Flying off the Grand
A shattered leg, a new direction.
This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 211 (July 2013).
I kicked my crampons, but the spikes just bounced off the verglass. Several swings of my tool yielded no sticks. My heart began to race and my body tensed.
Suddenly that box I was inside that kept me feeling focused and safe fell apart, exposing me to my surroundings: a 2,000-foot face on the Valhalla Traverse—a grungy, hanging bowl on the northwest side of the Grand Teton. To my left the rope was clipped to the next piece of protection, a sling around a horn about 30 feet away. Just around the corner from that was Stephen Koch, my partner, at the base of the Enclosure Couloir.
Just as I raised my tool for one last attempt at purchase, my feet slipped. As I fell backward into a pendulum, my mind blanked and any panic vanished. My back hit a boulder and I bounced, flung to the left. My head impacted rock, and as my crampons caught, pain exploded in my lower right leg. Finally, the rope pulled tight.
I looked down to see my leg unnaturally pointed sideways. Instead of horror, I felt a disembodied calm, as if a switch had flipped and turned my emotions off. I wasn’t yet sure if I was in shock or just relieved to be alive.
“Are you OK?” A voice echoed off the walls above me.
Still looking down at my leg, I wiggled my toes. Not paralyzed, I thought. I touched my lower leg. No protruding bones or wetness. Not bleeding out.
I yelled upward, “Yes, but my leg is broken! We need to call a helicopter!”
I looked down past my leg and felt dizzy. The snowfield I was on ended in a cliff about 75 feet below. Beyond that I saw nothing but tiny trees in the valley far below. I laid my head on the cold rocks, beginning to shiver.
In the summer of 2006 I was in my mid-20s and had just moved to Jackson, Wyoming, to pursue a lifestyle that revolved around challenging mountain adventures. That passion quickly became an obsession. With each passing season my outings became more frequent and consequential. Like many young and stoked athletes, I felt I had to go even bigger. Now, four years later, I was dangling from a rope on the dirty side of the Grand Teton hoping to make it home to my husband alive.
My bull-headed approach has caught up with me.
“The helicopter should be here in 90 minutes,” I heard from above.
Ninety minutes. I can do that.
Stephen slowly downclimbed along the rope. Once he reached me, I found him as calm as I felt.
“How do you feel?” he asked.
“Not too bad,” I said, but I was cold and hanging awkwardly.
“Let’s get you more comfortable.”
Working together, we extracted my light puffy from my pack, and pulled it on me. Next I slowly and carefully turned to a seated position. I clenched my teeth, but still screamed as we raised my leg for traction with an ice tool.
Standing in front of me, Stephen noticed my video camera case secured to my chest, and still intact.
“Maybe we should document your rescue,” he suggested.
I’d forgotten about my little Sony Handycam. I had bought it just a few weeks before out of a growing interest in documenting mountain adventures.
“OK, let’s do it,” I said.
While we waited, Stephen interviewed me on camera, then told a story about the time he got rescued from high in the Tetons. The process proved a great distraction.
The rescuers arrived two hours later. Stephen kept the camera rolling as Ryan Schuster, a Jenny Lake climbing ranger, soloed the Traverse to reach me, splinted my leg and prepared me for a short-haul evacuation.
Suddenly, I was airborne, soaring around the Grand and into the sun, experiencing the Tetons from above. I could clearly see all the ridges, ledges and layers of rock that make up the geography, and even new pinnacles and aspects. Only when the helicopter slowed did I remember that I was injured and dangling by a line in the sky.
At the hospital, doctors quickly examined my shattered leg and prepped me for surgery.
Several days later, I lay medicated on the couch in our dark basement apartment, thinking, I will return to the mountains, but with a different approach.
I looked down at the camera, waiting silently, and then plugged it into my old MacBook. Suddenly, I was back on the Grand, turning that corner to the shadowed Valhalla Traverse. I watched myself put Stephen on belay—and the experience began again.
One week later, my first video edit was complete. Although months from activity, I suddenly felt alive. The process had been therapeutic and revelatory.
For over a year I made videos with whatever time I had left after working to pay off my medical bills. Then I quit my job, enrolled in film school in Florence, and began a new journey.
Michelle Smith is a freelance photographer and filmmaker in Wyoming and Colroado.
Also read My Epic: In the Doghouse