Beer Finger

By Bob Robb

It had been a long, arduous two weeks of hunting in the Alaskan bush, and Bo and I were worn ragged and desperate for a decent meal and a proper cocktail. So naturally, as soon as the bush plane dumped us and our gear in Anchorage, we headed to our favorite watering hole, Club Paris, having dreamt about its famous Petite Filet and King Crab Leg Combo after 10 days of freeze-dried dog shit. First, a couple of double old fashioneds on the rocks to ease the sore muscles, of course.

The bar has the same dark wood, classic décor, Bogart & Bacall-ish atmosphere as when the joint opened in the 1950’s. When we walked in, Bo said, “Hey, look who’s here. You have to meet this guy, he’s even crazier about sheep hunting than you.”

Physically, the guy was nothing special, of average size, and, like us, he appeared to have come directly from the bush, an assumption confirmed when he said he’d been in the Chugach chasing Dall sheep. When he reached out to shake with his right hand, I noticed that his left hand cradled a longneck Budweiser, with his little finger curled oddly under the bottle. Being something of an inquisitive wiseass, I asked about it.

“That’s my beer finger,” he said, as he set the bottle on the bar and showed me his hand. The little finger had obviously been mangled, and the ring finger was trashed, too. “Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you about it.” So, with a two old fashioned buzz going and feeling like Kenny Rogers singing “The Gambler,” I ordered another round as we bellied up.

“In 1994, I thought I was a pretty tough guy,” he said. “I was 42 years old, fit as a fiddle, with lots of Alaska hunting under my belt. When a buddy bailed on me at the last minute, I decided, ‘Why not?’ and foolishly went Dall sheep hunting solo.

“Mike Meekin of Meekin’s Air Service dropped me off on a remote strip in the Talkeetna Mountains three days before opening day,” the story went. “I backpacked a day from the strip to my campsite, then scouted until opening morning. I’d found some rams, so I loaded my hunting pack, climbed over the ridge, and started hoofing it along an old caribou trail near the top. I glassed the rams for an hour or so but didn’t see anything that got me all that excited. It was a hot, sunny day and knowing that rams like to hang around the ice when it’s hot, I decided to head back toward a glacier a couple miles away to see what I could find.

“The trail led through a big shale slide, no big deal really; I’ve been over these things a million times, so about 0600 off I went. I advanced slowly under the boulders above me, feeling my way along, when out of nowhere, a Volkswagen-sized boulder came loose for some reason known only to God, and started a mini-avalanche. I tried to jump forward out of the way, and almost made it. But the boulder clipped my frame pack, my feet went out from under me, and next thing you know, I was butt-sliding down a vertical shale face.”

The dude took a swig of Bud, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and continued on with a sort of far-away look in his eyes.

“I tried to stop my fall, but I was bouncing like a pinball, descending feet first. I went maybe 50 yards before hitting the brakes on the edge of a 100-yard drop-off. On the way down I actually saw my left ankle dig into a little crevice, and when it popped out it flopped like a rag doll as I kept sliding, all while digging my hands into the rock to slow the fall. When I finally stopped, I knew my ankle was broken, so I didn’t even try to loosen the boot laces, knowing if I did the thing would swell up and I’d never get the boot back on. When I wiped my hands on my pants, there was blood everywhere. That’s when I saw that the little finger on my left hand had nearly been sliced off by the jagged shale, and the ring finger was cut deeply from tip to base. 

“As the dust settled, I thought, Well, hot damn, we’re in it now, aren’t we? So I went through my checklist.

“I’ve had wilderness survival training, and carried with me a small first aid kit with some ‘when the shit hits the fan’ essentials, so I got to work. I’d fallen feet first, with my pack protecting my body and head, so no life-threatening injuries to worry about. I poured some water over my fingers to clean the blood and dirt off and patted them dry with a bandana. I picked a couple of bone shards out, gooped my wounded fingers up with some Bacitracin, wrapped a little gauze around them, and taped it all together with some white athletic tape, which stopped the bleeding.

“Meekin wasn’t going to come back and check on me for four days, so I thought the best thing to do was to get back to my tent, where I had a week’s worth of food, and wait it out. But camp was back up over the mountain, and with my ankle and hand all dicked up, I couldn’t make the climb. The only thing I could do was head down into the valley. 

