Down From the Mountain

How I nearly died climbing in the North Cascades last summer—were it not for the people I met along the way.

I was at the tipping point. Scramble successfully up and out of a gully, and there's no story to write. Maintain my balance, and a July three-day weekend would go as planned: traverse 8,815-foot Forbidden Peak up the North Ridge and down the West, drive home to Seattle, maybe even stop at the office Sunday evening to catch up on some work. The climb was not, given my abilities, that technically difficult, so I hadn't expected any great challenges or heroic tales to result.

Falling, on the other hand, creates a whole new scenario. Climbing is a dangerous sport, and I've always been realistic about the risks I've taken in the mountains. But it's one thing to understand those risks intellectually, another to suffer the actual consequences.

This is the second story, the story of how gravity pulled me in the wrong direction. It's also the story of how other people—strangers, mostly—saved my life. And I'm the least interesting part of that story. Tipping one way, from active to passive, made me both a victim and a link, an observer in the fortunate chain of events that took me from a remote, snow-topped ridge 8,000 feet high in the North Cascades wilderness to Harborview Medical Center on Seattle's First Hill.

The Rope Team

I looked down at my legs. Bones were jutting out above both ankles, just above my boot tops. Blood was pooling around me as I lay crumpled at the bottom of a nasty, nameless gully. I felt numb; my mouth was dry. I was too stunned to feel much initial pain, although I realized my helmet and dark glasses had also broken on impact. I had just fallen some 15 feet, boots first, shattering the tibias in both legs, snapping the fibulas like twigs, leaving my feet flopping uselessly like chunks of boneless chicken. I was completely helpless. It was not a pretty sight. Had I been climbing alone, I would've eventually died right there at the bottom of the gully—of shock, blood loss, or hypothermia if the weather deteriorated. It was not a good situation.

And yet the weekend had begun so promisingly. Friday, July 30, was a perfectly pleasant morning as I pulled into a turnout on the gravel road leading from Marblemount (on state Route 20) to Cascade Pass. Following the usual ritual, three of us—who had never climbed together before—pulled out our rucksacks, laced up our boots, and began sorting our gear on the ground. There was Sean Sullivan, 35, a software-industry professional; myself, 40, a journalist; and Chris Pope, 39, a fireman who works out of Fire Station No. 39 in Lake City.

As a member of the Seattle Mountaineers (founded in 1906), I've discovered that signing up for such a club-sponsored climb is like a blind date. You're often roping up with unknown personalities of uncertain judgment and ability; it's an implicit bargain that says, should the situation require, "You save my ass, or I'll save yours." There's a lot of trust involved, reliant on a common set of skills and training most members gain through the club's climbing courses.

Scarfing down some sweet rolls, we discussed the route, an infrequently climbed one that nonetheless seemed straightforward. We'd hike north into Boston Basin, drop through a col (pass) in a ridge onto the glacier on the other side, traverse west to gain the North Ridge, then bivouac ("bivy") at the end of the first day. (See map, p. 28.)

Simple enough. Apart from some time wasted in finding the col, we gained a beautiful bivy spot late that afternoon, with plenty of time for napping and sock-drying before dinner. It was a gorgeous perch, with the heavily crevassed Boston Glacier to the east and the Forbidden Glacier to the west. This was why I climb: the privileged view, the hard-earned perspective that requires a lot of sweat, moderate risk, and total concentration.

Sean Sullivan (rear) and the author start up Forbidden's North Ridge

(Chris Pope)

SATURDAY MORNING I set out in the lead position on our three-man rope. We employed what's called a running belay: I would clip the rope through pieces of protection ("pro") set in the rock behind me. These metal gizmos, crammed into the rock, could combine with the weight and friction of my climbing partners to help prevent a long, fatal fall from the ridge crest to the glaciers below. Safety wasn't absolute; on such a long route, it was more important to travel swiftly—to get up and over the summit before darkness fell, to avoid a second bivy if possible.

Being first on the rope means taking "the sharp end." Climbers traditionally swap positions between leader and follower to share that risk. In general, it's safer (but slower) to place more pieces of pro as you go. But if you place fewer pieces, whether owing to haste or confidence, there's a greater danger that your rope partners won't stop you before you hit some ledge or outcrop below.

