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Survival Stories

A Slip, and Then Disaster

Courtney Henderson, 19, and Gavin Caruso, 23, fell 50 feet during a storm in June of 2020. Only one survived.

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Listen to this story on Backpacker’s Out Alive Podcast

Gavin wasn’t moving. Lightning flashed again, neon-bright and way too close. The air buzzed, and I could feel the hairs on my arms lifting in the static. Blood dripped from my scalp into my hands. “Gavin?” I asked.

When my friend Gavin and I had started researching hikes near Boulder, Colorado, around noon that day, the sky was cloudless. We downloaded maps for South Boulder Peak; we’d been hiking in the area for a few days, and it seemed like a good challenge. Besides, it was our last afternoon to explore the Rockies. We wanted to make this hike count.

The first few miles rolled through green meadows and then up the winding stone steps of Shadow Canyon. Near the top of the canyon the path grew steep.

“Gavin, are you sure we’re on the trail?” I panted as he started up an arduous section of third-class terrain. He showed me the GPS app, which hadn’t steered us wrong before. Sure enough, there we were: a little arrow, right on the trail. We thought the terrain would ease up any second. Plus, we only had a mile left. But the exposed rocks made me antsy. I apologized for nagging. “I’m just scared,” I said.

We were ascending a steep, fourth-class gully when the rain started. It seemed like a cue to turn around, so we did—and immediately realized that the way we’d come, now slicked to a wet polish, was impossible to descend. We exchanged a grim glance as thunder ripped through the hills. Lost or not, we needed help.

By now, I was terrified. I hugged a pine tree as Gavin called 911 and gave our coordinates. They asked if we could descend to lower ground. We said we’d try.

“I’ll go first so I can catch you if you fall,” Gavin offered. He scrambled down a few feet to a ledge and turned to wait for me. I took a deep breath and lowered myself, one foot at a time, the way I’d learned in the rock climbing gym. Then my foot slipped.

For a split second, I could feel Gavin’s hands against my legs as he threw his body forward to brace me against the mountain, but the rock was too slick, and before I knew it we were both skidding down the cliff face. Rocks snatched at my shirt and tore off my hat. I could feel my glasses fly off as I hit my head over and over.

I woke up first. It was quiet except for the abating rain and the breaking static of thunder. I pushed myself upright and looked around, trying to collect my thoughts. I touched my scalp. My head was split open down to the skull.

That’s when I realized I’d been lying over Gavin’s legs. He was unconscious.

“Wake up! Wake up, Gavin!” I screamed as I scrambled to his side and rolled him over. “Come on, please! You have to wake up!” After a long minute, his chest seized with a cough.

Gavin sputtered awake and squinted up at me. He didn’t know where he was. I fumbled for my phone and called 911, barely able to use the touchscreen through the smears of rainwater and blood. It was getting dark. “You guys need to come fast.”

That’s when it all started to sink in. The storm was starting to let up, but I still had a gut feeling that one of us wasn’t going to make it.

“Hey Gavin,” I said. He blinked up at me. “I love you, dude.”

“I love you too, Corn,” he said. I smiled at the nickname. It was the last thing I’d ever hear him say.

Just a few minutes later, I heard the whipping of helicopter blades, then shouts from the summit.

“We’re down here!” I called. Flashlights flicked in our direction, and before long, two ropes flew out of the darkness. The rescuers decided to hoist us both up on litters, one at a time. Gavin went first. He was just awake enough to answer basic questions. He’ll be OK, I thought as I watched the chopper take off.

Later that night, in the hospital, a chaplain walked into my room. As soon as I saw her, I knew.

The search and rescue personnel had lost Gavin’s pulse on the mountain, and again in the helicopter. That second time, it didn’t come back.

I miss Gavin more than I can say. I don’t know when it will hurt any less, but I know I’ll never forget him. After all, he died trying to save my life. And I believe he did.