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Out Alive Podcast

What You’re Made Of

While snow climbing, William Toor and Mariella Colvin fell nearly 1,000 feet down a couloir in Rocky Mountain National Park.

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

Will Toor and Mariella Colvin were on a summer climb in Rocky Mountain National Park. While their outdoor pursuits on a typical day would earn them respect from outdoor enthusiasts half their age, this past July, they had to find out exactly how strong they actually are.

 

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Transcript

Host: Welcome back to Out Alive. Before we hear today’s story. Here are some words about our sponsor.

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When I was in college, back before I ever dreamed I would ever help people tell their own survival stories at this magazine, I had an incident of my own. I was a newbie climber on spring break in Nevada, and I agreed to go with my friends who were only a little more experienced than I was on a multipitch route that I frankly had no business being on. To keep a long story short, what should have taken four or five hours took 16, and I spent a chilly night in shorts and a T-shirt out in the desert, several hundred feet up a climb, looking at the lights in the distance of the Las Vegas Strip, certain I would have to be rescued. We were luckier than we deserved and eventually made it to the top of the 800-foot wall where we could hike down the other side.

But one truth has stayed with me nearly two decades later: We can push our bodies so much further than we think is possible. We’ve all heard tales of people who lift cars off children, and it’s not that adrenaline makes you stronger. We’ve always had the strength to lift six or seven times our body weight, but we are evolutionarily programmed to let our fear and pain limit what our bodies can do.

Yes, adrenaline really, really helps prime your body and contract your muscles while also conveniently delaying sensations of pain. But even while exercising, we typically only exert 60 percent of our muscle mass, meaning physiologically, we are all brimming with unlocked potential. It’s been notoriously hard for scientists to study since conditions come about without warning and are not easily replicated, but our life-or-death scenarios seem to be the key to unlocking that 40 percent.

This could explain what happened to 60 year old William Tour and Mariella Colvin in our next story. Will and Mariella were on a summer climb in Rocky Mountain National Park, and while their outdoor pursuits on a typical day would earn them respect from outdoor enthusiasts half their age, this past July, they had to find out exactly how strong they actually are.

Trailer: I made a decision to survive. You’re 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. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house. 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. I saw the rope zip through the repel ring, and I couldn’t do anything. 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.

Will Toor: My name is Will Tour. I live in Boulder, Colorado. I’m 60 years old and work for the state government as director of the state energy office, working on climate and clean energy policy. Mariella and I have been climbing and mountaineering together for about 40 years now. 

Mariella Colvin: My name is Mariella. I am 60 as well, and I teach in the philosophy department at the University of Colorado part-time, so semi-retired. I like to do a lot of outdoor things in my spare time. Snow climbing in particular. The reason I like it is because you do it in the summer, and yet you’re up in the mountains where it’s nice and cool. I also like it because you go straight up the mountain. When you’re hiking on a trail, you’re meandering, and you’re doing switchbacks. With snow climbing, you just go right up.

Will Toor: Our plan was to do a moderate mountaineering day in Rocky Mountain National Park, where we would start at the Bear Lake trailhead, hike in about 4 miles to the bowl on the north face of Flattop mountain, where there are these spectacular snow couloirs. They’re known as the Ptarmigan Fingers.

It’s a couple hour hike in and then probably a couple hours of snow climbing, and then you’re basically right below the summit of the Flattop mountain. Our plan was to have a nice picnic lunch above the snowfield, and then hike down the backside on the Flattop mountain trail. 

Mariella Colvin: The reason we chose this couloir was because we hadn’t climbed it before.

One of the things I looked for was a long runout, so just in case we fell, I knew that we would not go all the way, or I hoped we would not go all the way to the very bottom and hit those rocks. It looked like a beautiful climb. It didn’t look particularly harder than what we had done before, so everything was promising.

