Rescue Story

Sunday, October 9th, started just as many of our days exploring the trails in and around Downieville. Our group of six mountain bikers from the Santa Cruz area of California got up early, got the coffee started, and consumed bacon, scrambled eggs, toast and all the other nutritious goodies to fuel our adventures for the day. Unfortunately, October 9 did not end the way we had planned.

Our group of six mountain bikers stay in the Loft, above Yuba Expeditions when we visit Downieville once or twice a year. It’s convenient, allows us to talk with the mechanics and other employees working downstairs at Yuba Expeditions and is centrally located. That Sunday morning we decided we would try and get two mountain bike runs in. The first adventure would be Pauley Creek. Pauley Creek is a little longer than Butcher Ranch with a touch of climbing and some technical descents. We thought it best to get that run done first and if we had any remaining energy we would do an afternoon run.

Pauley Creek went off without a hitch. Our group of six mountain bikers got back to Downieville safely and with a well earned appetite for lunch. While we were consuming leftovers from our dinner the previous evening we started to plan our second adventure of the day. A couple of our friends had decided to call it quits and head back to the Bay Area. One was just tired and was going to take the afternoon off. But three of us were going to go back up and ride Sunrise, Butcher Ranch and the Downieville downhill. So Mark, (late 50s), his son Tanner (early 20s) and myself, Bob (63), signed up for the 1 PM shuttle to head back up to the Sierra Buttes and Packer Saddle. We filled up our Camelback’s with water and afternoon snacks, grabbed our gear and caught the shuttle.
On the shuttle ride up to Packer Saddle we met another couple from the San Jose area and chatted happily with them providing some tips on trail conditions. Little did I know then that this unknown couple would play a lifesaving part of my elaborate rescue in just a few hours.
At the top of Packer saddle, we said our goodbye to our shuttle driver from Yuba Expeditions, geared up and started our descent down Sunrise. The sun was shining, the temperature was in the mid-60s, and there was little to no wind. These were ideal mountain biking conditions. Because all three of us were tired from our morning adventure, we collectively decided to go easy and to stop more frequently to check in with one another. Tanner, clearly the most skilled of the three of us led the way. Mark and I would alternate bringing up the rear. We made it down Sunrise without any incident. On upper Butcher, Mark had a modest crash and had slightly damaged his front wheel. We fixed and patched what we could while we were at the intersection of Pauley Creek Trail and Butcher Ranch trail. We decided to push on with Tanner leading the way. Now Mark was bringing up the rear and I was in the middle trying to keep Tanner in my sights.
Approximately 2 miles down from the intersection of the Pauley Creek Trail and the Butcher Ranch Trail I had my crash. I have struggled these past six weeks trying to recall the cause of my mishap. My brain has blocked it out and I will perhaps never know. I do know I was tired and my muscles were aching from riding the better part of the day. I recall riding more cautiously hugging the left side of the trail because of the drop off and cliff that was on the right side of the trail. I was not going excessively fast. But something happened that caused me to lose my track and sent me over the edge. As I began to flip I recall reaching out with both arms in a futile effort to grab a tree, branch, rock outcropping or something that might slow or stop my fall. After my first hit, I do recall sustaining the second hit on the back of my head that undoubtedly shattered my helmet and broke my neck. I was still tumbling before I came to a rest in Pauley Creek, some 150 feet down from the trail. I don’t recall much in the first few minutes following my crash. I suspected I might have broken my back due to the extreme pain I was experiencing in my back between my shoulder blades. I knew I broke my left wrist or forearm. I also took cognizance of the fact that I was alive, albeit in an immense amount of pain. I did not think I had severed my spinal cord since I could wiggle my toes and slightly use my good arm but there were pins and needles symptoms in all of my extremities. Profound pain however was keeping me from moving and I was in very cold water.
As I subsequently learned, Tanner had decided to stop only about 200 yards past the point where I rode off the trail. He did this to show his father where he almost lost his bike off the cliff the prior year. Fortunately for me that decision to stop where he did instead of a mile or two further down the trail was critical in my friends locating me as quickly as they did and arranging for help. When Mark eventually reached Tanner, he asked his son if Bob had gone on. Tanner, understandably surprised, said no he had not yet seen me. It doesn’t take long for the realization to set in that the fact I was not there with them could only mean I had likely crashed and fallen down the cliff. Mark and Tanner carefully made their way back up the trail looking to the left and down into the river water. Approximately 200 yards up the trail Mark spotted my green Santa Cruz Bronson at the base of the cliff. A few seconds later he spotted the orange strap on my Camelback and realized I was on my hands and knees in the creek but was slightly moving. Mark made a decision to send Tanner down the remaining trail in order to get help. It was already past 2:30 PM and the sun would be going down and the temperatures dropping.
I don’t know how fast Tanner rode the remaining 12 miles into town but I suspect he probably had a personal best time. He alerted Yuba Expeditions who in turn alerted Downieville Volunteer Fire Department which started what would turn out to be an overnight rescue involving some 15 people, four agencies, and numerous hours of exertion by a number of selfless, generous individuals.
