By Steve Markusen
“What is your name? Where are you?”
My eyes opened to see a chiseled face with furrowed brow. Pain stabbed my side. My head, arms and legs covered in blood. When I breathed my chest made a soft whistling sound.
I spoke softly, giving my name and our location as the Grand. It was 11 am on August 8, 2014.
My story began six years prior as owner of an investment advisory business. My funds lost half their value in the Great Recession of 2008. To cope, I created an alternate reality. I was closed minded, did not seek advice from trusted people, and let my ego get in the way of good decision making. In order to stay in business, I took shortcuts.
The air was thin, cold, and damp; the pale blue sky of morning replaced by lead grey clouds. Three climbers I passed earlier huddled over me on a 6-by-4-foot ledge on the Exum Ridge, 400 feet below the 13,775 foot summit of the Grand Teton. Climbing solo, I had fallen, and by some miracle, stopped on this sloping ledge just feet from a 1000-foot drop and 7000 feet above the valley floor.
One year before my fall on the Grand, the SEC opened an investigation of my business. I voluntarily closed my funds, returned investor’s money, and cooperated with the SEC. With my business shuttered, 30-year career in ruins, and no prospects for employment, I was lost. I searched for meaning in my life…that search brought me to the Grand—my spiritual home. A mountain I have climbed 17 times by 8 different routes over 45 years.
Several times we heard a helicopter, but it remained hidden by clouds spitting rain and snow. After five hours on the ledge, with temperatures in the 40’s, my body was shutting down. I said to my companions, “I’m not going to make it.” Their companionship, combined with thoughts and love of my kids, gave me strength. I forced my mind to relax and let my body fight to survive.
Around 4:30 p.m., roused by the sound of the helicopter, I opened my eyes to the welcome sight of blue sky and a bright yellow helicopter. Attached was a short haul line, and hanging 100 feet below was a stretcher, and park ranger; one of the highest insertions and extractions in Park history. Within 15 minutes, the Exum Ridge was again shrouded in clouds; but I was alive and safe with three broken ribs, a punctured lung, a lacerated spleen, and lacerations that required 42 stitches and staples.
A week after my accident, the SEC filed a civil lawsuit charging me with securities law violations. Looking back I can see I took the easy way; failing to make the hard decisions, the difficult choices. I failed to consider the second and third order consequences of my behavior. I lost my moral compass. Failure is an opportunity to move in a new direction. The accident and the lawsuit were both a low—and a turning point.
My climbing accident changed me. Inspired by the sacrifice of the climbers and rangers who came to my aid, I returned home to Minnesota and studied to become a personal trainer. I took writing classes and published stories about my adventures—successes and failures. I left my old life behind for one more meaningful: dedicated to helping and inspiring people to become stronger and lead healthier lives. No regrets; only mistakes made and a price paid.
Steve is a writer and his creative non-fiction articles have appeared in national magazines and literary journals. For over 50 years, Steve has been pursuing high risk adventures. He is an expert rock & ice climber, ski mountaineer, and paraglider pilot. In addition to writing, Steve works as a personal trainer, nutrition coach, and cycling coach. He currently lives in Minnesota. His website is www.crooked-thumb.com.