenges that you learn as you go through the event. The full race-recap is a topic for another article, but the race wasn’t going well for me: I had blisters and chafing. I had just attempted to win a challenge but instead went on a 4-mile and 1,000 feet detour that put me at least 90 minutes behind. Therefore, I had a lot of time to make up and was ready to put in the work.

This section of the race started with a physical challenge, where I finished about 4-5 minutes behind the leader, then solve a cryptograph. A cryptograph is where the letters in a sentence are shuffled and you need to figure out the proper mapping of the letters. Including a cryptograph is basically giving me a gift because I have multiple degrees in math, so cryptographs are right up my alley even though I hadn’t done one before. I finished quickly and got my stuff for the next challenge.

The last known picture before I got lost.

I ran down to where the race organizer was, and he gave me directions to follow the stream up to where the stream becomes a waterfall. If there were barriers, I was to climb over them. If the barriers were impassible, then I could climb up to the trail and around the barrier.

So I set off to complete the task as fast as I could at around 5 pm, knowing that I had earned a lead, so I had to maintain it. I kept my feet in the water and my eyes down. I came upon many bushes, trees, and brush that I had to clear a path through. I climbed over a series of little dams or barriers in the trail, always staying at the bottom part of the ravine.

Seems okay, right?

At first, the river of water was strong, but slowly it got weaker and intermittent. About every other barrier, the water would disappear then re-appear. I thought that if I just kept on trekking further into the ravine, then I’d eventually get up to that waterfall.

The barriers that I climbed over kept on getting harder and harder. They all seemed quite reasonable until there were a few that I noticed that I was doing some light rock climbing. It wasn’t high at all, but I was blazing a trail and getting maybe 10 feet off the ground before reaching the next level in the trail. Since I regularly climb up 10 feet walls in races, this wasn’t anything atypical for me. Eventually, I couldn’t see a path around a barrier, so I decided to climb up the side of the ravine around it, and if I hit the trail, then I’d go on the trail for a bit.

The side of the ravine was mostly loose dirt and sedimentary rock, where if I put too much weight on the rocks, some of them would come loose. I know how to climb, so I knew to check the strength of the rocks before I place my weight on them. I made it successfully over without much event.

The next barrier was even harder, so I went up the side of the ravine again. I focused on climbing up safely and finding the optimum path. I had some trouble finding a good way across, so I kept climbing higher to find a route across. Eventually, I looked down and noticed that I was about 30-40ft up an inclined ravine of loose dirt and rocks. There wasn’t anyway down safely without just letting my body slide down. Luckily, I could see a path forward across the barrier, so I took that path.

Now it's getting scary…

At that point, I realized that I was doing something unsafe. Up until then, everything had been within a reasonable range of my comfort zone in climbing and blazing a trail through the wilderness. When I reached that point, I knew something was wrong.

So how would I get out? There wasn’t a way back, because I knew that I didn’t have the tools to slide down those inclines safely, and I couldn’t climb up the way the water went, so I definitely couldn't climb down then.

That means the only way was forward. My hope was that if I kept following the ravine, I’d eventually reach the end with the waterfall. So I kept on going forward, climbing over barrier after barrier and carefully making my way through. I had already given up on the lead and race. This was just about getting out.

Once the sun started going down, I knew something was even more wrong. This challenge maybe takes 1-2 hours in previous years. If the sun was going down and I wasn’t reaching the end, something wasn’t as expected. That’s when I started shouting, “HELP” in my loudest voice, about once or twice a minute.

The epiphany…

It’s then that I had the thought: I’m not in the correct ravine. I’ve been climbing deeper into a ravine between two ridges that I’m not supposed to be in. That means climbing deeper will make me more stuck, not less.

That’s when I changed course. Instead of following the ravine, I chose a side a climbed up. There had to be a trail along the ridge that I could climb to. So, I started climbing. At one point, I saw what looked like a trail on the other side, and imagined that it would follow the curve of the mountain and come around to the other side, so I kept on climbing.

Then I saw an upright plastic pole out of the ground, looking like a human placed it there. There had to a trail close to that, so I climbed closer to that. Only now I reached a point where I couldn’t find a climbing path to get closer. I looked down and realized that if I slid down the ravine, I’d slide at least 150-200ft before I hit the bottom. There wasn’t a safe way down anymore. I also couldn’t find a safe way up or sideways. I was officially stuck.

