High Alpine Amnesia
A firsthand account of a free-solo accident in the Sierra Nevada.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.
Our memories are intrinsic to who were are. Brain expert and author of the complete guide to memory Richard Restak writes “we are what we can remember.” But is that always true? Even in the case of horrific memories, if you could forget the worst day of your life, would you? What happened to Derek Cheng on one July day in the Sierras might be part of who he is, but when it comes to remembering he had no choice but to forget.
Out Alive is brought to you by Ricola, makers of Ricola Max Throat Care. You’ve got big plans to get out there and adventure this cold season. Ricola Max Throat Care features a powerful liquid menthol center delivering the ultimate relief from your worst cough and cold. Learn more at Ricola.com. It’s in our nature.
Host: In the early 2000s, there was a movie called “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” It was a quirky sci-fi rom-com starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, and it was one of my favorite movies at the time. If you’ve never seen it, it’s about a couple after an ugly breakup who undergo a procedure to erase their memories of the relationship. This fantasy of selectively deleting unpleasant memories has been a common theme in books and movies for decades. Think about that little raygun in “Men In Black,” or the way Hermione forces her own parents to forget her in the seventh book of Harry Potter.
But brain expert and author of The Complete Guide to Memory Richard Restak argues that our memories are intrinsic to who we are. “We are what we can remember,” he writes.
But is that always true, even in the case of horrific memories? If you could forget the worst day of your life, would you? What happened to Derek Cheng on one July day in the Sierra might be part of who he is. But when it comes to remembering, he has no choice but to forget.
Derek Cheng: My name is Derek Cheng. I am a New Zealander; I’m a journalist. I’m currently spending the summer living in Chamonix in France, which is awesome.
I’m a climber. I’ve been climbing for the last 15 years or so, and I, like many other climbers I know, have tried to spend most of my adult life working as least as possible and traveling and climbing as much as possible.
So I spent a lot of time overseas, particularly in North America. Just over four years ago, I was involved in an incident, shall we say. I was in the Sierra Nevada. I was on my own living in my van, which was an enormous Chevy G30. I was about to meet a friend the next day to go rock climbing, but I had a day to kill, and one of my favorite things to do is just big, huge ridge traverses. And anyone who’s been outdoors will know what it’s like to go and scramble up the side of a mountain, and then go down the other side and then go up another mountain and just do these big enchainments or linkups. And you’re outdoors, you have incredible views. If it’s a bit technical—which means just a little bit of rock climbing involved, so you might have to put your rock shoes on and do a little soloing that you’re really comfortable with—that’s my favorite thing. Following the spine of a mountain for dozens of kilometers, over several peaks 16-17 hour days on a beautiful day.
So that’s what I was envisioning. I’ve done a number of these outings before. I’ve been reading Peter Craft’s guidebook about the Sierra Nevada, where he talks about the Minaret’s traverse being one of the best days out of up to 20 peaks in the Minaret’s traverse, which is above Mammoth.
Host: Derek is describing an ambitious day for experienced hikers and climbers, which he was. But to get a better sense of the traverses’ unique challenges, we spoke to a local expert.
Doug Robinson: My name is Doug Robinson. I’m a climbing guide in the Sierra. I’ve been here all my life in the high country, roaming around, taking people up peaks. So I love this place. It’s my home range. The Minarets form a spiky skyline of dark towers irresistible to climbers partly because they’re so visible. But this mountain range, 400 miles long, rises to 14,000 feet. Mt. Whitney, for instance, the highest point in the lower 48 states, is a couple hundred miles away.
And up along the crest of the Sierra, the granite changes. It’s more fractured up there because a lot of weather gets to it, so up along the Sierra crest, unlike the famously monolithic rock in Yosemite Valley, think Half Dome, think El Capitan, the rock gets fractured. It gets splintered, and it’s less trustworthy. Climbers have to be more cautious as they approach the rocks along the Sierra crest, which can often be loose.
So here’s the paradox of Alpine climbing: what looks so inspiring on the skyline against the blue sky can be also looser and more dangerous than the rock in the lowlands than in say Yosemite Valley.
Also a lot of the climbing is easier than in the lowlands, scrambling sort of things. And just beyond scrambling, where you’re being careful with your hand and footholds, but it’s just plain easier to get up and down things.
That leads people to go soloing, climbing without a friend, without a rope, all alone in the backcountry, and yet feeling like you can handle this terrain. It’s okay. That it’s gonna work. And often it does, plenty of hand- and footholds, ascending, even though it’s steep, even though it’s exposed. If you fell, you might go a ways.
Host: Derek is an experienced climber having completed similar high alpine traverses across North America. In other words, the Minarets was just the latest in a long line of remotes and high alpine link-ups like this. And as John Muir put it, the mountains were calling, so he went.
Derek: I’m always a little nervous whenever I go out into the mountains by myself. There’s no cell coverage out there, but I decided to give it a go. It was a beautiful July day. I parked at the trailhead, I think I pulled in pretty late at night and I got up at something like at some ungodly hour at 4 in the morning. Often when you have mountain objectives, you have to get up really early in the morning, and it kind of cripples your soul to do so, but once you’re up and you’re out and you’re moving and you have the fresh air and the first light of the dawn, you never regret it.
I went up past the lake. I think I saw a couple of people around who were camping up there. But this area is pretty remote. It’s off of the beaten trail, it starts on a popular dayhike and then you break off and then you head up to Minaret Lake.
I recall seeing two campers up there, and nobody else. I hit it up, and I decided to cut off the first peaks. I just went up the side of one peak, and then I was scrambling. I put my rock shoes on when I got a bit steeper. I remember like getting to the more exposed part and sort of easing around a few larger blocks, but it’s not too technically difficult.
I had a backpack, I had a bunch of gear in my backpack in case it got cold. I had a half rope in my backpack and a set of wires, which would hopefully mean that I could escape anywhere along the ridge, if I needed to by building anchors out of my wires or slings and repelling down. So, I felt I was prepared. I felt good. I started moving up. The rock was beautiful, the scenery was beautiful. And I remember there was this frozen lake, a few birds around, and it was just a nice place to stop, have some water, eat some food. and then I basically went back on the route, continued up toward Clyde Minaret.
I think this was probably around 11 in the morning when I got to the lake. It was a warm, beautiful bluebird day. I was eating a Clif bar, just taking a little bit of a breather having come up and done a bit of technical climbing and been to a lake and tagged the first few peaks of the traverse.
And then the next thing I remember is waking up on a ledge somewhere on that face of Clyde Minaret, and feeling achy. I could only see out of my right eye. My entire face was numb, and when I went to touch it, it was bleeding. I had an iPod with me and I took a selfie. I didn’t actually look at it until much later, but the selfie shows that my entire left side of my face was covered in blood, and the left eye, the blood had already congealed and fused my eye shut.
So I couldn’t see out of my left eye because the blood had already dried. And according to when I took the selfie, I’d been unconscious for at least an hour or so, and it was quite confusing because I had a new backpack, sort of Alpine climbing pack. And, I had some cord that I’d tied to one of the straps, which had broken.
So clearly, I’d been knocked unconscious and woken up, saw that my backpack strap had been broken and was very resourceful. So I took out some cord and tied it around to repair the strap, and then I had passed out again.
Maybe that’s when I also snapped the selfie. I can’t really remember.
Host: The time between his snack break and waking up bloody—it’s just a blank in Derek’s mind. He remembers nothing about how he got injured or how far he had fallen. He was about 1,000 feet up the southwest face of Clyde Minaret when he came to. Far below him was Minaret Lake and the trail that led to his van 7.5 miles away.
Derek: Then I realized that I had this big tear in my soft shell pants and rolled them up to see this massive gash in my right shin, maybe 7 or 8 centimeters long.
And it was just blood, not gushing blood, but it was this massive cut to a meaty part of your body. I was bleeding and had ripped through my clothes. Something has obviously happened, I don’t know what, but I’m hurt. And I don’t even know if I thought I must have fallen down the mountain, but I didn’t really think about what had happened. I remember trying to get up because I was on this ledge. I was lying down in this haphazard way, and when I got up my back cracked, and it was painful, well not in a debilitatingly, you can’t move way, but I’m banged up.
So then I got up gingerly and I remember weighting each of my legs to see. If I’d broken a leg, I shouldn’t be able to put any weight on it and felt fine, like I could put weight on both of my legs. I seemed to have put out my hands to stop falling because my wrists and my hands were starting to get really fat. Piano playing will be very difficult with hands like these. They were turning into like the Stay Puft marshmallow man’s hands. They were huge. Whatever happened, I had fallen and I had ragdolled down. It’s a Class 4 scramble, the Southwest face. It’s not particularly technical. It’s like extreme hiking. It’s steep enough where you probably need your hands, but it’s not steep enough really to be considered technical rock climbing.
So, I’d bounced down a not vertical slope and stopped on a ledge somewhere and been knocked unconscious. I almost was like, “Well, I feel okay. Maybe I should just keep going. And then I was like, no, what are you thinking? That’s just fucking stupid. You obviously heard something’s happened and you should go down.” It was very matter-of-fact, maybe naively didn’t think of what is the worst-case scenario here, might I have, for example, a brain bleed, which I actually had, and I didn’t know that until much later, in which case, you can have seizures and all kinds of things can happen to you.
