I have always believed that we “dream ourselves into our realities”. One of the dreams I have had all my life, in spite of a bad fear of heights, was the idea of climbing high mountains. I always wondered what it would be like to climb up until you were actually looking down at the clouds and to experience a big mountain and all the challenges it can pose both physically and mentally. My dream came true back in 1999 when I was able to climb Mt. Rainier for the first time. Mt. Rainer helps define Seattle and when you are in the Northwest you always sense its presence. With a height of 14,410 feet it looms over the region and seems to follow you as you move around the area by car. It is also the training ground for many climbers and alpinists because it is heavily crevassed, has ice falls, seracs and many challenging routes–everything associated with the grand mountains of the world. After a training session in basic mountaineering, one of my good friends Mark Sampson and I successfully made the 3 day climb with the help of the guides from Rainier Mountaineering Inc. (RMI). This was just the launch we needed and we immediately began planning our own climbs for the following year.
Our first mistake was planning to pack a lot into a single 4 day period. We successfully climbed Mt. St. Helens on a Friday in July of 2000 with the plan of departing the next day to climb Mt. Adams. Mt. St. Helens which exploded back in the 1980s, essentially removing a third of the mountain, is really neat because it is a just a one day climb. You can walk right up to the crater rim and peer down into the volcano. The climb still left us a bit sore, however, and when we left the next day for Mt. Adams we were already a bit tired. At about 12,500ft. Mt. Adams is tame in comparison to Rainier but like any mountain it should not be taken lightly. Our plan was to drive over to our launch point in the evening and begin the climb around midnight. The goal was to touch the summit in the early morning hours and then make our way back down.
As we climbed up through the trail and then above the tree line things were going well but I was starting to feel a bit fatigued. A lack of sleep, the climb the day before and not enough calories had left me a bit empty and I was feeling that hypoglycemic “bonk” feeling that comes from a lot of activity and a lack of calories. At about 3 AM we stopped for a bite to eat and to put on our crampons, those spikes that attach to your boots allowing you to climb on icy surfaces. In retrospect every accident is usually the result of not one, but a series of mistakes. Not only was I tired and hungry (and should have had the sense to say so),I was also wearing the wrong coat. I had recently bought a really nice Patagonia shell made of slippery Gore Tex, which is not the type of material you want if you should slip and fall. It is like being coated with Teflon. The other major mistake we made was not being roped together, although this one is debatable for two-man climbing teams because if one person falls and slides, he is almost certainly going to take his partner with him.
After another hour or so of climbing, I had drifted way to the left of my climbing partner and ended up on a particularly icy section of a narrow but steep snow field. I had been sort of traversing (zigzagging) across this section and went to make a turn back towards my partner when suddenly I slipped. I was on my knees in a heartbeat and I quickly attempted to arrest my fall with my ice axe, but things happened so quickly and my reactions were so bad that I never had a chance. I suddenly found myself shooting down the mountain and gaining speed as I went. I clearly remember thinking to myself about the rock field we had passed roughly 400ft or so below us and thinking to myself that I was going to wind up in that field. This was an area that spread across a level part of the ice field consisting of various size rocks and boulders, many of them very sharp. I did everything in my power to stop, but there was no way. I literally abraded much of the skin off my fingers and hands as I attempted to slow myself down. Somehow my backpack, ice axe and various equipment ended up flying off me and wound up scattered along my path as I accelerated for the rocks.
The rest of this story contains what I now believe to be a couple of miraculous events. I have no memory of my eventual crash landing, but somehow I wound up coming to rest a good 20 to 25ft into the rock field. I have no idea how fast I was going or how I ended up where I did without dying but somehow I came to rest in the midst of the rocks. I was knocked unconscious by a blow to the head and I didn’t realize it at the time, but I also had a severely fractured left arm. I believe I must have somehow gotten my arm up in front of me to protect my head and the arm broke against a rock. I had a huge V shaped hunk of skin taken out of my forehead and my head and face was covered in blood.
Naturally from high above me, my climbing partner had witnessed this event and feared the worst. As he made his way down toward me he certainly feared for my life and when he made it to me, it was unclear to him just how injured I was or whether I would survive. When he found me alive, but unresponsive, he did his best to bandage up my head and then began to frantically try to phone for help. It was clear that I was in very bad shape and among other things, Mark was very concerned that I could slip into shock. Cell phone coverage is really spotty on these mountains and when he tried to use his phone, he was unable to get any signal whatsoever. At this point, he decided to recover my pack and try my phone. Ironically I had never had a cell phone until just that week prior to the trip. Somehow after a couple of tries, he was able to make contact and was put in touch with the authorities and then he had to essentially talk them into coming to our aid. The cost of an air lift is extremely expensive and climbers are generally told they are on their own, no matter what! In any event, because of the dire conditions he described, a helicopter was dispatched from the western side of the State of Washington several hundred miles away.
