A Brush With Death – Surviving an 800-Foot Fall on Mount Stuart
Eddy’s foot slipped. He barreled down the nearly 60-degree slope straight at me. His crampons hit me as he slid through the anchor. The belay ripped. Wham!
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 232 (February 2016).
Eddy’s foot slipped.
I stood 45 feet below him, at my belay in the snow gully.
Eddy McFarlin and I had discussed our final obstacle, a short cornice leading to the easier ridge on the Northeast Couloir, Mount Stuart, in Washington’s Cascades. If the 15-foot crux over the cornice pushed us beyond our comfort zone, Eddy would stop there and belay me up to establish better anchors, then we would have at it from there.
He caught himself, repositioned and attacked again, seeking consolidated snow. I belayed off two snow pickets and my axes. Driven in the crumbly snow between Eddy and me was one picket.
I know Eddy, could see he was in the zone, focused. In the past, he had always turned desperation into determination and success—and I’d always spoken up if I thought we should change course.
This time I only said, “C’mon, man, you got this!”
Eddy tried to trust his axe, but the placement sheared through the snow. He fell, rotated, landed with his back to the slope, and started sliding down the gully.
The rope tightened, and the picket blew.
Eddy barreled down the nearly 60-degree slope straight at me. Why didn’t I ask him to bring me up? Why’d he go for it? Why didn’t I bury the belay pickets better?
His crampons hit me as he slid through the anchor. I bellowed, bowled over by an avalanche of climber, pack and tools.
The belay ripped. Trying to increase our chances of survival, I reflexively dug my crampons into the slope and grasped at the snow and my partner.
I waited to impact the rock band that flanked the snaking gully. Then we hit. It didn’t hurt as much as I expected, but now we were tumbling, and with each bounce we were airborne a bit longer. In one of those moments of weightlessness, and with a sense of lucidity, I accepted my death.
Wham! My head hit something.
I OPENED MY EYES. “Eddy … Eddy!”
“Over here,” came from a few feet away.
“What happened?” I asked. Where were we? Was this the route we were climbing the other day?
“We fell, man,” Eddy said. “But we’re OK.”
“Where were we?”
“All the way at the top.”
I scanned the glacier and gullies around us. Nothing looked familiar: just rock, snow and the high-alpine walls.
Eddy and I had fallen 800 to 1,000 feet over snow, rock and ice. “Are you OK?” I asked through a concussive haze.
“I think I broke my leg,” Eddy said. His femur would turn out to be fractured in two places. I would be diagnosed with fractured C-1, C-4 and C-5 vertebrae.
“Are you OK?”
“I think so. How can I help you?”
Eddy pointed to something about 75 feet away and asked if I would check if it was his med kit, which contained his Emergency Locator Beacon. I crept over. It was his med kit! I brought it back, and we activated the E.L.B.
I tried 911 on my cell phone, still intact in my pants pocket, but my multiple attempts to call or text failed.
We waited for confirmation from the E.L.B. We had survived the fall, but without a rescue, what chance did we have?
“It transmitted our location,” Eddy said finally.
“OK. I guess now we wait.”
It was 9:00 a.m.
I helped Eddy to a sitting position on his pack for insulation. We were at around 8,100 feet, and even in late morning the temps were near freezing. His heavy down jacket had disappeared in the fall. I spotted what looked like my backpack about 500 feet away, with small dots of gear scattered in the snow above it. Eddy’s sleeping bag was in my pack.
One black dot on the glacier turned out to be my helmet, split with two long gashes. It must have been ripped off during the fall.
I tried phoning again. A single ringtone broke the silence. “Nine one one,” a dispatcher said. “What is your emergency?” We relayed our condition to the dispatcher, who patched us through to the Chelan County Sheriff’s office. A person confirmed the E.L.B. transmission and said the office was putting together a rescue team. How would we manage if we had to spend the night?
I paused to put together a clear and honest response. “I don’t know if we would make it.” I feared Eddy might have internal bleeding, and I was having trouble seeing and moving.
We were told a helicopter team was mobilizing and that the flight would take about 45 minutes. It was 1:15. They were coming to get us.
The weather held on a February day in the Pacific Northwest for a hover extraction at 2:30 p.m. Had the accident happened a few hours later, we would have had to bivy on the glacier.
Watching as Eddy was loaded into the rescue helicopter, I was grateful for the whole string of luck that allowed us to survive the fall and for that one bar of cell service. I was grateful for everything I had experienced in my life and for all the people who had shared those experiences with me. I felt love for all that we encounter in life and overwhelming joy that my time was not over.
ERIC STRICKLER of Seattle is a program director for Salish Sea Expeditions.