Their plan was to rappell to the man dangling by a piece of cloth on the side of a cliff and get him to a ledge they weren't even sure existed. But as Kevin Dickerson lowered himself to the BASE jumper whose parachute had malfunctioned in Provo Canyon, there was a lot about Plan A that didn't pan out as he had hoped and very little time to start formulating Plan B.
"I have never had another call where I was this worried for the possibility of us making a mistake," said Dickerson, a 19-year veteran of the Utah County Search and Rescue team that successfully lowered a BASE jumper from a rock wall after his failed parachute snagged on a rock Monday evening.
The BASE jumper, Adam Gardner, 26, remains hospitalized in critical condition at Utah Valley Regional Medical Center with fractures to his legs and foot. Through a hospital spokeswoman, he declined a request for an interview.
Gardner was jumping with friends from a cliff in the mouth of Provo Canyon about 7:30 p.m. Monday when his chute became caught on the cliff. He was suspended about 100 feet above ground in his harness for almost four hours, while rescuers tried to figure out how to get to him without further endangering him.
Rescuers originally thought Dickerson could rappel to a ledge that was supposed to be just below Gardner and get to him from there.
"Well, when I got there, there was no ledge," Dickerson said.
Dickerson rappelled as far as a few feet above Gardner, and the first thing Gardner said was: "What's your plan?"
"I told him that I didn't know," Dickerson said. It was time to change plans, and there wasn't much time to deliberate.
"The top left corner of his chute was caught slung over a rock the size of a basketball," Dickerson said.
The chute was the only thing holding Gardner in place.
Luckily, Gardner had an idea. He told Dickerson to throw him a rope. The only rope Dickerson had was his own. Still secured with a safety line, Dickerson untied his main line and tried to throw it to Gardner, who couldn't see him because he was covered by the snagged chute and had to stick his arm out from behind it to catch the rope. After about 10 minutes, Gardner was able to catch the rope and tie it to his harness.
After getting himself secured, Gardner was able to move a little more to free himself from the tangled parachute. That's when Dickerson realized just how precarious Gardner's situation was before the team arrived.
"He moved just a foot in my direction, and that's when the chute started to tear," Dickerson said. "I thought, 'We were within minutes of this coming to an end.'"
Although Gardner was secure, they weren't done yet. As they lowered him to the ground, the team had to be careful not to let Gardner succumb to what's known as harness hang syndrome. In situations where circulation in the legs is cut off after hanging from a harness for too long, harmful toxins can build up in the blood. Once the harness is released, those toxins rush to the heart and can cause cardiac arrest.
To prevent this, the medical crew on the ground had to keep Gardner dangling a few feet above the ground while they hooked him up to an IV to administer medication to counteract the acidic buildup in his blood.
That precaution from rescuers on the ground was just as important as getting Gardner safely off the cliff face, Dickerson said. "It was a total team thing," he said.
Dickerson has visited Gardner in the hospital. Despite his injuries, Dickerson said, Gardner was in good spirits and grateful for the help he got from the entire search and rescue team.
"He's very gracious," Dickerson said. "He's a great guy."
Dickerson earns a living as a middle school teacher at American Fork Junior High. He has the tough job of trying to make biology relatable to the pre-teen set. It turns out that the day before the rescue, he taught his students about the delicate balance of acids and bases in the human body the very phenomenon at issue in making sure Gardner got to the ground safely. It's safe to say his students were paying a little bit more attention when he used his experience as a teaching aid the next day.
"It makes the lesson a lot more exciting when it's a matter of life and death," Dickerson said.