Hiker flown to hospital with rattlesnake bite following 7-hour rescue near Pine Valley

Stock image of a Mohave rattlesnake in a defensive position from southern Arizona | Photo by Shoemcfly/iStock/Getty Images Plus, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — A 7-hour rescue near Pine Valley ended when a hiker, who suffered a rattlesnake bite while recreating off of the Mill Canyon trail, was loaded into a helicopter and flown to the hospital for treatment early Tuesday morning.

Map depicting vast area surrounding the Mill Canyon Trail near Pine Valley, Utah | Image courtesy of Google Maps, St. George News

The incident began with a 911 call from a hiker who reported to emergency dispatch that he suffered a rattlesnake bite when he stepped down from a rock and “surprised the snake,” Washington County Search and Rescue Liaison Sgt. Darrell Cashin said.

The hiker was located along the Mill Canyon Trail, which is about 25 miles from St. George off of Forest Service Road 255 near Pine Valley. The trail is nearly 10 miles long and has an elevation gain of 1,500 feet with towering cliffs and steep terrain that is littered with rough, jagged rock formations. 

The hiker was scouting the area for archery practice when he suffered a snake bite on the lower calf of his leg. He also reported hearing nothing before the bite, “no rattle or any other sounds,” Cashin said, indicating the “snake was likely surprised and had very little time to react or send out the warning before it struck.”

“From what my guys told me, the snake wasn’t coiled or anything,” Cashin said. “It was just there.”

He went on to say that fortunately, the hiker was also a paramedic, and minutes after the bite, he placed a tourniquet around his leg, not tight enough to stop blood flow completely, Cashin added, such as is the case in situations where an injury causes heavy bleeding, but tight enough to restrict the blood flow to slow the spread of the venom.

Meanwhile, ground teams were assembled and emergency personnel began to respond to the area where authorities set up an incident command base, including Enterprise Fire and Rescue, Pine Valley Fire Department and Mercy Air.

As rescue teams set out on the trek to find the injured man, authorities realized the hiker was slightly off-trail and near the top of a 300-foot cliff. With a more accurate location, the high-angle team was called in and additional equipment requested.

“We had a GPS, but he was off the trail, so we didn’t know exactly where he was at that point,” Cashin said.

A rattlesnake in Southern Utah, date not specified The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources says if you see a rattlesnake, give it plenty of space and don’t harass it. | Photo by Lynn Chamberlain, courtesy of Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

Mercy Air was able to locate the hiker but relayed to the command center that a landing was impossible due to jagged terrain and lack of any safe landing sites.

Cashin said the snake was about 3-4 inches in diameter, “so it was a pretty good-sized snake,” and they discussed the possibility of flying antivenom to the hiker to mitigate the effects of the bite. That option was discarded due to complications that can accompany the use of serum and the fact that they had no details on how much venom was transmitted during the bite. As such, it can only be safely administered at the hospital where the patient can be monitored.

“Certainly not on top of a mountain where help is still a ways off,” Cashin said.

After several hours of hiking, ground teams reached the injured man who was suffering moderate effects from the venom, including a swollen leg, a high-level of pain and other physical symptoms that were treated. The hiker was stabilized by Mercy Air’s flight nurse and paramedic who accompanied the group.

Unable to walk on his own, rescuers assisted the man as they slowly hiked down off the cliff. Once they reached the helicopter, he was flown to Dixie Regional Medical Center for treatment.

Cashin said a number of factors worked in the hiker’s favor when the incident took place, the first of which was the fact that he had a medical background and knew what to do to mitigate the effects of the bite. Moreover, he had cell service in an area known to have spotty service at best, he said, and called 911 right away. The man’s family was also notified and gathered near the command post as the rescue ensued.

He went on to say people have a tendency to panic after a rattlesnake bite, which is dangerous and causes an increase in heart rate and blood flow that can spread the venom much more quickly and cause wide-spread damage. It can also prevent an individual, who suffers a bite while hiking in a remote area, for example, from making it out to get help, particularly if there is no cell service or if help is still hours away.

Applying a tourniquet will slow the spread of the venom, but it should only restrict the blood flow. Otherwise, Cashin said, the tissue or limb is cut off from oxygen and can become damaged from the lack of circulation.

Most importantly, he said, remaining calm will reduce the effects of the venom and allow the person to think more clearly, which in turn results in more effective decision-making capabilities, and greatly increases the individual’s chance of survival.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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