Snakes are a common feature in the Australian bush. They're often spotted in canyons or on the entry / exit walks. Thankfully, very few canyoners get bitten. The following first-person accounts come from two members of the party, including the injured man. There's some really interesting insights and suggestions that may come in handy if a member of your party is bitten by a snake on a canyoning trip.
Republished from Canyon Tales:
Account by Tony Maurer:
How the tide turns.
As we prepared for the day with anticipation of what lay before us, no one was contemplating that the day would present itself, with a life–threatening situation.
After having a great day canyoning, with the only disappointment being Scatters canyon—I suppose we expected more but still and all it was a nice bushwalk—it was just another out, a simple walk up the spur to the fire trail, hence back to the car. We were one and a half hours from the car and not quite halfway up the spur when a Tiger snake struck and everything went to hell.
I didn’t see the snake; the untracked terrain was more in his favour then mine, dead leaf and bark litter on the ground and heath up to our shoulders. I don’t know why the snake didn’t skedaddle; we were whining loud enough about the walk up the spur and we weren’t exactly tip–toeing through the bush.
It frightened the hell out of me; all of a sudden there was a sharp sting in the side of my calf. Instinctively my leg lashed out, and as I looked down there was either a Death Adder or Tiger snake, approx 60cm long, flying through the air as it was flung from my leg.
Joe and Dave enquired, “What’s wrong?”
I inform them a Tiger or an Adder bit me.
“Are you serious!?” exclaimed Joe.
I reached down and lifted my pants leg revealing 3 puncture marks. I got a little anxious, and quietly thought, “This could be bad, how bad is it going to get, will I be able to get to the fire trail. Na ... it’s probably a dry bite, or maybe it was only a mild bite; should get to the access road still standing?”
At this point my heart rate was high due to the incline we were marching up; this would help the venom get into my system much more rapidly. We quickly applied a pressure bandage from the knee down to my ankle as we only had three bandages—ideally it should be applied from the groin down to the ankle. We rested here for a while to bring my heart rate down and see what was going to happen with symptoms, all the time praying for some sort of miracle, but it was not to be.
3.15 PM—Just 15 minutes after the bite—I have a mild headache feel nauseous, and start to vomit, which we hoped was anxiety related rather then the first sign of symptoms. The vomiting subsided rather quickly and I didn’t fell too bad. We briefly discussed what the plan of action would be. Joe and Dave thought I should stay still but, feeling a bit anxious and trying to convince myself that the bite was not that bad, I insisted that I was up to moving on further. We were still in timbered terrain—not in a good spot for a rescue—and I was certain I could get far enough to improve our position and chances at a more efficient rescue, at this point still fooling myself that it would not come to that.
We decided to move slowly as to exert as little energy as possible and try and keep my heart rate down. Joe would take my pack and we will see how things go. We had proceeded on for 15 minutes, only travelling a short distance, when I started to vomit again, my headache was getting worse, and I started feeling weak and a bit dizzy. With things getting worse, I requested that Dave leave the EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radiobeacon) with Joe and I, go on ahead, and raise the alarm with his mobile phone back at Hole–in–the–wall car–park. And when I pull myself together, Joe and myself would try to continue on behind. Eventually I managed to go a little further for maybe 10 minutes more before I was vomiting again. I felt too sick and too weak to continue with my futile effort to get to the fire trail. Fortunately we had made it to a relatively clear and open area out of the timber, no problems if air retrieval was called for. I informed Joe I was not able to continue and we should make our stand here. At this point, still vomiting, intense headache, vision now getting blurry, abdominal pain and growing weaker, I couldn’t do much for myself now.
Joe took control of the situation now and proceeded to make me comfortable and reassure me that we will be laughing about this next week. With more than enough dry warm gear to see the night out if need be, Joe made me a bed out of our wet suits, helped me put on my wet weather jacket, and covered me with what thermal clothing we had; 3 pair I think.
4.00 PM—Not long after Joe had settled me in, I began to vomit again, only now just blood and foam; vision was getting worse; pain around the bite area and sore lymphatic system up and down my leg; the abdominal and headache pain increasing; hot and cold flushes; kidney pain; and really getting weaker. Reluctantly I asked Joe to turn on the EPIRB.
For the next two and a half hours Joe kept me going by constantly telling me that it will all be over soon and just to relax and focus on my breathing. He kept me conscious by talking to me, asking how I was feeling, he took clothing off me when I felt too hot and put more on me when I felt cold. He tried to easy my anxiety by telling me, I wasn’t vomiting blood and that it was just bile, and even sat beside me holding up clothing to shade me from the sun. During this time, with my condition worsening, I had a lot of mixed thoughts. Early in the piece, I had accepted the fact that I was in a bad way and not much to do but try to stay awake, breath, and keep fighting. This became rather difficult as time went on; not long before the chopper arrived it was getting difficult to breath and I just wanted to go to sleep.
I asked Joe, “Are you up on your CPR?” as I tried to prepare him for the worst. I really thought I would not be able to stay conscious much longer.