“You know the rule of threes, right?” the dude asked, looking me in the eye. “You can survive three days without water, and three weeks without food. I had no food with me except a small lunch, but I needed water and a flat place to wait for the airplane. About 1,000 vertical feet below me was a little flat spot where I knew there was a small seep of water trickling out of the rock. If I could get there, I could use my survival gear to erect a small shelter and I’d be fine. The trouble was, I couldn’t stand on my left leg.

“So, what I did was this: I had a packable rain suit in a red stuff sack, took it out, and tied it and my light jacket around my waist. I filled the bag with my survival essentials, cut a piece of parachute cord, made a bandoleer out of it and slung it over my shoulders. I put gloves on to protect my hands, and grudgingly left everything else—backpack, rifle, binoculars, everything— and did the ‘butt slide boogie.’ Which basically was, sit on my ass, legs extended in front of me, lift my body up with my arms while taking care not to put pressure on the broken fingers, skooch forward, sit down, and repeat.”

“Holy Crap,” I said.

“I had to find my way down the slope,” dude continued, “and it took exactly 11 hours to make it to the bottom. I’d play games with myself to help me keep going. It’s only 50 skooches to that next boulder, you can do that. Stuff like that. By the time I got to the creek 10 hours later I was exhausted, but that’s when my luck changed.

“High up in the stratosphere someplace I heard a jet cruising. Part of my wilderness survival gear is a small hand-held radio that gets aircraft frequencies. I knew that big aircraft with multiple radios always have one tuned to 121.5 MHz, the universal emergency frequency only used when all hell has broken loose. I figured this qualified, so I sent out a Mayday call. Almost instantly the aircraft responded. It was a FedEx cargo jet heading from Anchorage to Memphis. After a few minutes of back-and-forth, I convinced the crew this wasn’t a hoax and they contacted a hospital in Anchorage. I spoke to the hospital through the now-circling jet, explained exactly what happened and my estimated location. They told me they didn’t know where the hell Horse Pasture Pass was so I gave them Mike Meekin’s phone number. As the FedEx jet continued to circle, the hospital called Meekin, who said he could direct them. I was instructed to ‘hang tight’ as the LifeGuard helicopter was being dispatched posthaste.

“The FedEx crew then signed off and headed south, and I remember thinking, Damn, I hope these folks weren’t kidding about the chopper. So like a good Boy Scout, I skooched about 75 yards from my spot to a big flat area where I knew the bird could land safely, spread my space blanket silver side up for them to home in on, skooched back to my spot, and passed out. It was now about 7:00 p.m.

“Thwop thwop thwop. I woke up to the chopper descending. That’s when my world went into cinematic mode. The helicopter settled, the side door slid open, and here she came. An athletic female paramedic was jogging towards me in slow motion—or maybe I just saw it in slow motion. She was gorgeous and her hair seemed to be floating in the rotor wash, but you can’t trust visions like this in an emergency. In my shell shocked stupor, I thought, Hell, this might work out.

“They put me on the backboard, got me into the helicopter, hooked me up to the vitals machine, and when we got to Providence Hospital an hour or so later, they got me into a room where the doctor came in. He checked me over, cut my boots off, took some X-rays, got me onto an IV drip, and said the surgeon would be in to see me first thing in the morning.

“So next morning the nurse strolls in and starts me on the pre-op calm-you-down drugs. Then the doc comes in and says, looking at the chart, ‘We’re gonna prep you for surgery. Your fibula is snapped; I am going to put a little metal plate on it. The tibia is cracked, so we’ll just stabilize it. Your ankle is broken in six places, so I am going to screw it together. None of this is a big deal, OK? But your hand … the ring finger I can sew up, but that little finger is mangled. I am not sure I can save it, but if I do, you’ll never be able to bend it again.’

“In that drugged-up haze, I remember telling him, ‘Doc, I just need to hold three things with that hand—my beer, my bow, and my dick, alright?’ He grinned and said, ‘I’m on it.’ When I came to after surgery I learned two things: I really, really like morphine, and the doctor was true to his word.

“And that’s how I got the beer finger.”

“Helluva story. You’re  a badass,” I said, and I meant it. Lesser men would not have the wherewithal to make it off that mountain after such a wicked fall. I started to turn my head to ask Bo if he was ready to eat when an empty bottle perched atop a gnarled pinky came wagging into my periphery. 

“My beer’s empty. Buy me another?”

From the FE Films Archive

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