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Out Alive Podcast

We Fell Down the Mountain

In June of 2020, Courtney Henderson and Gavin Caruso fell more than 50 feet down a mountainside. They were trapped, bleeding, and a storm was raging overhead. But help was on the way.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

Many survival stories include an element of helplessness. When you’re far from civilization, hurt, unable to move, there’s little you can do to keep yourself alive. It’s helplessness that sets in when things get really, really bad. But there’s another feeling, however dim, that keeps you going: hope. Though you may be unable to help yourself in the face of extreme danger, there’s comfort in knowing that someone out there may be looking for you. That comfort—that hope—can be what allows you to survive. And if you get into trouble in a place where Search and Rescue is accessible, that hope multiplies.

In June of 2020, Courtney Henderson and Gavin Caruso found themselves trapped, bleeding, with a thunderstorm raging overhead. They were lucky to have cell service, but it would be hours before help arrived. Hear the story from Henderson’s perspective below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript

Host: This is just a warning that today’s episode contains an incident of explicit language and also contains audio from a 911 call that is pretty intense.

Many survival stories include an element of helplessness. When you’re far from civilization, hurt, unable to move, there’s little you can do to keep yourself alive. It’s helplessness that sets in when things get really, really bad. But there’s another feeling, however dim, that keeps you going: hope. Though you may be unable to help yourself in the face of extreme danger, there’s comfort in knowing that someone out there may be looking for you. That comfort—that hope—can be what allows you to survive. And if you get into trouble in a place where Search and Rescue is accessible, that hope multiplies. 

Backpacker’s hometown of Boulder, Colorado boasts 250 miles of trail that see constant use from locals and many of the area’s 1.8 million yearly visitors. World-class hiking, trail running, and rock climbing are within a 15 minute drive in any direction, but it’s deceptively rugged and bluebird skies can turn hellish on a dime. The region, the setting for today’s story, is also home to one of the most active Search and Rescue networks in the country.

These highly-trained volunteers save countless lives every year. No matter the terrain, no matter the weather, emergency responders will answer the call of distress. They’re the reason why, even when we’re helpless, we’re not hopeless.

Trailer:  I made a decision to survive. You’re in that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head. I knew immediately it was the worst case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. Whenever you walk out in these trails, you’re in their house. 

Host: I’m Louisa Albanese and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.

Trailer:  I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and I couldn’t do anything. 

Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you.

Trailer:  There is no way we would find anybody alive.

Courtney Henderson: I’m Courtney Henderson. I am 20 years old, but I was 19 during the time of the accident. I live over in Aurora, Illinois. So I’m not even from the Denver area. My best friend, Gavin, wanted to fly out and surprise his dad for father’s day. And so we booked flights. I was supposed to fly out later so I could spend the day with my dad. We did a bunch of hikes. We went to the red rocks a day before. So then we found Bear Peak or South Boulder Peak. 

Host: South Boulder peak sits at an elevation of 8,500 feet offering panoramic views of the Eastern Plains, the cities of Boulder and Denver, and the continental divide. The trail gains almost 3,000 feet of elevation and is rated difficult or strenuous.

Courtney Henderson: We had checked everything. Weather, it was supposed to be partly cloudy all day. We were hiking Eldorado using AllTrails so we didn’t get off trail and hiking like it’s a normal day, you know, taking a walk, people are saying hi, you know, somebody told us about the poison ivy. It was sunny. There was no clouds in sight.

And then all of a sudden we get up in this kind of like channel. It was really weird how the mountain folded in on itself. We didn’t have any helmets. We didn’t have any ropes. So we just kept going up thinking, hey, we’re on trail. We’re going to get up to the summit. People walk this trail all the time. We just passed how many people who were up here. So really, like, it was a normal day until a storm came through. We had gotten up there, we had looked up and we were like, we can’t get up there the rest of the way. We went to turn around to go back thinking, we’ll go back the same way we came up.

And that was not an option. We had to think of some other way to get back down. And then it started raining at that point, and it was already starting to get slippery. So that’s where I knew that we were in trouble was after it started drizzling and then realized that we were stuck. 

Host: The violence of the storm stopped Gavin and Courtney in their tracks, unable to continue up or down. They quickly called 911 who dispatched search and rescue.

911 Dispatch: This is going to be West with the transfer. I have two stranded individuals on Shadow Canyon. Is anyone hurt? Or you just need help getting down?

Gavin: No, nobody’s hurt. We just need help getting down. We tried for a good hour to try to get up or down and we can’t.