Host: Rocky Mountain National Park is brimming with hiking trails, alpine climbing objectives, and moderately technical routes like the one Will and Mariella picked out. The term couloir comes from the French word for corridor or passage and is a steep gorge or gully on the side of a mountain. In July, much of the snowpack throughout the park has melted, but a handful of glaciers and snowfields endure through the summer months.

Will Toor: It was a beautiful day. It was warm. It’s been a very hot summer, so it was a warm day, and we got a relatively late start because we didn’t quite have the oomph to get to the trailhead before 5 a.m. Rocky Mountain National Park has a timed entry permit system if you come in after 5 a.m. We were hoping to get a 6 a.m., but we didn’t. We got an 8 a.m., so we started a little later than we hoped for.

Mariella Colvin: We were actually having lunch before the climb, or at least a snack. By the time we got all ready with our crampons on and our ice axes. It was about 11:30, I think, so definitely a later than usual start, but the snow felt solid. It wasn’t mushy at all, so we weren’t too worried. We started climbing about 11:30. It was good in the beginning, actually, it was good all the way up. We really didn’t have snow problems until the very top. 

Host: It’s important to be prepared when climbing a snowfield. Rocky Mountain National Park officials warn that if you climb a snow couloir in midsummer. There is an inherent risk of compromised snowpack. They also say to start early, before the sun comes up, and to check that overnight temperatures have been consistently below freezing. 

Will Toor: The climb itself was quite beautiful. The couloir was pretty deeply inset. Even though it was a warm day, I think it had been in shade until pretty recently, it was perfect for taking steps with crampons and the lower part of the couloir—or really until you’re about three quarters of the way up—is relatively moderate angle.

It starts out at a very low angle, gradually it gets steeper, so we were just traversing back and forth in the couloir. It was evident that there was sometimes rock fall into the couloir, but there was no rock fall that day while we were there. As we got up higher, it got steeper. I’d say about three quarters of the way up, we stopped on the little ledge and got out our second ice tool so that we each had one ice ax and one shorter ice tool. 

Host: Will and Mariella weren’t tied into a climbing rope as they headed into steeper terrain, but relying on traction from their crampons and ice tools dug into the snow. If they fell, they’d have to use their tools to self-arrest and stop their momentum.

Will Toor: We started heading up the final steep section to the top. One of the reasons that we hadn’t climbed that couloir before was because it has large cornices.

Host: Cornices form on ridges where wind causes snow to build up on an overhanging angle. They can be large, and since they’re unsupported by rock, can collapse or break off entirely, 

Will Toor: Usually that’s more of a concern for a June climb, and this was July 10. There were still cornices on portions of the couloir, but the central part of it, the cornice had melted out. That’s where we aimed for, really climbing right underneath the central area where the cornice had melted. It got very steep right toward the end; where the cornices had melted out was actually getting fairly close to vertical for the last 15 or 20 feet.

I was probably 10 feet ahead of Mariella; I was coming to the top. I did the final exit move, and that’s whenever all hell broke loose. I remember just this moment of utter confusion. Wait, what’s happening here? I’m done with the climb. How can I be falling? I remember hearing Mariella yell, and then I have this very brief memory of trying to self arrest, but instead ending up in a tumbling fall that was accelerating. Just a sense of, okay, this is it. This is the end. 

Mariella Colvin: I was a few feet behind him and all of a sudden I felt something falling on me. At first I thought Will had fallen and he landed on me, but then I quickly realized as I saw this white stuff hitting me that snow was knocking me over backward. I was like, “Oh no, this is not good.” And I started sliding down and because the snow had hit me from the front and knocked me over backward, my ice axes were essentially useless. I tried to turn around to be on my stomach so that I could use my ice axes correctly, but they were just flailing around, and I was sliding down.

They were more like weapons than they were of use, but they flew out of my hands despite the leashes. I started sliding down and I was like, “Okay, what do I do?” I realized I didn’t have ice axes to slow me down. I tried to turn around so that my head was above my feet instead of below my feet.

