When one survives having seen certain death approaching, the memories of the experience tend to become hard-wired in one’s brain. Here’s my story, and I encourage readers to leave their own experiences, that we all may share the lessons learned along the way.
Back in the mid-80’s and early on in my Navy career, I was part of an alpine climbing group in Washington state. One weekend we summited Mount Ellinor, one of the shorter peaks in the Olympic Mountain range on the Olympic Peninsula west of Seattle, and we were transiting over to Mount Washington. It was an early summer day, the sky was clear, and there was little wind — perfect climbing weather. Alpine climbing is inherently dangerous, but we had all been well-trained and we thought we were aware of the dangers.
On a side note, one should understand the difference between rock climbing and alpine climbing:
Rock climbing seems more dangerous, but as long as one has the right equipment and training, it’s relatively safe — you can almost always see the danger before it’s too late. The problem with alpine climbing is that no matter how well-equipped and -trained one may be, every mountain holds hidden surprises, from wild animals to sudden blizzards, from treacherous scree slopes to snowfields hiding any of a host of hazards. It was that last one that almost got me.
We were descending from Mount Ellinor in order to get to the lower slopes of Mount Washington, and to do so we had to cross a snow slope that was a little steeper than 45 degrees, and which ended with a cliff about forty feet below. No big deal, right? None of us saw any need to rope together — it was just another snow slope. My then-best friend Kevin made it across fine, and I followed perhaps a dozen feet behind him. Suddenly the snow began to slide under my feet. I self-arrested instantly as I had so many times before, spread-eagling my feet, butt up into the air, and gripping my ice axe for dear life as I shoved it into the snow. Self-arresting almost always works…almost.
But the eight inch-long front blade of the ice axe only bit into the show about five inches deep before it hit smooth rock, and I felt myself and the snow slope begin to slide. I looked behind myself to see where I was going, and all I could see was the edge of the cliff, and then about a thousand feet of space ending in a large alpine meadow. I continued trying to self-arrest as I slid, but the snow had been covering a smooth expanse of rock. I would continue to slide another twenty feet and I would fall to my death. I knew in my heart of hearts that I was a dead man.
I remember that I didn’t scream or call out for help. My life didn’t flash before my eyes and time didn’t slow. I only kept looking below me as I slid as if I was just trying to experience my last moments of life as best I could. And then I slid over the edge of the cliff. I can still see that meadow far below as I type this.
At some point within the past hundreds of thousands of years, Somebody Up There had made sure there was a half-circle-shaped ledge large enough to catch me, about fifteen feet below the edge of that cliff. I landed there and was covered up to my chest with snow. The others in the group eventually made it to the ledge and helped dig me out, all the while telling me in no uncertain terms that they thought I was dead. We all laughed, decided to call it a day, made our way back to the trailhead, and shared a few well-earned beers later that night.
I often look back on that day and wonder why I didn’t scream, why I didn’t feel fear. It was as if the moment was crowding out all ability to feel emotion at the time. I’ve also found since that day, I really don’t like flying, and I flat-out refuse to fly in small aircraft. My wife wants so much to go sky-diving, but I will not go. Life became more precious, and I became much more risk-averse because of that day. It’s not that I’m afraid, but it feels irresponsible to unnecessarily risk my life when I have so much to live for, when my family (especially my wife) needs me so much.