If you wanted to design a test for Colby Outdoor Orientation Trip leader training, it might be a serious ankle fracture deep in Maine’s rugged Mahoosuc Mountains. At 9:30 a.m. Aug. 23, 10 COOT leaders on a training trip found themselves in just that worst-case scenario. Only it wasn’t a drill.
The dramatic two-day rescue that ensued was an ordeal for the students involved and a test of the leadership training that is part of the Colby 360 plan for student life and the COOT program (see sidebar). But the program and the students passed, with honors. “If these were my children,” said Eric Jaeger, a paramedic they met on the trail, “I’d be very proud of the way they acted under pressure. I think the school should be justifiably proud.”
The leaders’ group was descending the 3,765-foot mountain called Mahoosuc Arm, its long, steep slabs of bedrock slick from rain. “I just took a fall that wasn’t very controlled and got my foot caught in a root,” said Molly Nash ’15. “I heard a bunch of cracks and told myself it was definitely just the tree root cracking—that I would be fine.” But she soon knew she wasn’t. There was no way she could walk.
To the south lay Mahoosuc Notch, the most challenging, boulder-strewn mile on the 2,160-mile Appalachian Trail. Towering behind the hikers was Mahoosuc Arm, which they had just come down. “It’s incredibly steep,” Nash said afterward. “I want to say ninety degrees, but it isn’t, of course.”
It’s hard to imagine a worse place. It’s also hard to imagine a better team, said Jim Ryan ’14, who watched his tripmates instantly kick into leadership mode. Phil Champoux ’14 had a notebook out assessing Nash’s cognitive state: “What’s your name? Do you know where you are?” Sam Glaisher ’15 painstakingly removed Nash’s boot before applying the malleable aluminum splint from the first aid kit and then adding critical padding with sleeping pads and rope. Ryan Cole ’14, the designated leader on this leaders’ trip, had maps out to plan logistics and got Jed Wartman, Colby’s director of campus life, on the phone.
Cole said that when he saw how each member of the team was “comfortable, capable, gung ho to help—and trained—that allowed me to sit back, calm myself down, and figure out an evac plan.”
“The freak-out factor never reared its head, which is a real testament to the group,” Cole said. He was particularly impressed at how Nash kept it together. “That would have changed the entire nature. If she hadn’t been so stoic and strong in all this, it would have been a completely different monster.”
“In the back of my mind I knew it was broken,” Nash said, “but I was convincing myself it was a sprain because I knew the battle we had ahead of us. I couldn’t dramatize it.”
“We were not in an acceptable place for the group to wait,” Cole said, so he consulted with the group and decided to head back up Mahoosuc Arm to the Speck Pond campsite, where they had spent Thursday night.
Fortified with the strongest painkiller in the first aid kit, Aleve, “I started by just sitting on my butt and scooting backwards,” Nash said. Ensuring that she didn’t fall and that no one else got hurt were top priorities, so helpers surrounded Nash, supporting her on each side, cradling her injured ankle, and holding her good foot so it didn’t slip on the steep, slick rocks. “It was incredibly slow,” Nash said. So she tried hopping, supported on all sides. Even worse.
Finally, Jim Ryan persuaded Nash to climb on his back as he “bear-crawled” up the mountain, she said. They had a spotter out front for support and one behind for stability and to maintain upward momentum. Another student stabilized the injured leg. “We really started cruising,” said Nash.
“The first point-five miles was just gnarly uphill stuff,” Ryan said. “The first half mile took us four hours.”
“There are some really steep sections where you have to get over this six-foot-tall rock,” said Nash. “It was incredibly challenging, but they managed.”
Carrying a patient is considered a last resort in wilderness rescue, in part because of the danger of additional injuries. Nash said that when she worried about safety, Ryan told her: “I promise you that if I don’t feel one-hundred-percent comfortable taking the next step, I’ll put you down. I don’t want to fall just as much as you don’t.”
Once they arrived at the summit of Mahoosuc Arm, there was still a mile descent to get to the campsite. Ryan, Glaisher, and Stefan Sandreuter ’16 took turns carrying Nash piggyback, moving 100 feet at a time with spotters planning every step. “I’m going to need your hand here. We’re going to step over this rock. We’re going to pull this tree back,” Nash said, recalling the conversation. “It was incredibly planned out. We couldn’t make mistakes. There was no room for error.”
But that was just part of the work. Half of the group was unable to carry a backpack as they moved the patient up the trail. “Lizzie Anderson [’14] carried two. Leah Cooney [’16] carried two,” said Ryan. “At some point every single person carried two packs for extended periods of time,” he said, estimating the load at up to 75 pounds.
“The guys were instrumental in carrying her up, but the women were every bit as much a part of the team,” said Jaeger, the New Hampshire-based paramedic they encountered. Anderson, Cooney, Katherine Ackerman ’14, and Torie Palffy ’14 carried more than their share physically and, just as important, succeeded in keeping the patient’s spirits up, Cole said.
The full day of effort got the team to Speck Pond and the wilderness campsite run by the Appalachian Mountain Club. But they were still 3.6 miles from a road. It gave Jaeger a chance to examine the ankle. He consulted an emergency room doctor by phone and both professionals supported the students’ decisions, including the plan to spend the night in camp.
Contacted the following week, Jaeger, an experienced hiker and former ambulance service director, said the Colby team did a tremendous job. “Those kids were amazing,” he said. “I thought Ryan [Cole] showed tremendous leadership under a great deal of pressure. This was obviously very challenging for anyone to deal with in the field. He handled it with aplomb, he made appropriate decisions, and almost most importantly, he gave everyone a strong sense of confidence that he was in control and knew the appropriate steps to take, which made it much less stressful.”
“This sort of wilderness EMS injury is unusual,” said Jaeger, who had nothing but praise for the medical decisions the students made, including the “real genius” that went into the splint that they built.
“While they all did an amazing job, those guys who carried her back up that mountain and over to the Speck Pond campsite were heroes. ... It was almost a superhuman effort. You go straight up.”
The following day, designated runners went with Jaeger to move a vehicle into position for the final leg of the evacuation as the other team continued carrying Nash. This initial descent from Speck Pond was steep enough that at one point they calculated it would be dark when then got to the logging road in New Hampshire where an SUV was waiting. It got easier though, and there were a lot of students crying when they succeeded in getting Nash to the vehicle in the late afternoon, she said.
A week after her fall Nash was still waiting for swelling to subside enough for surgery, which would require nine screws and two plates to stabilize multiple fractures in three bones. In between the accident and the surgery she returned to campus to join the other COOT leaders from her trip and to meet the first-year students she would have guided.
Her mother, Carol Nash, had nothing but praise for the team effort. “How do you carry someone over a six-foot rock?” she asked, listening to her daughter’s tale in Pulver Pavilion. And when someone mentioned Ryan’s name, she said. “You mean super action-hero Jim Ryan?”
For decades COOT leaders and Colby admissions materials have described the orientation trips an opportunity for new students bond with classmates as they begin college, and lifelong friendships begun on the trail are evidence it works. While the 10 leaders on the Mahoosuc Backpacking 1 training trip weren’t necessarily seeking friendship, adversity proved a powerful catalyst.
“When some really horrible accident happens like this and you need to come together and work constantly for forty-eight hours as a close-moving machine ... you really, really come together,” said Nash afterward. “We bonded extraordinarily as a group, and now I have this whole new crew of really close friends.”