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Out Alive Podcast

We Successfully Summited—But the Descent Almost Killed Us

Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

Mountaineers are used to taking risks. But when does a climb cross the line from exciting into dangerous? When Taylor Gibler and a friend set out to climb Mt. Baker, they had no idea they were about to learn the difference firsthand. Hear their story in his own words below, or subscribe to us on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript

Host: [00:00:00] Many listeners of this podcast can relate to the sense of being pulled by the mountains, a feeling that John Muir put memorably when he wrote “the mountains are calling and I must go.” We answer the call for our own sense of adventure or to recharge our connection to nature. But some of us are called to higher, harder pursuits.

These mountaineers head high with safety equipment, skill, and experience—essential equipment on the glaciated peaks of crampon country, close call country. But just as the mountains call us, they also let us know when not to go, and it’s our ability to hear and listen to that call that can make all the difference.

Out Alive Trailer: [00:00:48] I made a decision to survive in that survival mode. The idea of dying wasn’t in my head, I knew immediately it was the worst-case scenario. I was in a fight for my life situation. You’re [00:01:00] in their house. 

Host: [00:01:03] I’m Louisa Albanese, and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable.

Out Alive Trailer: I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring and I couldn’t do anything. 

Host: Learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you. There is no way we would find anybody alive.

Taylor Gibler: [00:01:38] My name is Taylor Gibler. I’ve been climbing mountains for a little over 10 years. It’s just my absolute favorite thing to do. 

Host: [00:01:47] Taylor discovered climbing in high school and eventually founded a group called Blacklist Mountaineering to connect climbers and organize ascents in the Pacific Northwest.

Taylor Gibler: [00:01:59] I have a team of about 10 people and have 10 different  ascents on Rainier and many ascents on all the other volcanoes, lots of the Oregon volcanoes and California, things like that, but pretty much all inside the United States,

Host: Despite being an accomplished mountaineer, Taylor was no stranger to close calls in the mountains. He and his girlfriend McKaley were also rescued in the backcountry two years ago, but their memories of the event had some discrepancies. 

Taylor Gibler: It’s my current girlfriend. Now it was our first date. Actually. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:02:39] It was like our second or third date.

Taylor Gibler: [00:02:42] We had a little argument about the route and I ended up. Listening to her. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:02:47] He was starting to go up this rock wall realized he couldn’t find another way down 

Taylor Gibler: [00:02:52] I was like, yeah, you know what? You’re right. Let’s go that way. We got into a really bad situation. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:02:57] We ended up getting stuck on this cliff and it was a storm rolling in and he had signs of hypothermia. So we called for help. Proceeded to wait for about nine hours. While he was getting worse and starting to fall asleep and get diluted. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:03:16] So she ended up getting so weak. She couldn’t even move. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:03:20] I kept him awake by, like, shaking him every 30 seconds to make sure he was conscious and not falling asleep. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:03:27] Went through a huge blizzard. And, you know, obviously we, we made it out of there, but I couldn’t walk right. For like six months, my feet were completely numb. That’s another reason why I love the mountains, they are so powerful. They can kill you at any time. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:03:40] It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:03:45] That’s when I realized, okay, we need to do more training and get better gear. And so we did that. We took a couple of years and we got super skilled and super good in the mountains and worked really good as a team. 

Host: [00:03:57] Well, over two years later, [00:04:00] Taylor decided to put his skills to the test. He and two partners from Blacklist Mountaineering, including Taylor’s main partner, Matt Collins set their sights on a challenging route up Mt. Baker in Washington’s North Cascades.

Taylor Gibler: [00:04:17] I had climbed Baker several times. And so I was familiar with how the route looked. We had a, a team of three, uh, really skilled climbers. And Matt is my main climbing partner. So I was super confident, literally one hour before we were scheduled to leave my house. And he got this call from our third team member, I’m not going to be able to go.

And we were like, you know what? So that was, that was pretty upsetting. Um, and we talked about it and we’ve climbed as a two man team before. And, uh, he’s the guy to have, if I’m going to do a two man climb. And so we just decided, you know, it’s still on the routes in good condition where we were supposed to have a really, really good weather [00:05:00] and it should have been an uneventful climb.

And so, you know, for a second there, we just talked about it and decided, you know, we’re, we’re doing this anyways. Uh, we arrived there at 6:00 PM. And so we were planning on leaving around 6:30. It’d give us plenty of time to reach the edge of the glacier. And our plan was to get there, have some tea, take a long break, get roped up.

