The bergschrund sliced the glacial ice beneath us like a split-lipped grin.
My team—comprised of myself and three friends—was still buzzing from our successful summit of Mt. Rainier when we decided to pull out our anchors for the last of the traverse around the fissured ice on Emmons Glacier. I pulled up the last picket, took a few steps—and slipped. I felt the rope go taught, yanking my partners off their feet, over the lip of the bergschrund and into a 40-foot free fall onto the slope below. There was no time to self-arrest.
I woke up 20 minutes later, bleeding and bruised but unbroken. Two of my partners were nearby and badly injured. I clawed up the ice, looking for the third. Then I heard her screaming: She had tumbled head-first into a crevasse on the way down and now acted as a counterbalance, keeping the rest of us from sliding to our deaths.
I scrambled to build a snow anchor and administer first aid while one of my partners called 911. The helicopter arrived two hours later and started loading up my friends. During all the chaos, I heard panicked voices over the radio. Shortly after, the weather turned, and the chopper had to evacuate before I could finish clipping in. I was left behind to camp on the mountain with two rangers.
Later that night I learned what all the yelling had been about: One of the rescuers, 33-year-old Nick Hall, had fallen while wrestling with one of the litters in the high winds, sliding 3,000 feet. He was dead.
The next morning, the weather was still too bad for flying, so we hiked down. I was so cold, tired, and hungry. I tried to give up. I begged them to leave me behind. “This is when you figure out what you’re made of,” one of the rangers told me. “This is when you dig deep.”
When we eventually got down, I was herded away from the horde of reporters at the trailhead to see my parents, who’d flown in the night before. My mom fell to the ground sobbing when she saw me.
I felt shaken for weeks. The accident affected each of us differently, and we mostly dealt with our trauma on our own. I blamed myself, especially at first. I knew it had been an accident, but I also knew that my friends wouldn’t have been injured if I hadn’t fallen. It didn’t seem fair that I’d escaped unscathed.
I did my best to get back into a routine—I would walk to a friend’s house every morning to make coffee and sit on her porch and just appreciate being alive. I felt like I had cheated death, like I had been given bonus time. I didn’t want to squander that.
But I didn’t know how to confront what had happened. I thought the best way to cope with fear of falling would be to rock climb more, to push myself harder. But when I neared the edge of my comfort zone, I’d freeze on the wall, images of the fall flashing through my head. About 13 months after the accident, I locked up mid-climb on Lumpy Ridge in Estes Park, Colorado, and fell 30 feet, shattering my leg on impact.
I started seeing a therapist. I thought I’d gotten past all the guilt about my friends’ injuries and Nick’s death, but now I found it was all still in my head, a shadow following me everywhere I went. Therapy helped me look at those memories objectively and to see not just my shame, but the strength and resilience I used to survive. I learned to believe that I am strong, that I am capable, and that I’m worthy of being loved, even though I’ve messed up. That became my mantra.
I don’t think about the accident every day anymore. But on the anniversary, I always do something special and toast to Nick and to being alive. I want his family to know he is not forgotten. I think about him when I’m laughing really hard, skiing an amazing line, or standing on a mountain ridge. I try hard to live a meaningful life he would be proud of. It’s my way of honoring him, and the debt I can never repay.