End of my summer

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A visit to the Tetons and an attempt on Breitenbach ends in disaster.

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Tom Martin, aka Tommy, or Big Tom, is an old friend living with his family in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He has a second child on the way in September, so he wanted to have a big adventure before fatherhood overwhelmed his free time. His goal (and one that's been on my list for a long time) was the Upper Exum route of the Grand Teton.

So Tom flew into Boise at 9:45am on Wednesday, and we were on the freeway heading east at 11. The weather report did not look good, but "only fools and newcomers predict the weather."

It's about a six hour drive to Jackson. As we pulled into town, it was a little cloudy, but we could clearly see the mountain. We stopped and had a burrito before dealing with the "green people" of the Park Service.

At the park visitor's center, we talked with the person working behind the information counter, the most confused park employee I've ever met. She gave us conflicting information, didn't know when things opened or closed, and wasn't aware of the Climber's Ranch, which turned out to be about 100 yards down the road.

She was able to tell us that one campground still had space for the evening. We went down and grabbed a space.

The weatherman got it right for this day; the rain and thunder started right after we got the tent up. In disappointment, we walked along the beach and discussed our options for tomorrow. The plan, regardless of weather, involved checking in with the climbing rangers and heading for the Lower Saddle at 11,500' in anticipation of partial clearing on Friday.

That was before the cold front moved in. The weather turned out to be much worse than predicted.

It rained off and on all evening, but at a 1am pee break the stars were out.

In the morning, even though we woke to low clouds, we were still hopeful. But right after taking the tent down, it started to rain in earnest. Then it poured, And rained some more. During the deluge, we killed time and visited the climbing rangers where we had an interesting conversation.

In the weeks prior to our visit, Tom had called the ranger station several times to get reports on the conditions of our proposed route. He had been told that people were climbing it, it was in good shape, and that early June was a great time to visit. Now we were told that the route was not in shape, no more than one or two people had been up the mountain in the last month.....more Green People issues?

It was obvious that we weren't going to climb in this weather, at least not for a few days. So we day-hiked into Garnet Canyon, the route to the Lower Saddle. It was approaching blizzard conditions when we got onto the snowfields at around 9000'. We continued up to about 10,000', and then decided that without ice axes it was time to turn around.

On the way back down, the snow level had dropped. After a five-hour hike in the rain and snow, followed by a very short discussion, we decided to head west to Idaho and look for better weather (and avoid getting stuck in Jackson in what we saw as the ensuing snow storm).

In places, the falling snow was sticking on the roadside. In Arco, the pavement was dry and the sky to the west was clearing (the picture, still cloudy, is to the east, but at least you can see some mountains). We decided to go into the Lost Rivers and try Mount Breitenbach. After our soaking five-hour hike and long drive, we were tired, so we set up camp, had dinner, and hit the hay.

That night it rained off an on, but when we got up at 5am, it looked like it was going to be a sunny day. We had breakfast, got dressed, and lit out right at 6am. It was just below freezing, but the sun would soon be up.

The way up Breitenbach involves hiking up a flood-ravaged streambed. In places the creek runs underground, in others the stream is on the surface. But everywhere the route is composed of loose, water-washed rocks, boulders, and flood debris. I had hiked up this before on a ski trip with Bob, so I knew what to expect. Note: the picture is from a different drainage, but of similar content.

About 15 minutes into our hike, I came to a spot where a fallen log had trapped sand behind it, creating about an 18" step-up. As I stepped on the log, its barkless surface slicked by last night's frozen rain, my foot suddenly slid sideways. The tree was as slippery as greased lightning.

My boot was zooming sideways, and I was destined to tumble. No problem- I've fallen down like this before. But this time it was different. As my leg went sideways, the toe of my boot caught on a rock, giving my foot a tremendous twist. I fell to the ground, looking at my now strangely angled foot, simultaneously screaming, "I broke my leg, I broke my leg."

Sprawled awkwardly on the boulders, I couldn't get up, let alone move. Tom helped me get to a more comfortable position while I waited for the pain to subside (and the blood to return to my head). We gently eased my boot off to survey the damage, but we didn't really need to look; we could both hear the bones grinding.

Tom returned to the truck to get rid of the pack, then returned with a stout 6' stick. Fortunately, Tom is about 6'3" and 220 pounds, so I was able to lean heavily on him as I began my one-legged hop back down the loose, debris-filled streambed. After an exhausting 45 minutes, we were back to the truck.

Thanks to cell phones, I was able to call from the trailhead and get medical advice from Dr. Dave, who then made an appointment for me in Boise. The x-rays show I have a Pilon fracture (discussed as a "tibial plafond fracture" in the linked page), a fracture of the lower leg bones involving the ankle. More specifically, I tore off the inside ankle bone and spider-cracked the outside ankle bone. As a result, there are tons of little bones fragments everywhere. Oh yeah- the break also spiraled up the leg, breaking the upper fibula. Not so good.

As I write this, I'm waiting for the swelling to go down so I can have surgery. I'm told that it will be six to eight weeks after the surgery before I can put any weight on my right foot.

June 29 Epilogue: I got some interesting mail today. It's a laminated card from my doc explaining that my right ankle may set off airport security alarms.

The surgery was successful, although the doc said that after he opened me up it was worse than he thought or the x-rays had shown. Still, I hope to be walking by mid-August. I just hope my rehab is quick so I don't miss first turns with with Bob in November.

August 21 Update: Mid-August has come and gone, but I can't really walk yet. I do ride my bike every day, and have ridden about 200 miles since I got the go-ahead to bear weight on August 9th. My ankle has very little range of motion such that I can't move my knee further forward than straight above my foot. I'm going to therapy twice a week, and the situation is slowly improving. Good thing, since school starts on Monday. Ahhh, vacation!

March 17, 2007- Another update- I finally got to the summit of Breitenbach. The trip report includes a picture of the gully very near where I broke my leg (I couldn't find the exact spot).

Mr. Natural Home | 2004 | Back to top of page | Questions :: e-mail to splattski