Our weather forecast was phenomenal. We were going to have clear skies and a beautiful sunrise at the summit, which was our end goal. We wanted to be at the summit for the sunrise. And so everything was going according to plan, we made it to the edge of the glacier and I checked the weather again on my Garmin and at this point, the weather had started to change a little bit.

It was kind of this rain and ice mix that was soaking us pretty good. And I remember thinking, you know, this is probably, I had this gut feeling. This is, this is probably the time to turn around. And two of my biggest climbing idols Ed Viesturs and Adrian Ballenger, they both talk about that all the time, you know, listen to your gut, no matter what, I think one of the biggest problems with mountaineering is, is pressure from yourself.

And I, I deal with that a lot. Um, it’s not necessarily pressure from my peers, but it’s pressure from myself that. Yeah, I know I can do this. I’m confident in my abilities. And, um, I think that confidence can be pretty dangerous. We climbed the entire mountain in a, in a complete whiteout. And I could barely, there were most of the time I could barely see Matt on the other end of the rope.

And so of course our climb took a lot longer than we had planned. And, uh, we did reach the summit. We were there for probably like 20 seconds. It was below zero blowing ice. It was freezing. Uh, so we started heading down. We dropped a few thousand feet before we could actually find our footsteps. Our footsteps were already covered up by the wind and the amount of snow and ice that was fallen.

So I was staring at my GPS the entire time down. And at one point, uh, I remember Matt, he, he actually broke through the surface and how the super minor crevasse fall off. I just remember looking back and being like, Oh my goodness, he’s, he’s gone. You know? And it was so much of a white out that I couldn’t really tell what had happened.

I just knew that he wasn’t there anymore. And I had assumed that, you know, he had fell into a crevasse and I made quick radio call to him. He said, yeah, I’m good to go. Let’s just, just walk out. And I can just climb the side of this thing as you move. It’s definitely the most ideal crevasse fall I’ve ever seen.

Finally, we reached the edge of the glacier and unroped, and completely switched our modes here. We were just, let’s get down this mountain, get the heck out of here. At this point, we were, we were flying down the mountain. We were just happy to be done. And that I think was the problem, I guess. Um, so I might’ve just been going a little too fast and not thinking, um, maybe had too much confidence, but we were on this moraine.

So moraine that has drops on both sides. I think the snow broke under [00:08:00] me or something, but no, this is where I tripped. I don’t remember this, but Matt tells me. I looked up at him at the last minute with a look of terror on my face.

Host: [00:08:12] Taylor began to slide down slope with 3000 feet of mountain below him, but his training kicked in immediately and he tried to execute a self arrest, a technique to stop a fall using an ice ax rested. But I actually just couldn’t get any purchase. Oh. You know, I wasn’t stopping. And I kept getting in speed and I slid about 50 feet and I hit a rock and I remember hitting the rock.

Taylor Gibler: [00:08:44] It kind of launched me into the air. And I remember looking down. And I saw this huge bergschrund. 

Host: [00:08:52] He was rocketed into the air landing on the back part of the glacier and fell straight into a bergschrund, [00:09:00] which is essentially a separation in the glacier, a hole. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:09:04] And I could see the bottom of it. It was just a rock bottom and a couple of seconds later, I slammed into the bottom of it.

And, uh, this was with of course the momentum of the slide. I assume that I hit my head when I fell and that I just rattled my brain. I remember getting the radio call from Matt. Uh, he’s just asking me if I was alive and I was cognitive enough at that point to tell him, I, I believe I have a concussion and a several broken bones in my left arm, but I remember telling him, I think I can walk the, the biggest issue at this point was.

As laying underneath the glacier melt. And it was just, uh, a freezing waterfall of glacier water. And luckily I had my hard shell on, cause we were going through, you know, a whiteout, but I wasn’t with it enough to actually put my hood on. I remember laying under there and [00:10:00] for the first few seconds, I couldn’t feel any pain.

And I had thought I got lucky and it was just pretty bruised up. So I remember trying to stand up. That’s when I realized my arm was really messed up. And then, uh, that’s also when the pain set in and I actually went completely blind at this point, and that’s never happened to me before. And one of the things I’ve ever had happened to me in my entire life, I thought that I was dying.

And so it was, it was just terrifying. I realized I was falling asleep and so that even more so made me feel like. I’m actually going to die.

I did everything I could to fight it. I think I probably lasted maybe 20 seconds or so. And then, you know, I couldn’t fight anymore. I, I that’s when I fell asleep. So during all this, you know, I didn’t know this at the time, but Matt told me later, he was trying to figure out how to get down to me. He tried to go down the same way that I slid and he almost fell as well.

