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News / Life / Clark County Life

Everybody Has a Story: An unplanned stay on mountain

By lehman holder, North Garrison Heights
Published: March 12, 2023, 5:51am

It was cold, and a light sleet had fallen. I had made a serious mistake, and now I wondered if I was going to pay the ultimate price. My left leg was broken and I was alone in a very bad place. As I sat on a rock at the bottom of a steep gully and gazed at distant lights to the west, I reflected on how I had gotten myself in such a fine mess.

It was Aug. 31, 1972. A good friend and I were budding mountaineers and had our eyes on climbing this mountain for several years. We were inexperienced but eager.

John Lewis and I had met 10 years earlier when we were in college and snagged summer jobs as counselors at a private boys camp. We both lived in Texas, but had developed a love for the mountains and had previously climbed Uncompahgre and Wetterhorn Peaks, both “14ers” (at least 14,000 feet tall).

We had hiked easily along a rough Jeep road leading us toward Crestone Needle, a 14,101-foot peak in the Sangre de Cristo Range of south-central Colorado. We began climbing and took a break about halfway to the summit. John told me he didn’t want to continue because he was having severe pain in his lower back.

I asked him to wait for me while I climbed up to a saddle not far above, where I would take some pictures and then return.

Long story short, after reaching the saddle the summit didn’t appear much farther, so I decided to continue. It turned out to be farther than I thought, and I didn’t reach the top of Crestone Needle until 3 p.m. I took a couple of pictures, quickly signed the summit register and hurriedly began descending.

In my hurry, I lost the faint trail and ended up on the wrong side of the mountain, the west flank, which was much more difficult than the east side I had climbed up.

Thinking I could cut the trail, I continued forcing my way across the Needle’s west side and came to a couloir, about 8 feet deep. I should have stopped, thought it over and returned the way I came. But in haste, I didn’t do the logical thing. As I attempted to climb down the side of the couloir, my boots hit wet rock and I began slipping off. It became a question of jump or fall. I decided to jump.

Hitting the bottom with a thud, I felt a vibrating sensation in my left leg. I tried to get up. My left knee was facing straight ahead, but my foot was sideways.

My first thought was “uh-oh.” I realized I wouldn’t be making it down to John, and that my life likely depended on him. I also realized it would get cold when the sun went down. I had barely adequate clothing, but no whistle or other means of communication. For food, I had the leftovers of my lunch. My water bottle was half-full, but there was a small trickle of water running down next to me.

Oddly, there was little pain in my leg. I decided not to remove my boot and made myself as comfortable as I could. Down below, John waited until 4 p.m., then hiked to a lake where he found three climbers, telling them I had not returned. It was too late to mount a search that day. I was on my own for at least one night.

Sept. 1 dawned partly cloudy with a light wind. I had survived the night but knew I likely wouldn’t make it through a second. I was shivering with hypothermia. About 9 a.m., I decided to start yelling for help. I yelled every three or four minutes.

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Amazingly, after an hour, someone answered. My sense of relief was overwhelming. It was one of the climbers John had found. He was climbing from below me, and after about 45 minutes, he saw me just above him. He had an foam pad, a warm sleeping bag, a backpacking stove and food.

My rescue took two more days. Another climber had hiked out to contact the rescue unit, which arrived the day after I had been found. They were trained and highly skilled, but even so, it required most of a day to get me off the mountain. Finally, on the third day after my accident I was in a hospital in Salida, Colo. I was there for five days to make sure my leg wasn’t infected, then managed to return to my home in Austin, Texas, where my leg was surgically repaired.

I was able to return to my job but unable to walk without crutches for six weeks, and my entire recovery took 10 months. A recovery program at the rehabilitation clinic at the University of Texas helped me walk normally. I considered myself very fortunate.

After my recovery, I joined the Sierra Club, took climbing instruction and began climbing again. I became an outings leader. In 1989, I moved to the Northwest and joined Mazamas, the Portland mountaineering club. I’ve been fortunate to have summited Mount Hood. I stopped climbing in 2001.

Everybody Has a Story welcomes nonfiction contributions, 1,000 words maximum, and relevant photographs. Send to: neighbors@columbian.com or P.O. Box 180, Vancouver WA, 98666. Call “Everybody Has an Editor” Scott Hewitt, 360-735-4525, with questions.