Mat and I hustled up to the Railroad Grade Moraine on Washington’s Mt. Baker. The forecast called for clear skies, and we’d left the trailhead at 6 p.m. gunning for a sunrise summit at 10,781 feet. Four hours later, as we traveled across the Easton Glacier, the weather turned to a mix of swirling ice and rain. Shouting over the wind, we discussed turning around. But I thought back to the forecast I’d checked just before departing and insisted the weather would clear up at any minute.
It didn’t. Our tracks were the first on the route since a recent storm, so we broke trail in deepening snow, at some points postholing up to our waists. We slipped further behind schedule with each belabored step.
“I made it to the summit,” I yelled to Mat over my radio around noon. He was only 25 feet away on the other end of the rope but unable to see or hear me through the whiteout. He joined me at the top for 20 seconds—the temperature was well below zero—before we began the 4,000-foot descent.
We reached the edge of the glacier in 5 hours (it takes about an hour and a half in good weather), unroped, and removed our crampons, happy to be on the moraine with nothing technical ahead. And in that moment of relief, I slipped.
A benign-looking patch of snow had punted my boot and I started to slide. I executed a textbook self-arrest with my ice axe, but the snow was slushy, and I couldn’t get any purchase. I slid for about 50 feet, all the while thinking I’d soon come to a stop. A few seconds later I hit a rock and launched into the air. A huge bergschrund came into view below me, then, in an instant, I slammed onto its rock bottom 30 feet down.
At least I stopped, I thought. I noted that my legs felt OK. Strangely, I didn’t feel any pain. But my left arm and shoulder weren’t working, and I knew I probably had a head injury. I heard Mat’s voice on the radio asking if I was alive. I responded with my location and told him that I could walk. I thought I’d gotten lucky—but then I tried to stand. Pain surged through my body and my vision went dark. It felt like my brain was shutting down. I’m dying, I thought. I tried not to panic, but it took all my strength to keep talking to Mat. Then sleep overcame me.
Mat told me later what happened next. I had the rope in my backpack, so he was unable to rappel down to me. After 30 minutes he arrived on a nearby ledge to find me sprawled beneath a glacial-melt waterfall that was dousing my unconscious head with freezing water. I woke up to Mat screaming at me to put my hood on and to press the SOS button on my Garmin InReach. I was delirious and argued that I didn’t need a rescue. But slowly the seriousness of my condition came into focus: My vision was black and my arm was shattered. I let Mat’s voice guide me to my pack to hit the button. He downclimbed and I threw him the rope to set up a deadman anchor to hoist me out of the crack, but it was too painful to put on my harness. I started regaining some blurry vision, so with Mat’s guidance I soloed the vertical ice wall with no crampons, using my good arm and ice axe to chop steps. When I got to the overhang just below the lip, Mat reached his axe down, I grabbed the adze, and he pulled me out.
Our relief was short-lived, as it became clear I was on the brink of hypothermia. Mat bundled me in every extra layer we had and made a sling for my arm out of his shell. We had to climb another short ice wall to get back on the trail. Mat kicked in deep steps for me, and hours later we met two search and rescue climbers who had responded to my distress call.
Doctors said my left humerus had suffered one of the worst breaks they’d seen, hanging on only by a small shard of bone. I’d dislocated my shoulder, damaged nerves, torn tendons, and sustained internal bleeding in my left elbow. The severe dizziness from my concussion would last more than a month.
Later, I looked at my smartwatch and saw that my heart rate had dipped into the twenties during my accident—a realization of just how close to death I’d come. I’ll never forget the wisdom that I learned that day: The top of the mountain is only halfway home. —As told to Scott Yorko