You might fall asleep and not wake up again, but I didn’t even consider that. I basically thought I’m hurt, but I’m okay. And I should go down.
Host: The hike back down was steep, and while Derek would have typically felt confident downclimbing without gear, he knew that with his limited vision and swollen hands he could be risking another injury. There’s no marked route or trail on the traverse, and the choices at this section were simply up or down. Luckily he had enough gear and experience to build short rappels. He rappelled 5 or 6 times until exhaustion began to set in.
Derek: At some point during the rappels, I remember I was just really tired and I just sat down in the sun and closed my eyes and I fell asleep. I don’t know how long I fell asleep for, but I just remember doing that. And then when I woke up, I just thought “That’s right. I’m descending this mountain. I should continue doing that.” It was just kind of very German, very matter of fact. “That’s right. This is where I am. This is what’s happened. I’m hurt. So I was going down this mountain and I should continue going down this mountain because this is not a good place to be if night falls.”
And then I got down to a snow slope, and I was going down the snow slope, toward Minaret Lake. Snow slopes are slushy in the afternoon and if you’re going down, they can be kind of fun.
You can just kind of trudge, and it’s soft on your knees, and you can just take giant steps with placing your heel first. You don’t tumble over forwards, but I only had one eye, and I kept losing my balance cause my depth perception was all out and I kept not being able to place my feet where I wanted them or they weren’t going where I wanted them or it was just, something was off. My balance was off, or my vision was off, and my depth perception was all over the place.
And eventually I just kept falling and falling and falling so then I kind of remember just kind of shuffling over a bit to where the snow was a bit deeper and then just kind of giving into my pathetic vision and just sitting down on my ass and sliding down on my bum.
Host: Derek had finally descended the few hundred meters from where he woke up to Minaret Lake. What normally would have taken him a couple of hours had taken eight. Dusk was falling, and he was still 7.5 miles from the trailhead.
Derek: This is where things get a little hazy in my memory because I remember the beautiful hues of the evening light, all the colors of the rainbow that just kind of streak across the sky. And then they slowly subtly change, and it gets increasingly purple. I remember how I had my headlamp on, I had my shell on. I hadn’t taken a puffy jacket because I didn’t think I’d need it, but I had a shell, and I went down into the forest and then it got dark and I was walking by headlamp, but I was not on the trail, and I was just kind of using my sixth sense, which sometimes serves you really well. And other times Murphy’s Law serves you terribly. It’s not very far from Minaret Lake through the forest to cross the stream and join the popular dayhike trail, it’s probably an hour tops.
But if I left Minaret Lake at 8 p.m., I must have just walked around deliriously in circles because I walked for hours and hours and I was still in the forest and I have no clear memory of being on a trail, just lost it at some point, and then just kept going, thinking: “It’ll emerge. I’ll be fine, and then not finding it at all.” So I assumed that I just laid down at some point, exhausted, and fell asleep. And I had these extremely vivid dreams where I was in the forest trying to find the trail, and I was lost. and the situation was desperate, but I wasn’t alone. I had three or four friends with me and we were having a discussion about what to do next. And we were bouncing ideas back and forth and then woke up. No one else is with me. It’s just me.
Host: We’ll be right back. Derek woke up around daybreak shivering and disorientated from his dreams, expecting to see his friends at his side. He found his jaw was unable to chew his Clif bars, but figured it was just a bit of bruising, and decided to get moving. He could faintly hear a river in the distance and knowing there was a short crossing to get to the trail, he followed the sound until he found it.
Derek: I just moved toward the river sounds, and I quite quickly found a trail and it must be the trail that takes you up to the lake. And it was, and I felt quite relieved and I crossed the stream. And I was like, this is good. I’m down. I’m on the popular trail now. So it’s just a matter of a couple hours following this trail back to the trailhead, getting back to my van. When you’re just full of adrenaline and you feel fine, even though later hospital scans will reveal that you are actually really fucked up. But so I was walking down this trail feeling pretty good, pretty confident I’m gonna get back to my van and then just drive to the hospital.
And so a couple of hikers come up the other way. And I’m like, “Hi there.” But they were like, “Oh my God, you look really hurt.” And I said, “Actually I’m really fine.” Because I have this horrible aversion to ruining someone else’s day and plans if it’s unnecessary and I didn’t really have an idea of what I looked like, but I looked like I’d been in a bare knuckle boxing match where you get maximum points for hitting your opponent’s face.
