Every year I celebrate my ‘Gratitudiversary’ (gratitude + anniversary), honoring the day I fell 150+ft down the side of Yosemite’s Half Dome and lived.
In 2012, on my 3-year Gratitudiversary, I celebrated by making my first visit to Yosemite (!!) since my hiking fall. Despite potential scheduling conflicts, the stars aligned perfectly allowing my brother, Paul and I to join my dear new friends, Rick (he and his nephew, Kiley waited with me for 3 ½ hrs up against this tiny 6 inch slab of rock as the rescuers tried to reach me) and his lovely wife, Diane to come together for a long weekend of camping.
On May 17th, after quite a drive from Southern California we caught a bit of shut eye in sleeping bags on the asphalt in the Snow Play area just outside of the Yosemite entrance. At 4am, after about 1 ½ hours of sleep, we woke to start our 1 hour drive into Yosemite to wait in line for a first-come-first-serve camping site.
At sunrise as we entered the park, we witnessed an extraordinary and remarkable scene as the moon made its descent directly over Half Dome. That was the beginning of a phenomenal, heart-opening return to Yosemite, not quite 3 years after falling down Half Dome and nearly losing my life.
We arrived at Camp Four around 5am to stand in line at the check-in booth that doesn’t open until 8:30am. On that chilly morning, we made the best of those hours by bringing out the camping chairs and talking to each other and the others waiting in line. The line was getting longer and there ended up being more than 25 people waiting for a spot.
As we were waiting, Paul saw a National Park Service vehicle pull into the parking lot and jokingly said “Oh no, who’s in trouble?” As a Park Ranger walked up the line toward us, Diane asked him “Are you here to open the kiosk early?” He said “no…” and at that exact same moment, I looked at his name badge, saw that it read Jack Hoeflich and exclaimed “Oh my God! You were my rescuer!!! I’m Gina Bartiromo!” He said “That’s why I am here.” I was elated – overtaken with gratitude and joy. I reached out to hug him, told him how honored I am to meet him and that I cannot thank him enough for rescuing me.
A few days before, I spoke with John Dill, the head of Search and Rescue (SAR), who said he wasn’t sure if anyone would be available since the team was in their training month. But Rick was on it. Unbeknownst to me, Rick had messaged Jack letting him know of our plans and Jack knew where to find us just after sunrise on that bright, early morning.
We all started talking and Jack shared some of his experience. When he spoke of me being below the helicopter in the “litter,” he explained that the litter is the gurney and told us about the inflatable body splint that envelopes the person in the litter to keep them stationary. I mentioned that I tell people “Jack and I were suspended 10ft below the helicopter”. I quickly learned that that is not even possible! He explained they usually have the litter 200ft below, and maybe 150ft max, but my rescue required us to be 100ft below the helicopter due to the visibility limitations. The turbulence of the rotor could have violently spun us at that short of a distance from the helicopter but the expertise of the pilot, Tim Lyons along with the spotter, Jeff Pirog made it a successful lift.
He said he had to get to work but invited us to visit the Helipad between 10am – 2pm where the SAR team would be doing training exercises. He didn’t know their agenda or where they’d be or if it would be a time they’d be able to meet me but he said to give it a try. I hugged him good-bye with a pounding heart.
Despite only sleeping 1 ½ hrs, I was on cloud-9. It took some time but once we were assigned a camping spot, we all agreed to skip setting up camp after breakfast like we had planned but instead decided to go up to the Helipad to possibly meet the team.
We couldn’t have arrived at a better time!!! Right when we got out of the car, the helicopter rotors were going strong and a forest ranger, Curtis, came up to us saying they were about to do a few training rounds just about 50 yards away from us. That was the helicopter that had been at my rescue! … with the same pilot, Tim, and spotter, Jeff! What luck!!!The sound of the rotors had my heart thumping- I was filled with anticipation and amazement. The helicopter lifted, circled around and hovered above the ground not far in front of us. The cable was lowered and down came the first man with a large sack of gear. He hung at the half way point, did a few maneuvers and some signaling to the spotter and then smoothly touched down to the ground. Then the second ranger descended in the same fashion. I could tell it was Jack and was dumbfounded to see him in action.As Jack ran by us with all the gear, he stopped to say that he was glad to see us. We got to see them do the second round and then we were shown the pathway to meet them at the Helibase/headquarters.