911 Dispatch: Okay. And what is your name? 

Gavin: My name is Gavin Caruso. My friend’s kind of having a panic attack. So, and now it’s starting to get dark and it’s raining. We’re at a very high elevation, very dangerous position. 

911 Dispatch: And are you dressed for the weather? 

Gavin: No, we’re in short sleeves and shorts and it’s starting to get cold and it’s raining. That’s made the rock really slippery. So like we can’t get down. 

Courtney Henderson: Got a little more calm after we had called 911 originally, but the storm had gotten worse. I was literally seeing lightning strikes hit the mountain and the trees. 

Host: Here’s Drew Hildner from Rocky Mountain Rescue. 

Drew Hildner: In Boulder we get these monsoons that if you’re someone that’s outdoors a lot, you can just anticipate that two or three o’clock you want to be off any summits. I do remember that storm when the tone went out, I kind of went okay. Yeah. That all makes sense. I would want to get off that summit as well, because there, there was impressive lightning associated with that storm. And it really came in and rained hard with high winds. And even in Boulder, it was a serious summer storm that was blowing through. The nice thing is they blow through fairly quickly, but if you’re exposed like that, and certainly being concerned about lightning strikes is a legitimate concern, for sure.

Courtney Henderson: I do remember after I saw that lightning strike hit the ground my arm hair raised up a little bit. We felt the energy off of the strike. And that’s when they started texting us, asking us if we were able to get down. I was kind of like, I don’t think we should. But Gavin was pretty adamant about making that happen. Like getting us out of the situation. I was really scared, pretty much the whole time after we called 911 originally. If there were trees, they were burnt to a crisp and just laying there with their tree trunks. I’ve always had a very hard time describing the details of when we fell and everything. But I do remember trying to climb down physically. I got worried. I could see it in his face he was getting a little worried that we were out there and everything. Before we fell, his words were, “I’m going to go first so I can catch you if you fall.”

We basically slipped and fell. Like you’re falling down a rock wall. It would be that free fall and then the initial tumble. And they said it was closer to a 50 foot fall. 

Drew Hildner: It started from if you’re basic search, which is going to be, all right, we’ll send three or four people out to go and find these folks and walk them down. And pretty quickly turned into one injury and then two injuries and severe injuries.

Courtney Henderson: I actually remember the whole fall, like falling. I remember how many times I hit my head. I remember when my glasses flew off, I remember when my hat flew off. I remember when my shirt got caught on a rock. I obviously had my eyes closed when I fell, but I remember all my other senses that were picking up.

I woke up first. I looked around, you know, I knew it was going on, but I didn’t know how serious it was. I was just trying to recollect my thoughts and figure out what do we need to do next? And that’s when I started dripping blood onto my hands. 

Drew Hildner: And so we had to, from an organizational standpoint, really ramp up our response and the speed of our response at that point. Cause it went from people that were safe to people that had life-threatening injuries. And pretty quickly we ended up having about 25 rescuers respond. And we’d already sent those first three people into the field to go just as what we call a hasty team with a little bit of extra food and clothing and water to bring them out.

And so we already had some resources in the field, but they suddenly didn’t have the gear that they would need to be in technical terrain and to start to affect a rescue. So we had to send in more people to do that. 

Courtney Henderson: And that was when I noticed I had my head cracked open down to my skull. I wake up, and I remember seeing Gavin’s shoe, like, 30 feet in front of me. And I’m like, okay, there’s his shoe. Where’d the rest of him go? And I actually remember turning around and he was laying there out cold. That’s when I knew it just got real, basically. And so I roll him over cause he’s laying on his side and you know, I’m yelling at him, shaking him. I’m like wake up, like. you have to wake up. Please just wake up. 

So it was really weird. Exactly like a movie. And that’s when I took my phone out of his pocket and called 911. I wasn’t even able to touch my screen. I had so much blood. It was still raining. I had to use my emergency button.

911 Dispatch: 911, what’s the address of the emergency? This is, this is JeffCom, I’m going to transfer a hiker. I don’t know where she is. Okay. Ma’am. I need you to take a deep breath. 

Courtney Henderson: We have a rescue team that’s supposed to try to find us. 

911 Dispatch: They’re on their way. They’re looking for you right now. Okay. But you need to stay calm. 

Courtney Henderson:  No, no, no. My friend, he’s unconscious. I’m bleeding. It’s an emergency emergency. I’m bleeding, I’m going to die.

911 Dispatch: Okay. What happened? 

Courtney Henderson: We fell down the mountain. 

Courtney Henderson: That’s when things like started coming back to me and I started realizing how serious it was. And then I started noticing how serious it was for me, my injuries. Cause I’m thinking, oh, I have to deal with Gavin. 

911 Call, Courtey: I’m going to bleed out and die.

911 Dispatch: Where are you bleeding from? 

Courtney Henderson: My head. Gavin, you’re okay, stop moving Gavin. 

911 Dispatch: Is he the one unconscious? Is he unconscious, or is he understanding what you’re saying right now? 

Courtney Henderson: He’s trying to move me. He won’t even respond to me. Gavin, Gavin, you have to, you have to calm down. Gavin, you’re going to fall again, stop. 

Drew Hildner: And so most of this operation we also did in the dark, which slows things down as well.

Fortunately, the Flight for Life helicopter was able to find a landing zone and land before dark, and they were willing to sit tight. 

Courtney Henderson: They had to fly a helicopter over us to try and find us. And I remember hearing whistling like up at the summit, cause like, where we fell, we could see the top of the mountain. We were still up at the summit, basically. 

911 Dispatch: Do you see any markers to tell you where you’re at. Is there anything that stands out? 

Courtney Henderson: I mean, I see the fucking world. I see, like, a whole bunch of mountains. I see the windmill. We are literally on the face of a mountain. 

Drew Hildner: What’s interesting about South Boulder peak is that it sits up about maybe 3,000 feet above Boulder, but it’s visible. You can see the whole town of Boulder from the peak and vice versa. And what was weird aspect of this rescue is, you know, it’s, it’s right in the foothills for us, but you might as well have been on a big mountain up near the continental divide, just because the closest we can drive to that peak is still about six miles and like I said, 3,000 feet of vertical from where they were up near the summit of that. 

911 Call, Courtney: I want to call my mom. I want to tell her that I love her. His head’s bleeding a lot and I’m bleeding a lot. We’re going to bleed out and die. Ma’am, we’re going to die. 

911 Dispatch: I need you to stop thinking like that. Okay. They’re on their way. They’re going as fast as they can. I need you to take a deep breath in through your nose and out through your mouth. I want you to focus on doing that over and over again. Okay. Deep breath in through your nose out through your mouth.

Can you rip his shirt and put it on his head to control the bleeding?

Courtney Henderson: Okay. Give me just a second. I’m going to try to put my phone down so I can rip off my shirt and put it on his head. Okay. Okay.

Courtney Henderson: I told him, at one point, I laid him on my lap and was like, dude, I’m going to rip your shirt off. We’re going to cross boundaries. I’m going to tie it around your head to create a tourniquet so you stop bleeding. And I remember I tried and tried. I couldn’t rip it because he was in one of the athletic fit shirts. 

911 Call, Courtney: No ma’am that’s not possible. 

Courtney Henderson: And I didn’t want to sit them up and take his shirt off because we were in a car accident, um, in 2018 where I broke my neck and he broke his back. So I knew we both had previous spinal injuries, so I didn’t want to move him too much and hurt him more. So I just had to leave him without the tourniquet on his head. And that’s where I feel like it’s my fault. That’s probably the hardest part for me, knowing that I couldn’t get his shirt off to wrap it around his head, even though rescue and doctors told me, had I done that, it wouldn’t have done anything. 

911 Call, Courtney: This is the last home stretch. I promise. I see light. I promise.

Courtney Henderson:  I have a video and a picture of that night. And like this whole half of my face covered in blood. But because he was out cold, I really didn’t know what was going on. I remember that added more of the panic feeling, not knowing what was going on with him and not knowing if he was okay. And I just hear, you know, Rocky Mountain Rescue, they’re whistling, you know, yelling. That’s where Gavin and I stopped communicating because they were starting to get down. And then he had actually realized that rescue was there. 

Drew Hildner: What was interesting as well is once we got the first folks there, we realized that given the severity of the injuries and the fact that Flight for Life was able to find a landing zone up near the summit of South Boulder peak in a saddle between self Boulder Peak and Bear Mountain, the fastest thing for us to do is actually going to be an uphaul, hauling the patients up about 300 feet to get them to the helicopter, um, was going to be a lot faster than doing a belayed lowering out down the mountain and the through a valley and then across a couple of miles of trail to be able to get them to the trailhead. But in this case, we were going to have to do an uphaul. We were going to have to haul the litter up using a rope and pulleys and a haul system.