That was possible because I was sliding around every which way. I was sliding down basically in a sitting position, although my back was reclined. I went down and pretty soon, I don’t know whether my crampon hit the snow and flipped me over or whether I hit a rock or what it was, but I was rolling like kids roll down a grass hill. I was just rolling and rolling. A little bit further down, I started tumbling, basically like somersaulting. The whole time I was wondering what was going on with Will. I heard him scream too. I assumed he was doing the same thing. 

At one point, I hit something hard. I assume it was a rock, and I hit it with my chest, right in the front. It just knocked the breath out of me, and I just went oof. At that point I thought, “That was not good. This is really not good.” Whereas before I had some hope that I would gain control eventually and make it down okay, as the slope got much gentler, I slowed, and at one point I was going slow enough that I put my feet and my crampons down to slow me even more. This is not actually a smart thing to do because that’s an easy way to break your ankles and to start being flipped again. The snow was soft enough, and I was going slow enough that the crampons just sliced through the snow instead of making me flip over.

I came to a stop, I don’t know, about 15 or 20 feet after I had slowed enough to put my feet down. Then I looked and I saw Will coming, and fortunately maybe, because we were so close to each other at the top, he ended up very close to me, literally like 5 to 10 feet away. I scooched across the snow over to him, and he was quite disoriented at first.

Host: Park officials suspect the cornice likely hadn’t melted out as much as Will and Mariella had hoped. When Will weighted the cornice, it likely collapsed beneath him, causing them to fall. They had fallen 900 feet. Though conscious, Will was confused. To this day, months later, he has no memory of the fall or the moment immediately after. 

Mariella Colvin: I did a quick assessment of myself in a very primitive way. I was most concerned about my head since I knew that my head had hit a rock. I was aware that it hit it pretty hard. I was still thinking okay. I never lost consciousness, so I started asking myself little arithmetic questions, like what is 72 plus 41, random things like that, and doing the little calculation in my head and saying, that sounds right. I think my head is okay. After I settled over to Will, he was just asking me, “Where am I, what happened?” And I said, “We fell down the slope.” And he said, “Where am I? What happened?” He probably repeated that about five or six times. I got really concerned that he had gotten a big concussion because he didn’t seem to be aware of things really.

I thought I was gonna have to walk out because my legs were fine. I realized that all my impacts were above my waist. We both had our packs because we were wearing them, and I got out my fleece and I told Will to wear it because Will was saying, “My leg is hurt. My leg is hurt. I think I broke my leg.”

At that point he was making sense. I said, “Will, we have to get you off the snow,” because I was worried about hypothermia. He said, “I can’t, I broke my femur.” I was thinking whether or not I could very gently slide him down to the bottom of the slope so that he could get on the rocks. I thought with a broken femur, I better not try, which turned out to be a very good decision because I think if I had tried to actually pull him down, I would’ve really messed up his femur.

So instead, I gave him my fleece, my gloves, my hat and told him to try to stay warm and reassured him that I was going off for help and just started walking. 

Will Toor: As Mariella walked away, at that point I was pretty warmly dressed. I had on two sweaters and a raincoat and gloves, and I didn’t put the hat on because I still had my helmet on, and I saw Mariella walking away.

We didn’t have any cell service, and there didn’t seem to be anyone else around. I didn’t realize how badly she was hurt. I saw her walking, and she was making her way carefully, but seemed to be doing fine. I almost immediately began to get cold. Despite the warm clothes, I was lying on the snow. That long fall had gotten everything wet from the surface of the snow.

I was wet, and even though it was sunny, I was lying on very cold snow. I was also just beginning to be more rational and started thinking, “Okay, I should be trying to get help too.” So I just started this routine where every 10 minutes I would blow in my whistle because I had a whistle on the outside of my pack.

I would blow in the whistle, I would call for help and I would take a sip of water. That went on for about two hours. I was getting colder and colder, and by the end of it, I was pretty much into continuous shivering. That’s the sort of place where I really began to have doubts. I’m not gonna make it because this is just heading into really bad hypothermia.