So I’d looked like I’d been bashed in the face a lot and I was just completely bloodied and because it had been almost 24 hours since the fall, it had swollen massively, so I looked terrible. And in hindsight it’s hilarious and kind of almost disturbing that these guys eventually just went on their way and left me to my own devices, which is what I insisted that they do.
Now actually knowing how badly hurt I was at the time, it’s just kind of funny. The next group that I met were having none of it. They were like: “There’s no fucking way you’re walking back to the trailhead by yourself. You look like shit.” So one of the guys walked back with me. I can’t for the life of me remember his name, so I’ve never been able to get in touch with him to thank him. But he walked with me. He gave me water. It was probably less than an hour by then, back to my van, back to the trailhead.
When we got back to the trailhead, there was a national park ranger there. I remember going to meet him and he was like, “Well, I can call a rescue for you if you want, but you’re already here, so I dunno what that’s gonna achieve.” I just basically said “No, it’s fine.” And the guy whose name I can’t remember, who walked out with me, had taken the bus to the trail here. So it was actually convenient for him to drive me in my van to the hospital, awesome.
So we jumped in my van, and he drove me to Mammoth Hospital. I remember falling in and out of sleep on the drive. Obviously I was exhausted, who knows how much I’d slept, maybe a couple hours. And then I pulled into Mammoth Hospital and I walked in and I remember walking past the person in the reception and just sitting down in the waiting zone. She just kind of looked at me and was like, you can come up, you can come through if you want, you look like you need to be seen. In my initial consultation, I remember being asked, “How much pain are you in?” And I was like, “I’m not too bad. I feel okay.” And then they asked me, “Do you think you’ve broken anything?” And I said, “I don’t think so. I just descended hundreds of meters down Clyde Minaret and then walked out, which is like 7.5 miles. So I think I’m okay. I don’t think I’ve broken anything.” And then they scanned me, and they must have thought that I was completely incapable of self-diagnosis.
Host: According to Derek’s hospital report, he was “covered in blood, essentially covered head to toe with contusions, abrasions, and lacerations.” He’d sustained multiple internal injuries, including a head bleed, and had multiple facial fractures, including a broken jaw.
Derek: And the records would show later that I had probably lost about a third of my blood. I was so dehydrated that I was in the beginnings of renal failure. I had fractures in my neck and my spine, and I had torn ligaments in my left shoulder. I’d ruptured my PCL in my right knee and torn, partially torn, my ACL on the right knee.
And I had ripped a ligament in my left wrist, which was the big puffy hand, which I held out to stop my fall. but there were no facilities in Mammoth Hospital for traumatic brain injuries, so I was choppered to the hospital in Reno. One of my most visceral memories from the hospital was then when they ripped open my left eye, which had been shut for more than 24 hours from this pus and concealed blood and all this grossness.
And I just, I just remember them saying, “Well, we need to know if you can still see out of your eye. So we’re just gonna open your eyes and see if you can see.” And I just ripped it open, and I was like, that’s really unpleasant. And yes, I can see. Great. I remember logging on to the Mammoth Hospital WiFi to send a message to the climbing partner I was meant to meet that day or the next day to say “Hi, sorry, but I can’t meet you. I’m in hospital.” And sending messages to the couple of people who knew where I was and knew what I was doing, attempting a Minaret’s Traverse to say that, I was alive, but something had gone wrong and that I was actually in hospital. I was alive, but I was delirious, so my messages, when I looked back at them, didn’t really make any sense.
Host: Derek’s friends Lauren and Alaina were climbing in Yosemite when they received a message that Derek was in the hospital. They knew nothing about what had happened, but they did know he had been attempting the Minarets Traverse solo and had been injured. When they got to Mammoth Hospital they saw Derek’s distinct van in the parking lot, but there had been some confusion about Derek’s identity because he was delirious and had no ID, so he wound up listed under an alias. Privacy laws prevented the staff from telling Alaina and Lauren any specifics, but when they learned he had been transferred to Reno Hospital they knew his condition might be more serious, so they drove the four hours to see him.
They arrived in the ICU at night and Derek was sleeping, but Lauren told me that seeing his condition for the first time was alarming. She had just been climbing with him a week earlier, and he was in the peak of physical condition, so to see him so bloodied and broken was difficult. But, when they came back the next day and Derek was awake, he was extremely medicated, cracking jokes, and really happy to see them.
Derek: I also remember waking up and having my friends Lauren and Alaina at my bedside in ICU and being like, How’s it going? What have you guys been climbing? And Alaina told me later that I clearly had a brain injury because I kept repeating myself asking him the same questions.
