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Survival of the Fittest

In Colorado's stunning—but dangerous—landscape, it only takes one twisted ankle or freak snowstorm to turn your casual day hike into a life-threatening situation. These adventurers escaped scary scenarios. Outdoors experts explain how and why.

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Sending out an SOS

Trail runner Danelle Ballengee survived two frigid nights on a remote trail with a broken pelvis. Wilderness expert Ford Church analyzes* what the athlete did right—and what she could have done better. —Patrick Doyle

* Check the footnotes for expert analysis from Ford Church, the founder and executive director of Cottonwood Institute, a Denver nonprofit that teaches environmental education and survival skills to students.

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In December 2006, accomplished endurance runner Danelle Ballengee was about an hour into a run on a remote trail in Moab, Utah, scrambling up a steep section of red slickrock, when she thought: I wonder if it’s icy?

With her next steps, the Dillon resident hit a patch of ice and lost her footing. As Ballengee slid downhill, she clawed at the rock, trying—and failing—to grab anything. And then there was nothing, just air around her as she careened off the side of a cliff. “All I could think was, Oh my god, I’ve got to land this thing,” the 45-year-old says. Twenty feet later, she did—hard, on a rocky shelf.

Ballengee, a three-time Adventure Racer of the Year and four-time Pikes Peak Marathon champion, reached down and touched her legs. Both had feeling, so she knew she wasn’t paralyzed. But when she tried to stand, she couldn’t. Her pelvis was shattered.

The seriousness of her situation registered: She was four miles from the parking lot, and nobody knew she was out running, let alone where1. Ballengee took stock. She had no cell phone with her. She had a bottle of water and a pack of energy gels but was only wearing jogging pants, a long-sleeve silk shirt, a fleece, and a fleece hat2. Although it was a sunny 40-degree day, she knew nighttime temps would drop below freezing.

Trail runner Danelle Ballengee with her dog, Taz, who helped rescuers find her. Photo by David Clifford.

Her dog, Taz, who had been running in front of her when she fell, had backtracked and found her, so she knew there was a way back to the trail. Using an adrenaline surge, Ballengee spent the next five hours dragging herself along the ground. She made it a quarter-mile3. It was getting dark. Concerned about hypothermia, she spent the night doing mini-crunches. Taz cuddled next to her4.

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When the sun rose, Ballengee was in so much pain she was unable to move. She tried to stay hydrated but knew if she drank too much she’d have to pee, which would freeze in her clothes. She tried signaling planes with her watch to no avail5.

Ballengee survived the next below-freezing night by once again doing mini-crunches. But she was growing weaker; she could feel blood pooling in her midsection. The next morning, she turned to Taz and with Lassie-inspired optimism said, “Go get help.” The Australian shepherd mix looked at her, unsure, and then took off. Her lone companion gone, Ballengee began to unravel. She was sure she was going to die and started to cry6.

A few hours later, Taz returned and licked the tears off her face. The roar of an ATV was not far behind him. The dog had returned to the trailhead and alerted a group from the Grand County Search and Rescue team. They had received a call from Ballengee’s parents after her neighbor had begun to worry and contacted them.

A helicopter whisked Ballengee to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction. She spent almost a month in the hospital recovering, followed by another three months in a wheelchair. Today, the runner lives in Moab and still competes in adventure races—and Taz is still there to greet her when she gets home.

1. Big mistake. If you’re going out alone, you should tell someone where you’re going and when you expect to be back. Also: Leave a note on the dash of your car detailing where you’re planning to go. Search and rescue will try to track down your car before sending crews out on the trails.

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2. When you’re venturing into a remote area, ask yourself this: “If I had to spend the night out tonight, could I survive?” It can’t hurt to bring an emergency blanket, a way to signal people—a mirror or a whistle—and tools for starting a fire.

3. The question of trying to self-rescue or waiting for help is a tough one. When you can self-rescue, you should, because you don’t know when someone is going to come find you. The severity of this injury changes things, though; self-rescue may not always be possible.  

4. The biggest threat to Ballengee’s life was hypothermia. Warmth and shelter are the first priorities. After that, you can think about staying hydrated. She was smart about staying warm by doing crunches. It was a real bonus that the dog was a heat source for her.

5. Trying to signal planes with her watch was a good idea, but that’s extremely difficult to do. Short of a flare gun, a whistle or a mirror works best as a signaling device.

6. Negative thoughts can lead you into a downward mental spiral. Get your frustrations out by yelling and screaming, and then get to work surviving. You have to stay positive.

