Ed Note: Not all stories of fun and adventure end with a parking lot cheers. During the summer of 2019 writer and photographer Louis Otis learned this the hard way. Read on for his firsthand account of survival on the edge of a classic PNW peak. Be forewarned, this story features descriptions and images of a graphic nature. And a reminder to take it easy during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
I was reading Touching the Void, the story of an epic climb gone wrong, on the flight to Vancouver. Seven months after moving to Europe, I was to be back in town for three weeks of outdoors fun. As we landed that Wednesday night, it felt like I was returning home.
On Friday morning, I walked the familiar streets to a friend's flat with my mountaineering gear in tow, ready for an ascent of Wedge Mountain by the beautiful Northeast Arête, a classic alpine route. I had climbed or ascended a lot of Pacific Northwest peaks when I lived in Vancouver, but this one somehow eluded me.
On the two-hour drive north to the Wedgemount Lake trailhead, our starting point, the familiar sights appeared one by one—the Lions, Howe Sound, the Stawamus Chief, and finally imposing Wedge Mountain, the highest mountain in British Columbia's Garibaldi Provincial Park.
We reached the popular lake and ate on a large flat rock, soaking in the views of the lake and of the hypnotizing sunset framed by mountains and glaciers. We even caught a glimpse of our route between the clouds, before hiking to the toe of the glacier. There we found the ice caves we had visited only two years before had vanished, melted by the dizzying pace of global warming.
I first heard about karma watching My Name is Earl fifteen years ago. “Do good things and good things will happen to you. Do bad things and it will come back to get you.”
I didn't think we needed backcountry camping permits since we wouldn't actually be camping. To my surprise, we met two rangers on the trail. We explained our reasoning, and while they let us walk, they said we were wrong and should’ve paid. I felt guilty and was determined to improve my karma by picking up all the trash I found and promising to pay the second I returned to town. Little did I know I’d soon be leaving more trash on the mountain than I picked.
Two A.M. I wake up and stumble to my pack. Despite the short and cold nights, I love alpine starts and quickly get excited for what’s coming. I wolf down my breakfast and sort my gear. We breeze through the approach and glacier, reaching the Northeast Arête just as the sun rises.
There’s hesitation in the party near the steep ending. It's very exposed and the snow cover is thinner and softer than anticipated. After a little pep talk, we decide to finish the route roped up using protection.
I lead what seems like seven pitches and we reach the ridge, ecstatic. Looking back at our route, the familiar feeling of having shared another great mountain experience fills us. We summit at 10 A.M.—one hour behind schedule.
Some clouds roll in and cover the views, so we descend, via the west ridge, a mellower slope used for scrambling. It soon starts drizzling, just enough to make the rocks slippery and force us to don our waterproof layer. We discuss future climbing plans for the summer and I probably mention climbing the Naranjo de Bulnes in Spain, or Mont Blanc by the Italian side in August.
No one goes to the mountains thinking about getting hurt. Mountain sports have inherent risks and accidents can happen, but we usually think they happen to others.
Some define mountaineering as risk mitigation with a physical effort. I learned to mitigate the risks by picking my routes, teaming up with partners I trust, and bringing extra gear. I like to think I put the odds on my side. Maybe that’s why I kept my helmet, harness, and gear on even though only walking remained. It’s definitely why I’m still here to write this today.
Walking nonchalantly on a snow patch, I slip and quickly self-arrest. I turn around and look at the long snowy slope below me. The angle is gentle so I decide to glissade like I’ve done so many times before. I don’t feel the conditions however, so I dig my ice axe deeper in the snow to brake. Then I get knocked off balance and hear someone yell: “Louis!” Or maybe I heard the yell first?
Somehow, my ice axe is no longer in the snow and I’m now accelerating down the snow slope on my back, head first. I’m stunned, but I’m in a bad position and I know I don’t have two shots at self-arrest. I drive the pick of my ice axe as hard as I can into the soft snow, but it doesn’t bite enough. All it does is turn me onto my stomach and change my trajectory.
It’s all happening fast and I try everything I can to stop, but nothing works. It’s too late. I have the best seat in the house to see the rocks I’ll crash into. I know very well what this is: it’s a fucking disaster. Then everything goes black.
Before every overnighter, my partner Marta asks me if the route will be dangerous. I tell her not to worry. Whether I leave for one day or one week, I always write to her at night. I usually don’t have coverage so she only gets the message later, but it’s fun.
I tell her about my day, ask about hers, tell her I love her, and promise her I’ll be careful and everything will be alright. July 12, 2019 was no different. At 10:54 P.M., I sent her a message just like on countless other cold dark nights. But this time, something different had happened: I broke my promise.
My eyelids are heavy and my sight struggles to focus. I’m alone on the ridge, lying on rocks and dirt. I’m not sure where I am, I don’t know how I got there, and I have no idea how I managed to stop. I try to look around, but my body ignores my orders. I feel extremely weak and have trouble breathing.
