Life or death on Thielsen - friends turn into rescuers

Bob Welch / The (Eugene) Register-Guard /

When it happened, Mike Hawley had just summited Mount Thielsen and was backing down the upper reaches of the 9,182-foot mountain like an earth-toned Spiderman.

The 58-year-old Eugene man worked his way lower without ropes, the method of choice for most who attempt this Class 4-level stretch, a technical designation that means, among other things, an unroped fall could be fatal.

Most hikers on Thielsen — pronounced TEEL-sun — don’t attempt going all the way to the top, its pinnacle known as “The Lightning Rod.”

On this Sept. 16 afternoon, no storm was mustering itself to zap the peak with an electrical jolt; the Cascade Mountains were awash in Indian summer bliss.

But as he glanced down with each foot plant and hand grab, Hawley was reminded of how the mountain got its nickname: The jagged final spire was so steep that many hikers opted to not go beyond “The Chicken Ledge,” where one member of his party, Kathy Kernan, now waited.

Twelve miles north of Crater Lake, Thielsen’s final 80 feet arc into the sky with a hornlike serif.

Hawley, then vice president of sales for Sherman Brothers Heavy Trucking in Harrisburg, was neither expert nor novice. This was his fourth summit attempt of the mountain. He had turned around at this “summit block” his first time up Thielsen and successfully summited on his second and third attempts.

By now, above him, a friend had reached the top: Jorma Meriaho, 65, of Dexter. Kernan’s husband, Rick, 53, was nearing the top, Hawley having only crossed paths with him moments before.

About 200 feet away, on a face of loose shale, Kathy Kernan, 45, munched on an apple with a hiker from Bend, Karen Daniels, 47, who had joined the group en route.

“Seeing them up there makes me so nervous,” Kernan told Daniels. “I can hardly watch.”

But she did. It was 1:08 p.m. Kernan remembers because that’s when she called 911. She was the only one to see Hawley fall.

One more trip

The idea for the Thielsen trip had come two weeks earlier after Hawley and the Kernans had gone to the top of the 10,358-foot South Sister. How about one more, suggested Hawley, before the winter snows hit?

Lanky and good-natured, Hawley is Alan Alda in hiking boots. People liked being invited on his trips. He blended an adventurous, fun-loving spirit with a respect for safety.

“If something doesn’t feel right, we’re not afraid to turn around,” he would say. In fact, he’d once done exactly that near the top of Thielsen when it was getting late and he realized his party would have to press too hard to get up and down before dark.

Meriaho, born in Finland, was a retired information technology director who had become close friends with Hawley while on near-daily hikes up Mount Pisgah.

He and Rick Kernan, a shipping-and-receiving manager with a local pipe manufacturer, also had been to the top of Thielsen; Kathy Kernan had not.

The foursome left Eugene at 6 a.m., with plans to be back no later than 8 p.m. Hawley’s wife, Linda, who’d introduced Mike to hiking when they met in 1994, stayed behind, choosing instead to garden at their north Eugene home. While aware that mountain adventures sometimes included danger, this one hadn’t worried her.

“I was thinking of trails,” said Linda Hawley, marketing director for Oregon Imaging Centers. “I had no concept of Thielsen.”

The journey would be 10 miles round-trip. It would require just under 4,000 feet of elevation gain from the trailhead at state Highway 138 near Diamond Lake. And it would offer great views: Mount McLoughlin and parts of Crater Lake to the south, Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey to the west, the Three Sisters to the north.

The four headed up through thick forest at 9 a.m. Hiking conditions were perfect: 60 to 65 degrees, hardly a breeze, and only an occasional cloud interrupting a Dodger-blue sky.

Two hours later, the group stopped for lunch near where the Pacific Crest Trail wraps around the mountain’s western shoulder. A much steeper, exposed final mile awaited them.

It was about a half-mile above the PCT that the group met up with Daniels, the solo hiker from Bend. An occupational therapist, she had never been up Thielsen; could she join them?

Sure, everyone agreed.

The group climbed above the timberline. The pitch increased, Thielsen’s spire soon towering above them like so much riprap super-glued together. Any “trail” now was not much more than worn rocks, some the size of washing machines.

Shortly before 1 p.m., Hawley was the first to reach the summit, not much wider than a minivan. He took in the view, grabbed some photos and began carefully backing down.

Call for help

Kathy Kernan heard no scream. No clatter of rock. Just the light whistle of wind as she watched Hawley topple backward about 25 feet down and disappear behind a rocky outcropping.