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Three Things That Might Save Your Life

John Lindner, director of the Colorado Mountain Club’s Wilderness Survival School, tells us what to always pack (besides food, water, and layers, of course). —Karah Kemmerly

Emergency blanket

Even in the summer, temps can dip into the 30s in the high country at night. Whether you wrap yourself in it or rig it as a shelter, a high-quality waterproof blanket can help you stave off hypothermia. Missouri resident Kathleen Kinderfather employed hers to survive five days on Mount of the Holy Cross in 1997. She curled up in the blanket at night and ingeniously used it to catch rainwater during the day.

Fire starter

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Pack at least one reliable fire starter—such as stormproof matches or a lighter—that you’ve practiced using in bad weather. Fire helps keep you warm and dry and also provides a comforting light source that can elevate your spirits. Boy Scout Justin McAlexander demonstrated this in 2012: He started a fire with matches he brought on a snowmobiling trip when he and two other boys were trapped by a blizzard in Routt National Forest.

Signaling device

A whistle, mirror, or a large, brightly colored object can help rescuers find you—and potentially save your life. It certainly saved Steven Brodsky, a Centennial man who spent two days on Mt. Bierstadt after a blizzard in 2005. Thanks to his orange and silver space blanket, two rescuers saw him.

Holding On

David Torchia went for an unexpected swim during an overnight rafting trip. He survived—but rescue pro Donnie Smith explains* how the accident could have been avoided. —Sophie Goodman

* Check the footnotes for expert analysis from Donnie Smith, a special operations director of Chaffee County Search and Rescue North and a certified Level 5 swift-water rescue instructor.

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David Torchia spent 45 minnutes clinging to a raft in the 50-degree Arkansas River. Photo by Tyler Oxendine.

By 8 p.m., dusk had begun to conceal obstacles in the river, and the inexperienced rafters were nervous. Browns Canyon, the section they were rafting, runs next to U.S. 285; Spalvins, who had never rafted this particular section of the Arkansas1, pulled ashore to try to hitchhike back to their cars so he could retrieve the rafters. Unsuccessful in his hitchhiking attempt, Spalvins returned to the boat, and the group pushed on toward the spot where they’d originally planned to camp.

Unbeknownst to the rafters, a diversion dam just north of Salida awaited them 1.5 miles downstream. By the time they heard what sounded like a waterfall, it was too late2. The boat slid over the eight-foot dam, and although they landed safely, the current pulled the raft back toward the dam. The recirculating undercurrent (called a hydraulic) at the base of the dam sucked the boat under the water, tossing the seven rafters, who all were wearing life jackets, into the 50-degree river. “It was like being in a washing machine,” Torchia says. When the 21-year-old surfaced, he found himself underneath the overturned raft and grabbed hold of a seat3. He was alone.

Torchia pulled himself to the outside of the raft so he could be seen from shore, but the hydraulic was relentless. Every few minutes, as the dam’s current pulled the boat under the powerful cascade, Torchia found himself momentarily submerged. Instinct told him to cling to the raft and scream, hoping someone would hear him4.

In fact, five of the other six rafters had made it to shore and called 911. (The seventh member of the group, 31-year-old Amanda Taylor, died. Her body was found downstream several days later.) Emergency responders arrived within 25 minutes of the call. A rope thrown to Torchia landed just out of his reach the first time, but the Ohio man grabbed the second toss, and a firefighter pulled him to safety5. He was taken to the hospital and treated for hypothermia and bruising. Despite the terrifying experience, Torchia, who now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, says he would definitely go rafting again, but on a less challenging river. “I respect nature a lot more now,” he says. “Especially water.”

1. You should never go down an unfamiliar waterway—especially not at night—without researching it. If this group had done that, they might have known about the dam—and that there’s a boat shoot rafts and kayaks can use to avoid it.

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2. The group missed at least two signs warning boaters about the dam. Although it was too late in this case, if you hear something that sounds like a waterfall, pull over and scout the terrain before proceeding.

3. Torchia was lucky he ended up under the raft. It’s calmer under there; there’s an air pocket; and the water wasn’t crashing on his head. He probably saved a lot of energy.

4. It was smart that he held on and didn’t try to swim to shore. His yelling was important, too, because it helped search and rescue locate him in the dark.

5. Diversion dams are notoriously difficult for search-and-rescue operations because of dangerous currents; rafting guides typically avoid them as much as possible.


