Disaster struck for Tom Walter, Ritt Kellogg, and Colby Coombs on a steep snow climb up Alaska's 17,240-foot Mt. Foraker. Nearly finished with their new variation on the Pink Panther route, the trio topped out on a 1,000-foot cliffband just as a storm broke. With winds rising and visibility plummeting, they abandoned their summit plans. But the escape route wouldn't be any picnic. They had to gain the spur 1,200 feet above them, traverse left, and descend the Southeast Ridge, a tough route in its own right.
The ramp was easy climbing, but the porous ice was too hard for snow pickets (a kind of anchor) and too soft for ice screws. Unprotected, the men moved quickly up the 50-degree slope, tied together and climbing simultaneously.
As they ascended, Coombs, who now owns Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna, stared up at the line running to his friend Tom. "Then the rope suddenly went slack," he says. Coombs looked up just as an avalanche hit him. "I remember sliding really fast and trying to self-arrest, then hitting something and going airborne. That's when I passed out."
Coombs came to hanging from his rope, wracked with pain and deeply chilled, his pack and mittens gone. It was morning. He'd been dangling for at least six hours near the top of a rock buttress, 800 feet below where the slide had struck. Walter hung on the other end of the line, counter-weighting Coombs. The rope to Kellogg, his longtime best friend, ran limply over the brink.
Walter was dead, his face a snow-covered mask. "It was a blessing in some ways, not seeing his face," says Coombs. "It allowed me to separate myself a bit." Coombs was in bad shape. His ankle and scapula were broken. His neck wouldn't twist, and it was excruciatingly painful to recline or sit up. Dizzy from a concussion, he scrabbled to a small ledge, wormed inside Walter's sleeping bag, and went to sleep.
When he awoke, Coombs realized the helmet he was still wearing had been shattered. He rappelled to find Kellogg dead, wound up in the other rope. It took nearly 36 hours for Coombs to assemble gear, cook food, and melt snow to drink. Alone and desperate on a technical ice face, he traversed toward the Southeast Ridge, his only escape. He could barely use his fractured foot, but he had to focus on the next step. "I remember thinking 'I don't care if my foot falls off,'" he says. "I had to get into an unstoppable mentality." Coombs also drew from his faith in God. "For anyone who's religious, being able to lean on something bigger than you is helpful."
The descent took six days of dead ends, frustration, and splintered-bone agony. Coombs fell and made an excruciating self-arrest. His frayed rope kept snagging on rocks. When a steep snowfield settled beneath him, the exhausted climber inched back up and around the hair-trigger avalanche slope. Finally, reaching the Kahiltna Glacier, he zombie-walked across its crevasse fields and entered the airstrip camp.
Search planes spotted Tom Walter's ice tool planted only 100 feet from the ridgetop and safety. Coombs spent three months in a wheelchair, and another three on crutches. Neither Kellogg nor Walter were ever found.
(Adapted with permission from the University of Alaska's Denali Mountaineering Project Jukebox audio interview, available at http://uaf-db.uaf.edu/Jukebox/DENALI/home.htm.)
Near-Fatal Flaw: "Tom must have climbed onto a wind-deposited avalanche slab near ridgeline," says Coombs. "Because of the zero visibility, we didn't know what we were climbing into."
Voice of Experience: "In retrospect, we should have camped at the top of the buttress and waited, but it would have been a tough sell at the time. If we had talked about the risk of poor visibility and the possibility of walking unknowingly onto an unstable slab, maybe we would have forced ourselves to dig a cave," says Coombs. "Instead, we kept climbing. Optimism was our mistake."
Tips From a Pro: Few people experience what Coombs did and live to tell it. Here, he offers advice on self-rescue and mental toughness:
- If you've lost consciousness, your actions once you regain it are critical. Try not to move until you assess the situation; you could be hanging by a thread, seriously injured, or on unstable ground.
- Come up with a plan for your evacuation. Don't move unless there is an imminent threat or you are sure no one knows your location.
- Control fear by consciously avoiding thoughts of dying. Control pain by disassociating yourself from your body. Control your emotions by shelving them until later. Promise yourself that you won't give up until you've tried everything in your power to make it home alive.
- Courage is really just controlled fear. Fear is good as long as it doesn't turn into panic.