By Mike Stinson, MTI Contributor
I entered the climbing scene in the early 1980’s while I was in college. I spent my free time climbing the bridges, buildings and local bouldering routes in Austin, Texas. Between semesters, I traveled to climb the volcanoes in Mexico and the Cascades, and the crags in the Rockies. The last summer before graduating was spent in the Alps. I came away from that trip with a few adventures and a wife.
Never a great climber, I did enjoy being in the mountains and was proud of my achievements. After graduation, I struggled to find work as a geologist. I ended up on a different, albeit unsatisfying career. I managed to pay the bills and provide for the family. Once every decade, I would plan a trip with my climbing partner from college.
We traveled around the world and had some wonderful adventures. My summiting success on these post college trips was dismal at best. I did not spend the time and effort required to train for the summits we were attempting. Another decade passed, and the clock was nearing the big 50. My career was going well financially, but I did not care for my job. My wife and I had become empty nesters. I felt as if I were in a full-blown mid-life crisis.
I decided to actualize a long-time dream of climbing the Eiger. I did not have any illusions about attempting the North Face, my goal was to climb the Mittellegi Ridge. To be successful, I would need to train much harder and smarter than I had in a long time. I discovered Mountain Athlete. I picked up one of Rob’s plans and worked my tail off.
My wife suggested that I spend some time on an actual mountain as part of my training. I travelled to New Mexico and hired a local guide who had climbed the Mittellegi. We climbed a similar route as a test. I received the thumbs up from the guide in terms of my preparation and fitness for the climb.
A few months later, I travelled to Chamonix and met my guide. I had allocated ten days for the climb, to acclimate and in case of weather. It turned out the route on the Mittellegi was iced up. We decided to make a practice run up the South Ridge of the Lagginhorn while we waited for the weather to improve. This route allowed me to polish up my roped climbing skills and to become accustomed to the exposure on a steep ridge. The climb was a success and we agreed to meet in two days for the attempt on the Eiger.
Two days later, the Mittellegi was in even worse condition and apparently the hut on the route was closed. As an alternative we decided to climb the Tieffenmatten Ridge on Dent d’Herens, the 4000 m Italian neighbor to the Matterhorn, located in the scenic Aosta Valley. Off we went.
I am always excited and nervous on summit morning in the hut. I was woken to the muffled voices of climbers and the clanking of equipment as the teams prepared. We were the last team out and I felt good as we made our way in the dark across the moraine and on to the glacier. The morning stars and the headlights from the other climbers pierced the darkness ahead of us. We were surrounded by total silence moving up to the ridge.
About 500 meters from the summit, we caught up with a husband-and-wife Swiss team who had decided to turn back. My guide spoke to them and agreed that he and I would attempt the summit and then come back and join them in a seven-pitch rappel that would get us to the glacier without having to down climb the ridge.
My guide and I summited, enjoyed the moment, and then headed back for the decent. We met up with the Swiss couple and began our descent. The rappel was via a gulley down the face of the mountain. On one side of the route was the direct face and the other was a smaller rock wall that protruded from the face about ten meters. There were six belay stations with fixed anchors that we rappelled to, each one in the corner of the gulley consisting of a fixed anchor and small foot sized ledges.
One of the Swiss climbers below me was anchored to the belay station at the base of the third pitch. I was on the rope and when I heard the shout “ROCK”. I looked up and saw a boulder about the size of a medicine ball heading toward me. I swung out of the way, and it just missed me. The climber below fixed to the wall, braced herself by pushing her leg against the main face and her back and head against the smaller wall. This maneuver saved her life by keeping her head and torso away from the boulder, but unfortunately, the boulder slammed into her leg and pulverized her femur.
When I reached her, she was screaming, losing consciousness and bleeding out. My guide called the Mountain Helicopter Rescue Service based in Aosta. They arrived on scene within 15 minutes. The belay station was located on a steep pitch. Safety protocol dictated that the rescue team attempt a long cable rescue which would require descending back to the valley, setting up a cable beneath the helicopter, then attaching a rescue climber on the cable to retrieve the injured climber. This method would ensure that the blades of the helicopter did not hit the face of the mountain. However, in this case, the climber would not have survived the delay required to set this up.
The Rescue team made the decision to put an arm with a cable out the door of the helicopter to retrieve her. This placed the helicopter blades only a few feet from the mountain face as it hovered directly above us. We all accepted our fates which were now tied to saving the injured climber. This professional crew managed to safely place two rescuers at our location and extracted her in a flawless and heroic operation. She was taken to a hospital in Italy for surgery, having lost 2 liters of blood. Eventually, she would have 7 operations to save her leg.
I am not a total stranger to death; I have been on several mountains when bodies were carried out in body bags. However, the accident was a harsh reminder to me that climbing injuries on a mountain are not clean and clinical. There will be pain, it will last while the patient is conscience. Teammates, first responders and strangers will risk everything to save the injured climber. The post-accident recovery may take years and could bankrupt the climber and their families both emotionally and financially. The sacrifices loved ones have made over the years will be compounded but now with time now spent in hospital visits rehabilitation etc.
I avoided being hit by the rock because the spouse of the injured climber warned us it was coming. I felt guilty that I survived unharmed. My wife and I travelled to Europe a few years later and stayed with the Swiss couple. The visit was a healing experience for me, and I hope for them. We have remained friends and talk each year on the anniversary of the accident.
Maria Coffey’s excellent book Where the Mountain Casts It’s Shadow: The Dark Side of Adventure is a study of how the death of famous climbers effected the families they left behind. The stories of each of the climbers had a common theme. A climber would go on a grand adventure, narrowly survive some accident, return home, promise to never climb again, and then within a year they were off on another climb. After the climber’s death, their loved ones suffered emotionally and financially. Climbing is a risky sport, but also can be a selfish one.
I gave up climbing because of the accident and found a new hobby kiteboarding. I can get the thrills, the wows, and the outdoor experience in an environment where I can control the risk to a greater extent. Hopefully, it is not quite as selfish as climbing and I have had conversations with my family who are comfortable with the risk associated with the new sport.
Mike Stinson is a Emergency Response Specialist for Harris County, Texas.
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