That morning, I was mainly concerned with picking our way along the ridge—when to go left or right, which side was easier and faster to reach the later, steeper pitches above. (A "pitch" can refer to a rope length or a distinct section between fixed belay points.) After moving fairly steadily for an hour or so, we stopped around 9 o'clock to debate the route— stick to the steeper ridge crest, or descend and detour slightly left (east) to cross a gully and gain some easy-looking ledges. I opted for the latter.

This is where balance came into play. The gully didn't look so inviting from its bottom: near vertical with rotten rock that didn't have many good cracks for pro— a short, bad pitch. I proceeded upward tentatively until I was well above my last piece. The top seemed within reach; then I should be able to pull myself over easily. Sure there was a risk, but I'd made more difficult, more dangerous moves in the past. With two good handholds above me, I took a big step upward.

Either my left boot slipped or a loose handhold broke (I'll never know the ultimate cause), and I fell past my pro and landed in the bottom of the gully.

"OH, SHIT, we're out in the middle of nowhere," Chris recalls thinking after he got down to view my injuries. "I have to go into firefighter mode. There ain't gonna be no medics here in three minutes." Though a firefighter with some four years of experience (plus prior mountain search-and-rescue training), the traffic accidents, gunshot wounds, and serious injuries he's treated are swiftly packaged and sent by ambulance to the hospital. "If we came across your accident in Seattle, we'd have the medics there, because that was a serious injury."

His initial assessment of the situation included "broken bones, bleeding, nerve damage." Worried that the bones might tear an artery, his first step was to splint my legs with cut-up sleeping mats. For the pain, he forced some Tylenol with codeine down my throat. Chris explains, "Within five minutes of seeing your ankles, I had the plan formulated. I knew I couldn't leave you in the gully. I knew that leaving you in the gully . . . would be a horrible decision," because of the danger of going into shock. Waiting to get additional manpower to haul me in a litter up to the ridge—where a helicopter could reach me—would add a day to any rescue effort, he realized. "I knew I had to get you to the ridgeline . . . which would then increase your possibility of surviving."

While Sean pulled on a rope-pulley system to help haul my weight, Chris hoisted me onto his back in what's colloquially known as the fireman's carry, though it's only employed, he later told me, in the movies. He estimates he had to climb some 80 feet up the loose gravel (or "scree") bottom of the gully: "It was one of the hardest physical things [I've ever done], carrying somebody up a scree gully. It was six steps, and you only make it a half step up. There were times I'd make it six inches a foot[step] because I'd treadmill."

While he struggled, resting often, I tried to keep my splinted legs from painfully knocking against the gully walls. They were also bleeding more profusely. After the 45-odd minutes it took to travel the longest 80 feet of Chris' and my lives, I announced to no one in particular, "I'm so sleepy"—a sign of going into shock. Chris remembers, "With the blood loss, the shock, and the Tylenol—that's what we expect, but that's what we worry about."

Chris and Sean laid me on a couple sleeping pads, legs elevated to slow blood loss and shock. "You were coherent," Chris remembers. "You understood what we were doing. Which was a good sign." As expected, my cell phone wouldn't work in such a remote location. It was then about noon. Waiting until Monday, when we might be reported as overdue, would be too long. We knew that Chris and Sean would have to go out together, retracing our path from the cars, until they could contact a ranger to initiate a rescue effort. Neither one could stay with me, because the two needed the security of the rope while recrossing all those crevasses; we didn't want to compound one accident with another. I knew that would take them most of the day—at least.

(Sean recalls, "Leaving you was a very, very difficult thing to do. Having been involved in [a] previous rescue, I knew it would be a very long time before someone would get there to see you, and I was honestly worried that you wouldn't make it." Of their trek out, Chris remembers, "It was a long, hard trip. I was whupped." Regarding the crevasse danger for a two-man rope team, Sean adds: "On the glacier, though, I just remember thinking that if anything went wrong, we were fucked. We hadn't thought to take your ice ax, so we really didn't have anything to use to easily set up an anchor in a fall." They would ultimately reach Boston Basin to make a cell phone call around 7 that evening.)

