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A hike into horror and an act of courage

A California man visiting Glacier National Park with his daughter instinctively puts himself between her and the rampaging bear's claws and teeth.

April 29, 2007|Thomas Curwen | Times Staff Writer

Katie Fullerton looked up. At 9,000 feet, the white chopper had negotiated a U-shaped notch in the Garden Wall, a narrow filigree of stone crowning the Continental Divide. As it drew close, it circled, looking for a place to land. Johan and Jenna Otter could not have fallen in a less accessible place.

Three hours had passed since the attack, and Johan's metabolism was slowing down. The blast of adrenaline triggered by the attack was long gone; the 15-minute torrent of thought and reaction had dissipated in a miasma of pain, discomfort and boredom. Why was the rescue taking so long?

Crashing mentally and emotionally, he knew he needed to stay warm and awake. Gusts of wind ghosted along the cliff; temperatures shot from warm to freezing as clouds drifted beneath the sun. Hikers on the trail were tossing down energy bars, water and more outerwear. A ranger was talking on the radio.

A second ranger crouched beside Johan. He had arrived with nearly 50 pounds of gear, including a life-support pack with IV fluids, medications and an oxygen tank, and he began cutting away Johan's jackets and clothing. He introduced himself as Gary, Gary Moses. Johan appreciated his calm and confident manner.

Moses explained that the plan was to place Johan and Jenna on litters, have them lifted up to the trail and then carried down to a landing zone, where the chopper would take them to the Kalispell Regional Medical Center in Kalispell, Mont., in the Flathead Valley on the west side of the park.

Rangers on the trail set up a belaying system. They knew they had to move fast. Moses took Johan's vitals. His blood pressure was 80 over 30, his pulse 44, his temperature dropping.

Moses prepared an IV line. Johan tried to lie still, but he was shivering uncontrollably. Then he heard something. It was Katie Fullerton; she was crying. The sound startled him at first.

"Do you want to stand down?" Moses asked his fellow ranger.

She shook her head.

Johan was glad. She had worked hard to make him comfortable and safe.

This was her first season as a patrol ranger, her first major trauma. Just last year, she'd been collecting user fees, and she had grown up near the park. She and her family had hiked these trails. This could just as easily have been her father.

Her tears reminded Johan how grave his situation was.

THE helicopter was making a second landing, and all Johan could think was: Hurry up. A second medic had joined Moses and Fullerton.

"How's Jenna?" It was his steady refrain.

"There're people with her."

Moses and the other medic put a C-collar around Johan's neck and got ready to insert a urinary catheter. Johan reminded them about a scene in "Seinfeld" in which an embarrassed George Costanza is caught naked and complains about "shrinkage." They burst out laughing, and Johan relaxed a little. This is who he was: not just a bloodied man but someone always there with an easy line, ready to lighten the mood, to give to others.

Moses reassessed the rescue plan. It had taken nearly an hour to find a vein and get the IV started. Carrying Johan out, lifting him to the trail and then down to the helicopter landing zone was going to be too traumatic, and the afternoon was getting on.

He thought a helicopter could lift Johan directly off this ledge, in a rescue known as a short haul. It would be quicker but riskier. Still, he didn't see any way around it. He radioed in his recommendation. The incident commander agreed. They called in the rescue helicopter operated by the hospital in Kalispell.

As they waited, Johan remembered an Air Force chopper that had crashed during a rescue on Mt. Hood little more than three years earlier. Everything -- the foundering, the dipping, the rolling down the slope in a cascade of snow -- had been televised on the evening news.

It made him nervous.

"Am I going to die?" Johan asked.

"You're not going to die up here," the second medic said.

RED against the blue sky and white clouds, the short-haul helicopter was easier to spot than the Minuteman.

"Hear that?" Gary Moses looked out over the valley. "That's the sound of your rescue."

Pilot Ken Justus adjusted the foot pedals and hand controls to bring the Bell 407 closer to the cliff. Travis Willcut, the flight nurse, sat next to him, calling out positions, monitoring radio traffic. Jerry Anderson, a medic, dangled 150 feet beneath them on a rope with a red Bauman Bag and a body board at his waist.

Piloting a helicopter at moments like this is like pedaling an exercise bike on the roof of a two-story building while trying to dangle a hot dog into the mouth of a jar on the ground. Lying on his back, Johan watched.

The IV had kicked in. Though stiff and still cold, he was wide awake and in no pain. Anticipation was everything, and he remembered feeling a little afraid. He hated roller coasters and worried about his stomach.

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