The blades on the Flight for Life helicopter chewed into thin air as pilot Shawn McFarland fought to control the bird on a gusty summer afternoon above the high slopes of Almagre Mountain, southwest of Colorado Springs.
McFarland had joined the Army before he graduated high school. He learned to fly as a member of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment in Operation Desert Storm. He often transported soldiers across the dangerous skies above Anbar province during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
But this rescue mission high in the Rocky Mountains proved to be something different. Far below, on a ragged road used mostly by mountain bikers and runners, cyclist Jim Heidelberg lay bleeding to death.
The longtime athlete enjoyed pushing himself. Heidelberg had completed the Pikes Peak Marathon 16 times, finishing as high as fourth place. A former Pikes Peak Cog Railway engineer, he once raced the train from the mountain’s summit to the cog station at the base of Pikes Peak. He covered the 8.9-mile distance in less than 50 minutes, beating the train by 20.
On Aug. 6, 2015, Heidelberg loaded his mountain bike in his car and drove to the Stars-more Visitor and Nature Center at the mouth of Cheyenne Cañon. Epic rides were his norm. This time he was headed up the second highest peak in the region. He threw his leg over his bike seat and pedaled for 15 miles, climbing approximately 6,000 vertical feet. Above timberline on a steep pitch, his legs gave out, and he struggled to release his cleats from his pedals. He had been barely moving, but the crash came quickly—followed by the sickening realization that something had gone freakishly wrong.
“I fell to my right, and I felt my groin burning,” Heidelberg says. “I pulled my pants down, and I had ruptured my femoral vein. I was spurting blood. I thought to myself, There is no way I can survive this.”
The bike’s break lever had ripped into his leg. Exhausted from the climb, his pulse hammered away at 170 beats per minute. Within seconds he collapsed unconscious to the ground.
“I don’t know how long I was passed out,” Heidelberg says. “When I woke up, the blood had congealed, like jello. And then I passed out again.”
Heidelberg works as a surgical nurse at the Orthopaedic and Spine Center of Southern Colorado. He knows a medical emergency when he sees one, and his life was in serious danger. When he gained consciousness for a second time, he managed to place a football-sized rock between his legs to put pressure on the vein. Again, he passed out.
Cellphone service in Colorado’s mountains can be sketchy. Heidelberg doesn’t know how he managed to make a 911 call for help. “I woke up and thought, God, I’m still alive,” he says. “I dialed and got an ‘all circuits busy’ recording. Finally, Colorado Springs 911 answered and transferred me to Teller County Sheriff’s dispatcher Tracy Reinholz. I kept losing consciousness, but she started the wheels in motion.”
In minutes, McFarland, paramedic Billy Hanley and flight nurse Megan Hawbaker were in the air. They left St. Francis Medical Center in northeast Colorado Springs and charged toward Almagre. McFarland’s Airbus H125 helicopter is made for flying at high altitudes. But the day’s warm temperatures created less air density. Landing at 12,000 feet would be more like landing at 15,000.
Heidelberg slipped in and out of consciousness. He says he ultimately lost half the blood in his body. He thought he would die, and he felt a profound sense of sadness for his wife and two teenage children. “I told Tracy [the dispatcher] to tell my wife and kids that I love them,” Heidelberg says. “And even though I was really dying, I thought, That sounds so cliché.”
Heidelberg saw the chopper swing by him and then fly away as McFarland tried to locate the downed rider. Hanley ultimately spotted him. McFarland could see the crimson blood shining in the sunlight.
“I flew away and checked to see that I had enough power to land,” McFarland says. “Even though your heart is in your throat, you still have to collect yourself and make sure the performance of the aircraft will meet what you want it to do. It can be very unforgiving up there. It’s difficult, because you want to get there right away.”
He set the Airbus down about one-third of a mile uphill from Heidelberg. “[The spot was] just big enough for a helicopter, but that’s about it,” he says.
Hawbaker and Hanley hiked to Heidelberg, but getting him back to the chopper over rugged terrain and in time was another challenge.
Then came a stroke of luck. Woodland Park resident Matthew Eden had driven his truck up the road, planning to propose to his girlfriend, Joy Loveall. The truck was parked near the helicopter. Eden later said nervousness about the marriage proposal caused him to leave the keys in the ignition.
After honking the horn to attract the owner, McFarland made a decision to borrow the truck, which he backed down the road to the injured rider. “I was hoping they wouldn’t show up with a gun and shoot me,” McFarland says.
His fears were alleviated when Eden and Loveall returned. “He [Eden] was looking at us like, What the hell are you doing? I said, ‘We’re having a medical emergency, and we need your help.’ They didn’t ask about the truck,” McFarland says. “They just helped us.”
The medical team gave him two units of blood. McFarland pointed his bird toward Penrose Hospital, where Heidelberg was hustled into surgery.
“They repaired the blood vessel and filled me up with blood,” Heidelberg says. “I spent one night in the hospital, and I was out of there.”
Now 57, Heidelberg recently climbed to the 14,199-foot summit of Mount Yale with his son. “It felt good, because I thought I was a goner,” he says.
In August he raced in the Pikes Peak Ascent. He insists he wants to put the Almagre accident behind him, but he says Flight for Life crews can never get too much recognition. “They’re heroes in the clutch,” he says. McFarland was honored with a Hometown Hero award by the American Red Cross. And Joy accepted Matthew’s proposal.