It was a fluke accident.
One moment he had been standing beside a mountain of snow and ice.
The next moment he was writhing in pain on the ground.
If the forecast was true, then we had a few hours until a major snowstorm dumped another 8 inches of snow all over us—virtually burying us alive in a cold coffin of hypothermia. The nearest road was over 4.5 miles away. Our base camp was only a 10-20 minute hike away, but there was no way our guide could walk that far. This was a bad situation!
Welcome to adventure!
Most travel stories revolve around the wonders of seeing new places, eating exotic dishes, and enjoying newfound friends. Not this series. Here we explore adventures that went wrong. This series is not for the faint of heart. We will discuss death, injury, food poisoning, strange skin rashes, and oh, oh so much more. It is educational, however. If we learn from the mistakes of others, then our own trips will be safer. Then we can focus on making new friends and enjoying travel—safely.
1. Mountain Madness (continued from above)
We were at 10,000 feet. It was May of 2018, and the snow lay thick around our small team of six men. (Two were professional alpine guides, one worked in finance, another in IT, and the remaining two of us were in the military.)
We were a few days into a six-day course dedicated to moving safely through high alpine terrain—the kind of snowy adventure you see explorers face on documentaries.
We learned and practiced rock climbing skills at lower elevations free of snow for two days. On day three it was time to finally leave the warm valley floor and head up to our base camp at the foot of Matterhorn Peak. Matterhorn Peak is the tallest peak in Yosemite Valley.
In the shadow of the peak we learned how to use crampons and ice axes. These skills would soon be put to the test with an attempt at reaching the summit which stood at a dizzying 12,300 feet.
Just a few minutes before class was supposed to finish for the day, one day before our summit attempt, it happened…
What happened? We still don’t know that exactly. All we know is the lead guide took one step and then crumpled to the ground screaming in pain. Somehow the step caused his hip to dislocated. He was completely immobile. At 10,000 feet! With storm clouds gathering! With the nearest road miles away! Even our base camp was 1/4 mile away through hip-deep snow, down a steep slow, and over a frozen lake.
Our second guide used a satellite transmitter to request a helicopter extraction for the injured guide. But at 10,000ft we were above the cloud layer, and unsure if a helicopter would be dispatched.
Fast forward two hours. The helicopter had not come, but the snow had. In an effort to move the guide off the snow and to the base camp, we had lashed him to sleeping mats. Then, holding onto the excess rope sticking out from the lashings, we dragged him toboggan-style all the way to camp—narrowly missing hitting his head on more than one tree along the way.
We got him into his tent, and then the storm really hit. Like unwelcome visitors to this snow world, the mountain unleashed a torrent of snow. The sky and all surrounding features disappeared from view, and the world became a white canvas. The helicopter was not coming.
But more snow was!
Hour after hour it poured down on us. The roofs of our tents began to cave under the snow’s accumulated weight. Finally, when it looked like we might be buried inside our shelters, the snow abruptly stopped. The sky cleared, and the helicopter radioed it was coming after all.
At roughly 9:10 PM we heard the sound of rotor blades cutting through the still mountain night. We added our six pairs of eyes to the thousands of stars watching the scene unfold, as a red-and-green-lit helicopter swooped into the small landing zone we had constructed. In a matter of minutes they had placed our injured guide aboard, and off the flew into the night.
A random accident, coupled with a dangerous storm, had brought our small team closer to the brink disaster than I would have liked. But our guide was on his way to safety, and we had to refocus on summiting the mountain the next morning.
Travel Takeaway: Some things just can’t be planned for. But with teamwork and persistence, the story will often finish with “and they lived happily ever after”. The end.
Epilogue: we summitted all 12,300 feet of Matterhorn Peak the next day with our remaining guide. Our lead guide, however, was safely at home with his wife, awaiting an appointment with a doctor.