It was interesting because I would’ve expected to have really panicky thoughts at that point, but I didn’t. I just had this real sense of sadness that was really around my family and the idea that I would be leaving Mariella and our children, Nicky and Misha, it was just a really sad time.

After about two hours, I look, and there are two people who are approaching me, and that was just an incredibly welcome sight. 

Host: Two climbers in the area heard Will’s call for help and immediately started making their way down toward him, but the going was slow and it took them several hours. Once the climbers reached Will, they began using their experience as certified wilderness first responders to do what they could to make will more comfortable. They also had a GPS device and were able to initiate an SOS, alerting park officials. 

Mike Lukens: My name is Mike Lukens. I am the wilderness branch supervisor, so I supervise both the climbing ranger program and the wilderness rangers here at Rocky Mountain National Park. The call initially came into our dispatch center, just around 3:45. Then we sent folks at the door pretty quickly after that. We had a paramedic and then two of our climbing rangers, just based on the known terrain, head out the door to try and access the patient. Initially we had that SPOT activation for one individual and that activation came in from some bystander.

I’m not 100 percent sure they were even aware that William’s wife was with him at the time. That wasn’t relayed to us initially. As part of our planning efforts, we knew that William was in a pretty steep area, and it sounded like he had some pretty significant injuries. We started exploring other options for evacuation, even before we got park rangers on scene.

When it comes to mountain terrain and steep terrain, it makes evacuation hard by ground. We look at helicopters and aerial assets, and for us, the only real option currently is the national guard with the hoist program. I gave a quick call to talk to him a bit about what we had going on, the location and coordinates, and what we thought we needed 

Host: While Will was in the capable hands of the climbers with search and rescue on the way, Mariella was still off-trail, trying to locate help. 

Mariella Colvin: Meanwhile, as I was walking down, picking my way over these rocks. I saw a lake, which was the way we came up. I also saw Odessa Lake, which is much easier to go in the direction of Odessa Lake.

There was a lot less brush and rocks. At some point, I realized that it was a good decision because there was more likely to be a campground at Odessa Lake. It was much bigger. I started heading down there. I started picking my way over logs and around a bunch of bushes and over streams; it was really very thick brush.

The going was very slow. I was pretty sure at that point that I was not going to die unless I couldn’t get to the lake in time and just collapse somewhere in the middle of the underbrush. I thought, “Well, nobody will find me.” And I was also fairly calm mentally. I started to think about what-ifs: What if Will dies? What if I die? What about our children? Our children are 19 and 24, so I was like, okay, they’ve pretty much launched. They don’t need me desperately, so that was reassuring, but still I was like, I have to get out before Will gets hypothermia. That kept me going, even though I was very tired, I would say I was almost more tired than in pain.

I kept going. At one point I came to this beautiful spot and really appreciated it. I thought if this is the last thing I see, it is just beautiful. It had a waterfall, it had a really green meadow where I expected to see a moose, but there was no moose, which was probably good. There were wildflowers everywhere, butterflies.

It was really a little paradise. I plan when I’m all recovered to try to find that spot again. I thought I’ll just lay down and take a little nap here. I lay down, but that was so uncomfortable that I just got back up again and thought, “I need to keep going.” But I found that trying to identify wildflowers really helped me keep my mind in the present and not wander off into these what-ifs.

It felt like a long way. It turned out it was only about a mile and a half, I think. At one point just saying, “Okay, I’m gonna make it to the next tree down there.” And just picking out features and saying, “I’m gonna make it that far,” and not committing to making it any further than that. Eventually I got down to Odessa Lake and there was no campground there, at least not at the end of the lake where I was. I was like, “Oh, damn.” And I was yelling “help” the whole time I was going down. I thought I would just lay down there and yell. I thought my voice will carry across the lake and maybe somebody will hear it. 

