Big Trouble on Little Tahoma
Climber Don Sarver narrowly escapes death on Washington peak.
The summit, Little Tahoma Peak in Washington, was in the bag. Don Sarver and his team were on the way down from camp at 7,500 feet. Ropes, harnesses, and helmets had been stowed. “It was on our easy walk out from high camp,” Sarver said, “that my life would change forever.”
When Sarver and his team met to divvy up the gear before the descent, he offered to haul the glacier rope. Though the added rope stuffed under his pack’s brain pushed the pack weight well above 50 pounds, the decision would potentially save his life.
Little Tahoma, at 11,138 feet, is a sub-peak of Rainier and the third tallest peak in the state of Washington. Tahoma is often glossed over as climbers vy for it’s more popular big brother to the west, but is a beautiful climb in it’s own right. Sarver, a longtime outdoorsman, began climbing in 2016, along with his wife and son. He was on Little Tahoma as his first glacier climb, along with a team of seven other climbers.
As the team was making their descent in late afternoon, the snow was loosening, turning slushy after a long day’s heat. Sarver reported, “My rope lead and two other climbers had reached the bottom of the slope and noticed a large bergschrund [crevasse]” around 10 feet wide, which ran the length of the bottom of the slope. The leaders waved to the rest of the team still descending, Sarver said, directing them to traverse east along the slope towards a rockpile, from which they could safely descend to avoid the schrund. Sarver, who was in the rear of the group, was still around 75 feet from the safety of the rockpile, making his way along the steep slope, when he began to get nervous.
“More fear crept over me with each passing step,” Sarver said, “because the footing was getting looser and looser.” Sarver, a U.S. Army veteran, noted, “I’ve been shot at and been in some pretty scary situations, but all that paled in comparison to how I felt at that moment. I’ve never been more scared in my life.”
Sarver was about to call out to his climbing leader that he didn’t feel safe when his footing gave way. His axe ripped out of the slushy snow, but he was almost able to self-arrest twenty feet down the slope. Unfortunately, all the snow he’d dislodged was coming down behind him. It continued pushing him downwards. The increasing angle of the slope caused him to pick up speed. Though he continually tried to arrest as he approached the bergschrund, each time his axe was ripped from his hand. “Within 100 feet of the gap,” Sarver said, “a calm came over me. I remember thinking I was going in and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I was no longer in control of the events in my life. It wasn’t a ‘my life flashing before my eyes’ moment, just a calm, peaceful feeling. I gave up… I lifted my ice axe out of the snow, lifted up my feet and came to accept the fact that I was going to die.”
A few seconds later, however, Sarver had a change of heart. He thought, “If I’m going out, I’m going out fighting to the end,” and dug his feet and axe back into the snow. Miraculously, as he hit the gap at the edge of the bergschrund, his crampons caught on the ice at the edge, flipping him over the gap headfirst. He cleared the gap, but “I was looking straight at an incoming giant rock, right below the lip of the other side of the bergschrund,” Sarver said. Luckily, the brain of his pack–the glacier rope adding bulk up top–smashed into the rock instead of his head, carrying him just over the lip of the bergschrund, where he landed in the snow on his stomach. Sarver had lost his axe at this point, but managed to bring himself to a stop around 100 feet past the bergschrund.
He remained conscious throughout the entire slide, which was around 500 feet in total. He was immediately aware of a forearm laceration, as well as pain on his right leg. “A rush of emotions came over me at once,” Sarver said. “I was happy to be alive, stunned to have cleared the bergschrund, upset that my arm had a serious laceration but just … really happy to be alive.” His team reached him quickly and was able to call in a rescue. A chopper from Mount Rainier Ranger Station arrived shortly, and Sarver was airlifted out via long line.
After two days in the hospital, Sarver was released. Despite his ordeal, he was able to walk out on his own power. He suffered a deep laceration to his forearm from his axe, compression fractures in his L4 and L5 vertebrae, and a sprained ankle. Still, after five weeks, he was climbing indoors again, and after six weeks, he was hiking sans pack. “122 days post accident,” Sarver said, “I was 100% cleared medically.”-Owen Clarke
Looking back on the accident, Sarver noted, “While the rope in my backpack weighed me down and contributed to my fall, it ultimately saved my life by absorbing the rock’s impact. Also, had I not briefly given up and stopped resisting, I probably wouldn’t have gained enough speed to clear the gap.”
Sarver has since returned to the mountains, carrying a gnarly scar and a changed perspective. “I don’t feel emboldened,” he says, “I don’t feel that because I got away with it once I can get away with it again. I feel more driven to correct my mistakes, to fix my climbing techniques and to become the best climber I can be, not only for myself but for everyone around me.”