Now I'm stuck…

What I did was find a place where I could dig in my feet while resting the underside of my warms on other plants. I was comfortable lying on my back. In that position, I had no fears of sliding or falling. I just kept on yelling, “HELP!” From that vantage point, I could see the road and the headlamps of my fellow racers. Cars were about an inch long.

Eventually, I heard someone call back. It was two hikers that heard my cries. They asked, “Are you okay?” I responded, “Yes,” but they could not understand me. After a little back and forth of single word communication, I yelled, “Helicopter.” I was so high up that if anyone went down into the ravine below me, they had no chance of finding me. There was no way for me to get out upwards, so I realized that I would need a helicopter.

After a few tries, the person on the road yelled back, “Helicopter” and “I understand.” It was at that point that I started hearing the sirens and seeing the police and fire truck lights. They were oh so far away.

Over the next few hours, I stayed in the same spot, watching seas of headlamps about a half-mile away and very far down go from one spot to another. I saw cars come up and down the road over and over again, but I didn’t hear or see a helicopter. I would hear my name called over and over again, and I would respond, but later I learned that they couldn't hear my response. All I could do was wait.

As part of the endurance event, I had about 2L of Tailwind and some food with me, so I could last up there all night. I was ready to do so because I was realizing that they probably needed to establish that they couldn’t find me on foot before they called a helicopter.

After a few more hours of more ineffective call and response, I heard very clearly, “This is search and rescue. Count to three.” So I called back, “One, two, three.” They followed with, “Are you injured?” I responded, “No.” Lastly, they said, “One person or two.” I said, “One.” Finally, they said, “We’re calling a helicopter.” At that point, I felt great relief.

The rescue…

At that point, I started preparing for the helicopter to find me. I took off my reflective vest and spread it out so that it was larger. I took my backpack off and put it next to me, but kept my arm slung through it. My bucket was also next to me, increasing my surface area to the outside.

It seemed to take at least 30-45 minutes before the helicopter arrived. Once I saw the helicopter come over the ridge with the searchlight, I saw them start their search algorithm. I held out the reflective vest, and when I saw the light hit me, I started shaking it. The light swung by the first time and searched the rest of the ridges, then came back to focus on where I was and they honed in on me within about 20 seconds.

They lowered a person out of the helicopter and eventually dropped him on top of me. He put a sling around my shoulders and it tightened around me. As the helicopter got closer, it threw up dirt, so all I could do was close my eyes. It raised us up into the air and, eventually, I felt the helicopter under my feet. I grabbed a hold inside the helicopter compartment and pulled myself in. I lay on the floor and they asked me to sit up, just to show that I could.

They dropped me in a secured location within about two minutes and put me in an ambulance. They interviewed me and took my vitals. My blood pressure was a tad high, and I noted that I’m probably anxious. I let them know I’m a physician. From that point, they drove me back to base camp and I reunited with my parents and Daren De Heras. We talked for a bit, called my wife, then drove back to Camp Trask, where my fellow racers were waiting for me playing Burpee Hi-Lo.

Returning to the race…

Ande Wagner, the race director, asked if I wanted to keep going. I responded, “I’m scared.” They asked me to go to the person with the deck of cards to take a card out. I grabbed a 4. The dealer’s card was a 5. That meant we had 50 burpees. Almost instinctually, I turned around and started leading the burpees for the whole group. After feeling the support from the other racers, there was no question: the race was back on, and I was going to push as hard as I could in their honor.

Take home messages

  1. Races can challenge you to take on new challenges and feel like you have the ability to. Always make sure that you also are watching for your own safety.
  2. If you find yourself in an unsafe situation, pause and think about the safest way out.
  3. If you’re lost in the woods, turn around and go back the way you came. Climbing up may seem glamorous, but it’s a great way to get stuck.
  4. If you’re stuck in the woods with sufficient resources to stay safe and healthy, stay in one place on a well-beaten path where people can easily find and rescue you. Time is cheap compared to your health.
  5. If you’re stuck in a place where you don’t think you can get found, use your voice and whatever resources you have to make yourself known. Headlamps, whistles, reflective vests and other tools can be invaluable.
  6. If you’re scared during a race, know that you’ve got a community of people that care about you and your safety. When they’re needed, they might drop everything and help.

Photo Credit: Meg Ramirez & Khanh Nguyen


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