How NOT to catch a Rattlesnake. 
The story of my rattlesnake bite.

See the video! Go here for a 13 minute TV segment that ran on The Outdoor Channel in July 2002 detailing the event .  Broadband only!  It's 26 megs of high-definition streaming video.  Please let me know if you have problems.

Let's get one thing straight from the onset: You do not need to fear going into the backcountry as a result of the story you are about to read.  I have been backpacking in Yosemite for 22 years and this is the first time I have even seen a rattlesnake.  So, with that in mind,...

Also, I apologize for not having any pictures of this gruesome event, but we did get plenty of video though.

Little Yosemite Valley campground.

We had just returned from the hike up Half Dome and were preparing for dinner when we heard murmurs of a rattlesnake curled up "over there".  Curious, we went to look and saw a 4-foot Western Rattlesnake curled up right in the middle of a heavy traffic area in the campground.  This snake definitely needed to be moved because there were many children around and neophyte adults, and it was lying in a high-traffic area between the fire pits and the main body of camp sites. I proceeded to try to "herd" it out of the area.  It did not want to cooperate, so I made a decision to try to catch it and move it to an unpopulated area.

Now, having caught many rattlesnakes when I lived in Texas, I had no fear, but I did not have my normal snake-handling tools, so I had to improvise.  I found a long semi-stout pine branch with a split end, and then went and found the suspect critter.  There he was, sure enough, a four-foot Western Rattlesnake.  He was not in a defensive mode, appeared not to be aroused, so I first attempted to herd him out of the area.  All he wanted to do is move slightly and curl up again, apparently, wanting nothing except to be left alone.  This was not possible inasmuch as someone was definitely going to step on this beast if left in the area.  So, I decided to go ahead and catch him, lift him from the ground and carry him deeper into the adjoining forest.  He was not moving quickly, and actually seemed lethargic.  So, I felt confident pinning his head against the ground and proceeded to move with my left hand to grab just behind his head, gain a secure grip and lift the rest of his body with my free hand.  This is where the problems started.

You never approach a pit viper from either the left or the right, as they have heat-sensing pits just below and to the front of each eye that detects the warmth of a small furry mammal such as mouse, rat or small rabbit.  Instinctively, they will strike at any object from which they sense body heat.  As my hand was radiating just such heat, the snake whipped around very quickly, and bit me on the left index finger with one fang. I immediately began to suck the poison from the wound.  I sucked as hard as I could for as extended a period as I could for the first 10 minutes.  I felt as though I got a good portion of the poison out, as my mouth began to be numb, and I felt a light-headedness that produced a tingling feeling all over my scalp.  Unfortunately, and this was a mistake, I proceeded to become angry and killed the snake with a hard twist on the pinning stick, thus decapitating it.  I buried the head, as it can still bite for several minutes after death.

I did not feel any pain, except for the minor pain of the fang prick for about ten minutes.  At about fifteen minutes I began to feel real soreness in the finger, and swelling began.  I proceeded to my campsite and informed my backpacking buddy, Bob Larsen of the accident.  He thought I should get help from the ranger, but I did not feel the bite was that bad, and hoping I received a dry bite (no invenomation) I opted for cleaning the site, continuing suction with my snakebite kit, and taking Excedrin for pain.  As luck would have it, and right about the time I was beginning to reconsider my decision, a park ranger came by and we told him what had happened.  He immediately radioed for the helicopter to take me out of the back country, and we then met a helicopter in Yosemite Valley that would take me to the hospital in Modesto.

By the time I got to Modesto, about 80 minutes after the bite, my hand was in severe pain and the swelling had spread to my entire hand.  The medical personnel began to stick needles in me literally left and right.  I had three IV's, one for saline, one for antibiotics, and a third for snakebite antivenin.  I received 20 vials of antivenin, thus cleaning them out of all they had, and also received massive doses of antibiotics.

At about 2 hours after the bite the pain was beginning to be unbearable.  I asked for pain medication and they gave me morphine AND Vicodin with very little effect.  I slept very little that night, what with 3 IV's and a throbbing, very painful hand that had to be positioned in an upright position to reduce bloodflow to the hand, thus reducing swelling pressure slightly.  By midnight my hand was swelling to the size of a softball and the pain was very pronounced.  I came close to having to have my hand debrided (slit open to relieve pressure and allow blood flow to the tip of my finger.)

For the next four nights I slept no more than 45 minutes at a stretch and experienced constant extreme pain, with the morphine and Vicodin only taking the edge off the pain. 

I spent four days in the hospital and after being released I was home with a fever of 101 degrees for two weeks.  After the swelling went down at about 6 days, I experienced pain in all my joints; I could not lift a glass of water, brush my teeth, or any other common bodily function.  This lasted about 2 days.

All told, I was bed-ridden for 18 days straight and it was almost 30 days until I could return to work (mortgage broker).

Not fun.

If you want to see more of what a poisonous snakebite can do to you, go here.  These are actual photographs of snakebite wounds.  Beware, it's graphic and gross.