Published in the Amherst Bulletin:
By DEBRA SCHERBAN
Thursday, May 29, 2014
HADLEY — An Amherst woman, who tripped on a rocky hiking trail May 29 on Mount Holyoke and rolled 100 feet downhill before getting hung up on a tree, is feeling lucky after being rescued by Hadley firefighters.
“I’m alive with only a couple of broken ribs. That’s pretty good,” Margaret A. Halbeisen, of Memorial Drive, said from her home. “I’m very, very grateful to the Hadley Fire Department emergency rescue squad. Those young men are amazing.”
Halbeisen, 61, who was alone at Skinner State Park, used her cellphone to call 911 at 8:18 a.m. after she tumbled over the steep cliff on a trail to the Summit House called the Halfway Trail. Rescuers used a Stokes basket, a bed-type harness and ropes, to get her back up the mountain and into an ambulance shortly before 10 a.m., said Hadley Fire Chief Michael Spanknebel. He said the trail has a 60 percent grade.
Emergency workers from Amherst, Chicopee, Easthampton, Holyoke, Northampton and South Hadley, including seven members of the Western Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team, were on hand to assist, but ended up standing by while Hadley firefighters conducted the rescue, Spanknebel said.
There were about two dozen responders at the scene, including six representatives from the Department of Conservation and Recreation and one state police officer.
Halbeisen, an avid birder and occasional hiker, was climbing toward the Summit House to see if she could spot a cerulean warbler, a bird she says is rarely seen anywhere else in the area. She had arrived by car at the paved mountain road at 7:30 a.m. expecting that the gate would open at 8 a.m. But when she saw the sign indicating it wouldn’t open until 9 a.m., she decided she would walk instead. Partway up, she came to the dirt Halfway Trail on the right and decided to take that short cut instead, despite its rocky, rutted terrain.
“Off I went, stupidly, it turns out, because I was alone.”
But she had her hiking pole and was nearly to the top when she found herself rolling down a steep slope. Halbeisen said she doesn’t know what made her fall, though she suspects she tripped on a rock or a root. A tree stopped her.
“I lucked out,” she said, though her legs were tangled in the tree and she was turned nearly headfirst down the mountain.
“I was hanging in a weird position,” she said. Halbeisen struggled to get her cellphone out of her pocket and then called 911. While she waited for help to arrive, the retired science teacher kept her mind occupied by trying to identify bird songs she heard. She said she was not afraid once she knew help was on the way.
Having her phone on hand was another lucky break, she said, as she does not usually carry it on her hikes. “It was providence,” she said. “I don’t know what I would have done without it.”
She said a Hadley police officer arrived first and talked to her from the trail above until a second rescuer arrived and rappelled down to stay at her side until other firefighters could get into position to lift her up.
“They were wonderful,” she said.
Spanknebel said Halbeisen appeared to be unhurt when rescuers found her. “She was in good spirits,” he said.
But once in the hospital emergency room, Halbeisen learned she had broken ribs as well as cuts and bruises.
“It could have been much, much worse to say the least,” she said. Halbeisen said her regular group workouts at the Aerobics and Fitness Studio in Amherst helped her. “A nurse in the ER told me that it’s a good thing that I lift weights because that strengthened the muscles of my back, my shoulders, my core. It protected me from getting more seriously hurt.”
Spanknebel said a rescue similar to Halbeisen’s was conducted at one of the Skinner Park trails less than two weeks ago, when a hiker stumbled and fell in an area that was not quite as steep. He said it was fortunate that Halbeisen had a cellphone with her and he urged hikers to carry them with them on treks. Also, he cautioned hikers to rethink their plans if they feel uneasy with the grade or the rocky terrain at the state park.
He said the Western Massachusetts Technical Rescue Team, which is funded by the federal Department of Homeland Security, is specially trained and equipped to help with all types of rescues to take the strain off local police and fire departments. It draws on 84 responders from Western Massachusetts Communities, said Northampton Fire Capt. John Garriepy, the team leader for the Hampshire County Division. Garriepy, who was at Skinner State Park on Thursday, said the call goes out to at least 20 members whenever an incident like Thursday’s occurs. A large red truck filled with equipment such as ropes, harnesses and helmets is brought to the scene, he said.
Spanknebel said that in the end, manpower was needed more than specialized equipment for Halbeisen’s rescue.
“I just want to thank everybody,” he said. “Mutual aid in this area is enormous.”
As for Halbeisen, she can’t heap enough praise on her saviors. “They are 100 percent fabulous. I wish I could send each and every one of them a card of thanks.”