Surrounded by his gear, the author prepares for a 24-hour wait.

(Chris Pope)

Bunkered down with my gear and more Tylenol, I gritted my teeth for the wait. We had a plan, and I was going to stick to it. Complaining would only make things worse; panic could be contagious. After they carefully took a few photos to show the rangers my location for rescue (we hoped), I watched Chris and Sean go. Only afterward did it occur to me I should've given them a message for my parents, both former climbers, in case I didn't survive to be rescued.

Then came the flies. Of course there would be flies—I was lying in a puddle of blood. Trapped on my back, unable to move my painful, useless legs, I had all day to stare at the correct route I should've taken: up the ridge to the right. This only compounded the embarrassment and anger I felt for having fallen. About 10 hours passed this way before the sky began to darken and cool.

The Rangers

Then I heard the helicopter—whump, whump, whump, just like in M*A*S*H. Excited, I frantically stuffed all my gear in my pack. The chopper appeared overhead. I could see people inside. I waved. They saw me; then they flew off. This was not like M*A*S*H, not like the movies. Then it came back again—make up your mind, already!—dangling something on a cable. A radio.

This is how I became acquainted with Kelly Bush, 48, wilderness district ranger for North Cascades National Park, though without the formal introduction. It was too late for a big Navy chopper with a cable hoist from Whidbey Island, she told me. It was too dark to land anyone near me. Could I wait till morning? Could I—and this was the unspoken subject—bear my injuries and survive until Sunday? I had no choice, of course; we both knew that.

It was a long night.

Occasionally I'd doze off, but then my legs would spasm, grinding bones together excruciatingly. I had plenty of time to replay the accident in my mind and to wonder if I'd again be able to walk, much less climb. I knew that I'd divide my future—assuming I was rescued—in terms of Pre-Accident and Post-Accident. I would be defined for decades by a mistake, a slip that only took an instant. For an ex-jock, which is more or less how I define myself, that was the real humiliation. Final score: 0 to 3, me versus the mountain I'd previously tried to climb twice by the West Ridge (both times having been turned back by the weather).

As long as I could see the stars, I knew the weather was holding clear and my prospects were OK. Clouds could bring rain or snow; if the cloud level was low, as is routine in the foul-weather-plagued North Cascades, no helicopter could reach me. Being carried out would take days, and it would involve all kinds of brutal bumping and jostling; I'd have to be lowered in a basket down slopes I'd already climbed.

On the plus side, the flies were gone. But I also wondered why there weren't any rats, always a nuisance at bivy sites, since they'd just as happily feast on me as my food cache. On other trips, I've had the things crawling on me; now I wondered if I'd have to fight them off with my ice ax. Bad enough to die, worse to also be a tabloid headline.

THE NEXT DAY, lo and behold, a smaller chopper pulled into view. Kelly had already radioed to make sure, you know, that I was still alive. (Helicopter time doesn't come cheap, after all.) She recalls, "The main worry point that I had was that your condition would worsen overnight. And while you sounded quite lucid . . . overnight, things can change. That was my biggest concern—that you maybe wouldn't be conscious or something." Resting a single skid precariously on the ridge a few hundred yards below me, it disgorged Kelly and Craig Brouwer, another experienced climbing ranger. After 24 hours alone, I had company again. They climbed up to assess my injuries and record my particulars for the hospital—allergies, address, full name, etc.

Ranger Craig Brouwer surveys the scene.

(Kelly Bush)

"Brian Miller?" Kelly asked. "Are you the son of Tom Miller?" Um, yes. "Your father's book is the reason I moved here from Oklahoma," she explained. "It's why I came here to work in the mountains." (Here it should be noted that my father, a photographer and noted local climber of the '50s and '60s, shot the photos for The North Cascades, published in 1964 and important to the creation of the park.) Talk about karma. In a sense, we were all there for the same reasons—except, of course, for my clumsiness.