Meanwhile, back at Butcher Ranch, Mark had figured out a route down to my location, not an easy task as I essentially fell off a 150 foot cliff. I’m quite confident Mark was as relieved as I was grateful to see him. He learned that I was conscious and speaking somewhat coherently. I told him the extent of the injuries that I suspected I had sustained. He assured me that he had dispatched Tanner to get help and that help would be on the scene shortly. Despite Mark’s best efforts to reassure me, I knew that shortly meant many hours before any sort of help would be on scene. I was not entirely sure I could survive many hours in the cold. Mark quickly assessed the situation and realized that if I was going to survive, I needed to get out of the cold river in an effort to avoid hypothermia. Mark started scouring the river bank for branches, saplings, twigs and anything that could form a platform that would keep me out of the water while we waited for other rescuers to arrive. It took a while but apparently he was able to find enough material to build a “bench” of branches that I could rest on that would keep my body out of the icy cold water. How I moved through the pain and rolled over to my back on that bench is beyond me. It happened and I was now looking up at the quickly fading sun shine at the top of the tree canopy above the river. The temperature was dropping quickly and I was cold. Mark was rubbing my legs in order to keep them from shivering so severely. He knew he needed to find something more to keep me warm. Neither of us had lifesaving space blankets in our Camelback’s (note to self, buy one, they are cheap). Mark told me he was going to go back up to the trail and try to see if there were any further riders coming down who might have some gear they could loan us to keep me warm. Apparently, when Mark reached the trail our new friend that we had met on the shuttle was stopped because he saw Mark’s bike blocking the trail, Mark explained what had happened and asked our new friend if he would stay and try to collect jackets or any gear from any fellow mountain bikers that would provide some insulation to me. Mark made his way carefully down the cliff back to me. Our new friend from San Jose stayed on the trail and stopped the few remaining riders in an effort to solicit gifts of warm clothing. Periodically Mark would disappear, climb back up to the trail and return with the lightweight jacket or other goodies. I don’t know the name of the cyclist who stayed and collected gear and clothing but I do know I have 4 or 5 articles of clothing that I would love to return to the generous mountain bikers who loaned me their lightweight jackets and other lifesaving insulating items.
Tanner had done his job of successfully riding down the trail and had activated the emergency medical system. As I have subsequently learned, this involved at least four different agencies including the Downieville Fire Department, Sierra City Fire Department, Sierra County Search and Rescue and the National Forest Service. Steve, a volunteer with Downieville Fire, was the first rescuer on the scene. He apparently rode a specially designed motorcycle up the trail in an effort to determine my precise location and give the coordinates to the others who were searching for me. I recall that Steve put a cervical collar on me and that he called in the longitude and latitude to all the agencies including Cal Star in an effort to do a helicopter evacuation. By this time it was late afternoon or early evening as I could no longer see sunlight in the trees. As much as I try to focus on pleasant things such as my wife and children, I really could only think of the pain I was in and how to obtain some sort of relief. I’m sure Steve did everything he possibly could to provide comfort and warmth, but I was really focused on that helicopter rescue. Finally, I heard the familiar wump-wump of the helicopter blades as a Cal Star helicopter circled overhead. I knew there was no landing spot anywhere nearby and if there was going to be a rescue it would be by a basket lowered by cables from the helicopter as it hovered overhead. Ultimately, the helicopter pilot made the decision that the helicopter rescue was too dangerous and terminated the rescue helicopter. I can’t describe to you how deflating it was to my psyche and my spirit of survival to hear the helicopter fly off into the distance. I was devastated. But deep in my heart I knew the pilot had made the correct call. You cannot put anyone else at risk when attempting a rescue of this magnitude. The lighting conditions and other factors made a helicopter extrication just too dangerous.
Meanwhile, Steve continue to reassure me that rescue teams were coming by foot. He told me Sierra City was sending volunteers down from the top and that Sierra County search and rescue were sending volunteers up from the bottom. Regardless, I understood the difficulty that was about to face the rescue team as they tried to extricate me from the bottom of the cliff and then haul my sorry ass at least 4+ miles to an intersecting road where mechanical transport might be possible.
Steve continued to talk on his radio, providing the necessary coordinates to the various rescue units to get sufficient help to me. I knew I would have to be hauled 150 feet essentially straight up a cliff on a backboard and in a basket. Despite some ski patrol experience many years earlier, I could not conceive how the rescue teams were going to accomplish what I thought was impossible. Shortly after Cal Star flew off, a rescue team arrived with a contraption that I will call a vacuum body splint. I had never seen one in the field and in fact this was the first time Downieville Fire was using this brand new piece of equipment. They had recently acquired these expensive splints but had not yet field tested them. So when I heard voices reading the instructions for use, I was not exactly overwhelmed with confidence that my extrication would go well.
But it did go well. The rescue team was able to successfully put on and inflate this body splint around my body to fully immobilize it. I believe I also had some warming blankets so that once immobilized I was both comfortable and beginning to get warm. Despite the few articles of clothing that were loaned to me, I know I was on the verge of hypothermia. Many more hours in the cold without help would have likely been fatal as my systems would start shutting down. Without the new body splint I do not know that I could have managed the pain and cold through the night’s extrication.