Jennifer Perlow: My name is Jennifer Perlow. I live in Conifer, Colorado. My husband and I are big hikers and campers. We had reservations for Rocky Mountain National Park, so we got up early and drove out to the park. We head our backpacks packed for a night of camping. We’re heading to Lake Odessa, which is beautiful. What we really love about it is there’s only two spots for camping there, so it’s usually pretty quiet, and we’re looking forward to a very relaxing, romantic camping trip. About 3/4 of the way in, there’s a place called Lunch Rock, and you can hike up a little bit and it overlooks Lake Helene and Odessa, we’re sitting up there and we’re finishing up our lunch and we’re packing up our backpacks. All of a sudden, I thought, “Did you hear that?” And my husband, Chris, is like, “What?” I said, “I think I just heard somebody call for help.”

Host: We’ll be right back.

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It had been five hours since Will and Mariella fell; a third climber joined the first two climbers in caring for Will until more help could arrive. An extra set of hands allowed the trio to gently move Will off the snow into a trench they dug with crampons and lined with packs. About an hour after the climbers reached Will, the park service hasty team arrived as well.

Mike Lukens: Our park rangers, the three that went out the door, they got on scene somewhere around 15 to 20 minutes prior to the actual hoist aircraft showing up. They realized pretty quickly that Will had a femur fracture, and he needed more than just basic medical care. We did have a paramedic on scene who was able to start an IV, give some medications, and then get a femur traction device in place. He was quickly packaged and hoisted from the location. 

Will Toor: They ended up getting a big Blackhawk helicopter from the national guard up at Buckley Air Force Base. I think it was pretty difficult piloting, very skilled helicopter work, because we’re very near the cliffs. I’m still on sloping snow, right at the bottom of the couloir where it comes out into a sort of larger open snowfield. 

Mariella Colvin: Then I heard helicopters overhead and I was like, “Oh, thank God they’re going for Will,” because I knew he was in a more urgent situation with hypothermia. That really helped me feel better, but the helicopter seemed to be flying around.

It came around in a circle and I was like, “What the hell? Can’t they find him? He’s the one black spot on this white glacier.” So then I started getting worried because it circled around about two times and then it came close to me and I got up and I started waving my hands and not jumping up and down, but trying to be as visible as possible.

And the helicopter came near me, its nose bent down and I swear, it looked at me and then it flew away. I again felt sort of despair. I was like, “What? Why isn’t it picking me up?” I didn’t give up, but I gave up walking and I just laid down. 

Will Toor: It was gusty winds at that point, so they flew around a few times to get a feel for the winds, and then they dropped a rescuer and a litter. At that point came, what for me was the most painful prior to the ordeal, which was they had to wrestle me into the litter. Even with the painkillers, that was definitely the most painful thing.

Then the helicopter came back, and they dropped a cable, and there was a big loop on the big ring on the litter, and they just used a big carabiner to attach the litter and attach the rescuer. They just started pulling me up. That also was, in some ways, the worst part of this. I’d imagined it would be like this spectacular view being raised on a helicopter between the wind and then the rotor wash.

It’s both incredibly loud and windy, but the litter is just spinning in a circle like a top, just my entire being was focused on not throwing up. We pulled in and you sat down at the edge of the park to transfer me to a medivac helicopter. At the point where I was allowed to sit up, I’m afraid I just covered everything around me, which I’m sorry to the rescuers. I felt much better after that pretty quickly got me to the emergency room at the hospital and just have intermittent memories after that.

Mariella Colvin: I opened my eyes and there was a man standing over me with his son, and I just thought, “Oh, thank God.” And he said, “Are you all right?” And I said, “Not really.” And he said, “There’s a campground at the other end of the lake.” And I thought, “Oh, good.” And he said he would help me there. He gave me one of his walking poles and helped me on this pretty rough path that I hadn’t even seen that went around the lake.

Host: A man and his teenage son happened upon Mariella while walking around Odessa Lake. He saw that she was injured and knew there were campers on the other side of the lake. He helped Mariella down the rugged path while his son ran ahead to a ranger station.

Jennifer Perlow: We set up camp, and we’re sitting by the lake and just hanging out and battling mosquitoes and enjoying the view, and a hiker walks up and he has a woman with him.

