This is not a normal post for me.
It is long. It is full of stories that embarrass me and pain my ego. It contains my darkest moments.
If you choose to start reading this post, I ask that you make a decision: read to the end or don’t read at all.
Put it down and leave it for a time when you can finish.
When I started this blog, I intended for it to be a compilation of my trip reports, tidbits of helpful information for others in planning trips, and generally be focused on sharing information for the betterment of others.
I don’t tend to write “thoughtful” posts. But this is an exception.
I have been holding on to 2 very painful experiences for the last 3 years as secrets that I don’t share with anyone. Lately, I’ve been feeling a building level of stress and anxiety…so I felt the need to unpack these two experiences that I’ve been bottling up for a while.
I’m not sharing this for sympathy…I’m sharing this publicly because I think there are constructive learnings to be had from my own mistakes. Take what you will…
April 2019: Mt Russell, California
I was a sophomore in college and had a huge amount of stoke for exploring bigger mountains. Growing up in Florida, I felt a “chip on my shoulder” and a desperate urge to catch up for seemingly “lost time.”
I proposed a mountaineering trip to some of my friends for a long weekend in the spring semester: head out to the Sierras and climb Mt. Williamson. Williamson is the 2nd tallest peak in the Sierras, behind Mt. Whitney, but it is much more remote and difficult to climb. The challenge of Williamson drew me in, and I proposed the idea to my friends.
We had a 4 day weekend as classes were winding down, so we planned to fly out to San Francisco, meet up with one of my friends who lived out there, rent a car for the weekend, and make the long drive out to the Eastern Sierra. It would be an in-and-out mission with little room for error. We had to make it back for our flight home on Monday morning, so Friday, Saturday, and Sunday needed to go perfectly.
At the last minute, because of a variety of conditions, we changed our plans to a traverse of Mt. Russell-Mt. Whitney. We changed the DAY before leaving. We hurried to read up on beta, understand what gear was needed, and reshuffle our itinerary. But we got it done. Barely.
The route was mostly steep snow, with some 4th class rock. The route would involve approaching to Boy Scout Lake, climbing up to Mt. Russell, then descending a chute from the summit of Mt. Russell to the col nearest to Mt. Whitney. From there, we would ascend the commonly travelled Mountaineers Route and then reach the summit of Whitney. We would descend the Mountaineers Route back to our camp and hike out the next day.
At the time, my experience in steep snow travel was limited to 5 or 6 trips into the alpine. I had been skiing for years, so my confidence in snow was greater than my experience would have backed up. Coupled with a limited experience in alpine rock…it was going to be pushing my limits, personally. I was with some very experienced rock climbers, but they weren’t experienced in snow. And we were all experienced at backpacking in the southeast, but just writing that makes me chuckle.
What we may have lacked in experience, we overcompensated for in stoke…which was a dangerous combination looking back now. We had ambition and drive, for sure, but this clouded our judgement.
We brought snowshoes and ice axes, and a single rope for rappelling down the Mountaineers Route. We had no trad protection. We had no ice screws. We had some anchor building material for the rappels. We had no avalanche training or experience.
We snowshoed up to Boy Scout Lake and prepared for an early rise to climb the next day. We woke up just past 1 AM and began climbing up towards the col between Mt. Carillon and Mt. Russell. We made good time climbing in the firm snow of the early morning, with crampons and ice axes attaching us to the slope. It was dark, but the cool air of the morning felt great.
As we reached the col between Carillon and Russell, we took a left hand turn and began to gain the ridgeline up to Russell. Immediately, we entered steeper terrain and began to slow down. Supposedly, the ridge was 4th class, but in winter conditions with snow it felt full-on. We had not considered that the snow would make the travel harder. We got scared.
We began to pitch out some sections of the ridge traverse, mostly because the exposure was huge. We could see the ridgeline dropping off for hundreds of feet below us. We continued up towards the false summit, but time just kept ticking away…FAST.
The route beta we had described a descent gully down south towards Mt. Whitney, but there were dozens of chutes to our left. WHICH ONE? We took a look from a spot along the ridge and gazed out at the amount of terrain ahead of us. We were losing daylight and not moving fast enough. The snow on the final ramp to the summit seemed to be warming and sloughing off. Conditions were deteriorating.
We tried to review the beta we had to identify the descent gully, but couldn’t quite tell which one we were supposed to go down. And with our GPS signals bouncing around all over the place, our phones and GPS devices were no use.
