A 68-year-old grandfather from Arizona who suffered a broken thighbone while hiking off a Maunakea trail below the W.M. Keck Observatory was rescued Monday night.
“He was taking a picture. He was trying to get a good shot of the sunset,” said Fire Battalion Chief Michael Hayashida about the victim, who told rescuers the terrain gave way and he fell, breaking the largest bone in his body.
The call for help was received by Pohakuloa Training Area firefighters, said Mike Donnelly, spokesman for the Army installation in the “Saddle” area between Maunakea and Mauna Loa.
“He was up there with his wife and grandson,” Donnelly said. “They were at the visitor station, or Hale Pohaku, further down” the mountain, Donnelly said, adding the man went up to the summit area alone.
“He slipped, fell (and) injured his leg.”
The man made the 911 call himself, according to Donnelly.
“He had to actually crawl to a spot — I’m not sure how far, but a good distance — to get a signal,” he said. “We got the call. Our guys are trained — they know (to) keep him on the line, because that helps us find him. So we kept him on as long as we could. Cell towers, they triangulate.
“This all took place at about 8 p.m. So two hours later, they located the guy.”
Hayashida and Donnelly both said their agencies were assisted by Maunakea summit rangers.
“It’s about one or two miles from the observatories,” Donnelly said. “They find the guy, splint the leg, put him in a rigid Stokes litter, and then they’ve got to haul the guy about two miles. It was a 40-degree incline. It took them four hours to get them back to” a waiting county ambulance.
The man was taken to Hilo Medical Center in guarded condition, according to Donnelly.
“Just the conditions are tough to deal with, being at that altitude. The temperatures, it’s usually in the 30s at that time. And the terrain is difficult,” Hayashida said.
In addition to the cold, darkness and terrain, rescuers — who don’t have the luxury of sitting an hour and hydrating at Hale Pohaku at the 9,300-foot level, as recommended by authorities — also had to deal with oxygen deprivation and altitude sickness.
“It goes down to the response time, and we try to shorten that time as much as possible,” Hayashida said. “So as far as getting acclimated to ascending above Hale Pohaku, it’s not an option.”
“This truly is one of the best examples I have seen in a long time as a firefighter of how PTA, HFD and summit rangers work together as a team in very difficult conditions,” said PTA Fire Chief Eric Moller in a statement. “And when you are at this elevation in the dark of night, it truly takes a team effort, so mahalo to all agencies.”
A county helicopter is often used in rescue situations but wasn’t deployed for this rescue because of the darkness and the mountainous terrain, Hayashida said.
Fire and rescue officials on Hawaii Island encourage hikers and visitors to remain on established trails and paths to avoid possible injuries or becoming lost. In addition, cellphones are very helpful in cases where emergency services are needed, particularly in locating a potential patient.
Asked what advice he would offer hikers on Maunakea, Hayashida replied, “I would recommend at least being familiar with the area prior to taking the steps that people are taking, like in this case, to get a better picture.”
Email John Burnett at firstname.lastname@example.org.