Crashing the Heights
Kyle and I had been moving for over 18 hours, skiing five miles of glacier and climbing 3,100 feet of the convoluted south west ridge of Peak 11300 in Alaska. The setting sun bathed the peaks in a soft, rosy light. As Kyle rappelled to a small col in the ridge, where we planned to bivy, I snapped a few pictures and smiled.
Kyle and I had been moving for over 18 hours, skiing five miles of glacier and climbing 3,100 feet of the convoluted south west ridge of Peak 11300 in Alaska. The setting sun bathed the peaks in a soft, rosy light. As Kyle rappelled to a small col in the ridge, where we planned to bivy, I snapped a few pictures and smiled. The weather was holding and my thoughts turned to the simple comforts of water, food, shelter and sleep. Kyle yelled that he was off rappel. I made the short rap, and clipped into a single #1 Camalot with 30 feet of rope.
Kyle was eight feet away from me, shoveling a spot for the tent, and I was rummaging in my pack for the stove when all hell broke loose. The ground below me gave way and suddenly I was upside-down and free falling. A puking feeling in my stomach coincided with the thought, Here we go.
After 30 feet the rope came tight. I pulled myself upright and watched as all of our possessions raced 1,200 pounds of snow down the 4,000-foot west face. My attention shifted to the single cam I had just whipped on. I couldn’t see it, but knew that I desperately needed to unweight it. I ran my hands down my homemade tethers and pulled up my ice tools, then futilely attempted to sink them in the overhanging snow.
Kyle poked his head over the edge, yelling my name; I yelled back that I was fine, and asked him to send down the second rope. I yarded on the rope attached to the cam above, while Kyle used the other rope to tuna-haul me up.
Back on the suddenly smaller col, we stared wide-eyed at each other.
“Holy shit,” I muttered.
“Give me a hug!” Kyle said, and the quick embrace served to ground me.
Almost everything was gone — tent, packs, sleeping bags, food, water, stove, rack, headlamps, cameras, everything. Standing
in a 20-foot col 3,500 feet above the glacier in the middle of the Alaska Range, I stared dumbly as the sun set.
Finally, the life-and-death gravity of the situation sank in. We needed to make some decisions quickly. I shifted my attention to what we did have: two ropes, three ice tools, one shovel, one picket, two pins, our lucky #1 Camalot and PMA (Positive Mental Attitude). We discussed digging in for the night or trying to find some of our rack while rappelling the west side of the ridge. Even though we didn’t have headlamps, descending in the dark sounded better than sitting it out. Without a stove or bivy gear, a night out would leave us in much worse shape and daylight wouldn’t change the fact that we didn’t have a rack to rappel with. We opted to down climb the smaller, lower-angled east side of the ridge.
My nerves were still fried from the fall, and it took a lot of control to stay present as we soloed down 50- to 70-degree snow and ice into the night. During the first 1,000 feet, I told myself that I would quit this bullshit, pursue a normal life and be content with more conventional sports. I fantasized about summers spent sport climbing and road biking, a winter of lazy ski tours and guilt-free resort laps. I thought about how much of my life and personal identity had been tied into alpinism. I clearly saw how stupid it was, how quickly things can go bad and how much I had given up.
I was amazed as Kyle forged ahead armed with one ice tool and a shovel. I must have really been shaken. Keep moving, I thought. When I began feeling too fried, I recited a mantra co-opted from a friend. I love my girlfriend. I love my family. It coincided with the rhythm of tool-tool-foot-foot, and kept me focused on the task at hand, yet aware of the overall danger.
We down climbed 2,500 feet, to where the terrain cliffed out, forcing us to rappel. We took turns ferreting out flakes and pounding in chockstones to preserve our three-piece rack, all in the dark or with close inspection from our lighters. Mid rappel, I sensed the glacier growing close but couldn’t tell if there was enough rope to clear the gaping bergschrund. Hanging one last time from the #1 Camalot, I repeatedly pulled up the rope and threw it, straining to hear. On the third toss I heard the rope hit snow.
Getting off the face brought little relief. Negotiating the broken seracs, steep snow slopes and tenuous snow bridges in the dark was much more complicated. We were roped together, but had no means to ascend should someone fall into a crevasse. Still, I became aware that I was actually starting to enjoy being out there, going through the process of surviving. I marveled at the beauty of the stars and silent peaks in the cold Alaskan night, but only let myself enjoy it in a limited sense, a sort of last hurrah before I finally quit alpinism. We made our way down the icefall and back to our skis and sleds. As we sat, desperately dehydrated, quietly watching the sunrise, I began to scheme on future trips: going back to Peru in June, returning to Alaska.