Back in the '70s, she explained, "I grew up in Western Oklahoma. I was quite interested as a kid to move to the mountains somewhere. As I was looking for national parks or other places to try to work or volunteer, I was doing some research; and in my college library in Oklahoma . . . I came across your father's book. When I had a chance to, I made it this way and stayed. I'm known as a homesteader here [in the park]." First a volunteer ranger in the park in 1978, she told herself: "If I could end up working in this park as a career, that would be a goal. And I feel fortunate that it went that way."

Part of that career today includes administrative work, law enforcement, emergency medicine, and technical rescue operations. Yet, says Kelly, "Doing the wilderness management part of it is really important. I overall spend more time on that than the incident [search-and-rescue] stuff. I'm kind of the voice for wilderness protection. That's what I first got into it for." But when there's an accident or a search operation, she adds, "I jump from the desk, and there we go."

The Pilot

So in my case, Kelly remembers, "In seeing where you were . . . although we'd never gotten out onto the North Ridge that I can recall . . . I felt pretty clear what we could do." She and Craig first had to perform that "step-out" landing from the helicopter, which would then "short haul" me in a basket clipped to a line underneath it. "It's known to be a hazardous and risky thing to do, that we only do once or twice per season. But made easier by good weather."

And a good pilot, Kelly notes: "Tony Reece is known for his long-line skills. That's a huge part of this and having confidence to be able to do that kind of thing, to be exact. You really are just relying on the skills of your pilot."

Flying on contract to the U.S. Park Service, Reece, 68, is considerably more modest about his abilities. "I've been flying for about 46 years now. The aircraft is just part of me." His Darrington-based Hi Line Helicopters also performs rescues in Mount Rainier and Olympic National Parks, and he estimates the business—founded in 1978—has participated in some 273 such operations. Tony adds, "We've never had an incident," meaning a rescue or search operation that led to a helicopter crash (as dramatically occurred on Mount Hood in 2002). "I'm tickled to help people."

From my perspective, of course, his flying seemed quite dramatic and dangerous— this tiny Hughes 500D helicopter buzzing in, dwarfed by the glaciers and ridges. He remembers it quite differently: "In all honesty, a rescue like that is pretty routine unless you have terribly high winds. I've done some in the fog and the snow. Those kind of rescues I remember real vividly. Yours was kind of an ideal situation. Kelly has the more treacherous job, because I can't always let her down on real good places. I put a skid on a rock, and she stepped out onto that rock."

The author dangling below Tony Reece's helicopter, above the North Ridge.

(Alex Brun/Courtesy of Toney Reece, Hi Line Helicopters)

After that, and after Kelly and Craig had assessed my injuries, Tony's chopper returned with a basket dangling below, into which I was subsequently strapped and bound like a mummy. Uh-oh. I was soon slowly spinning 75 feet below the helicopter, thousands of feet above the Boston Glacier, with water and snow blasting down from the rotors. If I had anything in my stomach, I'd have been airsick. I couldn't even turn my head to enjoy the view. I'd never flown in a helicopter before—let alone been pendulumed below one—and I didn't like it. And that was just the first of three choppers that would transport me to Harborview that day.

Tony deposited me gently onto a snowfield, where two friendly young rangers, Alex Brun and Kevork Arackellian, were waiting to grab my basket. We had time to talk about climbing, the weather, the logistics of the rescue (which were considerable, I was realizing). As the chopper went back for Kelly and Craig, I heard a second aircraft was coming to get me. It was large enough for me to be slid inside, where flight nurse Val Faddis was amazingly able to start IV lines despite the constant rattling and vibration. Soon I was on the ground in Concrete, being carried to a third helicopter, this one a sleek, fast, medivac model bound for Seattle. I felt like a rock star flying to an arena concert.

Preparing to load the author into a second helicopter.

(NPS)

Inside, I was pumped full of morphine and fluids. A warm and fuzzy feeling set in. Maybe this was what it's like to be Keith Richards, I thought. (Drugs aside, that flight cost about $10,000—rock-star prices for rock-star service. Thank God for insurance.) All at once, I was inside the hospital, answering questions and signing consent forms. Then came the anesthetic haze, ushering me into the first of four extensive surgeries I'd undergo over the next two months.