She was guarding her wrist and had abrasions on her face and was just in general disheveled. Clearly, I think in shock. It was a father and his 13-year-old son, and his son was running to the rangers station to see if anybody was there, which no one was, but that’s who had run by.

Mariella Colvin: I think I was re-energized by seeing him. As I mentioned before, my main feeling was just exhaustion. We got to the campground, and somebody brought me a chair and a warm blanket, and I thought “I’m gonna need more than this.” And I was like, “Is there anywhere I can lie down?” And this woman came up and she said, “I have two tents.”

Jennifer Perlow: Funny story. We always camp in two separate tents because my husband makes too much noise in his sleep, and I don’t get to sleep. We had two tents set up for the two of us, so we set up Mariella in my tent. 

Mariella Colvin: I was like, “Oh, thank God.” I walked to the tent and I got in it by myself and she had this wonderful air mattress. It wasn’t a thin Therm-a-rest or anything. Not that I have anything against Therm-a-rests, I have one, but she had one of those like blow up 4-inch, really comfortable pads. I lay down on that, and it was just heaven. Then she brought me a sleeping bag.

Jennifer Perlow: She was cold, and probably a little dehydrated and obviously in a lot of pain.

We laid her down, got her warm, gave her water, and she wanted some food. We gave her some food, and as much ibuprofen as I thought was medically safe for her to have. We called SOS, our companion camper also had a satellite phone, so everybody just called SOS right away. They were like, “Oh, we already have a rescue in progress.”

I’m like, “No, it’s different. This is a different person. We have the wife.” And then just waited until rescue came. It was quite some time, but eventually rescue people came, and in that time, she really wanted to go to sleep, but I was a little afraid she might have a concussion, so we didn’t let her go to sleep, which I’m sure was super annoying.

Mariella Colvin: I don’t really remember how much time passed. I’m sure it was an hour when the park service EMTs arrived, and they immediately checked my vitals. They confirmed that my wrist was probably broken and put it in a splint, which really helped a lot. 

Mike Lukens: They did a quick assessment, determined she was stable, but yes, she had some pretty serious injuries and that she could make it through the night, allowing us to do evacuation in the morning.

They spent the night with her, provided Advanced Life Supporter (ALS) care, same thing, IVs and medications, and other things. Mobilization due to some mid-spine pain. She did have a head injury. She had cracked her helmet, so that’s always of concern for us. 

Will Toor: I knew that Mariella wasn’t gonna be there that night. At that point I still didn’t realize how badly she was hurt because they were still talking about how there’s rangers with her and she’ll probably walk out tomorrow. I don’t think they’d yet realized how seriously she was injured. I think the fact that she’d been able to hike out made them think she wasn’t as badly hurt.

Mariella Colvin: And then they were going to give me fentanyl. I had remembered that the therapeutic dose for fentanyl was very close to the lethal dose, so I was a little reluctant. I was like, “Oh what if they don’t measure quite right?” So they gave me something else instead, probably morphine. I don’t remember. Next time they checked on me, I just said, “Give me the fentanyl,” so they did. That was great, and I was able to sleep on and off.

Jennifer Perlow: Once the ranger showed up, we just backed off and let them do what they were gonna do, and we would just hear bits and pieces, but at one point I think she said something about “I think we fell 600 feet,” and I was like, “You fell 600 feet? That’s craziness.”

And then it turns out it was way more than 600 feet. I mean, the fact that they are alive is incredible. She was just really worried about her husband. She just wanted to know if he was okay, if they’d gotten to him, if he was off safely. I think that was her biggest concern. 

Will Toor: I did discover some things. I had this really deep cut between my thumb and my forefinger in my left hand. I think it came either from crampons or an ice ax. That was the deepest cut I’ve ever had, and under other circumstances, I’d probably look at that and just freak out, thinking, “Here’s the emergency.” I didn’t even notice I had it with everything else going on until we were in the ER, and they were sewing it up. The ER doc who was doing the stitches on it was a climber, who was very interested in talking about the accident and finding out what happened, so I described some of that. My son is an emergency room nurse who was working a night shift at that time. He had gotten a call from the park service that didn’t go directly to him because he was working, but he got the message and the message was clear that people were with Mariella.