Once we got to the end of the path, Jack approached us and said that Tim and Jeff would be over once they were through at the helicopter. I was overwhelmed with astonishment again! First to meet Jack and now to meet Tim and Jeff??!! Before arriving, I wasn’t sure if I could have met any of them!!! Jack waved them over and introduced me to the pilot at my rescue, Tim Lyons and the spotter, Jeff Pirog. I hugged each of them excitedly saying ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’. Others gathered around as we talked. (The only rescuer I didn’t get to meet was Mike Michener who had descended with Jack but he had moved out of the area.) We talked for what seemed to be quite a while, maybe 30 minutes. Again I was amazed at our timing being so perfect that we could catch them doing helicopter drops and then having time to meet me and talk with all of us. Magic!
I was in such a daze as I conversed with them that I don’t remember much of what was said. I just remember feeling awed and honored to be in their presence. They do this work day-in and day-out. It’s an everyday occurrence for them! What an exceptional, unique opportunity to pay tribute to these brave men that risked their lives to save mine.
They spoke shop-talk about me being a “short haul” and about the weather and circumstances and how they had determined to carry out the rescue amid the various factors: my landing place on the dome, clouds, low visibility, nearing night fall, running low on fuel. Every time one of them would comment that the other did X or Y, each would deflect the compliment stating that it was a team effort. True that it took a team -a remarkable team at that- but each individual’s contribution was profound in carrying out such a job.
Incredibly, there happened to be a journalist, Brent Bergan, who was there doing a story for Vertical Magazine, a helicopter magazine, who asked if he could shoot a few photos. I was elated at the thought of capturing this experience. He listened in on our reunion, took several photos and even recorded bits of the conversation. What marvelous serendipity! (I attempted to get my hands on the recording so I could savor the conversation but sadly it was lost due to technical issues.)
One of the crew ran out of the office with a few 8 ½ x 11 sheet pictures of the cloudy images of me, Rick, Kiley, Jack and Mike on the lip of rock with the helicopter barely visible through the clouds. He ended up making copies and handing them to me before we left. Breath-taking…Thank you!
Before we left, I had the opportunity to say “I’ve been sending thank you cards and updates since I got out of the hospital almost 3 years ago. I imagine those will slow and possibly fade as life continues to move forward but I want to ensure you that each of you will always be a part of my heart for the rest of my life. You have made a permanent impression… you are part of who I am today.”
We said our good-byes and left the Helipad and went to meet John Dill at the SAR office.
I gave John a hug as I did the others and he shared bits of his perspective on my rescue. I asked him if the big wheel hanging on the wall beside him was the wheel that would have gotten me off the mountain had the helicopter not reached me. It was! He explained how things would have occurred- the crew would’ve had to lift me up for every step and/or belay me down the 5+hr hike in the dark. With such a strenuous hike, it would have been grueling for the SAR team and my injuries could have been worsened.
On Sun May 20th, in speaking with Rick and Diane on the way home to try to capture some of the key points of the conversation we had with the rescuers, I realized I haven’t really been able to comprehend the fact that I nearly died… and that their lives were also at risk. I can sense the bewilderment of many people when I say this. In hearing the facts of the story, I am just as amazed as others. Yet I’ve just not been able to completely grasp it as something that happened to me. I assume it’s because my brain is missing a pivotal two weeks of my life. Since I came-to in the hospital, I’ve experienced this ‘cognitive dissonance’ between ‘the story’ and my role in that story as the injured party. I have been told that it’s quite common as a survival mechanism. But that night, on the drive home as I descended from cloud-9 and began to settle, I absorbed the facts in a way I hadn’t before.
Though it is challenging to put to words, in its simplest expression, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet my rescuers. I am so fortunate to be alive, to have experienced all that I’ve experienced in the past 8 years and I am grateful beyond measure for all those who have been part of this journey.