Freeland photographer recovering after being airlifted from hiking accident

For being in one of the most scenic areas in the state, it wasn’t a pretty picture. Noted Freeland photographer Earl Olsen is in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being airlifted from a hiking accident in the Cascade Mountains last weekend.

  • Sunday, September 28, 2008 3:20pm
  • News

For being in one of the most scenic areas in the state, it wasn’t a pretty picture.

Noted Freeland photographer Earl Olsen is in Harborview Medical Center in Seattle after being airlifted from a hiking accident in the Cascade Mountains last weekend.

“That put a dent in our schedule,” Olsen said Wednesday from his intensive-care hospital bed.

Both he and his artist wife, Natalie, were to be featured on the annual Whidbey Open Studio Tour this weekend. Not any more.

“It’s just not meant to be,” Natalie Olsen said Thursday. “And I sent out 400 postcards for the two of us. I guess I’ll put a sign up in the driveway.”

A week ago Friday, Olsen, 72, and Jim Nilsen, 52, of Seattle, were on the second day of a four-day hike in Goat Rocks Wilderness, a volcanic area in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest in southwest Washington.

After setting out about noon the day before, they were approaching Goat Lake at about 1,200 feet elevation.

Olsen said the hardrock trail was strewn with volcanic pebbles. He slipped and fell about two feet, and slid another couple of feet, landing with all his weight and the weight of his heavy pack on his right leg and hip.

The result: two fractures in his hip, and one in his leg.

“So here I am, 11 or 12 miles from the car,” Olsen said. “What do we do now?”

They had left their cellphones behind. “We didn’t think we’d need them,” Olsen said.

The weather was clear. They decided to pitch a tent on a nearby snowfield and wait for two hikers from Oregon who they knew would catch up to them soon.

Dave Cross, of Albany, and Tom Brady, of Hillsboro, arrived shortly after the tent was up, and the three of them moved Olsen into it.

“That was a pretty difficult transition, with the rough terrain and boulders to dodge,” Olsen said. “I must have passed out at least once.”

Nilsen took Brady’s cellphone and hiked for a half-hour to a higher elevation and called 911. The operator promised a helicopter as soon as possible.

Then the weather began to turn ugly, with clouds, rain, snow and wind.

“We thought, ‘This is not looking good,’” Olsen said.

They were contemplating a night in the tent, when a helicopter from Naval Air Station Whidbey Island arrived about 6 p.m., he said. They loaded Olsen aboard and headed for Harborview.

“It was a good ride, no problems,” Olsen said Wednesday. “The Navy guys were great. One of them called, asked me how I was doing.”

He arrived at the hospital about 7 p.m., where pins and plates were fitted to his fractures.

Olsen said he got into hiking and skiing in the 1960s in California. He was on his sixth annual birthday hiking trip when the accident occurred. He turned 72 in the hospital on Monday.

“I called him Monday and asked him how it feels to be 72,” Natalie Olsen said. “He said ‘It sucks.’ Poor guy. What a dumb thing.”

He was removed from intensive care on Thursday, but still faces rehabilitation before he can come home, she said.

Olsen said he’s determined to resume his outdoor activities.

“It was such a beautiful area,” he said. “We should all get together and do it again next year.”

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