She whipped out her cellphone and immediately called 911. “A climber fell on Mount Thielsen about 200 feet from the top,” she told a dispatcher. “It’s near Crater Lake.”

She scrambled up a bit to alert the others. Daniels initially headed for Hawley but returned to the Chicken Ledge to get cell service after losing her connection. She fed the dispatcher an exact GPS location available from Kathy Kernan’s iPhone.

From above, Rick Kernan spotted Hawley’s crumpled body in the rocks. “Get down there!” Rick yelled to his wife.

Kathy Kernan headed diagonally down the mountain, to where she thought Hawley must have wound up. She leaned into the mountain, careful not to fall. And careful not to dislodge rocks that might further endanger Hawley.

She soon saw him below, nearly 125 feet from where he’d fallen. Face down in the scree.

As she neared him, she saw the rocks by him splattered with blood.

Was he even alive?

As a nurse practitioner who’d worked in surgical units, Kathy had seen accident victims. But until now she’d never been a first responder.

“Mike, it’s Kathy,” she said after reaching him. “Can you hear me? Do you know who I am?”

Hawley groaned. Good sign. He could move his head and neck. Also good. But with his face in the rocks, he seemed to be having difficulty breathing.

His face and balding head were reddened by the bleeding. Kathy peeled off one of the two shirts she was wearing and wrapped it around his head. Rick soon arrived.

“We need to get him on his back,” Kathy said. “We need to gently roll him over so I can assess the damage.”

They did so, resting Hawley’s head on his pack. His left arm wasn’t moving, nor his right leg. He complained of pain in his left shoulder blade; a fractured scapular, Kathy figured. Fracture of his right foot, too, though she left the boot on to control any bleeding. Broken wrist and dislocated left shoulder, she assessed. But not in shock.

Hawley was alert enough to recognize the Kernans, know where he was and what had happened.

He had fallen about 25 feet down a stretch of rock known as “The Chute” and pinwheeled off to his right like a rag doll another 100 feet before coming to a stop.

He needed to get off the mountain soon, the Kernans realized, by helicopter. Daniels, within shouting distance, said a copter was already on its way.

Meanwhile, Hawley, if initially too stunned to feel much of anything, now felt intense pain, particularly from his right shoulder blade.

A cloud drifted in front of the sun; the temperature dropped. The couple covered Hawley in coats. Meriaho and Daniels soon joined them .

“How bad is it?” Hawley asked.

“You’re still going to be your same handsome self,” Kathy told him.

In reality, Mike was turning gray.

Circling copter

Meriaho, who had been on rescue missions as a member of the Dexter Fire Department, knew that his buddy was getting cold.

Their hopes rose about an hour later when they spied a helicopter approaching from the south, on a bead right toward them. But their hopes fell when it circled the mountain twice, then flew away.

“Gotta get rid of this pain,” Hawley said.

Meriaho, with his Finnish accent, did his best to keep his friend alert and talking. Gave him sips of water. And took a few photographs of Hawley, the other hikers and the mountain.

As a group, they decided the time to call Hawley’s wife, Linda, would be after he had been evacuated. But when would that be?

Nobody knew what the circling copter had meant. Had the hikers not been seen, or had the crew aboard done an assessment in preparation for returning and plucking Hawley away?

Kathy Kernan called a friend in Eugene, Dr. Lisa Quillin, to get advice and ask her to call another friend, Carolyn McCann, a Eugene paramedic/firefighter. Have McCann contact Douglas and Lane County search and rescue teams, she suggested, and confirm that help is on the way.

Meanwhile, four male hikers en route to the mountaintop — one a former military medic named Brian Melvin — arrived on the scene. If that added moral support, there was still little anybody could do.

By now it was 4 p.m.; light would begin fading in a few hours.

Without a helicopter, Meriaho knew they were down to two choices: have Hawley stay on the mountain overnight — an almost-certain death sentence — or try to haul him down themselves.

Melvin, the former medic, began fashioning a gurney out of rope and trekking poles.

“Please don’t put me on that thing,” Hawley begged Rick Kernan.

About 4:30 p.m. the group heard a second helicopter, a smaller “bubble” copter. It dropped a walkie-talkie wrapped in a glove so the two parties could communicate, then headed to a flatter spot about 250 feet below, where a paramedic in a jumpsuit and helmet hopped out.

But an inflatable gurney that was dropped from the copter whipped away in the rotor’s wind and began bouncing wildly down the mountain, finally coming to rest near the Pacific Crest Trail some thousand feet below.

The rescue worker headed up the mountain toward Hawley. One of the four hikers who’d joined the accident scene headed down to fetch the gurney.

On the walkie-talkie, the group learned that the helicopter that had come and gone wasn’t capable of making a safe rescue at that elevation. A heftier helicopter was on its way from Portland. It would arrive in about an hour.

By now, the danger of darkness and cold deepened. The hikers had to be concerned not only about getting Hawley off the mountain, but getting themselves off the mountain. Rick Kernan did a head lamp count: seven hikers, two lamps. Not good.

“You didn’t sign up for this,” he told Daniels. “If you’re up for it, why don’t you head down while there’s still light?”

She chose to do so. The others wanted to stay with Hawley.

An hour later, the young man who’d gone down for the inflatable gurney arrived with it. The seven of them gingerly worked Hawley into it, if for nothing else than to keep him warm.

Meriaho turned to Kathy and whispered his concern. “They’ve got about an hour to get him out of here.”

Six o’clock came. The sun was sinking low in the west. Then they heard it: chopper blades to the north. A Black Hawk helicopter soon appeared and hovered over the party. A cable was lowered. As the others crouched behind rocks to avoid the rotor wash, the paramedic grabbed the hook and attached it to a dropped-from-the-chopper rescue basket onto which he soon strapped Hawley.

At 6:30 p.m., Hawley was airborne and safe in the belly of the helicopter. He’d fallen nearly 51⁄2 hours earlier.

Back in Eugene, Linda Hawley had started to worry. Usually her husband would have called by now to let her know they were off the mountain and heading home. Instead, she got a phone call at 6:45 p.m., from Kathy Kernan.

Mike had fallen, she remembers Kathy telling her. Linda imagined him sliding off a trail, nothing particularly dramatic.

After a transfer to an emergency ambulance helicopter on Highway 138, Hawley was being taken to a hospital; the hikers had recommended Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield but weren’t sure where he would wind up.

Linda later arrived at RiverBend. No Mike. But the hospital helped her find her husband, who was at Rogue Valley Medical Center in Medford, where she was able to call and talk to him before he headed into surgery.

At 1:30 a.m., the hospital called her again; Mike had undergone surgery for his ankle — badly crushed — and wrist. Things had gone well. For the first time, Linda was told how far Mike had fallen — 125 feet.

‘Good weather and good friendships’

Now, nearly two months since the accident, the hiking party — and Linda — have gathered at the Hawleys’ home, their first such meeting since it happened.

Hawley sits in a wheelchair, a cast on his right foot. The final injury report: broken bones in his left wrist and collarbone, one rib, two vertebra and right scapula, and a crush fracture to the talus on his right foot. One shoulder dislocated, one lung collapsed and a lacerated head.

But alive.

Hawley remembers little about the fall.

“I was stepping back and down and the next thing I knew I was falling and seeing my feet and thinking, ‘This is not a good thing.’ The next thing I remember was Kathy hovering above me.”

“Thank God for good weather and good friendships,” Kathy Kernan says. “The relationship between Mike and Jorma (is what) kept Mike going. He kept talking to him, like: ‘Hey, what mountain are you going to climb next?’”

Meriaho credits Kathy Kernan for keeping them all together. “She had more ‘mothering’ instincts than the three of us put together,” he says.

“She’s a rock star,” said Daniels in a phone interview. “It’s really an amazing group of friends. I think I witnessed a miracle. I’d expected him to die any minute.”

Daniels was so shaken by the incident that she called the trip her “first and last” high-mountain experience.

Kathy Kernan, too, plans to stick to gentler slopes; she still has nightmares about the fall. But her husband and Meriaho don’t see the accident changing their high-mountain ways.

Still, “It’s gonna be hollow without Mike,” Rick Kernan says. “He’s the ringleader.”

The trip back to getting healthy has been Mount Everest in scope for the Hawleys.

“It’s turned our lives upside down,” Linda says. “It’s incredibly much more difficult than it appears. Today was a victory. He dressed himself for the first time. He has a long way to go.”

“My goal,” Mike Hawley says, “is to hike to the top of Mount Pisgah again. And the sooner the better.”

The Mike Hawley Mount Thielsen Recovery Fund has been established at Northwest Community Credit Union.

This image is copyrighted.