Two of My Friends Suffered Separate Accidents on the Same Peak. Only One Survived.
In a wilderness emergency, the tiniest details can be a matter of life and death. After a pair of accidents leave one one young adventurer injured and another deceased, Hayden Seder ponders the difference a stroke of luck can make.
“Can you tell me more about Luke’s accident?”
I sat across from my friend Avery Shawler, her body bandaged, her left eye swollen and stitched. I had come to drop off her mail while she recovered from a life-threatening fall on the nearby peak of Devils Bedstead, a harrowing experience she was lucky to have survived. Almost a year to the day prior, my friend and climbing partner Luke Richardson had climbed the same peak and fallen in almost the same exact spot—but Luke hadn’t made it out alive. I was one of the few people in town who knew them both, and Avery was curious about Luke’s accident and how it compared to hers. I was in a unique position to try to understand what led two backcountry-experienced 25-year-olds to have the same kind of accident—and why one of them lived through the experience.
I first met Luke when he posted on a local climbing Facebook page looking for a partner. It was 2015 and he had just moved to the outdoor paradise of Ketchum, Idaho—my hometown—to pursue his love of backcountry skiing, rock climbing, trail running, and backpacking. A native of Vermont, Luke had spent the prior few years living in New Hampshire, where he worked for the Appalachian Mountain Club, and then Utah to spend a winter skiing. That summer, he and I went rock climbing in various areas around the state, forming a bond over belays and crag beers.
On the morning of Saturday, September 12, 2015, Luke set off on his own to hike Devils Bedstead in the Pioneer Mountains just northeast of Ketchum. We hadn’t made climbing plans that weekend, but I texted him that I had picked up a guidebook for an area where we would both be attending a rock climbing festival. I’ve always wished he had texted back that weekend, asking me to join him on the Bedstead. I would have tried to convince him to do a different, less risky adventure with me.
Though often referred to simply as “Devils Bedstead,” there are technically two peaks vying for the official name, leading to the nicknames of Devils Bedstead West and Devils Bedstead East. Which is the true Devils Bedstead is a point of confusion: The United States Geological Survey and Challis National Forest maps label the western peak as the official Devils Bedstead while the Sawtooth National Forest map marks the eastern peak. Both are seldom-trafficked hikes: The difficulty of the terrain keeps many novice hikers at bay—hiking to the 11,050-foot summit of the western peak is a 13-mile round trip with 4,200 feet of elevation gain, while hiking to the summit of the 11,865-foot east peak (the fifth highest in the Pioneers) is a 10-mile round trip with 4,600 feet of elevation gain. Add to that the lack of a defined trail for portions of both hikes and the need for scrambling over rocks and through boulder fields, and you have the makings of a difficult day on either peak.
While these conditions may scare off even advanced hikers, Luke was a competent outdoorsperson with plenty of experience in solo peak-bagging. He often pushed himself outdoors, sometimes hiking 20 miles at a time by himself or soloing long rock routes. While working for the Appalachian Mountain Club, Luke had been trained in Wilderness First Aid and assisted the local SAR team in helping injured hikers.
After parking his car at the trailhead to Summit Creek Trail, Luke headed out running in just a t-shirt, shorts, and a light pack for what friends and rescuers guess was going to be a linkup of several peaks. A text invitation to a friend said he was going to do a “super run” of Devils Bedstead and Phi Kappa (a 10,516-foot peak nearby), a distance of roughly 15 miles total. Around midday, other hikers spotted him running on the Summit Creek Trail toward Devils Bedstead West. That was the last time anyone saw him alive.
On Monday, September 14, 2015, I got a call from Luke’s boss at the arbor care company he worked for. Had I heard from Luke? I had not, but I wasn’t overly concerned. His boss and several coworkers deduced the area he had gone hiking in and went looking for him, finding his car at the trailhead. That night, an early snow came—a stroke of bad luck that would have fatal consequences for Luke.
The official search for him began the following day. As the days went by, I tried to convince myself that Luke was holed up in the mountains, cold and hungry, but alive. After all, I knew he was experienced in the backcountry—how could he not survive?
As days turned to weeks, it became clear that Luke wasn’t coming back. After exhausting almost 2,000 person-hours combing the mountains, the Blaine County Sheriff’s office called off the official search on September 22. Luke’s parents, Pete and Stephanie Richardson, had flown to town from Vermont as soon as their son went missing, and initiated their own private search headed by Luke’s friend, Matt Hansen, who had also been a part of the official effort as a member of the Sun Valley Fire Department.
“Two weeks or even a few days up there in those elements isn’t very hospitable to survival, especially since it was dipping below freezing,” Hansen said.
In the end, it was two employees at Sawtooth Mountain Guides hired by the Richardsons who found Luke on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 on Devils Bedstead East. His location suggests he was linking both Bedsteads, heading along the ridge from the West to the East, when he fell. After assessing the area, the two guides surmised that Luke had been scrambling a small cliff band section and most likely pulled something loose and fell unexpectedly. They found his backpack with his shoes at the base of the cliff, about 20 feet away from his body, meaning he most likely suffered several injuries from the fall and tried to crawl out, exposed to the elements. In his backpack were a map of the area, a light jacket, and an empty CamelBak bladder.
Despite his many outdoor experiences and his own proficiency with first aid, Luke fell victim to risky choices and, ultimately, bad luck.
“I don’t think there was any lack of planning or skill,” Hansen says. “I think he was taking more risk than he realized and doing that without a rescue plan, without someone to get help—that’s when an unlucky situation becomes a bad situation.”