We were not yet to the East Peak of Russell and needed to choose: do we continue on, do we bail off the ridge down one of these gullies, or do we reverse the ridge the way we came?
Continuing on to the summit of Russell seemed out of the question with the deteriorating conditions and lack of time.
Returning down the ridgeline and downclimbing what we had came up sounded slow, tough, and not ideal.
We opted to try and pick out which gully we were supposed to go down.
We began rappelling. With no gear, we used slings and wrapped them around horns of rock for anchors. We were losing gear, fast. Once we were 2 rappels down the gully, we realized we had made a mistake. This was the wrong gully. It cliffed out beneath us. We were trapped.
We were faced with a dilemma: climb back up to the ridge and free solo the low 5th class terrain we rappelled down? Or call for a rescue?
I tried to keep calm and talk through the possible decisions with the group, but I was scared on the inside, even if I didn’t show it. What are my parents going to say? Am I going to get home? Am I going to be late for class? Am I going to survive?
This was my first time really thinking about my own mortality. About the mountains as a foe. About facing a losing situation. About failure.
Ultimately, with no gear to safely make it back to the ridge above, I pushed the SOS on my inReach. It was the most embarrassing and ego crushing button of my life, but it is the reason I am here today. I had been a part of a group that had made poor decisions to get us to this point. I wouldn’t make another one that would put us in further danger.
What then ensued was a heroic effort by Inyo Search and Rescue to evacuate us, via helicopter, at 13,000′. It was the highest altitude rescue they had done to date. There was no guarantee they would evacuate us. But just minutes before the sun set for the night, we were returned to our tent safely.
My greatest fear was realized: failure. I had failed. I had failed to mitigate risks. I had failed to navigate terrain. But most egregiously, I had failed to be self-sufficient. I needed others to help me. I put others in danger. I put others in harms way. I did that.
For years, I have told NOBODY about this experience. I returned to school on Tuesday, a day later than planned, and hid myself from others. I didn’t want to have to answer where I was the day before. I posted NOTHING on social media. I spoke to nobody about how my weekend was. I was terrified.
I received love and stern talking to from my parents. I was welcomed with open arms and shunned by the fear of shame.
When I moved to the Pacific Northwest after college, and finally took an AIARE class, I told nobody about this experience.
So what I have learned?
I have learned to always choose “the devil you know over the devil you don’t.” If I have an opportunity to return along a known path, versus venturing into unknown terrain, I go with what I know. Even if it’s awful.
Because of this. Because I was NOT self-reliant. Because I put others at risk. Because I failed. And now, finally, after 2 years, I accept that. I failed.
May 2020: Mesachie Peak, Washington
Memorial Day weekend, 2020.
I had moved to the PNW and was in the midst of my first weekend up at Washington Pass. I had been cooped up during the quarantine, just like EVERYONE ELSE…but felt an intense feeling of FOMO. I had to get out and do something big.
I went up to WA Pass with two of my friends for a 3-day, Memorial Day weekend bash. We skied Silver Star Mountain on Friday, and Black Peak on Saturday, and planned to ski Mesachie Peak via Ragged Ridge on Sunday. I was going to meet my good friends from college on Monday to climb the SW Arete of SEWS. It was going to be a great weekend.
My partner and I got up early from our car camping spot along the highway and drove down to the Easy Pass trailhead to get started. 10 minutes into the day, I postholed through a snow bridge and soaked my ski boots. I should have turned around there. It was not a good start to the day.
We were going to climb up towards Easy Pass, traverse over towards the Mesachie Glacier, then ski the glacier and return to Highway 20, either hitchhiking back to our car or walking the road. It was a tour described in the Volken guide book, so we read up on the route and didn’t feel it was anything we couldn’t achieve. We had just skied two more difficult lines the days before.
Spring in the PNW is characterized by firm snow in the mornings, which then warm to delicious corn in the afternoons.
As we began to climb up to the ridgeline from Easy Pass, I stopped and put on my ski crampons. For SOME REASON, I also chose to put on my helmet. I don’t know why. Thank god. I had a whippet in one of my hands and a pole in the other. There was a skin track we followed. It all felt…normal.
As I continue on our sidehill traverse, I notice that there is a long way down to Fisher Basin below us. I don’t think much of it, though, since there is a skin track I’m following. If someone else did this before us, how bad can it be? Mistake.