We split the pack of almond butter that was left in my sled, and discussed if, how and when we should try to reclaim some of our lost possessions. Most of our financial net worth was buried over there. We reluctantly rose from our comfortable seat on the sled and skied around the ridge.
The other side of the ridge was a cold, daunting place. The west face is much steeper, and it’s a straight shot up to the col, 4,000 feet above. The snow cone at the bottom was littered with debris and gear. I thought about how easily I could have landed here as well. After an hour casing the place like scavengers, we finally abandoned the search efforts, having recovered a small fraction of what was buried below a thousand pounds of cornice.
We began the return to camp, skiing with 100 feet of rope between us, the wind at our backs and the sun in our unprotected eyes. The terrain was crevassed and rolling, but we hauled ass. Bombing a small snow bridge with 50 feet of slack in the system, I yelled Safe travels! at the top of my lungs. We laughed hysterically and it became our mantra. We arrived safely at camp 38 hours after leaving.
Five months later, I rode my bike south on State Street in American Fork, Utah, commuting to my part-time teaching job in cool morning air. The first rays of light caught the clouds as they floated past the peaks.
The next thing I knew, I was in the emergency room, trying to figure out what had happened. I only recalled lying on my back in the street in a tremendous amount of pain, looking at the sky and attempting to crawl away, then a concerned-looking EMT saying, Stick with me.
I was life-flighted, and underwent five hours of emergency surgery to repair a broken, displaced clavicle and severe lacerations in my neck that exposed my carotid artery and jugular vein.
The following morning the doctors told me again and again how lucky I was to be alive. I was literally less than a millimeter from cutting my jugular vein. The CT scan shows that, as the doctor put it, I shaved cells off it. I was still uncertain how this happened until the phone rang.
A woman named Adrienne told me that she had been driving south that morning and had slowed down to turn. I was riding in front of her, just right of the white line on the shoulder. She watched in horror as a man driving a catering van turned left into me, attempting to enter the exit of a McDonalds. I locked up my brakes, struck the back of his van, broke the glass, spun clockwise and landed on my face.
She found me face down, still tangled in my bike, which had been cut in half. She could hear that I was breathing but was afraid to move me in case of spinal damage. After a few moments I came to and with a grunt rolled over onto my back. A pool of blood rushed out of my neck, which was splayed open. She and another motorist held shirts over the wounds until paramedics arrived.
I spent a week in the hospital recovering from injuries including T6-T8 anterior compression fractures of my thoracic spine, C3-C7 transverse process fractures of my cervical spine, and facial fractures of my cheek and orbital floor. I learned that the van driver was 78 years old, uninsured and from out of state. The police told me that he was issued a citation for failing to yield and for improper registration. I faced a 10-month recovery prognosis, loss of income and astronomical medical bills.
Two months after the accident, I moved out of my apartment and into the basement of Kyle’s parents’ house. He was recovering from a trip to Pakistan, where he spent 24 storm-filled days alone on a wall. His finger was badly frostbitten and would be amputated as soon as his protein levels were high enough for surgery.
The day I was hit by the van was coincidentlly also the same day Kyle made his summit push attempting a new line on Tahu Rutum, costing him a finger and 40 pounds. Our parallel situations and my recent near misses forced me to evaluate risk, security and the fragile, fleeting nature of life.
In Alaska I had briefly fantasized about quitting alpinism to pursue safer activities like ski touring or road biking. Strangely, I was bike commuting when I came closest to death. In the mountains, you and your partner have sole responsibility for your decisions and suffer the consequences when you’re wrong. Being run down in the street seems much worse.
While recovering from the accident I’ve reaffirmed my belief that you cannot insulate yourself from risk, and realized that my most cherished memories have emerged from engaging the unknown and embracing physical hardship.
Today I spend 20 to 30 minutes soaking my neck and shoulder under the hot shower water. Doing a yoga routine in my limited capacity feels good.
The physical therapist said I shouldn’t do this, but after visualizing it all week, I can’t help myself. I walk purposefully to the hangboard in Kyle’s basement. I hang, and once my broken body settles under its own weight, do a pullup. Then two more. Euphoria sets in and I am overwhelmed with joy. It is too easy to let fear govern our lives: fear of failure, rejection and, ultimately, death. I say crash the heights and focus on living.
Andy Chapman, a Salt Lake based climber, artist and teacher, got his wish for a summer of easily accessible climbing, and has outlined a detailed training plan to return to the mountains.