Ned Hamara sat on the unforgiving rocks of the Hunt Trail, two-thirds of the way up Mount Katahdin, and circled his left arm above his head, checking for injury.
A granite boulder the size of a coffee table had just dislodged from the mountain and pushed him down a steep rock face. The 62-year-old hiker was left to go through the anxious exercise of figuring out just how badly he was hurt.
“I didn’t think I was really hurt,” Hamara said in a telephone interview Wednesday from his bed at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor. “The biggest impact was on my left shoulder. I had no idea how I hurt my foot. There was like a crevice I must have caught my foot on.”
He had a full range of motion in his arm, but it was sore, and his left foot hurt. His legs were covered with blood from a gash on his left elbow. His hiking partner, a triathlete, was far above him.
Hamara decided to turn back.
But as he pulled himself up from beneath an outcropping, his shoulder popped free of its socket and he fell. As he collapsed, he realized that his foot was hurt worse than he had realized. The trek down slowed to an excruciatingly painful crawl.
“He was definitely slowing down as we worked our way down,” said Dana Francey, a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center, who was helping Hamara up a steep section when the boulder tumbled.
“We thought we’d have him back to base camp by 7 p.m., but it was probably more like 11 p.m. or midnight at the rate we were going.”
Depending on how many volunteers they could find, rangers at Baxter State Park could have sent a rescue team to carry Hamara down the trail in a litter. The treacherous carry would have taken as long as 18 hours, much of it through heavy rain that was approaching.
There was nowhere nearby to land a Maine Forest Service rescue helicopter. But the service had a new option — a short haul rescue.
A rescuer was lowered on a line from a Huey UH-1 helicopter and strapped Hamara into a harness called a “screamer suit.” With the two of them tethered 100 feet below, the helicopter flew to the nearest safe landing site.
The system had been developed over the past year and a half and deployed this spring. Monday’s rescue was the Forest Service’s first with the new system.
“We basically took an 18-hour carry and turned it into an eight-mile ride,” said John Crowley, the Forest Service’s chief pilot.
The new rescue system was just one of a series of breaks that got Hamara off Maine’s tallest mountain without further injury to him or others.
There was Francey, the nurse, being there when Hamara gashed his elbow, wrapping it in gauze and changing the dressing, which would become saturated, as they passed hikers who offered supplies.
There was the emergency room doctor they encountered just as Hamara aggravated his injury, who put Hamara’s shoulder back in place.
And there was the weather, or lack of it. Storm clouds threatened for much of Monday afternoon but the rain held off until Hamara was safely away.
Hamara, who through-hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2009 and reached the summit of Katahdin, knows that hiking has its perils.
A month ago, the retired FBI agent from just north of Houston was hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain when he developed an acute pain in his abdomen. A few days later, he was having surgery to remove his appendix.
Ten days later, he was back on the trail, maneuvering his backpack hip belt so that it didn’t press against his incision.
Hamara retired from law enforcement in 2001 — his trail name is NedtheFed — and a few years later connected with a friend who was planning to hike the Appalachian Trail from Springer Mountain, Ga., to Katahdin.
“I got the hiker bug,” he said.
He hiked his first sections of the Appalachian Trail in 2005, and did long sections in other years.
This year, he planned to join a friend for the northern end of the Appalachian Trail. He got a campsite at the Katahdin Springs Campground for June 30 and July 1, Sunday and Monday.
Sunday night, the forecast was iffy for the Katahdin climb, the start of a hike that he planned to take as far as Pennsylvania.
“There was supposed to be a cold front coming in and we didn’t know how it was going to affect the weather,” he said. “We were up at 4 a.m. We waited around until about 6 a.m. It looked pretty good and there were other hikers headed up.”
They signed in at the trailhead for the Hunt Trail at 5:58 a.m. on Monday.
The trail turns steep quickly, and walking becomes work.
“I knew the climb up Katahdin was going to be brutal for both of us. It just starts out nothing but rocks,” Hamara said. “It’s just a continuous climb of rocks.”
Hamara’s companion went ahead.
“Being the iron man he is, he took off and I never saw him again. He was too excited and jacked up and ready to hike,” he said.
Hamara was above the tree line by 9 a.m. He came to a steep, challenging section, ascending about 20 yards. A younger hiker passed him and scurried up the face.
“They’ve got all the cartilage in their knees and can scamper anything,” Hamara said.
That hiker was Francey, who is 25 and has been a nurse for a year.