Unfortunately, I had the rope on my pack, so he wasn’t able to just rappel down to me. So he had to find a different way around what felt like minutes to me down there and the whole, it, he, he told me later, it took him 30 minutes to get to me. He said I was just laying there underneath the waterfall, without my hood on. 

Host: [00:11:22] Without the rope, Matt wouldn’t be able to get down into the bergschrund. It was up to Taylor to get himself out. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:11:31] This is when I remember waking up and I remember him screaming at me and I woke up and I heard him. I couldn’t see him cause I was still totally blind, but I heard him screaming at me to put my hood on. His next mission was to get me to press my SOS button. Cause I do carry that the inReach, he told me that I argued with him for like 20 minutes about it.

And I do remember telling him that we didn’t need any help and that I was going to get out of there. And of course I was completely out of it. I also remember every now and then I’d have a moment of clarity. I remember telling him I’m completely blinded. I can’t see anything. I can’t see you. And this was the point when I realized, you know, I need to hit that button.

I finally agreed to press the button. And then Matt, he, uh, kept telling me to throw him the rope. And so this took me a few tries because I was super weak and it was extremely painful, even though it wasn’t my bad arm, it was still jarring my whole body. And so finally, Matt got the rope and he started setting up a pulley system to get me out of there.

He told me to put my harness on, I attempted this, but I was just in too much pain to put the harness on with one hand because my left hand. I had no ability to move it at all. And so I told Matt, you know, there’s no way I’m able to do this. I just need to get out of here on my own. I need to climb out of this crack.

I started to actually get a little bit of my vision back. It was super blurry, but I could make out Matt. He was laying up there on the edge of the bergschrund and I had one acts and it was a straight shaft act. It wasn’t an ice climbing act or tool, or, you know, no crampons. So I took a minute to figure out where I thought it would be the best spot to attempt climbing out.

You know, I didn’t have a choice at that point, you know, cause it’s just like a vertical ice wall. And I found what I thought was the best spot. Um, at the top of it, it was, it had a pretty decent overhang, which is fairly common and crevasses and I just took the time to kick really good steps in, I chopped some steps above me with my ax.

I could not risk falling back onto my arms. So. It took a long time to get out of there because it was super painful to get yarded out there. But at least I was out of there. And [00:14:00] so at this point, I’m at the top now I wasn’t able to carry my pack out because it was too painful to have any weight on my shoulders.

I had realized that since my pack was in the bergschrund so are my keys. So this is another thing we were super lucky to have service. So I was able to call my girlfriend from the mountain and basically tell her what happened. And you know, unfortunately, you, you got to drive up here because my, my truck, my spare keys are at home.

Host: [00:14:26] When McKaley picked up the phone, she could tell right away that something was wrong. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:14:33] He was taking longer to explain things and was having trouble forming sentences. And so I was really concerned about his head injury and how bad that might be. So that was really my primary concern. Driving up to him was just worrying about that.

I understood the gravity of the situation more because I’ve been there and I knew that if he didn’t get down quick enough, he could come into [00:15:00] hypothermic state on top of the fact that his body was probably already in shock. And it was just scary. Um, Having no control either of being able to make sure he gets out of there. So it was definitely a scary situation. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:15:17] So I’m out of the  crevasse, uh, he’d cut out a seat in the ice for me to sit and I was absolutely freezing and I’ve had frostbite before really bad and hypothermia. And I knew I was getting close to that point. I remember telling him, you know, I got to get off this ice. So, uh, there was, uh, a Rocky section, a few hundred feet away.

So this is when Matt went to work. He started cutting footholds in the ice all the way down to the rocks. And once he made it all the way down to the rocks, he came back and he escorted me along. So I didn’t slip and fall further down the glacier. And right below us was another humongous crevasse. So we were super careful walking over to the [00:16:00] rock.

Matt is actually his background. He was an EMT, he was in the military. And so he’s got some, some skills that definitely help out on the mountain. So, he wrapped me up and every single layer he had and he slung my arm with his hard shell. And then he left me there for a little bit, so he could try to find a route out of there.

And, uh, so when he did that, he was cutting steps as he was going. Just so I’d be able to walk a walk out as well. And. You know, like I was saying, all my gear was in the ‘shrund, so I didn’t have any crampons or anything. When I was down there, Matt, I learned this later, he actually contacted search and rescue.

Luckily we had a little bit of service and so he contacted them just in case he wasn’t able to get me out. And I remember I was sitting there. Matt was nowhere to be found. He’s trying to find a route. And all of a sudden I hear this helicopter and I’m like, is this for us? I had no idea at that point. I never saw it cause we were in this white out, but I was like, oh, this helicopter it’s super close.