That was complicated by the fact that a few years ago, a forest fire had come through and burned most of the trees in the area. And so everything was fairly denuded of trees and those trees that were remaining, some of them, you could literally wiggle with your arm. And that is not something that you want to set up a haul system on.

And trust people’s lives to the patients or the rescuers. That was an issue as well, is what can we find that are suitable and safe anchors to build this haul system. And then from the least technical location where we could work this haul system down to the patient was about 300 feet involving several overhanging cliff bands. And so both getting access down to those two patients and then getting, doing the uphaul to get the patients back out of there was pretty resource intensive and took some time. 

Courtney Henderson: So when rescue arrived, they went down to Gavin, obviously because he needed it more. And then they were talking about getting the litter ready for us. They originally wanted to litter Gavin up because he needed it, but they wanted to try and put me in a harness and like get carried up with them. They only had one litter, so they had to do us one at a time. So they littered Gavin up first. What was really nice is that our last words to each other was I love you. I just, I had this gut feeling one of us wasn’t going to make it. So I was like Gavin, and like, he looks at me and I was like, I love you dude. And he’s like, I love you too.

 I had a harness on, connected to one of their ropes and they put a helmet on, they took off my shirt around my head and put an actual bandage around my head.

Drew Hildner: We prioritize the first patient, the male patient. He had more serious injuries. And he was talkative, mostly oriented in terms of knowing what was, as we started the evacuation. Unfortunately, he had severe injuries and having to move the patient can always, and how you orient them, in terms of, we had to, we had to tie that the litter into the head end. And so that kind of tipped his legs down a little bit. We couldn’t keep him flat and he started to go downhill. And unfortunately we lost pulses and responsiveness just as we finished the uphaul. Fortunately, we had some members of the local fire department who were paramedics. And we also had the flight crew up top at the haul system where we finished hauling the patient through the technical train, and were able to do a full resuscitation and were actually able to get pulses back and we had to breathe for the patient.

And we weren’t done yet, though, because we’d just gotten out of technical terrain. We are still about three quarters of a mile from the helicopter and still had to do another set of uphaul over a lower slope. 

Host: While some rescuers were assisting with the gargantuan task of extracting Gavin, personnel were also caring physically and emotionally for Courtney and trying to assess the best plan for her rescue. 

Courtney Henderson: And I had a bunch of space blankets because we were freezing. It was so cold. They’re like, you know, if you wait for the litter, like it’s going to be an extra some hours. And I’m like, honestly, I don’t even think I can get up.I tried to get up. We couldn’t get me up. 

Drew Hildner: And then, uh, what we call a scree evac, which is lowering down moderate angle slopes with a belayed litter. As I mentioned, we usually like to go down with gravity. So we had to do another uphaul and then a lowering down under the helicopter. Significantly more medical care had to occur. I think what was tough for some of the rescuers on that call was just sitting there with him for hours. And even during the later evacuation, just knowing that we were doing everything we could for him, but the emergency department, even the ambulance was miles and miles away. And so there’s to some extent of feeling of helplessness in terms of knowing what needs to be done, but you just don’t have the equipment to do it because it’s not practical to have that kind of equipment in the field.

I think they had to resuscitate him again, near the helicopter. And then the helicopter was able to fly to the hospital and drop the patient off. 

Courtney Henderson: So I remember the helicopter leaving with him and like, I’m just asking about him. I’m not even asking about me. I’m just like, is Gavin okay. What’s going on with Gavin, trying to really stay on top and know that he’s okay in a way. And then it was really weird, the litter was really weird actually. 

Drew Hildner: So we had to reset this whole system and start all over again with Courtney. 

Courtney Henderson: It was very tight. It’s not like what you think of the movies, where they like, bring the helicopter over. And they attach to litter to the bottom of the helicopter and fly off with the litter. I was still really scared, cause I’m just laying in this thing. I can’t move. I’m looking down at what I just fell down and I don’t want to fall back down it. 

Drew Hildner: Courtney flew out at about 3 in the morning. What we did that day up there is something that other rescue groups maybe do one in 10 years. And so it just requires a lot of equipment, a lot of people, and we had to hike all that out as well. So we got out of the field at about 5:30 in the morning. So just as, just as it was getting light and the sun was rising. 