The Surgeons

Envision two buildings under construction and covered with metal scaffolding. That's what my legs looked like when I woke up after some six hours of surgery: a line of screws drilled into the tibias and foot bones; a big graphite rod anchored to each row; the entire lower-leg complex held immobile so the muscles couldn't contract and leave me with shorter, lopsided legs. It was a bit like Frankenstein, only the monster could at least walk—I would be unable to do that until December.

Harborview surgeons Lisa Taitsman and Sean Nork.

(Harborview Med. Center)

The work came courtesy of Dr. Lisa Taitsman, leader of Harborview's Green Team orthopedics staff serving the ER that day. Visiting my room in the days following, she was frank but encouraging about my prognosis, without sugarcoating anything: Things could be fixed, but the fixing itself would be an ordeal. Rather than thinking about next month, I should concentrate on next year. I had what are called "pilon" fractures, from the French for hammer. My tibias had essentially been hammered (and splintered) by the force transmitted upward through my ankles. Roofers, she told me, frequently incur the same sort of injuries. She also cautioned that, no matter what my level of recovery, I might develop early arthritis in my traumatized ankles.

Since Taitsman and other Harborview surgeons train on the very worst sort of car-accident victims routinely flown into their trauma center, my injuries didn't look as bad to them as they did to me. My perspective soon changed, however. During subsequent clinic visits, I'd see patients whose broken bones were compounded by diabetes, kidney disease, obesity, alcoholism, and other chronic diseases. They would likely never recover fully from their injuries, which made Taitsman's warnings seem almost optimistic. And I at least had insurance.

My odds improved with Green Team leader Dr. Sean Nork, tall and cheerful, who took over the next three reconstructive surgeries: internal titanium hardware in each leg, then bone grafts to fill in the gaps pulverized by "the pile-driver effect," as he put it. Over an inch of bone was missing in my left leg, into which Nork and his team put more screws, he told me, than he could recall in any recent operation. (Great, so while I hadn't made the summit of Forbidden, I was setting records of a different kind.)

The late-September bone grafts, using material scooped out of my pelvis, would take six weeks to anneal. Only after that was physical therapy possible to move my recalcitrant feet and ankles—but I couldn't bear my own body weight until December. I hoped to walk before the end of the year, a goal barely accomplished with crutches and cane. (As it happens, by virtue of this winter's freakishly warm weather, I sure picked the right year to miss ski season.)

Returning regularly to see Dr. Nork and others at Harborview's outpatient clinic became a formal routine, like a student's exams. To match the professor's dedication to his subject, I, the pupil, sought to be as prepared and healthy as possible. I wanted progress to report—better X-rays, diminished swelling, increased nerve function, more time spent in physical therapy—to justify all that medical knowledge invested in me. I'm not suggesting that guilt promotes healing, but it does provide an incentive.

I also had something to learn, by counterexample, from the bad apples—the students malingering at the back of the classroom. Among my many entertaining Harborview roommates, there was a huge walrus of a guy injured in a motorcycle accident. How a fellow of such bulk could actually straddle a bike was beyond me; then I heard that his diabetes gave him almost no feeling in his feet to start with—ride safely, right? Obviously on a potent cocktail of painkillers and insulin, he was hooked up to an array of monitors that sounded an alarm every five minutes, making my post-op sleep impossible. Whenever a nurse arrived, he'd loudly berate them for their incompetence and lack of care. Then he'd call them back to help him hobble to the bathroom every half hour—he dwarfing the tiny Filipino and Asian staff, threatening to topple and crush them at any minute, until they provided him with, ahem, intimate assistance in the loo (you can't hold and aim with what you can't see).

Whether confined to a post-op bed or visiting the clinic, whether dealing with hospital staff or physicians, I observed, the well-behaved patient gets the best treatment. Take an active interest in your condition, instead of complaining like the walrus guy, and medical personnel perk right up—as if to say, "Yes, this is why I spent all that time in training, not to have some bozo shouting at me and refusing to take his meds."