He assures me saying, “I’ve got it covered, it will be fine, and the chopper will be here soon.”
I replied saying “I don’t know Joe, it’s a matter of who is going to get here first.”
It was getting late and I was really starting to give up hope, thinking in my own mind that the onset of paralysis was going to get to me before the Paramedics. Joe still convincing me to just relax and concentrate on breathing. I felt bad for Joe at the position I had put him in—he may actually have to watch me die. I can’t imagine how desperate and helpless he must of felt, but he put his brave face and cool head on.
I remember thinking to myself, “So this is it, a bloody snake is the way I am going to go? No way!” I thought, “Don’t you give up with out a fight, you can’t do this to Joe.”
Reaching deep, I got a bit of a second wind and focused all my attention on my breathing; with Joe’s ongoing encouragement, I thought maybe the chopper will get here soon, so I kept fighting.
It is hard for me to put into words at how having Joe there kept me going; so I’ll put it to you this way. As one who has suffered this experience, I found that I felt more at ease, quite calm and relaxed, at peace and not alone. I would gladly do someone the same turn and can honestly say that it means a great deal to the patient to have someone there.
6.30pm—Finally we hear the approaching Care Flight chopper.
This lifted our spirits immensely, so much so that I actually began thinking I am going to survive this ordeal and said to Joe, “Start filming Joe, I am not doing this again.”
Unable to land, the chopper dropped off two Paramedics and they began to treat me. They are informed of the situation, I am diagnosed as having definite symptoms of a severe venomous snakebite. But being that I could not be 100% sure that it was definitely a Tiger snake they did not administer any anti venom as such. They administered an IV for fluids and injected me with Stemotal, which stopped the nauseous and vomiting; then cut away my clothing and applied a pressure bandage from my groin to my ankle; then stretcher me and prepare everything for the extraction. This took 25 minutes,
7.15 PM—Care Flight winched me on board and flew me to Nepean Hospital.
Upon arrival at Nepean Hospital nearing 8.00 PM, I was taken straight to the Resuscitation unit. It didn’t take long to confirm that it was a Tiger snake bite. With adrenalin on hand, in case of heart failure or an allergic reaction to the antivenom, they began administering the antivenom. Fortunately I responded well to the antivenom and was sent to the ICU.
40 hrs and 13 vials of antivenom later I was feeling a lot better.
Even though we made a few bungles, they were only petty; Joe and Dave did all they could and all they needed to do. And I am sincerely grateful to them, as I am to everyone involved.
Account by Joe Bugden:
The following is my account of an accident that occured whilst Canyoning on Sunday the 5th in a semi–remote section of the Blue Mountains. The accident itself was not Canyon related but it did happen on a Canyon trip.
The day started with a descent of the spectacularly crap Scatters Canyon. Tony, Dave and I had just climbed up through the cliff–line and were beginning up the gentle, but ultra–scrubby (scrub is like thick brush/sticks/trees/bush’s and stuff) slope toward the old Fire Road.
Tony was out front with Deputy and me off to either side. Tony gives out a bit of a yell, jumps around some, then explains that he has trodden on a snake and was just bitten. Naturally, we think he’s joking around. He assures us he is not. He lifts up his trouser leg (Tony was wearing long pants, both Dave and I had shorts on) and reveals the puncture wounds on his upper shin. Neither Dave nor I saw the snake and Tony didn’t get a real good look at it. He reckons it may have been an Adder or Tiger Snake. It turned out to be the latter.
3 PM—We immediately bandage Tony’s leg. Dave and I check out the Map. We are approx 2km from and 150m below the Fire Road. From the Fire Road, it was another 1km to the car (GR502008 Wollangambe Map). Dave gives us his EPIRB (not yet switched on) and takes off for the car park to raise the alarm. (Dave had received a phone call in the car park at the end of the Waratah Ridge Fire Road, prior to departing for the Canyon in the morning, so we knew he would have phone reception—bigups to Optus).
Tony tells me he still feels good and wants to continue on with the hope of reaching the road. I take his pack and we begin up the slope. The scrub is thick (over head height in most places) and the going is slow.
3.30 PM—Tony begins vomiting approx. every 15–25 mins from now until he is winched out 4 hrs later. By luck we are stopped on an open rock face surrounded by knee–high scrub. I make a bed out of wetsuits and try and get Tony comfortable. I continually ask Tony questions about what he is feeling and reassure him it’s gunna be sweet.
4 PM—Tony’s condition is getting worse. It is around this time that Tony asks me to turn the EPIRB on—yet another sign that his condition was grim, as this has always been considered a last resort.
Vomit now contains traces of blood. He complains about a tight chest and blurry vision. He suffers from regular hot and cold flushes. I gather together all the warm clothes we have, put some on him and use the rest as a blanket. Tony asks me if I know CPR. I tell him, “I got it covered,” but I secretly hope I don’t have to test my skills. I keep telling him he’s doin’ good, to concentrate on the rhythm of his breathing, and to relax ... “’cause it’s awe’ight, you’ll be outta here in no time.”
