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Cheating Darwin; A Brief Memoir

Cats may get nine lives, but I'd call that tight rationing

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The author taking repeated, staged falls to illustrate a technique article.

The recent spate of climbing and kayaking deaths got me thinking about how many close calls I’ve had over the years. But trying to recall them all, and figuring out which ones were “almost died” versus “merely scary” got confusing, so I decided to write down a list. It was a sobering exercise. We always hear about the searches, rescues and fatalities, but every weekend thousands of outdoor adventurers luck out, take a deep breath, and probably never mention the scrape further. Here’s my pared-down tally of incidents where the Grim Reaper rightly felt ripped off:

[] 1977 – I almost fell 100 feet to the ground from a poorly protected rock climb near Aspen, Colorado. I managed to re-grab a hold, barely. None of my pro would have held.

[] 1978 – I had two surprise, waist-deep avalanche burials while skiing in-bounds at Aspen Highlands ski area in CO. This was back in the days when avalanche control wasn’t so intensive.

[] 1979 – I took a direct hit from a 15-pound rock while belaying on the North Face of Capitol Peak (Grade IV, 5.9), one of Colorado’s most difficult Fourteeners. My partner and I took one helmet and traded off so the second had it on each pitch. Good thing too. The heavy, fiberglass Joe Brown helmet was destroyed. I had a stiff neck for days.

[] 1979 – I almost drowned while trying to cross snowmelt-swollen Snowmass Creek near the Snowmass/Bear Creek confluence, while descending from very rugged Pierre Lakes Basin in Colorado’s Elk Range. Short version: I slipped off a log five feet above the water, and managed to pull myself from the raging, ice-cold creek after 150 yards.

[] 1980 – I had a large rockfall dumped onto me by a client as I was guiding him back down the East Face of Cathedral Peak near Aspen, Colorado. One refrigerator-sized block actually brushed my backpack and shoulder. I quit mountain guiding after that.

[] 1980 – Extreme ski fall while descending the Bell Cord Couloir between North and South Maroon Peak, Colorado. Many snow gullies develop ditch-like grooves down their centers from constant rockfall and sliding debris. I caught an edge and fired into one such gully on this 40-degree couloir. My skis released and I began rocketing down the ice-floored bobsled run. Fortunately one ski jammed across the ditch. I was left hanging from it by my waist, uninjured except for a cut on my abdomen from the sharp ski edge. Without that fluke, I would have gone 2,000 feet.

[] 1981 – I took a roped climbing fall down the East Face of Rurec III in Peru’s Cordillera Blanca while climbing with NW mountaineer Bob Wilson. We’d just climbed a 60-degree ice face and were descending roped. Wilson jumped a crevasse across one steep rollover. When he landed, the far side released a surfboard-sized slab, sending him into a fall. I dropped into self-arrest, but there was rope slack, Wilson was a big guy, and I was torn off the slope. We slid perhaps 400 vertical feet, flying over at least two crevasses, until coming to rest just before another very deep hole. Both of us walked away.

[] 1984 – Extreme ski fall while telemarking down Dogleg Chute above Alta, Utah. I was skiing with friend Chris Larsen, at that time the #2-ranked tele racer in North America. That spring we had completed a very successul telemark expedition to Peru, so we were pretty cocky. But Dogleg Chute, about 47 degrees at the top, was icy because we were skiing it in August (back when Utah had snow that lasted until August). I fell on the second turn and slid 500 vertical feet before hitting one of the rock walls. I blacked out briefly, but when Larsen got to me I was laughing, because I’d thought for sure I was going to die. There was blood everywhere, but aside from 40 stitches in my head and a lot of bruising, I had no serious injuries.

[] 1985 – Myself and two friends (one of them the redoubtable John Harlin) were telemarking down 20,000-foot Tocllaraju in Peru when we skied a rollover just above a bergschrund, and became the fracture line for a massive hard slab avalanche. The slide was six feet deep, at least 600 feet across and ran for a half-mile as a jumble of rock-hard, truck-sized blocks. None of us were injured.

[] 1987 – Kayak accident while paddling Cross Mountain Canyon of the Yampa River above Dinosaur National Monument in NW Colorado. Our party ran this expert stretch on a 5,200 cubic-feet-per-second flow (making it Class V whitewater). I dropped into a massive “hole” reversal and did a desperate 5-minute hole ride until I became exhausted. Then I tucked up, did a roll to see if that would drag me out of the reversal, and was tossed in a series of “pitchpole” end-to-end tumbles before, very luckily, being spit out and rolling up. If I’d have swum, it would have been miles of serious rapids, boulder piles and similar holes. I doubt I would have survived.

(Insert a 12-year hiatus from serious accidents here. Not sure why.)

[] 1999 – Another kayak accident while paddling Ferron Creek (Class III), a roadside seasonal stream in central Utah. I was paddling solo, but my new wife and bro-in-law were driving alongside, keeping an eye on me. Then the creek entered a gorge, went around a blind corner, and split into two steep rapids. I hesitated briefly, missed a critical cross-current ferry, and got pinned against the upstream side of a boulder by the force of the current. Trapped in my boat, I could barely keep my head above water. I was stuck for about 10 minutes with my spray skirt pinned between boulder and kayak, making it almost impossible to get out. Eventually I managed to crawl out of the neoprene skirt itself. It took a six-to-one rope and pully arrangement to unwrap my boat from the rock.

[] 2000 – I took a serious fall while bouldering solo during a trail run in Capitol Reef. I pulled a handhold from about 15 feet up and landed flat on my back in a jumble of large, sharp boulders. No one had any idea where I was at the time. Miraculously I missed any head or spinal injuries, and limped away. It was late autumn, and an overnight temperatures probably would have finished me.

Whew! So, that makes an even dozen near-death scrapes – not counting mountain bike falls that trashed my shoulder and hip, numerous close calls with auto traffic while road biking, the time I swam a mile of whitewater with a dislocated shoulder, or the two times I came within 100 feet of taking direct lightning strikes.

It’s an alarming list, but the scariest part is that most active outdoor adventurers have a similar file. So, what’s your close-call tally? List ’em in the comments section below. It’s always instructive, and I’ll bet readers have some jarring anecdotes.

Hike safe out there, because no one is immune to this stuff. — Steve Howe

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