As my friend waited with me for the chopper, I slowly began to regain consciousness and as I lay there I tried to piece things together. In spite of the fall, the broken arm, and the head wound, I experienced absolutely no pain. My friend did everything he could to keep me calm but I don’t remember that requiring a lot of effort. I remember laying there and watching the sun come up onto the mountain. Mark vividly recalls me saying when I was first regaining consciousness, that I could not leave my daughters and I remember him saying later, how deeply this touched him. Finally the helicopter arrived and you could actually see it below us far down the mountain. Mark was actually able, via phone, to help direct the large Army helicopter to our location.
Finally while the helicopter hovered over us, a guy in an Army uniform came down a rope and then a stretcher was lowered down. After a lot of prep work I was positioned on the stretcher and hoisted up and into the helicopter. Thank goodness I was conscious for this because this in itself was an incredible adventure. The wind it produced as I was hoisted in was just incredible. I was whisked off to Yakima hospital where I was evaluated and operated on that afternoon. When I was being examined, I remember saying to the doctor that I thought I might have a broken arm. He was like,” no shit, the bone in your left arm is cracked and pushing up under your skin. ” A plate and 12 stainless steel screws was used to secure the bone.
Amazingly the helicopter would not take my poor friend Mark who had no idea where I was going to be taken and no real idea of what my overall prognosis was. He was still convinced that I had a brain injury and that I might be in very serious jeopardy. He was forced to gather up my gear and hike down the mountain alone and totally unsure of just what would be my outcome. He made the 3 hour drive back to his home in Portland, Oregon and later that day, when back in civilization, he did everything in his power to contact my family in an attempt to locate me, then drove another 3 hours back to central Washington where he found me in the hospital in Yakima.
How I Was Affected
Initially I was filled with a host of emotions ranging from relief and happiness that I had survived such a horrific accident. I felt absolutely no pain whatsoever and I think that during dramatic physical or mental events, your body must fill itself with some type of chemicals which literally act as an incredible natural pain killer. Even during the helicopter lift, I remember actually feeling giddy that I was in good hands and safe. However, I also felt embarrassment that I had allowed this to happen, sorrow for what I had put my friend through, and shame for the irresponsibility I had displayed for my family by risking my life so recklessly.
On the second day in the hospital with my friend Mark there with me (he ended up getting a hotel in Yakima and staying with me through the week), a Priest stopped by my room and asked if he could say a prayer with me. I guess all the emotions that I had held in check for those few days sort of just sizzled over and I remember breaking down and having a really good cry. Finally, I may have only been subconsciously aware of it at this point, but I was pretty sure my dream of climbing mountains had certainly come to a very quick end!
How I Coped
After my stay in the hospital and a couple of more days at my friend Mark’s house, I remember the flight home. I was all bandaged up. My head had a gaping wound all stitched up and my hands and face had abrasions all over. My left arm was in a cast from my shoulder to my wrist. I sat next to a young teenaged girl and apologized for my appearance. She was really sweet and recalled that her mother had been in a bad car accident and that I couldn’t scare her. After making it back to my family homecoming, I eventually ventured into work and quickly attempted to get my normal life going again.
Physically, I healed up fairly quickly. I do vividly remember a lot of people at work asking me how I could be so cheerful after such a bad situation. I could honestly say to them that the even shortly after the experience, and in spite of the fact that I had wished it didn’t happen, I could not put a bad spin on this accident. I had lived and learned and found a way to put this into the adventure category of my life.
In terms of my dream of becoming a climber again, the most important thing was simply the passage of time. I could never have just jumped back into climbing, but as a few years passed I realized that my dream was still intact and my desire was still there–this time in spite of an even bigger fear of heights and the dangers involved. The desire to start up again was a combination of the dream of climbing itself, but also the need to finish something that I had started. Of course I had to convince my family and friends that I would do things right and get the proper education.
So in 2004, nearly four years after the accident, I decided to start up again. I went back to Mt. Adams and completed a successful guided climb. The following year, I took a week long winter mountaineering seminar on Mt. Rainier where we were even able to climb to the summit, an extreme rarity during the winter months. That summer I followed up with a climb of Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska. This is the highest peak in North America at 20,320 ft. above altitude. The trip took over 3 weeks and was certainly the crown jewel for me. Since then I have continued to climb and hike and I feel grateful for the fact that I did not give up on myself or my dream. I take none of it for granted.
Where I Am Now
As I reflect now on this experience, the memories of it have mellowed into what I would call, an incredible life story and adventure. Like every big life event, whether good or bad, the experience is really a part of who I am. I still feel blessed to have survived the experience and I remain acutely aware that my recovery and outcome is really a miracle. It could have gone so much worse and I surely feel that I dodged death or as a minimum, some type of permanent brain injury or paralysis. I was very lucky.
There are so many mysterious things that happen in our lives that we simply cannot explain away as just chance or circumstance–serendipity and miracle. I also frequently reflect on the friendship that I have with Mark and how this experience really cemented our relationship forever. I can still think about all the mistakes I had made leading up to the accident and what I learned from the experience itself. I am so very happy that I had the fortitude and will to pick my dream back up after it had crashed and broken so badly. I have had so many wonderful experiences in the mountains since this bad event and the thought of it is always right on my shoulder–in a very healthy way.