Dave reaches the car park, calls 000, and explains the situation. He then drives to meet the Police at the Jctn. of the Waratah Ridge Road and Glow Worm Road.
4.30 PM—Police arrive at the Jctn. and are guided to the car park by Dave. Ambulance arrives, and they begin the wait for the Helicopter.
5–6 PM—Tony’s in a bad way. His vomit is now mostly blood. He only answers questions with mumbles and groans. I can tell he is freaked out by the sight of blood in his vomit, so I try to convince him it’s just bile ’cause there’s nothing in his guts. He begins to complain that he is cold, so I move him into a survival blanket. I continue to reassure Tony and try to get him to maintain steady breathing. I feel pretty useless. There is not much I can do but talk to him, try to keep him relaxed, and keep calm myself. I begin to feel we may be here overnight. We have more than enough warm clothes, food, and drink, but Tony’s not getting any better and, by morning, would surely be worse.
Dave, 2 Police, 2 Ambulance and 2 NRMA Care–Flight blokes start in on foot with the plan of meeting up with the chopper at the accident scene.
6.30ish—I hear the ‘thump–thump’ of the NRMA Care–Flight Helicopter approaching, then see it coming toward us. The chopper drops off two doctor types, and they begin treating Tony immediately. They run through their procedures, insert a drip thing, ask a few questions, make a few radio calls etc. They move Tony into a stretcher and prepare him for a winch–out. The Doctor mentions that the EPIRB has done its job and should be switched off.
Dave, 2 Police, 2 Ambulance and 2 NRMA Care–Flight blokes are standing on a pagoda several hundred meters away, on the wrong spur, watching the Helicopter drop off the Paramedics. Dave, 2 Police, 2 Ambulance and 2 NRMA Care–Flight blokes begin back–tracking to the Fire Road. Upon reaching the Fire Road they decided to wait there, knowing that I would be making my way up to the same location.
7.30pm—Care–Flight Helicopter takes off with Tony. I begin the walk out.
Super thick scrub, growing darkness, an extra pack, and a heightened paranoia of snakes makes this no fun at all. I reach a knoll I’ve been focusing on and realize I am not exactly where I thought I was. I continue on knowing I can’t be that far off–track. I am sure the Fire Road runs along the top of the next knoll that is only a few hundred meters away. As I plod along it dawns on me that maybe Dave thinks I got a chopper ride out too. I begin to fear that, when I arrive at the car park, I will find it empty.
I reach the next knoll just as darkness settled in ... no Fire Road.
“Lovely,” I think. “Perfect ending to the perfect day ... unbelievable!”
I have flashes of spending the night with the creatures of the scrub. I remember the Doctor bloke saying the EPIRB saved us and not really mentioning Dave’s rescue efforts. I begin to think maybe Dave didn’t make it out at all.
I bust out my head–torch and fire it up. Just as I’m reaching for the map and compass I hear a “coo–ee!” It sounds like Dave and he’s close. I yell back. He answers. I stumble off in the direction of the noise. Within meters, I break through the wall of scrub and find myself on the Fire Road.
8.30 PM—I meet up with Dave, 2 Police and 2 Ambulance who are waiting close to where the spur I climbed and the Fire Road meet. I happily pass over the extra pack I’ve been carrying to a willing Police Officer, and we stroll on back to the car. Along the way we came across several SES (State Emergency Service) blokes who were on their way in with a whole bunch of water etc. Back at the car we gave the fuzz our details and finally began the drive, arriving home about 11 PM.
• I didn’t give Dave a Grid Reference before he left, only pointed at where we were and how to get out. I even had a GPS but didn’t think to use it.
• Tony and I didn’t sit down and stay where we were when he got bitten.
• Although I constantly monitored his condition visually (watched his breathing etc.), I had no pen so could not make a running record of his condition.
• A full–on afternoon, it is often tempting to cut down on surplus gear on what is expected to be an easy day. Sometimes I can be a bit slack when it comes to bringing along extra/emergency gear, but, thankfully on this day, between the three of us, we had enough of the right equipment to see us all through.
I have always known that snakes pose a danger but never realized how quickly and how heavily a bite could affect the victim. I know the chances of a bite are low but as I learned on Sunday, the consequences are high, so it is definitely something to keep in mind out there.
The three of us would normally be all for self–rescue, but this was an extreme circumstance. And I feel we made the right choice by going for outside help.
Huge thanks to all the Rescue folk. They arrived when they were most needed and provided the medical assistance that probably saved Tony’s life. They may have their minor organizational flaws, but they do a damn fine job regardless. I can’t thank them enough.
Last I heard from Tony he was on Tiger Snake Anti–Venom injection No.12 and, although he is still a bit under the weather and might not be Canyoning this weekend, he is expected to make a full recovery.
Things could have been a lot worse and I am very thankful they turned out as well as they did.
Sharing details when things go wrong to make canyoning safer.
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