Slip…I go to self arrest with my whippet…I hit the firm snow and the whippet pops out of my hand.
I start to gain speed…fast. My skis pop out of walk mode. Now I am a deer on ice, clawing at the slope as I begin to lose to gravity. Shit shit shit shit shit.
Bump…I hit the first rock band. At this point I get some airtime and begin to somersault. This isn’t going to be good. This is going to hurt.
Bump…bump…bump…and they just continue.
I never lost consciousness. I remember everything. All 30 or so seconds of the fall.
I genuinely think I’m going to die. I hope that I’ll stop…but I’m not sure.
Finally…I stop. In a pile of avalanche debris. I stand up…I CAN STAND?!?!? Immediately, my WFR training floods through my brain.
A…airway. I can breathe.
B…breathing. I am breathing.
C…circulation…there is blood on my hands, on my face, and I can feel that there’s blood elsewhere. I start to do a head-to-toe of myself. My hands are badly scraped. My face is beaten up, but not horribly. I can feel cuts and scrapes on my chest and back, but not horrible. I get to my knee….and the skin on my kneecap has avulsed off…I can see the cartilage. That’s not good.
I take clothing from my pack and immediately start to bandage myself. I find my radio and call to my partner. I tell him that I think I’m okay…but that he should come down to me. He radios back that he will.
I keep on going…
D…Deformity. None of my bones are displaced. My helmet is cracked in many places, but my skull is intact. No compound fractures. I just feel…beaten.
E…Environment. We are in avalanche terrain, for sure. I just fell down a 30+ degree slope and stopped in AVALANCHE debris. But it’s the morning…the snowpack is firm. We have a few hours before we have to worry about wet loose avalanches coming down on us.
My partner finally gets down to me. He has both of my skis and poles in hind hands. Miraculously, neither are broken. WTF??!?!?! I give him the rundown. I’m hurt, but not in critical life-threatening injury…I think at least. I can’t tell if bones are broken, but I can still walk.
I have adrenaline pulsing through my veins. I tell my partner, “Here is my inReach. I am not in a place to make a sound decision. I am leaving it up to YOU to make the call if we hike out on our own or call for rescue.” Or something like that. At this point, I can’t quite remember what I said.
My partner looks me over and comes to a similar conclusion. But because of the deteriorating avalanche conditions throughout the day, and because at any point my adrenaline could wear off and I could go into shock, we push the button. Again.
He doesn’t know this is the second time I’ve pushed that button. I don’t dare tell him. But I know.
A Navy helicopter comes to pick us up 4 hours later and transports both of us and all of our gear to Harborview Medical Center. My second helicopter ride. My partner’s first. Again, I don’t dare tell the other story.
I am X-rayed from top to bottom. Every ounce of my body is saturated with radiation. In the end, I have a fracture of my tibial spine. No concussion. No ligament tears. TONS of bruising and cuts. But alive. And hurt. And more than anything, embarrassed.
I have surgery the next day to flush my knee joint with saline. Not because of any structural damage, but because it got so F-d up that it needed cleaning. 1.5 months later I was hiking the Wind River High Route and running the Teton Crest Trail. Miraculous.
But once again, I failed. I was not self reliant. I put others in harms way.
My partner and I debriefed after I was out of the hospital. What could we have done differently? We ask ourselves…
We could have been booting? Sure…but there was a skin track ahead of us. Still, we could have taken off our skis.
We could have brought ice axes? Sure…but we had prepared for very similar trips before with Whippets.
In the end…Shit happens.
I’ve been holding on to these two traumatic experiences for too long. I have not fully debriefed until now. That’s not okay. I’m not accepting that from myself. I am going to get better from these and learn, and grow, and not make the same mistakes again.
I welcome your feedback and thoughts in what you can take away from my mistakes. But I’m not looking for your sympathy. That’s not the point. I’m alive and healthy right now, as I write this from my kitchen table in Issaquah, looking up at Cougar Mountain.
For too long I felt embarrassed about these failures, and yes…these are failures. Failure is a fine word to use. It means that I did not achieve what I intended to. I didn’t.
If you are holding on to similar experiences like these, use this as a prompt to think about why. What can you do to learn from that experience? Can someone else learn something to? Don’t just let your trauma drag you down, like I did. Let it push you to learn something…and maybe someone else too.