Day 24, Thursday, August 3
I leave for the remote camp called Cantiles this morning, around quarter to 10, hiking with a school group. Cantiles is farther away than Guanales, but the hike in is not as steep, though there are a few steep climbs along the way. The hiking suits me pretty well, although I am glad when we arrive. This time I packed a little more minimally than I did for Guanales, taking only 2 tshirts, 1 pair of trousers, my camera, minimal toiletries, 2 pullovers, hiking boots, sleeping bag and thermarest.
When I arrive, John, a herpetologist from the U.S., is walking to his tent with Jen, his arm and hand wrapped in gauze. He looks focused, and when someone asks if he’s okay, he mutters, I’ll be alright. I make an assumption that he has just fallen, perhaps spraining his arm. I continue to walk into camp, happy to discard my pack near the fire pit. Bruce and others are there already, having arrived the day before. I learn that John has just been bitten by a snake, called a "timbo" by the locals, a poisonous viper also called Godman’s viper. It is small and brown, very cryptic. John had been handling the snake, trying to get a good photograph and showing others. He reacted badly when the snake tried to get away, doing something he knew better than do, grabbing it by the tail to pull it back. The snake turned in an instant and struck John on the hand. From all descriptions he drew his hand back behind him, immediately sat down on a nearby log, and stated calmly I’ve been bitten. His arm was immediately wrapped and elevated and a shiny wrap meant to maintain body heat was draped around John's shoulders. The head medic had fortunately just hiked in with my hiking group, but what a thing to walk into. She was shaking as she grabbed a stethoscope and blood pressure gauge from the medical kit. The Honduran guides were all instructed by Sergio and Eduardo to go to the river and whack away all trees and vegetation to clear a landing area for a helicopter. At some point John was walked to the river area. Incredibly, not long after, we heard the sound of a military helicopter. The heavy chopper sound was such a foreign thing to hear in the jungle. I hadn't heard or even seen any sort of aircraft for 3 weeks. The quiet of the jungle and lack of any motorized sounds made the helicopter sound that much louder. It hovered for a bit and then flew away for about two minutes. I later learned it had to land at Base Camp to shift things around. Despite the huge swath the Hondurans had macheted clear, there still was not room for the chopper to land. They planned to lower one of the rescue team members who would strap himself to John. When the rescue seat came down it got caught in some branches, as well as on its back way up with John and the rescue team member. Overall, everything went off incredibly well.
After the adrenaline rush and helicopter sounds faded, the camp quieted. Everyone involved with the rescue effort tells their version of what happened. All the stories blend the to form a complete story and it is a good one. Sergio and Eduardo can best tell the part about organizing the Honduran guides to machete a massive clearing next to the riverbed. Over and over everyone mentions how incredible these Hondurans were at rapidly cutting thick vegetation and large trees to prepare the spot. Joe the medic (female) tells how nerve wracking it was to hike in and have to deal with such a dire situation immediately upon arrival. A bite by Godman's viper is truly a serious matter. Everyone is amazed at how calm John was throughout. During the rescue Sergio was given a camera by the camp manager, a Canadian named Dave, who that evening puts together a digital slide show, complete with some sort of rambo sounding music. Pictures of the chopper, of John looking very stoic in his body heat wrap. Maybe one of the most amazing tales of all is how one of the young guides (Alex) ran from Cantiles halfway to Base Camp and then back to meet another guide who had ran from Base Camp to the halfway point with the antivenom, incredibly in less than an hour. A hike that takes an average hiker about 4 hours and a very good one, about 2. The stories and speculation go on all night. We all hope John will be okay. We can’t believe he was whisked away in a military helicopter. Dinner that night, however, did not live up to the exciting events of the day. Actually, dinner was awful. A cold hotdog and some cold beans. The cooks don’t have their act together. They don’t seem to know how to cook with the ingredients they have on hand. Sergio has a lengthy talk with them (since the camp manager cannot speak spanish, he is unable to effectively run the camp – communicate with both the english speaking biologists and students as well as the Honduran speaking guides and cooks). There'll be no bat netting tonight, we've had enough excitement today, not to mention we are tired from the long hike in.