FALLING ROCK, “SLED RIDE” DOWN SNOW, CLIMBING ALONE,
California, Mount Shasta
I was on the second day of a planned four-day ascent of Green Butte Ridge (to include a night on top) of Mount Shasta on May 8, 1989. I was alone and about 3450 meters up. I stepped on the icy top edge of a rock slab as big as the roof of a car, one foot (30 cm) thick. It shot down the snow and ice with me on it, my right leg being pulled underneath it, for about a meter or so when it crunched to a dead halt against another boulder, shattering between them my right tibia and fibula a few inches (7 cm) below the knee, trapping my leg.
I was concerned that the slab could move again and it could get worse for me, or I would bleed to death, or go into shock from the pain, so I frantically exhausted myself twice trying to move either rock. In spite of the pain I had to laugh at myself and the immense absurdity of my position. Eventually I contorted myself into position to grab my gaiter with both hands and twisted my leg sideways and out It w^as bending in new directions.
When I sat on the ice with my knee straight up, the boot would flop 90 degrees in either direction, not painlessly. I thought of Doug Scott (photo caption: “D. Scott crawling down glacier with two broken legs”) and Joe Simpson, his partner seeing Doug’s broken leg, “You’re fucked, matey. You’re dead.” I knew one of these lines was the imminent story of my life.
I was not bleeding externally and other than intense intermittent dizziness, I felt no signs of shock. I took my short ice ax off my pack, using the leash to fasten the head securely at my ankle around the boot and the pick. I tied the middle with my wool scarf and the upper end with my bandana.
I could not climb down the ridge crest rocks I came up or pass them in the deep loose snow on their sides. I decided to descend the ridge side into Avalanche Gulch. I shot some video of the scene: the rocks, the splint, the route up and down, the clouds 900 meters below. It was a beautiful late afternoon although bitterly cold wind was gusting. I had a big pack, four days of food and fuel, a tent, the 20 essentials....
Movement gave me the most intense pain I have ever known. I told myself, “Scotto, this is some real Road Warrior shit you got yourself into this time.” The slope was hard-pack snow with a slick crust, 4- to-50 degrees plus 180 meters. I inched my way down facing out, moving in turn my long ice ax pick in my left hand, my left boot heel and my right thumb plunged into the hard snow. The broken leg slid on the surface. At least five times when I slipped and started shooting down the slope I had to go into self-arrest position and try to ignore the pain of my leg which twisted and bent like a rag doll’s. Having caught myself, I would scream a bit, wait for the nausea and dizziness to pass, and then try to get back into descent position.
Once I could even feel my pain go away and, bathed in warm, bright light, my body began relaxing. The last things relaxing were my hands on the ice ax. I realized I was losing consciousness and knew if I blacked out, I would probably die from the fall or the shock or from hypothermia, so I held onto my ax and thrust myself back into the pain. I was screaming and every square inch of my skin was dripping with cold sweat.
Several times I thought, “Maybe I am trying to do something that cannot be done. Maybe this is really more than I can handle. Maybe crawling back is not humanly possible.” My friends know I don’t have ideas like this very often or for very long. I knew my chances were better if I maintained a positive attitude. I was determined to crawl as far as I had to crawl.
I tried to glissade the lower slope. It was still 45 degrees, but less run out. The vibrations shook my leg bones like castanets and I howled until I could brake to a stop.
I crawled down to 3100 meters, until one hour past sunset. The flattest slope I could find was still 30 degrees. I hung my tent without poles from my ice ax like a biv sack, got out my mat and bag and lowered myself in.
Because of the slope, I kept sliding down, so I had to stand on my good leg on the bottom of the tent all night. I had half a liter of water which was half solid. I drank the liquid, tried to eat some dried fruit, nuts, chocolate and aspirin. The wind blew back and forth, covering and uncovering me with spindrift. It was very cold. It was the worst night of my life, but I told myself it would end. Someday I would sleep painlessly in a warm, soft, level bed. In the middle of the night I rolled a joint and smoked some, which did provide a little relief.
The spindrift made me think it was stormy, but the sun rose in a clear sky. This weather luck raised my spirits and I eagerly rolled up my gear sitting on the ice. I drank the other half liter of water melted in my sleeping bag, tried to eat a little, smoke a little. My video batteries were frozen.
Just the movement of packing was incredible agony. I tried to stand on my good leg to hop, or turn over to crawl on hands and knees, but the lower right leg just flopped around like a string of sausages giving me almost unbearable pain. I soon returned to the only possible posture for descending.
I crawled on my left side with my legs downhill and the inside of my right leg on the ice hooking right. I reached with my left foot to hook my heel into the ice to pull me forward. Simultaneously, I reached with my ice ax which I held and pulled like a paddle using the spike. I could move about eight inches (20 cm) per stroke, always reaching for the maximum. I could do about ten strokes and then collapse for ten rest breaths, then up for ten more strokes, etc. I never rested longer than 15 breaths. I kept to the wide ridge crest between the eastern branches of Avalanche Gulch so I could see and be seen better, and to avoid rockfall and snow avalanches in the gully bottoms to my left and right.
My memories of that day include physical exhaustion, extreme pain, great weather, a tiny speck in a vast white expanse, varieties of ecstasy, nausea and almost blacking out from pain, and laughing at the absurdity of my task. I am always in a good mood when I narrowly escape death.
When it got too intense I took inspiration from my heroes, D. Scott and D. Mawson, and gritted my teeth so hard they shot out sparks. I am reluctant to scream, but I did a lot that day.
I also thought of my friend, Steve, who was dying of bone cancer. He faced it so inspiringly I couldn’t feel sorry for myself. In six months I would have a new leg, but Steve would be dead.
I pushed on until about 1400 when the slope got unsteep enough to take a break, dig a stove shelf and brew tea. I took three ten-minute naps until the pot was boiling hibiscus tea with honey. I drank a liter and saved one and was crawling again in one hour, much refreshed.
Late in the afternoon, after I had descended 1000 meters, and about two miles (3.2 km) from the accident site, I met Everett, a skier who said he would return with a partner, John, and a skimobile! I kept crawling to get down past steeper ground. Another skier, Michael Loya, spotted me and came to pad and splint my leg with his sweater and ski poles. Everett and john returned, shredding their snowmobile belt just as they reached me. They put on a spare and drove me down to a sled on which I rode to the road’s end. Mike took me to Mercy Med Center, where they X-rayed me and tried to convince me to stay eight to ten days.
I decided on riding back to my car at the road end, sleeping there on a patch of snow, and driving myself six hours back to San Francisco General Hospital the next day. I took no chemical painkillers for the drive. I wore my Chouinard splint the whole way and gritted my teeth continuously.
I spent one night in the hospital and five months in a full leg cast. I had no operations, metal inserts or major nerve damage. My left buttock was frostbitten and began peeling after several days. (Source: Scott Hajicek-Dobberstein)
If I’d been climbing with a partner, the rock would still have broken my leg. A partner could have gone for help, but I probably would have had to crawl down the first day anyway to get to safer ground. He could have helped me get out from between the rocks, although eight men could not have moved these rocks.
I am used to loose rock on Shasta, but this day I was lulled into incomplete vigilance by unusually sound rock below almost everywhere that day. I was distracted by the ice on the stone where I intended to step up. One test push of my ax would have released the slab and saved me.
I believe I survived because I was in good physical condition, very determined, and lucky. (Source: Scott Hajicek-Dobberstein)
(Editor’s Note: Our thanks to Scott for sharing this. He indicated that at a dinner with friends, after the accident, the waitress brought fortune cookies. His read: “You will leave no stones unturned in your determination to reach the top. ”)