Dave Smith calls Megan and Shane Nelson his “two miracles.”
Smith, 24, was severely injured while hiking at 13,000 feet during a summer vacation in Colorado. He had been alone for at least 24 hours when the Nelsons found him and facilitated the rescue that saved his life.
“I wouldn’t be here today without their help,” Smith said.
Smith and his family surprised Shane with a visit to his Boise fire station on Wednesday, Dec. 7, where Shane was receiving the Boise Fire Department’s Commendation of Valor. It was a reunion Megan was grateful to see, because Dave was in grave danger when they found him in a remote area surrounded by cliffs.
“He would not have survived if we hadn’t have been there,” Megan said.
Smith’s family and friends describe what happened that day as “miracle, upon miracle, upon miracle.”
Nothing that happened was typical for the Nelsons on July 26, 2016. Megan, a labor and delivery unit-based educator at St. Luke’s Meridian, and her husband, Shane, a Boise firefighter, decided to visit an area they usually enjoy in the winter. That decision took the Nelsons to Wetterhorn Peak in Colorado, where they were able to provide expert assistance when they discovered Smith.
The Nelsons usually visit Ouray, Colo., to go ice climbing in the winter, but they had heard about the area’s majestic beauty in the summer and decided to visit in June. Locals told them to check out Wetterhorn Peak, which is famous among climbers because of its 14,000-foot summit.
They were enjoying their second day of hiking when they discovered several frantic hikers who had tried unsuccessfully to locate someone who was calling for help. Several people could hear the man’s voice, but he didn’t know where he was and he couldn’t be seen from the hiking trail.
The Nelsons made a plan. Shane would begin hiking in the direction of the voice, navigating treacherous terrain, and Megan would stay on the trail above, where Shane could call out GPS coordinates that she could then relay when calling for help.
Just minutes later Shane found Smith. He was wearing torn-up pants and a T-shirt and, because he was covered in dirt, he nearly blended in with the terrain. It was clear he had a head injury; he had a deep cut on his forehead that went to his skull. He couldn’t open his eyes, was hypothermic and dehydrated, and had multiple injuries including a fractured spine. He had likely been alone in the remote location for more than 24 hours and unconscious for most of that time. Doctors later said he was in renal failure at the time of the rescue.
After finding Smith, Shane called to Megan and told her that he would need helicopter evacuation and to bring him the first-aid kit. Megan asked two nearby hikers to help her transport all of the extra gear to the site where Smith had been found.
Working as a team, Shane performed a field evaluation and Megan grabbed items from their first-aid kit, based on his assessment. Together, they dressed Smith’s wounds. They found other resources to help Dave, thanks to the extra gear they had packed along at the last minute. The couple had been hiking with all of their gear that day because there were marmots around their camp and they didn’t want their gear to be damaged if it was left behind. They bundled Smith in their sleeping bags to help raise his body temperature. Their water supply helped him rehydrate and clean wounds.
It took more than two hours for the helicopter to reach the group. The site of the accident was at an elevation of 13,000 feet. Even with an exact GPS location the crew struggled to find a safe place to land. Also, Dave was located in a hidden area beneath cliffs. Without others there to guide rescue crews, Megan doubts he could have been found in time to be saved.
“I think the main reason he wouldn’t have survived is because of how hard it was to find him,” Megan said. “We were just so lucky we were there.”
Smith and the Nelsons are amazed by the factors that helped lead to his successful rescue. Shane’s experience as a mountaineer and as a technical-rescue responder enabled him to provide a detailed report to dispatch, including ceiling height, wind, storms and nearby cliffs. The Nelsons don’t normally carry a GPS, but they had recently received one as a gift from Megan’s father, so they decided to bring it along for this trip. They used that GPS to help guide rescue crews to their exact location. And there was also the extra gear they had brought along rather than leaving it behind at camp.
Finally, there is the fact that Smith had the good fortune to be rescued by a nurse and a firefighter.
“The story to me is amazing and surreal, not by any one act that Megan and I did, but because all of that had to come together in the way that it did,” Shane said. “All the decisions, conscious and unconscious, that had to happen.”
Megan continued to assess and care for Smith while Shane worked with emergency services to facilitate his evacuation. Because the rescue involved dangerous and unpredictable conditions, they dispatched three types of transport: a medical helicopter, a Black Hawk helicopter and a ground crew.
Smith needed continual care while they waited for the rescue crew. Megan gave him water every 10 to 15 minutes, and when it began to rain and hail she used the tent fly to cover him and keep him dry. When the helicopter arrived, the group had to carry Smith across the basin to the spot where the air crew was able to safely land.
Smith was in intensive care for four days. He continues to receive physical therapy in Denver, but otherwise has made a complete recovery. He hopes to soon return to his career in fisheries management.
“The magnitude of what happened to Dave is beyond what I can even comprehend,” Shane said.
No one knows what caused Smith’s accident. He has no memory of the day. He planned to hike the mountain on his own but stayed in contact with his family along the way. Just before noon on the day of the accident he sent his sister a text with a photo at the summit to tell them he made it to the 14,000-foot peak. That was the last time anyone heard from him until the next day, when the Nelsons rescued him. There had been rain and snow in the area, making the trail wet, so he could have slipped. Or a loose rock could have hit his head, causing him to fall. Or he could have been struck by lightning. Regardless, he fell down a series of very steep cliffs (Megan described it as “cliff upon cliff”). Slide marks in the dirt indicate he tried to scoot his body further down the embankment in order to find help.
“The fact that he survived out there that long, in the cold, is amazing,” Megan said.
Smith was joined by his parents and close family friends to thank the Nelsons on Dec. 7. They traveled to Boise from throughout the country to express their gratitude in a tearful reunion with the Nelsons at Boise Fire Station 7. As Smith stood in front of the Nelsons and several dozen people who attended the ceremony, he said people could learn two valuable lessons from his experience.
“Never give up,” he said. “And always help other people.”
Chereen Langrill was formerly a communications coordinator for St. Luke’s Health System.