“I had come up to a part I remember being the most challenging part of the mountain,” Francey said. “(Hamara) was having trouble getting up this pretty steep rock face.
“I turned around to watch him. He started sliding and I reached out my hand. A couple seconds later this big giant boulder slid out” as Hamara grabbed it, he said. “It happened quick.”
The boulder seemed like a logical thing to grab.
“It’s kind of part of the trail. I used it on my way up,” Francey said. “I think everybody has to, where it is. It must be loose from the winter.”
Hamara said there was little he could do when the rock gave way.
“As soon as I heard the crunch of rock breaking, I kind of turned on my back and the boulder pushed me down the incline on my left side,” he said. “The boulder probably went about 10 to 12 feet and stopped.”
He and Francey sat for a while, the rock perched precariously above them. Hamara was lightheaded and couldn’t stand right away. Before they left, they affixed a note to the boulder, warning hikers not to rely on it for support.
The mishap occurred 1,000 feet above the 3,000-foot tree line, said Baxter State Park Chief Canger Ben Woodard.
Hamara and Francey started down the mountain.
As Hamara pulled himself through a narrow opening where the trail passes under a large boulder, his shoulder popped out.
A man who was waiting with his family for the passage to clear stepped forward to help. He was an emergency room doctor.
“He came down to the little hole I was in and was able to put my shoulder back into the socket, and able to drag me up on top of the rock,” Hamara said, “At that point I realized something was seriously wrong with my left foot. When I was on my feet, the pain was excruciating.”
The doctor sent his wife and children ahead and joined Francey in escorting Hamara down.
“During our walk down, my shoulder came out three more times. The doctor put it back in three more times,” Hamara said.
At the base of a section called the monkey bars, for the steel rungs imbedded in a steep rock face, another hiker got a cellphone signal and called 911.
“The call was dropped almost as soon as we got the information to who we called,” Francey said.
But about two hours later, they encountered Yves Baribeau, a park ranger who had set out to meet them after getting the call. He had a plastic boot that Hamara strapped onto his injured foot. They made for an open expanse on the trail.
Meanwhile, the park had called the Maine Forest Service.
The Forest Service has seven helicopters, which have been used for rescues on flat sections of Katahdin — not the kind of terrain where Hamara was. The Forest Service decided a year and a half ago to develop its short haul system, and it put it to use Monday.
Crowley, the chief pilot, said the helicopter took off from Old Town around noon. Chris Blackie was the pilot, with Lincoln Mazzei as crew chief and Tom Liba as rescuer.
The initial rescue spot was too dangerous.
“It was a very small spot,” said Crowley. “We can get into a small spot, but it was surrounded by tall, scraggly dead trees. It was just dangerous for a rescuer on line.”
Baribeau was told to move Hamara to a better spot. Meanwhile, the helicopter left for refueling.
When it returned, Hamara was perched alongside Rescue Rock.
Blackie slowly lowered the Huey, trying to keep it from shifting in any direction that might throw Liba, hanging 100 feet below, into a tree or rock.
The helicopter pilot can’t see the line, so he relies on directions from the crew chief.
Hamara said, “The helicopter is so low, it’s like a hurricane on the ground, with all the debris flying around.”
Francey said Hamara, who had been mostly cheerful to that point, turned serious and silent.
As the helicopter descended, Liba was spinning. Finally, he touched ground and disconnected from the line.
Liba pulled Hamara to the top of the rock and put him into the red screamer suit, which Crowley described as a full body web of straps with a carabiner in the front to hook to the line.
Liba hooked himself and Hamara to the helicopter, and they lifted off.
“He says, ‘You’re about to be in for a ride of your life,'” Hamara said. “We just take off straight up in the air. I thought I was going to be pulled up. No. They just dangle you from a helicopter.”
It was more exhilarating than frightening.
“It was a nice little ride. I got good scenery. It was perfect,” he said.
Flying 40 knots over the countryside, they landed at Caribou Pit, an unused gravel pit, 15 minutes later and met an ambulance.
Hamara was taken first to Millinocket Hospital for X-rays, then to Eastern Maine Medical Center. He was told that the metatarsal bones — toes — in his left foot had shifted to one side and come apart from the tendons. He had surgery on Tuesday.
The doctor said the surgery went well but he faces at least a month in a wheelchair.
“I’m not really happy about it,” he said. “This is going to drive me nuts.”
But once his rehabilitation is complete, he said, he plans to hit the trail again.
David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: