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Most climbing accidents happen suddenly, progress quickly, and they’re soon over. A stone falls, a piece pulls, a leg is broken. A rescue begins. Very few climbs result in true survival situations, in which the misery and uncertainty are prolonged for days or even weeks. Because of their rarity and inherent drama, many such incidents become legendary tales. Others remain private experiences, known only to family and friends.
But we also hope to inspire, for survival stories reveal the hidden capacity within many of us. Recounting their accidents, several of the climbers featured here said they drew strength by recalling Doug Scott’s epic crawl down the Ogre. And if any reader should someday find themself in such a desperate situation, we hope they too will remember how others endured, living to climb another day.
Crawling off the Ogre
- Mo Anthoine, Chris Bonington, Clive Rowland, Doug Scott
- Baintha Brakk, Pakistan; 1977
- Scenario: Two bone-breaking falls above 21,000’
- Injuries: Broken legs, ribs
- Elapsed time: 16 days
On July 13, 1977, British mountaineers Chris Bonington and Doug Scott summited Baintha Brakk (aka The Ogre), a 23,901-foot rock and ice tower in Pakistan’s Karakoram. The two men and their four teammates had spent more than a month attempting various routes up the complex peak. But any joy they felt after finally reaching the top was erased when Scott slipped on ice during the first rappel and pendulumed violently into a rock wall, breaking both legs above the ankles.
Bonington and Scott were 9,000 feet above base camp, and the sun had set. Though they had fixed ropes up the first part of the climb, descending the upper mountain would require a long traverse over the Ogre’s west summit. Just below the accident site, Bonington and Scott improvised a bivouac at over 23,000 feet without food, a stove, or even down parkas. The next morning, they continued rappelling and then were joined by Mo Anthoine and Clive Rowland, who had spent the night in a snow cave below the west summit. The three men helped Scott crawl back to the cave, where a storm pinned them for two nights.
On the third morning after the accident, despite the continuing storm, the team forced its way to the west summit, with Scott manhandling his way up ropes with jumars. It took him six hours to climb several hundred feet. After a night in another snow cave on the far side of the west peak, they continued downward, still in the storm, with Scott belayed between two partners as he crawled along the ridge. Later that day, Bonington rappelled off the end of two ropes of unequal length, plunged about 20 feet, and broke two ribs.
That night, they reached their tents, but the storm intensified once again, and they feared they’d never find the fixed ropes in the whiteout. They were forced to spend a second night at this high saddle—the sixth night since the accident—still above 21,000 feet. Their sleeping bags were soaked, and they hadn’t eaten solid food for days.
Finally, the weather broke. Bonington couldn’t use one hand and could not speak; he feared he was developing pneumonia. But after one more night in their tents, the team started down the fixed ropes. Rappelling was easier than crawling for Scott, and they all made it down to the glacier that day.
Next blow: Anthoine arrived at base camp only to find it had been abandoned. Fearing their partners were dead, the team’s other climbers had sent the porters ahead and left for town hours before Anthoine arrived. One left a note: “In the unlikely event of your reading this, I have gone down for help.” Now Scott had to keep crawling, across nearly five miles of glacier and moraine. Ice and dirt wore through four layers of clothing and rubbed his knees raw.
And it wasn’t over. Anthoine had run ahead to catch the other climbers, but Scott and Bonington had to wait five days at base camp until one of the climbers returned with a dozen porters, who ferried Scott for three days down the glacier on a homemade litter. A small helicopter finally arrived to pick up Scott, but it crash-landed in Skardu. Scott and the other passengers were unharmed, but Bonington had to wait another week before he could escape the mountains.
Bonington wrote: “It was certainly the most harrowing experience that either Doug or I have ever had, and yet throughout the long drawn-out retreat, there was never a sense of despair. This was largely due to the quality of support we had from Mo and Clive, and the fact that none of us lost his will to survive or showed the doubts that we might secretly have had.”
The Ogre was not climbed again for 24 years.
- LESSONS: Scott later explained how he managed to keep going for so many days, despite so many obstacles: “Take it one feature at a time. A nub of rock, a pinnacle. Get there and then think about the next bit. Because to think about the whole thing was a bit mind-boggling.” Focus on the immediate tasks at hand, he tells us, instead of wasting time and energy worrying about your plight.
- READ IT: None of the climbers wrote a book about this expedition, but there are good accounts in the American Alpine Journal (1978), High Drama by Hamish MacInnes, and Himalayan Climber by Doug Scott.
- Coral Bowman
- Eldorado Canyon, Colorado; 1978
- Scenario: Free-fall after failed rappel
- Injuries: Severe rope burns
- Elapsed time: Minutes
Coral Bowman, one of Colorado’s strongest female climbers during the late 1970s, hoped to complete the first all-woman ascent of The Naked Edge, the five-pitch 5.11 in Eldorado Canyon. On September 12, 1978, Bowman and Sue Giller quickly climbed several pitches to the first belay of the Edge, trailing a 9mm rope for hauling a pack with sweaters and water. Trading leads, they successfully free-climbed the first two pitches of the Edge, and Giller was leading the easier third pitch when the haul rope jammed below Bowman’s belay ledge. She yelled to Giller to climb back down to the ledge, so Bowman could rappel their single lead rope to the free the stuck haul line, and then reclimb the second pitch on toprope.
Feeling impatient with the delay, Bowman rushed the anchor set-up and failed to reverse the gates of the two carabiners that clipped the rope to the anchor sling. As she leaned over the wall atop pitch two, the sling pushed open the carabiners and the rappel rope popped out. Bowman free-fell toward the ground, about 300 feet below.
Time seemed to stop. Bowman remembers looking over her shoulder at the ground and imagining concerned friends watching. Then, after plummeting about 20 feet, accelerating fast, she reached out and grabbed the 9mm haul rope with both hands. Though her hands burned horribly from the friction, Bowman managed to slow and then stop her fall. She wrapped the free end of the haul rope around her leg to relieve the strain, and with her hands beginning to stiffen into useless claws, she inserted the skinny haul rope into her carabiner brake and slid down to the anchor atop the first pitch. Giller joined her and began lowering Bowman to the ground for a trip to the hospital, badly shaken but grateful to be alive.
- LESSONS: Bowman was distracted that day by relationship issues, and felt rushed because of weather concerns. It’s a reminder that accidents usually happen when climbers lose their focus. And, of course, it’s mandatory to double-check your anchors and rappel set-up—and that of your partners.
- READ IT: Bowman tells her story in Rock & Ice 86 (July 1998).
Touching the Void
- Joe Simpson
- Siula Grande, Peru; 1985
- Scenario: Broken leg; fall into deep crevasse
- Injury: Severely injured right tibia, knee, ankle, and heel
- Elapsed time: 5 days
The elements of this story are so famous they scarcely need retelling, yet they remain astonishing: Joe Simpson breaks his leg in a fall while descending 20,814-foot Siula Grande after a new route on the west face; his partner, Simon Yates, lowers him about 2,500 feet before the knot joining their two ropes jams in Yates’ belay device, leaving Simpson stranded in mid-air, in the dark, above a crevasse; Yates, unanchored and about to be pulled from the face, makes the agonizing decision to cut the rope, sending Simpson plunging 150 feet into the crevasse. When Yates reaches the glacier the next morning, he calls out for his partner but concludes he must be dead. Simpson, stranded on a snow shelf inside the crevasse, assumes he will die. The crevasse yawns below his tiny ledge; he retrieves the rope and sees it has been cut, and thus knows his partner is gone.
After trying to climb out and then spending a long night on the ledge, Simpson decides his only option is to rappel deeper into the crevasse. “I pretty much thought it was a form of suicide,” he says today. “I didn’t have the courage simply to jump off. I didn’t put a knot in the end of the rope—it would be quick that way.”
Miraculously, the rappel led to another ledge about 80 feet lower, from which Simpson was able to crawl up to the surface. He emerged on the sunny glacier hours later. Now there was hope, but still he had to crawl about five miles to reach base camp. It took him three and a half days to get there, without food and no water until the last day. Yates and an acquaintance had by then given up hope and had packed to leave. Simpson neared camp late at night and called out for his friend. Says Simpson: “Seeing the white beams of Simon and Richard’s head torches suddenly flicking on in the night was unforgettable.”
- LESSONS: Looking back, Simpson concludes that decisions they made before the climb contributed to his fate. Though they were trying to go light, they should have packed extra food and stove fuel, he says. “The lack of gas and food meant that when we reached the col after breaking my leg, we couldn’t hunker down in a snow cave in warm sleeping bags, drinking hot tea,” he explains. “For the sake of a few gas canisters, we lost control of events and felt forced to descend in the dark. The rest is history.” The other lesson from this episode is perhaps obvious but deserves to be stated: Humans can endure far more than what anyone might think possible, as long as they don’t give up.
- READ IT/SEE IT: Touching the Void, Joe Simpson’s book about the ordeal, is one of the most harrowing climbing stories ever written. Kevin MacDonald’s 2003 movie of the same name is perhaps the best climbing film ever produced.
- Jean-Christophe Lafaille
- Annapurna, Nepal; 1992
- Scenario: Alone at 23,500’ with no rope or hardware
- Injuries: Badly broken arm
- Elapsed time: 5 days
Pierre Beghin and Jean-Christophe Lafaille hoped to climb a new route on the nearly two-mile-high south face of Annapurna. Lafaille, only 27, was on his first Himalayan expedition. They fixed about 500 feet of rope; otherwise, they were climbing alpine style. After four days, they were forced into a standing bivouac on 70-degree ice, in a storm, at 24,000 feet. They made it only 600 feet further before the storm prompted them to turn back.
Conserving gear for the long descent, Beghin built one anchor from a single cam. Partway through this rappel, the cam popped and Beghin fatally plunged into the void, taking the ropes and all their hardware. Lafaille was alone at about 23,500 feet—more than 6,000 feet above advanced base camp.
Too stunned to move at first, Lafaille eventually began to solo down 75- to 80-degree mixed terrain. He didn’t make it to the bivy site 600 feet lower until 9 p.m. He stayed there all the next day while the storm continued. After another night, having recovered 20 meters of 6mm cord they’d left at the bivy site, he started descending again. With only a single sling and two carabiners for gear, he used lengths of tent poles for rappel anchors. Then Lafaille lost a crampon. Two hours later, amazingly, he discovered the missing crampon in soft snow.
Finally he reached their ropes and began rappelling toward the cache of supplies they had left at 21,650 feet. Then a falling rock smashed into his right arm, breaking both bones—and Lafaille was right-handed. In the morning, it took him half an hour just to light his stove. He rested all day, and then began rappelling again, using his good hand and his teeth to rig the rappels. When it became too difficult to pull the ropes, he abandoned them and continued down climbing. Finally he staggered into base camp.
- LESSONS: “The sum of everything I’d done over the last 10 years got me out of that situation,” Lafaille said. His extensive soloing in the Alps prepared him, as did down-climbing skills— something that many experienced alpinists and traditional rock climbers practice often. Ingenuity also was key: When an obvious solution (pitons and cams for rap anchors) is not available, consider every alternative (such as tent poles). Finally, and obviously, single-anchor rappels should be an absolute last resort.
- READ IT: Prisonnier de l’Annapurna by Jean-Christophe Lafaille; Climbing 141 (December 1993) and Climbing 197 (September 2000).
- Takeyasu Minamiura
- Trango Tower, Pakistan; 1990
- Scenario: Paragliding disaster at 20,000’
- Injuries: None
- Elapsed time: 10 days
Takeyasu Minamiura’s climb would have been a testament to fortitude and endurance even if nothing had gone wrong. The 33-year-old climber spent 40 days soloing a new route on the northeast buttress of 20,469-foot Trango Tower (commonly known as Nameless Tower)—a 30-pitch line with leads up to A4—and hauled hundreds of pounds of food, water, and equipment the entire way. On September 9, he stood just below the summit and prepared for his most radical move yet: He attached a small parachute to the haul bags containing all of his hardware, ropes, food, and bivouac equipment and launched them toward the Dunge Glacier, 6,000 feet below. Then he clipped into a paraglider and prepared for his own aerial descent.
The launch did not go well. Almost instantly Minamiura was upside-down and falling. The canopy collapsed, and the Japanese climber slid toward oblivion. But the chute that had failed him saved his life; it snagged on a rock, halting Minamiura’s slide. He had only a down jacket for warmth, but he still had his radio, and so, hanging in his harness from the paraglider rigging, he called to friends who had just finished their own epic climb on nearby Great Trango. The four Japanese at base camp began planning a rescue.
Minamiura spent the night with his feet dangling, but in the morning he managed to escape the rig and traverse to a 16-inch-wide ledge. He would spend the next six days there. Two of his friends hiked toward a Pakistani army helicopter base, and they talked the pilots into attempting a rescue. But as they neared Minamiura at 20,000 feet, the Pakistanis’ Lama helicopter grew unstable, and the pilot abandoned the attempt.
Meanwhile, the other two Japanese climbers assembled their gear and asked to be flown to the Trango Glacier, on the other side of the tower. They started up the British Route on the south face, which hadn’t been repeated since the spire’s first ascent in 1977. The climbers jumared frayed, 14-year-old fixed ropes and led as fast as they could. Minamiura wrapped himself in his back-up chute (which was too low-performance for the risky flight from the tower) and rubbed his feet all night to keep them warm; he slept during the day. Twice, pilots tried unsuccessfully to drop food and water for him. But after the second drop, on September 15, the pilot radioed that a block of cheese had wedged into a flake 15 feet above him. Minamiura decided to risk the climb to the cheese, and in the process he discovered a larger ledge, where more food could be sent to him. Finally, on September 16, after racing up the British Route in just three days, the Japanese climbers reached the summit of Trango Tower and quickly rappelled to Minamiura’s ledge. Two days later, Minamiura was back on the glacier, 49 days after leaving.
- LESSONS: Though some climbers understandably prefer to maximize the adventure of wilderness expeditions by climbing without a radio or satellite phone, Minamiura surely would have perished if he could not have radioed for help.
- READ IT: Climbing 197 (September 2000)
- Robert Bates, George Bell, Robert Craig, Art Gilkey, Charles Houston, Dee Molenaar, Pete Schoening, Tony Streather
- K2, Pakistan; 1953
- Scenario: Retreat from 25,000’ with fatally ill partner
- Injuries: Blood clots, frostbite, concussion
- Elapsed time: 14 days
The world’s second-highest peak might have been climbed by a small team of Americans in 1953, but the attempt ended at high camp, when Art Gilkey was stricken with blood clots, and an extraordinarily selfless rescue effort began. The American expedition had arrived at base camp on June 20, and by August 1 they had established eight camps on the Abruzzi Spur, with the highest camp on the Shoulder, about 2,600 feet below the top (site of today’s Camp IV). Here, they would begin their summit push. On August 2, the whole team was in place. But a storm developed, and the climbers were stuck in their tents for five nights. The weather improved on August 7, but then Gilkey collapsed outside his tent. Charles Houston, a doctor and the expedition leader, diagnosed him with blood clots—practically a death sentence at this altitude. Worse, the storm had returned.
On August 10, with everyone’s condition deteriorating fast, they decided to head down. Though few believed Gilkey would survive, they did not abandon him. Instead, they fashioned a stretcher and began lowering and dragging the sick man toward Camp VII. Their descent route crossed a steep ice slope. Pete Schoening lowered Gilkey with the rope wrapped around his body and an ice axe jammed behind a rock. Dee Molenaar led the way in front. Above them, another climber slipped and pulled off his partner, and then tangled with the remaining rope teams until five climbers were falling. Somehow, Schoening held on and brought them all to a stop, a feat since immortalized as “The Belay.”
The badly shaken climbers made it to the lower camp, only to discover that Gilkey, who had been anchored to the ice slope, had vanished, possibly in a self-sacrificial act to save his teammates. The survivors were exhausted. Houston had a head injury, and some were frostbitten. It took another five days to reach base camp.
- LESSONS: Few expeditions in history have demonstrated such selflessness and teamwork, and this was partly a result of Houston and Bates’ careful selection of a small (by 1950s standards) and harmonious team. “We entered the mountain as strangers, but we left it as brothers,” Houston said. Obviously, it pays to choose your partners carefully. Schoening’s ice axe belay also proved instructive. Though not as strong or reliable as a well-anchored belay from a harness, ice axe belays are quick to establish, and, as K2 demonstrated, they can be lifesavers.
- READ IT/SEE IT: K2: Savage Mountain, by Charles Houston and Robert Bates, is a must-read classic. Pete Schoening’s wood-shafted ice axe is on display at the Bradford Washburn American Mountaineering Museum in Golden, Colorado.