She said, I looked like death, lying on a hospital bed, just covered in blood and bruises, but incredible to have them at my bedside, and to have company. They contacted my family in New Zealand to let them know where I was and what had happened. They had to tell them that they didn’t really know what the recovery time would be, or what the outcome would be that I needed facial reconstructive surgery, but I was on fentanyl. So that just sounded good to me. I remember having a conversation where I was super high and requesting a penguin face to be attached to my human face or a dragon, maybe some dragon scales, just to make it a little bit more festival-like bit more interesting it’s intriguing if you don’t get a chance to have a say in how you want your face reconstructed every day.
So, I was making jokes because I was obviously high. I was in the hospital for over a week. I had the surgery, and it was only when I came off of fentanyl after those first few days that I really came to understand how serious my injuries were.
Host: Derek still isn’t sure how many titanium plates doctors used to hold the bones in face back together, but he thinks it was around four to five. He also suffered nerve damage, leaving much of his face numb, which is still the case today. The brain bleed resolved on its own without surgery. All in all, he feels lucky.
Derek: I thought about what happened. It’s all speculation, really. I think the most likely scenario was that I got hit by rockfall. I was wearing a helmet, and it just hit me below the helmet, and I just tumbled down the mountain and landed on a ledge. There’s so much luck involved. It’s probably really bad luck to get hit by rockfall if that’s what happened in the first place. Rockfall is an objective hazard in the mountains, and every time you go into the mountains, there’s the possibility of getting hit by rockfall, so we take precautions. On the helmet, the damage might have been a lot less than what habituated, but then again, I landed on a ledge. If I hadn’t landed on a ledge, who knows where I would’ve ended up. Probably not here today, sitting here in beautiful Chamonix, looking at these granite needles at the skyline. It’s just kind of a luck of the draw thing. I’m sure there’s many different factors involved, like how healthy you are at the time, and your genes, et. cetera, I know friends who’ve had brain injuries, and they’ve experienced a change in their personalities essentially.
Where they’re not exactly, or they don’t feel like the person they were. Other people were just hindered by fatigue, chronic fatigue. I know some people who have had traumatic head injuries who afterward have suffered PTSD, and it would have been entirely foreseeable for me to never go climbing again. Or every time I roped up, have crippling anxiety. Head trauma and amnesia mean basically I have no real, solid memory of what happened. I don’t suffer any of that, and that’s very convenient. I’m really grateful for that obviously, but it could have been a completely different story and who knows why it wasn’t?
So I guess all up, it took about 18 months before I got back into climbing at all. It was an amazing feeling to get back out into the mountains again, to be able to climb again, when I didn’t really know I’d be able to climb at all. And to know that I still had that in my life, something that had already given me so much, I have done a bit of soloing in the mountains since then, nothing is an undertaking like the Minarets Traverse. I don’t know if I would do that again, maybe something smaller in hindsight.
The accident also gifted me other things as well. I’ve had to diversify over the previous 18 months and take up things like trail running, to take up cycling, to try mountain biking, different things, and to keep those things in my life because I really enjoyed them. I biked half the country with my sister in six or seven days. It was an awesome experience and something I probably never would’ve done if I hadn’t fallen off the mountain.
I’m not religious. I don’t believe in any sort of spirituality or anything like that. I don’t think any bigger being was looking after me or anything. Things happen, basically, and this happened to me. That might not have really been in my control, except if I hadn’t gone there in the first place.
And we all take a risk-reward view of things. You can never cross the road, for example, if you never want to get hit by a car, but there’s a really good bakery on the other side of the road, and I’m gonna fucking take the rest across the road because I’ve got really good croissants over there and I want to eat them. The mountains clearly have objective hazards, which is why I bought insurance, and you can avoid that by never going, but I love the mountains and I feel alive when I’m in the mountains. Interacting with the mountains, whether it be climbing or scrambling or camping or bivying or whatever, it just brings me such joy that I don’t want to have absent in my life.
Host: This episode of Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Zoe Gates. Scoring and sound design was by Jason Patton.
Thank you to Derek Cheng and Doug Robinson for sharing your stories with us. Doug Robinson has a couple of books, The Alchemy of Action and A Night On The Ground, a Day in the Open. You can learn more about him and his awesome accolades on his website movingoverstone.com
Thanks for listening to Out Alive, and if you have a back country, survival story, and you’re interested in sharing, you can email me OutAlive@outsideinc.com.
This season of Out Alive, brought to you by Ricola. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+ learn more about all the benefits of membership, like expert-led online classes at outsideonline.com/podplus and enter the code OUTALIVE50 for 50% off.