Out Alive: Falling Down a Mountain

Jason Lopez, 35, slid 1,000 vertical feet on California’s Timber Mountain on January 23, 2016. His brother-in-law Rob Wayman, 29, mounted a rescue.
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Jason Lopez, 35, slid 1,000 vertical feet on California’s Timber Mountain on January 23, 2016. His brother-in-law Rob Wayman, 29, mounted a rescue.

Jason: Five hundred feet below the summit of 8,303-foot Timber Mountain in California’s San Gabriels, I heard my brother-in-law Rob give a single shout. I couldn’t hear him over the swirling wind. I remember jabbing my trekking pole into the ground to try to get better footing on the icy scarp. I had the brief, horrifying sensation of slipping, like the kind that jolts you awake from a dream. Then, darkness.

The trip had started out beautifully. Undeterred by the January chill, Rob and I had planned on a mellow dayhike along the Icehouse Canyon Trail, which starts on packed snow right from the trailhead. We got going early that morning, reaching the trailhead just after dawn as the sun was filtering through the cedars.

We saw one other hiker wearing crampons, which seemed like overkill. With the benefit of fresh beta from my wife Jackie, who’d summited a week prior on microspikes, we’d settled on light-duty traction. And we felt vindicated when we arrived at the trail: It didn’t seem nearly as icy as it had looked in Jackie’s photos.

With our spikes on, we made great time on the 4-mile, 2,600-foot ascent to Icehouse Saddle, where we stopped for lunch and admired panoramic views of the Cucamonga Wilderness. The wind began to pick up a bit, so we decided not to linger.

After the saddle, the terrain only got steeper as we hit a series of switchbacks. Blowing snow obscured most of the route’s markers, but we had a GPS device showing us the trail and we both considered ourselves fairly experienced hikers.

About 400 feet before the top, we hit a stretch where melting and subsequent refreezing had created a sheet of ice. I stopped for a moment to rest and adjust my pack for better balance.

Rob: About halfway between the saddle and the summit, I shouted down to Jason that we should move over about 20 feet to an exposed dirt patch, where the footing might be better. I expected to hear a response, but didn’t. That was when I saw Jason go.

His body twisted and suddenly he was on his back and sliding downhill. I shouted at him to dig his spikes in, hoping that he could steer toward a nearby stand of trees.

It was no use. He shot right past it and dropped out of sight.

My entire body spasmed with terror. Even as I began shouting after Jason, my cries felt futile, doomed to silence. What kind of terrain was below the ridgeline? Had I just watched Jason fall to his death? A hundred worst-case scenarios flooded my mind. How would I break the news to my sister Jackie? Or Jackie and Jason’s 11-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter?

A moment later, I whirled around and called to a hiker about 20 yards ahead. While she made her way back down to me, I took a few steps in the direction I’d seen Jason disappear. I hoped he was still nearby, butcouldn’t hear me over the wind. Maybe if I went slowly and traversed down the hill, I would be able to get to him. A small part of me still clung to the belief that this would just turn out to be a minor pratfall that we’d laugh about later.

I made it about 50 feet down the slope but could go no farther. The ice coating the slope made it too dangerous. As tough as it was to admit, I knew I couldn’t help Jason if I ended up needing rescue myself. Yvonne, the other hiker, agreed to hike back down to the saddle with me to try to determine Jason’s likely trajectory.

Once there, we encountered another group of hikers—Brian, Marc, and Anson. They were wearing crampons and looked like they knew what they were doing, so I asked if they were experienced enough to aid in a search. Fortunately, Brian had some formal SAR training. After a few unsuccessful attempts to get through to 911, Yvonne offered to stay back and keep trying. Meanwhile, Brian organized a plan and led the rest of us into the valley.

We split up to coverthe slope at different elevation gradients, hoping to find Jason somewhere. As we bushwhacked, the weather continued to deteriorate, threatening snow.

We’d been searching for about 20 minutes when I heard someone call out in the distance. Marc had come upon Jason about 1,000 vertical feet below where he’d fallen. I raced over and stopped abruptly; I could see a trail of blood dotting the snow. Please just let him be alive.

Jason was unresponsive and his body was wedged against a bush. His face was all bloody and both eyes were swollen shut. He waswrithing in pain and shivering, but he was alive.

I couldn’t immediately assess whether Jason had broken any bones, so the others and I tried to stabilize him in a position where he wouldn’t accidently slip any farther down the slope. We wrapped him in our extra jackets and a space blanket I’d packed.

Marc hiked a short distance back toward the saddle and managed to get a cell phone signal from there. He relayed our GPS coordinates to San Bernardino county rescue personnel, who dispatched a helicopter.

Then, we could only wait. Jason still wasn’t responding to any verbal commands. I felt a little better knowing that help was on the way, but I was also quietly fearful that the rescuers wouldn’t reach us in time. After 20 minutes, I was relieved to hear whirring sounds nearby.

Except that the crew didn’t see us. Despite me frantically waving my blue fleece jacket, the chopper peeled off in another direction. Jason thrashed in pain, drifting in and out of consciousness as we waited for the chopper to come around again. Heavy snow began falling, decreasing visibility.

Forty minutes later the SAR team returned and sent two rescuers down on a rope. They strapped Jason into a stretcher and then put him in a body-size basket lowered by cable. As the chopper began hoisting Jason up, the secondary control rope broke loose, sending the basket spinning wildly in midair. Finally, the helicopter pilot stabilized the basket and brought Jason in.

Jason: I have no clear memory of the fall or the rescue. I was in a medically induced coma for five days, during which I had strange dreams and out-of-body thoughts. My skull was cracked in two places, including an orbital fracture over my left eye that partially blurred my vision. It’s difficult to form words sometimes, a result of a brain injury similar to trauma from a car accident. My speech can be halting and confused.

Every day since, the accident has gotten a little clearer. I think back about what I could have done differently. More wilderness training might have helped. Better winter footwear might have, too. But mostly, I realize that experience doesn’t protect against lapses in focus, even small ones. And no matter how many mountains you’ve climbed, there are no guarantees against bad luck.

Snowfield Safety

  1. Be flexible. Snow is an unstable surface and can change dramatically even over the course of a day. Be wary of old beta.
  2. Time it right. If avalanches aren’t a concern, wait until later in the day when soft snow provides better traction. Flip side: It’s always easier to travel over firm snow so you’re not postholing.
  3. Pack smart. Use traction devices and trekking poles. On steep, icy slopes, opt for crampons and ice axe. Use microspikes on snowy trails that have been packed by foot traffic.
  4. Walk carefully. With your trekking pole in your uphill hand, traverse moderately steep slopes (up to about 30 degrees), kick-stomping each foot to displace snow for traction.
  5. Handle steeps. If the terrain drops off and you can’t retreat, face into the slope for extra stability. Side step, kicking platforms for each foot and making sure all spikes are in contact with the snow. 
  6. Know how to fall. Practice self-arrest with an ice axe before crossing steep, icy terrain. Grab the axe by the head with one hand, grip the shaft with the other, and drive the pick into the snow. No axe? Improvise. Gouge your trekking pole, boots, hands, and knees in the snow.

–Amanda Hermans