It’s cloudy and I feel the light rain on my nose and right cheek. It’s starting to seem like a bad dream. I try to pinch myself but again, I can’t move. I realize my face is battered when I notice my bleeding, lacerated lip. As I stare at the blood dripping from my mouth into an expanding red puddle on the sleeve of my light blue rain jacket, I realize this is all too real.
"I know very well what this is: it’s a fucking disaster. Then everything goes black."
I gather my strength and manage a grunt. “Guys!” While I wait, I think about Marta, to whom I promised I’d be safe, about my brother, who expects me home in a few hours, and about hoping to be rescued. I try to stay positive, but it’s hard.
Finally, my body listens. I concentrate all my efforts into raising my right arm slightly so that the blood from my mouth stops staining my jacket. I figure it’ll be easier to wash and the blood will be less noticeable on the dark dirt.
I don't know how long I’ve been lying here, but my climbing partner, Tim, reaches me. I hear, “holy fuck…" in a tone that leaves no room for interpretation. My morale takes a blow. I ask him to call rescuers. Luckily, he has his phone and gets coverage. “I know you probably hear this all the time, but we need a helicopter straight away,” he says, his nervousness transpiring through his Northern English accent.
I drift in and out of consciousness. I mention needing to call my brother, and that Marta will be disappointed. But as much as I want to reach them, I’m ashamed for what I interpret as a failure and I’m sure my friends would rather not have that conversation. I think I hear them mention a small rockfall. A helicopter flies over, but it’s not for me. I ask about the rescuers and am told they’re coming. I feel weak. Everything goes blurry again.
Noise wakes me up. I can’t see the rescuers, but I hear the sigh of relief my friends let out. I feel safe again. It’s been roughly one hour and a half since the accident, I’m later told.
A rescuer checks up on me and apparently gives me fentanyl to ease the pain, or calm me down, even though I feel neither pain nor agitated. There’s an orange tarp over my body now to keep me dry. I spend the next odd hours in a state of semi-consciousness, soothed by the murmurs of a conversation.
Eventually, I sense excitement and hear a whirring sound. After waiting five hours, the weather has finally cleared enough for the helicopter to return and fly me out. It can't land anywhere near me and carrying me is out of the question to protect my neck and spine, so I’m carefully put on a stretcher and wrapped in a bag. The doctor clips both of us to the long line, and away we go, hanging like sausages. This area is beyond beautiful, but all I see are grey clouds and raindrops.
"The doctor clips both of us to the long line, and away we go, hanging like sausages."
In the Whistler Search and Rescue hangar, rescuers stabilize me, cut my clothes off–even the light blue rain jacket I desperately tried not to stain–cover me with a gown and blankets, transfer me to another stretcher, place a collar on my neck, and hook me to an IV. I’m apparently lucky to be alive.
As we leave, I notice Tim. I ask him to apologize to Fernando, the other friend on our rope, for likely not joining him in the Bugaboos later in the season like we had planned. That’s my attempt at making light of the situation, though we both know it’s serious.
In the ER of Vancouver General Hospital, a voice summarizes the situation and seems to say my age wrong. When I try to correct her, nothing comes out. I spend the next hours being scanned and stitched, but keep thinking they don’t know my age. My brother appears and that helps. He even calls Marta, who stayed in Spain to work, but she’s too worried to understand English, so I try to reassure her despite having trouble speaking.
I'm so delusional I think I’ll go home when they're done checking up on me. That’s not happening. I broke my knee and several teeth, and I injured my hands, my right arm, my lips, my left ear, both hips, my ribs, and got a concussion. Someone shoves oxygen tubes into my nostrils and I’m wheeled to the room I'll share with John for the next eight days.
My BC vacation was over just three days in, though I’d have to stay another 47 before all was said and done. My list of plans was shred to bits and blew away in the Whistler wind. All I got was a few beers, one ascent, and an expensive medical and dentist bill. I’d planned to stuff myself with sushi, but my menus would mostly consist of soft puréed foods for the next two months.
The hospital was a succession of sleepless nights, painful shots, wet towel baths, and countless pills. The night after my knee surgery, I lost my pateince because the nurse couldn’t give me more painkillers. When I went for mouth x-rays, I fainted the second I got up. The first time I wheeled myself from my bed to the bathroom, I stopped after three meters because I was too exhausted.
But I can’t complain. I survived what my friends estimated to be a 200m tumble. While my recovery will be arduous, I’m aware I could be disfigured, paralyzed, or dead. Was this karma for the backcountry fees? Maybe the accident happened for not having paid them, or maybe wanting to redeem myself saved me.
Nine months and a new mouth later, I thought I would be able to run, but these days I settle for walking and hiking, with a limp. I’m not giving up. And I’ll always pay the backcountry fees now, even it’s not mandatory.
I’ll play it safe, in case this was karma at work.