And later we learned it was actually a Homeland Security helicopter that they sent in for us. They were the only people with a helicopter, big enough to fly through that storm. And, you know, like I was saying, I’ve done Baker so many times and, and knew the direction we had to go. I told Matt, you know, we have to get to that actual trail no matter what.

So we found a pretty short, uh, as a fairly vertical ice wall. That I knew would lead us directly to the actual trail. And I told him, you know, that he had to go first and kick really, really good steps in. So I was able to just walk up. So. That’s what we did, follow them up. And we were actually on the trail.

So about an hour later, we had walked down super, super slow, super dizzy, really, really hard to walk out. And, you know, I was near frostbite on my toes and stuff. So I had to take my boots and socks off. Cause they were soaked from underneath the waterfall. So that’s while eventually his several hours [00:18:00] later we reached the Trailhead.

Host: [00:18:02] He was off the mountain, but Taylor wasn’t HomeFree yet hypothermia had set in and his arm was in bad shape, whatever. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:18:12] He came off the trail, he looked really beat up and exhausted and he was freezing. And so I just wanted to get him to the hospital as quickly as possible.

Taylor Gibler: [00:18:28] So we drove to the hospital and I was there for a long time throughout the night. And basically x-rays of course. And, uh, they, they told me I broke my humerus, which was, uh, one of the worst breaks they said they’d ever seen, it was hanging on like a really small, strand of bone. And it was basically entirely detached and dislocated my left shoulder and damaged some, some of my nerves in my left shoulder.

Uh, tore some tendons in my elbow, had some really bad internal bleeding in my elbow. And I had a concussion for a little over a month. 

Host: [00:19:05] As Taylor physically began to recover. He began to reflect on what went wrong that day. 

Taylor Gibler: [00:19:13] It is going to change me forever. It is going to make me second guess, you know, like walking on things like that, or, you know, just work on my footing and kick better steps in.

I, I really do believe it was a complete fluke thing. Um, that just happens sometimes because it looked completely benign, super easy piece of snow to cross. So I actually got super, super lucky that there was that bergschrund in there because if I wouldn’t have fallen into that ‘shrund, it’s, it’s a nasty angle.

And if it was the same kind of snow. I obviously wouldn’t have been able to stop then either. And I would have just been picking up speed and it slides for about a thousand feet before it comes to a run-out eventually. And then, if I would have slid that whole way, there’s a chance I would have fallen into a bigger crevasse, hit a huge boulder or something worse.

I, you know, I definitely think I would have actually died if I didn’t fall into that bergschrund

Host: [00:20:16] Despite this brush with death, Taylor has no intention of giving up on mountaineering. 

McKaley Jenkins: [00:20:22] Everyone asks me, so you’re done, right? It’s like, Oh no, not yet. Now I’m doing pretty good. And I’ve actually been able to hike again. Um, you know, just real easy trails, but I’m actually able to get outside, which is really good just for my mental stability for a while.

There, it was, it was really bad, you know, just sitting around and not being entirely worthless. And I was in so much pain. I couldn’t really sleep. The power that the mountains have. I think it’s, it’s amazing to see, amazing to witness, and I love being up there when they allow us to [00:21:00] be up there. And so that’s really what compels me to keep going up there is just so amazing and so beautiful. We as climbers need to realize, you know, if we go up there and we die, we’re just, we’re just gone. But we are, we have people relying on us to come home. And so that’s why we need to make the proper decisions. You know, when we have those gut feelings, we need to follow them.

And when I saw that storm rolling in that, that’s when I, you know, had that feeling and I said, you know what? This is a bad idea. We need to go down. And that’s the biggest thing I’m going to learn from this. You, you need to come down no matter what the parking lots, the summit, not the top of the mountain kind of thing.

It’s not the time to, you know, get selfish. And that’s the biggest thing I’m going to learn from this. And I hope that I can help other people learn from it too. It’s you know, you need, there are so many times when you just need to go down and, and rarely, especially once you get into the big mountains you usually fail and you should [00:22:00] just learn to accept that you’ve got people you that are relying on you to come home. It’s not just about you.

Host: [00:22:14] this episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese  along with Zoe Gates and Sammy Potter. Our story editor and sound designer was Andrew Mairs. Our assistant story editor was Tim Masa. Our script writer was Casey Lyons and Sammy Potter with help from Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from electric audio, Inc.

Thank you to Taylor Gibler, McKaley Jenkins and Catherine Gibler for sharing your stories and perspectives. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.