The next part of my rescue is probably best told by the rescuers themselves as only they know fully what they accomplished through the night and into the morning. I know it involved at least 15 selfless volunteers willing to spend a cold night in the mountains taking turns carrying 200 pounds through some treacherous singletrack in the darkness. I also knew that my rescue involved the coordination of many agencies working together in a cohesive fashion to first locate me and then figure out the mechanics of the rescue. I do know that they got me up the 150 foot cliff with great effort and some ingenious thinking in order to have safety systems in place so that I was not dropped. I do know that my rescuers hiked more than 4 miles oftentimes just a few feet of the time over a period of eight hours. I could not see much from my vantage point of being in the basket but I do recall seeing numerous headlamps and hearing some discussions between the rescuers when they would switch grips on the basket and take turns lifting and carrying. I also recall periodically stating the words “patient needs a break”. I said this not so much because I needed a break but because I could tell through the heavy breathing of my rescuers that they needed a break. I thought it best that I speak up on their behalf so we can all rest before moving on.
At about 4:30 in the morning, my rescue team had made it to a road and the waiting helicopter. More than 14 hours had elapsed between my crash and the commencement of my transport by helicopter to Sutter Roseville Medical Center where a trauma team of surgeons and nurses would start putting me back together.
Every surgeon, doctor, nurse, therapist, or other professional involved in my treatment and rehabilitation are bewildered after they read the charts and understand the mechanics of my crash. I have learned that very few individuals survive a fall of that magnitude. Those few that do survive often sustain life-changing injuries and are paralyzed due to a severed spinal cord. I was lucky. Indeed I was very lucky. I broke my neck at the C6-C7 location but did not sever my spinal cord. My neurosurgeons have fused my neck from C-5 through T1 inserting rods, screws, and other hardware that will likely wreak havoc on TSA when I fly. I also have some new hardware in my left wrist as a result of a compression fracture of my radius. I broke a part of my sternum. But otherwise, I did not break any ribs or have other internal injuries. My bicycle helmet did its job and prevented a severe traumatic brain injury. Yes, no doubt I am mildly concussed but that will heal in time as will my other injuries. I recognize that I am very lucky to be alive and even luckier to have a good prognosis of almost full recovery in my rehabilitation.
After I was stabilized in the ICU I decided I wanted to coordinate fundraising efforts benefiting the rescuers involved in my extrication. Several weeks ago after confirming a follow up appointment with the Sutter Roseville Trauma Clinic on the calendar I told my wife I wanted to go up the day before in order to drive on up to Downieville to meet some of his rescuers, to thank them in person and to share the fundraising donations we’d raised for them. My wife called Steve and we set a date and time to meet at the fire station.
Downieville EMTs and Rescue Team
SCVFD Chief Bryan Davey, DVFD Chief Lee Brown, EMS Supervisor Jacie Epperson, Capt. Steve Folsom, Patient Bob Temmerman and wife Laura Hill Temmerman, Asst. Chief Mike Lozano, Sheriff Tim Standley met at the DVFD Firehouse to accept a $2500 check from the Temmermans in gratitude for the awesome response to his life threatening injuries during a bike accident.
As we walked up to the Downieville fire station on Monday, November 14th there was a look of recognition on the faces of those standing outside. Perhaps my cervical collar gave it away… There was an immediate sense of comfort in reuniting with them and as the conversation unfolded I listened as the full story began to truly be woven together. Their stories of how members of the different agencies were notified and able to find the location where I was, who was involved in which aspects throughout the late afternoon, evening and night, my recollection of what was taking place around me, how many people in total were involved in the extrication, what was worrisome to the search and rescue volunteers, what I remember hearing them talk about, how the teams out there supported each other through the night, my thought process as I heard them pull out the instruction manual to use the life saving vacuum splint for the first time, etc. Steve, the first rescuer who got to me, probably had the best chance to remember my face – after all, he got to me before it was dark and was talking to me before I was loaded into the vacuum splint and then the backboard. To stand together with these men and women five weeks later and get a chance to converse eye to eye and hug and each other was especially moving and therapeutic. During the conversation my wife and I shared the donations, totaling $2500. We wanted them to know this was still nothing compared to what they provided but knowing the needs of volunteer departments we wanted to ensure they received the generous donations from many friends and family members and from us. The group was especially moved and Steve asked if the funds could be shared with all four agencies involved. We readily agreed. During the time together with those there on Monday, they rallied for me, comforted us and made sure we know they are still there for us. It takes a selfless, courageous and giving soul to do the kind of work they do.
I want to thank each and every one my rescuers from Downieville, Sierra City, Sierra County and elsewhere that played a role in my survival. You collectively are the true, underappreciated, selfless heroes to whom I am most grateful. I hope that the modest amount of funds donated by family, fellow bikers, and colleagues help each of the agencies involved in my rescue continue their mission with the resources necessary to do so. I thank you. My wife thanks you. My three children thank you. My father and sisters thank you. You are all heroes in my book of life.