But while it talked about me being pulled out by a helicopter, apparently he wasn’t quite clear whether I was alive or dead. He was very shaken by that. When he called back and determined that I was alive, he was able to get a managing nurse to take over for him and come up. He just walked in, and it was just like this wave of love from him. That was a wonderful thing. 

Mariella Colvin: So I spent the night there and then woke up a bit before aid and asked, “How am I getting out?” And they said, “Well, do you think you can walk out first?” And I said, “No, I really don’t think I can.” And they thought that I might have a back injury, so they said, “Well, we’re gonna have to do a litter.”

Will Toor: By the next morning, I started getting all these calls from the park service. They were great about staying in really close contact and letting me know what was happening with Mariella. By then, they were clear that she was significantly more injured, but explained that there was gonna be a litter rescue, and they would helicopter her out later in the day.

I was back in the tent and lying down, just waiting essentially for a litter to arrive. When it did, there were a ton of people. 

Host: According to the park service, There were 45 people involved in both rescues from five separate organizations, including Rocky Mountain National Park Search and Rescue Northern Colorado Med Evac, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Colorado National Guard, and Larimer County Search and Rescue. 

Mariella Colvin: The helicopter ride was not like Will’s. It was the next day; it was calm. It seemed very straightforward. One of the nurses in the helicopter said, “It’s too bad. You can’t see the view. It’s a wonderful view.”

They were reassuring, and I was just feeling waves of relief. When I got there, they wheeled me away for X-rays and came back and said, “You have nine broken ribs, three fractured vertebrae, a broken wrist, and a broken sternum.” And I had figured out the broken sternum because that was what was hurting the most.

I was surprised to hear about the vertebrae and thought, “Wow, I’m incredibly lucky that it didn’t sever my spinal cord.” All the way through the ordeal, I was mostly feeling lucky, rather than terrified. They told me that they expected a full recovery, which surprised me. I thought this was going to be something more serious. That was again, another wave of relief. 

Host: Here’s Mike Lukens from Rocky Mountain National Park again. 

Mike Lukens: They both fell almost the entire length of the couloir, so somewhere around 900 feet. It could have turned out either way. We’ve definitely had falls there much shorter distances in snow where people have not survived.

So I would say it is very lucky on both ends that they both survived. I wouldn’t say that it’s normal for someone to survive that type of fall. The only saving grace is that it was snowing. It was probably somewhat warm in the afternoon. If it is stickier, maybe that slowed their descent speed.

Also the fact that they didn’t bounce and hit rocks or hit their heads in a more significant manner. It’s also very lucky. It’s not unheard of, but we’ve had lots of people fall down similar snow slopes and unfortunately not survive them. 

Mariella Colvin: I have to say that I feel like I was even luckier than Will because he had to sit there and get colder and I was walking out.

So I had a purpose. I had a goal and that kept me going and kept me thinking about that, rather than just how cold I was. I had thought about staying with him and us just waiting to be rescued, but I’m glad that I didn’t do that because. I don’t do well with cold. 

Will Toor: I’m still in awe that you were able to do that hike out, knowing now the injuries that you had. We’ve heard from a lot of folks and it ranges from she’s one tough MF to a lot of insults to her bottom because we hear that she’s a badass.

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.

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 Will tour and Mariella Colvin, Mark Lukins and, and Jennifer Perlow for sharing your stories with us. If you have a backcountry survival story, and you’re interested in sharing, you can email me at OutAlive@outsideinc.com. This season of Out Alive is brought to you by Ricola. Out Alive is made possible by the members of Outside+. You can learn all about the benefits of membership like expert-led online classes at outsideonline.com/podplus, and enter the code OutAlive50 for 50 percent off.


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