When Avery set out for her hike at 8 a.m. on September 5, 2016, she didn’t think much of the early snowfall the night before, nor of the Vermont boy who had died on this peak a year earlier.
“I knew his accident was on the Devils Bedstead, but I didn’t know exactly where,” said Avery. “Maybe it gave me some hesitation, but I wasn’t trying to do this big loop like he did. I didn’t think what I was doing was similar.”
Avery’s sights were set on the Devils Bedstead East alone, a journey for which she prepared by informing her roommates where she was going and packing plenty of supplies: lots of layers, her first aid kit, her phone, a Garmin inReach, food, a knife, a mylar blanket, and downloaded topographic maps of the area on her phone.
In addition to preparing extensively for her dayhike, Avery wasn’t someone “prone to summit fever.” She often turned back on adventures if the conditions weren’t right or the timing was off.
Avery had spent her childhood moving constantly across the globe until settling into the mountains of Vermont while attending college at Middlebury. There, she joined the college’s Mountain Club and became a certified Wilderness First Responder. While living in nearby Shoshone, Idaho, she had already begun exploring the peaks in the area solo, even summiting Devils Bedstead West the week before she attempted the east peak.
“I always considered myself pretty good at risk management. I would never send it just because I thought it was cool; I thought deliberately about my decisions.”
As she hiked a series of switchbacks, Avery could see the snow above her melting. After coming to a juncture where the trail was less defined, she switched to a more direct, though more challenging, route. But as she scrambled steep rock, the snow she had seen melting began to freeze, making the rock slick. As she took a break to assess her situation, she saw that the route she had just ascended was now iced over completely and too slick to safely downclimb.
Looking up the slope, the path looked drier, though much riskier—a fall could be disastrous. With her two options—a risky climb or a night exposed to cold temperatures—weighing on her, Avery attempted calling 911 from her iPhone, but got no signal. At this point, she took out her emergency Garmin inReach satellite communicator. For a signal to make it out, a button on the device has to be held for 20 seconds. But after five, her device shut down, likely due to the cold and it not being fully charged. Avery had no idea whether or not the emergency signal had been sent.
With no other options, Avery began to climb up. It was about 70 feet to reach a point where she felt she could traverse to a safer, drier route. After 60 feet of careful climbing, she was in the homestretch to safety when a rock came loose, sending Avery tumbling all the way back down the steep, rocky slope she had just climbed.
The fall knocked her unconscious and when she came to, she felt pain radiating in various parts of her body. She couldn’t open one eye and blood was running down her face. She tried standing, pushing down on a likely broken wrist, but a large gash in her swollen, right knee (a broken patella, it would turn out) kept her from walking.
“I wrapped my wounds and knew how to treat myself, but there was no way I was going to get myself off that mountain,” she said.
Hurt and seemingly unable to reach emergency services, Avery began to fear the worst.“When I realized I was stuck and that my inReach didn’t work, I was going to record a goodbye video,” says Avery. “I felt guilty that I was so selfish getting myself into a dangerous situation. But then I tried to record a video and didn’t know what to say, so I remember thinking, ‘Ok, it’s stupid, but I guess I could try dialing 911 even though I’m never going to reach them.”
With her phone battery at just ten percent, Avery began dialing, ultimately 19 times until, miraculously, she made it through to Blaine County Dispatcher Rod Gregg. Avery, concussed and confused, spoke to Gregg for a full 35 minutes trying to answer Gregg’s questions to pinpoint her location before her phone died.
“I kept saying I was going to die,” Avery says. As she waited for what she guesses is a couple of hours after the call went dead, her mind began playing tricks on her; she couldn’t recall whether she had actually spoken to the police or not.
In another stroke of luck, rescue aviation team Two Bear Air happened to be just 60 miles away on a different rescue when they got the call about Avery. Their helicopter was equipped with the cable and basket necessary to rescue someone in her position. Wrapped in her shiny mylar blanket, Avery was spotted immediately and the helicopter picked her up, just 200 feet from where searchers had found Luke.
“It’s all just crazy lucky, and I am cognizant of that all the time,” says Avery of her escape. “I kept saying that I really shouldn’t be here. It’s kind of survivor’s guilt, knowing that not only Luke but other people in situations did everything right but encountered one factor that changed it all.”
In the end, Avery suffered a broken radius, fractured kneecap, three broken ribs, a broken eye socket, and gashes requiring stitches in her eyebrow, thigh, both knees, and elbow. Her recovery was relatively swift, and she was back on skis that winter. She now lives in Cody, Wyoming doing field research for her Ph.D. in Environmental Science at UC Berkeley. Despite her brush with death on Devils Bedstead, Avery still loves the outdoors. But she takes as many precautions as she can.
“There are some factors out of your control, and you have to recognize that risk when you go out there. But my message isn’t to not do it,” she says. “When people die in the mountains, there are some mistakes you can point to, but you’ll never know the whole story. It’s easy for people to read these stories and think it would never happen to them. But everyone has close calls in the mountains, and the difference between a close call and dying is not that big.”
Knowing the details of both Luke and Avery’s experiences is a bit painful for me—after all, she could have easily suffered the same fate were it not for a string of lucky circumstances. And knowing that just one difference—someone noticing Luke’s disappearance a day earlier, the snow happening a day later, Luke having brought more layers—might have saved Luke’s life is something that many of us live with. Luke’s cell phone was never found, so we’ll never know if he attempted to call for help or if he made the kind of goodbye video that Avery found herself incapable of making. As Avery stresses, it is truly only these small differences that separate a sobering outdoor experience and death.