I went to Lechuguilla and all I got was a broken arm

Most of you have probably heard by now of my recent ill-fated trip into Lechuguilla Cave, but I thought I should relate the story in full.  I was slated to be on a 7-person, 8-day expedition into the southwest branch of the cave in late July.  Originally, when I agreed to go on the trip, I planned to defend my PhD dissertation in June, and I thought that this would be great timing.  However, due to scheduling conflicts with my committee, we ended up moving the defense to August 13 (1.5 weeks after I would be getting back from Lech).  This wasn’t too big of a problem, as it just meant I would need to have my dissertation done about a week earlier than I would otherwise.  However, it is a bit non-traditional (to say the least) to head off on a week-long caving expedition right before one’s PhD defense.  I considered backing out, but most of the main objectives for the trip were climbing objectives and I was to be the climber for the trip.  Backing out at the last minute would have left the team in a pretty hard place. When the time to leave for the expedition arrived, I had my dissertation in relatively good shape, so it appeared that all was well.

By the day of the expedition, attrition had resulted in loss of another team member, so we entered the cave as a team of six.  It was my first trip in to the SW branch of the cave so I enjoyed the trip to camp and the new scenery, including the Chandelier Ballroom (arguably the most famous cave chamber in the world).  The next day we returned to the Chandelier Ballroom to push a climbing lead in the Chandelier Maze (above the ballroom).

Matt sorting through climbing gear in the Chandelier Ballroom.

Matt sorting through climbing gear in the Chandelier Ballroom. Photo by Peter Bosted.

The climb, called the Minotaur Climb, was a multi-pitch climb started by Larry Shaffer the previous year.  He had accomplished the difficult and steep first pitch and then run out of time.  We ascended up to the top of his climb and then continued about 20 feet of easy climbing to the top.  This led into a boneyard maze that was completely encrusted in gypsum.  After 200 feet of easy survey we found that the only way on was another climb, which looked like 10 feet of steep rock followed by an easy 20 foot ramp.  We certainly had the gear to accomplish it, so I kitted up for the 2nd climb of the day.

It turned out that there were few good natural anchor placements.  I placed a tricam in a pocket at about head height.  I then clipped an etrier and daisy chain into the anchor.  I started to clip in my belay line and then decided that it was so low it wouldn’t stop a groundfall.  Since I didn’t want unnecessary drag I decided not to clip (in retrospect clipping the belay probably would have prevented me from breaking my arm).  Standing up in the etrier and leaning back on the daisy I searched for other placements.  The options were even worse.  I finally found a calcified crack to stick a cam into, but I knew that the anchor was very dubious.  This didn’t concern me too much since I was only a few feet from the ground.  I tested the anchor by shifting my weight onto it and bouncing.  It held.

Moments before my anchor failed.

Moments before my anchor failed. Photo by Peter Bosted.

I decided to go ahead and shift to the anchor while I tried to find something better.  Without thinking about it, I left my right foot in the lower etrier.  After a couple of minutes of hanging on the anchor and searching for other placements, the cam suddenly popped.  Since my right foot was in the etrier on the good lower anchor, my body rotated as I fell so that I landed left hand first (after at most a 5 foot fall).  Then I rolled backward down the slope until I reached a resting point in a sitting position about 8 feet from the base of the climb.  I thought I was fine…and then I saw that my left forearm was bent about 20 degrees in the middle…and muttered in a perturbed voice, “I broke my arm.”  I knew what I needed to do, and was not yet in pain.  I somehow had the presence of mind to straighten the arm.  Then I began to feel light-headed and knew what was coming next.  I leaned back on the rock and passed out.  For the next few minutes I was in and out of consciousness, and my partners (Bonnie Armstrong and Peter Bosted) were quite worried.  Bonnie could see a little blood on my elbow pad and suspected that it was a compound fracture.

Once I came to, we started the business of putting on a splint.  I knew that we needed to immoblize the joints above and below the fracture.  Bonny rolled her Swaygo pack (which makes a very nice, stiff splint) around my arm, and then used Peter’s ace bandage to wrap around the pack and through my hand to immobilize the wrist.  Then to immobilize the elbow we used a climbing sling to sling the arm around my neck, holding it in place on the pack with some duct tape.  We later found that it was more comfortable while crawling if I also had the arm tied around my waist with some long underwear. I also took four ibuprofen.  A medic later commented that it was the best field splint he had ever seen.

At this point, once I had a chance to settle down a bit, we started the long haul out (around 5 pm).  Peter belayed me with the climbing rope as I rappelled down the two previous climb pitches.  Peter then found a shortcut through the maze that quickly got us onto the trail on the way out of the cave.  Once we reached the trail, Bonny left to notify the others and get food and bivy supplies at camp.  Peter and I started slowly making our way through the somewhat climby/crawly area of the cave called Tinsel Town on the way out of the cave.  We planned to stop at Lake Chandelar to wait for the others before beginning the climb out.

We reached the lake fairly quickly (1 hour?), and I was feeling good and realizing that I could cave fairly well with the one arm.  I also was not in too terrible of an amount of pain.  After a snack and drink break, some more ibuprofen (it had been about 4 hours), and a good rest, we decided to plow ahead.  I thought I could ascend the ropes without help.  I was also dreading an upcoming section of narrow fissure climbs in a passage called the Little White Bastard (a play off of another passage in the cave, The Great White Way).  I was ready to get these over with while I still felt good.