Injury is an education. More than once, I reflected that losing my cool because my morphine was gone or a catheter bag was full would be like losing it back at 8,000 feet. Allowing other people to help you creates a whole new responsibility—rather than just reliance—of its own. As in the initial rescue with Chris, Sean, and Kelly, staying calm and relaying information to the right parties allowed Nork, Taitsman, and company do their work that much more effectively.

My Parents

What kind of a loser moves back in with his folks at the age of 40? Me, and what other choice did I have? I've heard about those nursing home scandals and had no desire to die in a group home fire or lie helpless in my own feces (or anyone else's, for that matter). My parents were willing and healthy—and, more important perhaps, they knew exactly how I felt, both of them being retired climbers.

Dad has climbed Forbidden several times and says, "When Chris called from the car, that was the really spooky part. I said, 'Is there a gully on the left that you dropped into.' And he said, 'Yes.' And that was the situation I'd been in in '58. We'd made that same slightly off-route mistake and got away with it. And if I hadn't, I would've been stone-cold dead, because it was unroped."

My mother, Nancy, made the first female ascent of the peak by the West Ridge in 1954 and also understands the inherent risk of death or injury: "You always know it's a possibility. Both Dad and I had so many friends who were killed during our college climbing careers." So it wasn't quite like shamefully returning to the nest with a drug habit, or from prison, or following a bad divorce.

In a sense, my family history was catching up with me. Both my parents knew how things could easily have been worse. On my mother's side of the family tree, I'm actually the fourth generation to follow alpine pursuits. She adds, "I don't regret growing up in a climbing family, or partaking in the sport, or even in exposing you to it, because I hope/believe that you had some great past outdoor experiences and will in the future."

My father adds, "I've never presented climbing as being risk-free. The mountains are a very dangerous place and very unforgiving. I think that you knew that all those years. We lost far too many friends climbing to ever think it's not very, very unforgiving."

If anything, that attitude has only reinforced my love for the mountains and my parents. It's not like you take them for granted, but there's always something surprisingly grand and reassuring about their presence. We all need our monuments.

Ironically, while convalescing at my parents' home, I've had plenty of time to look at one of Dad's framed black-and-white photographs on the wall—showing, yes, the North Ridge of Forbidden. Just as on that lonely July night, I still spend sleepless hours contemplating the correct route and pondering how my life would be different had I gone that way.

Postscript

After almost five months in bed and a wheelchair, I'm back on my feet, however unsteadily. Physical therapy is ongoing, and I'm still facing more surgeries. Rehab may take a year or two. Fortunately, I'm a writer, not a roofer, so I can make a living. But everyone asks me, will I want to climb again? Or will the accident rob me of my confidence in the mountains?

The answer depends more on my body than on my mind; if I'm capable of climbing and skiing as I did before—then, yes, I'll be back. But 100 percent recovery is unlikely, and every weekend athlete my age eventually slows down. Still, the fall didn't change my thinking much at all: I never thought I was invulnerable, that statistics didn't apply equally to me. During the 2003 climbing season, according to the American Alpine Club, there were two deaths and 11 serious injuries in Washington state; nationally, the numbers were 18 and 105. Earlier last summer, I scaled Mount McKinley in Alaska, where weather and altitude constitute major hazards, yet I made it home safely.

Unlike Everest and Into Thin Air, the truth is that the greater number of climbers face the greatest number of risks on routine weekend outings closer to sea level, where there's no Jon Krakauer around to take notes. It's all in the numbers. Sooner or later, the odds catch up with everyone. In three prior decades of mountain sports, I'd never so much as broken a bone.

So if bad luck is a built-in hazard of climbing, like rock fall or electrical storms, good luck is part of the game, too. You do everything possible to defend against the first, all the while hoping for the second. Confident climbing demands an attitude of, "I'm not going to fall. That's not going to happen to me." When it does, of course, that's when your partners truly matter. And when it happened to me, my rescue and recovery depended on dozens of others, experts in their fields (and more than just those named above), who make me feel very lucky indeed. We were all connected, I learned, as if by a rope.

bmiller@seattleweekly.com

 
comments powered by Disqus