Courtney Henderson: I remember when I got to the hospital, it was kind of like Grey’s Anatomy when they’re rushing people into the ER. And I remember laying there. After the hospital had called my mom, I remember seeing my doctor and a chaplain walk in. I knew that there was going to be some bad news because they don’t just bring a chaplain in anytime. So when she walked in, she looks at me and she’s like, so I’ve got to tell you what’s going on with you. And I’ve got some other news. So you broke your C7, um, and your first rib, and then we’re going to stitch up your head. Then she says, but unfortunately your companion that you were hiking with—and I cut her off. I was like, don’t tell me. I was like, don’t say those words. And I was like, no, I was like, no, I was like, he’s dead.

And they like shook their head yeah. And I was like, can I be alone? I just needed to be alone and process what you guys just told me. Because I remember when I got there and they’re rushing me over to get scans and images, basically xeroxing my body. I remember looking over at the screens in the ER and seeing his name. So I was like, oh, you know, he’s okay. His name’s on the screen. He’s okay. He’s here. I’m here. We’re both here. Like, we’re going to be okay. We are finally out. And then shortly after my images, that’s when they came in and told me that.

We met through a mutual friend. I’d actually worked with my friend that I met him through at Steak and Shake when I was 16. So I was hanging out with them and Gavin was over one night and then him and I just started hanging out more and more, every day. He was over at my house more than he was anywhere.

He was funny. He was adventurous like me. So we went on a lot of adventures together. So adventuring was kind of our thing, going places, traveling, all that other stuff. That’s really what we all kind of associate Gavin with. Cause he was always on the move always, for no reason, no reason whatsoever. He was just always traveling.

Not the kids to sit inside all day and be on our phones or play video games. But he was a really great guy, actually. A really loyal friend. He was always there when you needed him. It’s been pretty hard. I’ve had a good support system. I was out of work for about four months. Healing has been okay. In and out of doctors. I’m really tired of doctors at this point. I’m a very active person, but I know it’s for the best. Right now, I’m in physical therapy. I haven’t had to have any operations, which is really good. I’ve started to go into trauma therapy, EMDR, for the fall recently. So I think I’m progressing very well. Taking healthy steps to heal. 

I still will love to adventure and will actually do it for Gavin now, too. My parents actually got me a compass that is like a, one of the real ccompasses, it flips open. It’s got a little chain on it and it’s got the coordinates from where we fell and everything. And so I actually bring that with me. That’s like my ‘he’s with me’ kind of thing. 

Host: This episode was produced in memory as Gavin Caruso.

We were fortunate to have access to interview Drew for Rocky Mountain Rescue’s experience and perspective. We wanted to give some space here at the end for his final thoughts and some advice from the Search and Rescue perspective and his 17 years of experience. 

Drew Hildner: I’m one of the leaders of the group, I’ve been in the rescue group for 17 years now.

Um, and so that’s been about, I would say about 600 rescues. We’re one of the busier rescue groups in the country other than the national parks. And so we see about 200 rescues per year. And so we definitely stay busy and get a lot of experience. We’re all volunteer. We’re a member of the Mountain Rescue Association, which is a national organization of volunteer professional rescuers. And we get toned out just like any other emergency services agency. 

I certainly think that Courtney and Gavin did right by, you know, trying to find shelter from the storm once it occurred. Calling 911 early, that’s a point that I think is important. The standard is that you don’t get charged for rescue. And for this reason, we’d prefer you to call us at four in the afternoon before things are too serious, rather than, you know, middle of the night when it’s kind of already bad and too late. So that’s one thing I want to emphasize to people is don’t delay to call for rescue. Look at the forecast to see what might be coming in and also kind of just keep an eye on the clouds. Some of those white, fluffy clouds, if they start building quickly and start gaining vertically, that’s indication on a, on a summer day that that’s going to turn into a thunderhead. So that’s something to keep in mind. As well as the 10 essentials—you can look that up many places—we also include the cell phone as one of the 10 essentials.

And that was very helpful for us because we actually have technology to be able to get your GPS location. That was helpful. And just to kind of get the updates, because again, that initial call was just two lost subjects and it ended up being more and knowing sooner, rather than later the details there was good. Kind of the most important thing you can keep is your situational awareness and pay attention to what’s going on around you. And I think that’s a very helpful thing.

Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates and Corey Buhay. Story editing and sound design was by Wild Acorns Media. Our script writers were me and Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc. Thank you to Courtney Henderson for trusting us with your story. Thank you to Drew Hildner for your transparency and time. And thank you to Rocky Mountain Rescue Group for volunteering your time to answer the call when hikers are in trouble.