Resting near Lake Chandalar

Resting near Lake Chandalar. Photo by Peter Bosted.

After some delicate moves around the lake (you know that part of the National Geo film where they’re dancing along the wall by the lake…that, with one arm) we reached the ropes.  The first rope was no problem so we continued up.  Once I got about half way up the 2nd rope, Bonny arrived below, surprised to see that we hadn’t waited at the lake.  She had met up with the others as she was coming back through the Ballroom from camp.  They caught up with us right before the Little White Bastard.  For all of the previous drops, I had gone up first while Peter held the rope.  This had worked well, but the next drop was a little tighter and more intimidating.  Since the others were also now there, we had Peter go up first.  He would belay me with the climbing rope from the top in case I needed to pull my chest ascender off of the rope (it uncomfortably interferred with my sling).  Elvis (Mark Andrich) would pull the rope for me from the bottom.  As I ascended, in order to lighten the mood and distract from the pain, I sung the “Ballad of the Renegade Caver.”  It turned out that the drop was exactly the length of the song.

At the top, I took a good long rest before starting out on the next stretch (which was a bunch of easy walking).  Several people ran ahead to EF Junction to cook dinner.  Once we reached there we all sat and ate the freeze dried that Bonny had brought from camp.  From that point, Peter and Shawn Thomas headed out of the cave to alert the park, and let them know we had things under control.  The Rift turned out to be relatively easy with one arm, and according to the others I essentially ran up Glacier Bay to the bottom of Boulder Falls.

Eating dinner at EF Junction.

Eating dinner at EF Junction. Photo by Peter Bosted.

Worried about the long (160 ft) climb and the discomfort of ascending with the rope running very close to my arm, we decided to do a counterbalance haul at Boulder Falls.  There was already a rope at the top for that purpose, and the team was familiar with the technique.  It took a while to set up, but once the haul was going, they had me quickly to the lip of the pit.  At that point, a bit more chaos ensued, as a tangle developed.  We were all tired and bleary-eyed from the long night (it was now about 4 am), and each time we tried to fix it we were only making it worse.  Eventually we came to a solution and everyone was safely extracted from the mess of ropes.  I was able to ascend all of the remaining drops on my own, and we reached the surface at about 6 am, where we were greeted by a caver and medic from Carlsbad.  He and one of the park cave specialists drove me in to the ER in Carlsbad.

Fairly quickly they got me into a bed and got X-rays of my arm.  Not much later the doctor came in to say that he thought the best option was to do surgery on the arm.  I tried to call Elizabeth to notify her (I specifcally told others that I didn’t want her notified until I was out of the cave), but I couldn’t get her at home or work.  Then I called my dad, who was luckily home and agreed to try calling Elizabeth again later. I was also surprised that the other cavers came in to see me that morning (they had been up all night and I assumed they were sleeping).  I had surgery later that day (most of the rest of the day is a blur), and they released me from the hospital the following day.  My friends came to pick me up, got me settled in at the research hut in the park, and then headed back into the cave that evening.  Overall, it was a useful life experience – though not how I would have chosen for things to go.  I feel that there are things I could have done that would have likely prevented the incident, but I also feel that such injuries are going to happen every once in a while.  I was just unlucky to have it happen to me.

-Matt, the elder brother


8 Responses to I went to Lechuguilla and all I got was a broken arm

  1. Glad to finally hear more details about the trip out and I am really glad that your fellow cavers at least managed to get a few pictures during the ordeal. The Boston Mountain Grotto is apparently expecting an article about this (and the previous rescue incident you were involved in) appearing in the NSS publication. Hopefully everyone present learned from the experience and I’m glad to see how well thought out the plans for the self rescue were as well as the field splint.

    There is a fantastic splint material you can keep on hand (you know, for the future) that is lightweight and small. You may be familiar with it, though. It’s called a SAM splint and is very malleable material and can be used to splint many different parts of the body when combined with gauze or vet wrap or an ace bandage. I always carry one with me now, and it actually can come in handy keeping a part of one’s pack stabilized as well since you can virtually bend it however you want to.

    Oh, and congratulations on the Ph.D. Dr. Covington.

  2. Matt says:

    yes, I’m quite familiar with SAM splints. I sometime carry one. The thing is though that it’s pretty easy to improvise a splint out of other things that you’re carrying. In our case, the Swaygo splint was probably even better than a SAM splint would have been.

  3. Carol says:

    I can’t believe how much you’re smiling in those pictures! You actually look like you’re having a good time. And only on ibuprofen?? Wow! Glad you’re ok.

  4. Matt says:

    I wasn’t really in that much pain, and I was very happy to be able to make such rapid progress out of the cave on my own power.

  5. Ann says:

    I’m just glad that all you got was a broken arm!

  6. Don E. Schafer says:

    Was your Ph.D. committee just a little bit sympathic whwn the candidate was recovering from a broken arm? Congratulations on clearing that last hurdle, Dr. Covington.

  7. Also, I was wondering how your gear ended up making it back out of the cave … I know that was a concern and never did hear how the issue was solved.

  8. Matt says:

    Everyone split up the climbing gear (which is what we did on the way in). My pack had a good bit of space in it without climbing gear so Peter put his stuff in there too and then carried a small pack in his hand with lightweight stuff.

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