The Not-So-Great Outdoors

We talked to the experts to find out what to do when Mother Nature throws a sucker punch. —David MacNeal

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If you encounter…

A Black Bear

Try to relax and stand tall. Talk normally and wave your hands slowly overhead as you back away, keeping a wary eye on the bear. That scene in The Revenant depicted a grizzly. Black bears are much smaller and not as aggressive. You want to establish you’re not their run-of-the-mill prey by acting differently than, say, a deer, which might just run. You might even consider throwing rocks in Yogi’s direction if he’s not taking the hint. (Really, park rangers say it’s OK.)

A Rattlesnake

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Try retreating until it has slithered away, or find another route. (While rattlesnakes are generally shy creatures that avoid humans, if one is rattling at you, it’s primed to lunge.) If you receive a venomous bite, you could be in trouble. Keep the wound below heart level, then either sit down or move slowly to keep your heart rate low; this will prevent the venom from moving rapidly through your system. Wait for help (if it’s close) or get to the hospital for a dose of antivenin. There’s a nearly 100 percent survival rate for people treated within a couple of hours.

Lightning

Try getting into your car if it’s close. Otherwise, dump your pack and anything with metal on it. Distance yourself from tall objects (trees). Avoid natural shelters (caves) and makeshift structures like covered picnic areas; find lower ground. Lightning seeks the ground through the tallest object, and humans are fantastic conductors. Ditto for metal objects and some rock types, like granite. Fortunately, your hard-topped vehicle functions as a kind of Faraday cage, so it should protect you in most cases. FYI: Scientists have concluded that the “lightning position” (a low crouch) doesn’t significantly diminish your risk of being struck.

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A Flash Flood

Try seeking higher ground—fast—and ignoring the impulse you have to get into your vehicle. While flash floods can take up to six hours to develop, they can also flare up in as little as a few minutes. Get yourself somewhere safe quickly. Your car isn’t that place because it can take you for a potentially fatal swim in only a foot of water. Instead, climb a tall tree (or other structure) or get up a hillside and hang on until help arrives.

A Tornado

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Try taking shelter in a building. Go to the lowest floor and stay away from windows and heavy objects. If you’re outside, move away from vehicles and trees. Look for a ravine or culvert. Lie flat, cover your head, and, well, hope for the best. Most deaths and injuries from tornadoes come from flying debris, which is why you don’t want to be near trees (spearlike branches!) or by windows (exploding glass!) or next to heavy objects (like refrigerators) that could fall on you. You’re unlikely to outrun an oncoming tornado in your car, which is why experts recommend ditching your ride and looking for a safe place to hunker down.


Danger Zones: Colorado’s deadliest avalanche areas

Since 1950, Colorado has seen 278 avalanche fatalities. Snowpack instability, shifting weather conditions, and disruption from recreationists are all contributing factors. Here, Colorado Avalanche Information Center deputy director Brian Lazar breaks down our most dangerous avy zones. —DM

Loveland Pass Area
Death Toll*: 10

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Loveland’s proximity to large cities means more recreationists expose themselves to danger. And the area’s heavy snowfall, about 400 inches per year, and steep slopes make avalanches relatively common—a fact we were reminded of in 2013. That April, a hard slab avalanche—a forceful section of snow that breaks away from surrounding snowpack and can hit speeds of 80 mph—killed five experienced backcountry snowboarders in the Sheep Creek gully.

Berthoud Pass Area
Death Toll: 10

This former ski resort, which gets roughly 500 inches of snow annually, is particularly popular with backcountry enthusiasts. After all, skiable terrain sits just a couple hundred yards from your car. So many avalanches pummel this area, though, that this past winter the state installed a permanent avalanche control system. The five Gazex “exploders” are explosive-gas-based systems that provide an efficient way to regularly mitigate avalanche danger.

Aspen Highlands Area
Death Toll: 8

Aspen Highlands’ side and backcountry areas can sometimes be susceptible to wet-snow avalanches, which typically start on lower-elevation, southerly slopes that warm under the sun. With its 40- to 50-degree slopes, the Five Fingers Bowl is notoriously avalanche-prone; in 2005, a skier was killed here during a field-based avalanche course.

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*Deaths since 1950

—Photos: iStock (6)


Buried Alive

Lester Morlang lived through an avalanche burial. Avy educator Dale Atkins details how Morlang did almost everything right during the ordeal. —PD

* Check the footnotes for expert analysis from Dale Atkins, former president of the American Avalanche Association and manager of training and education at Recco, which makes avalanche rescue gear.

Lester Morlang spent 22 hours digging himself out of the snow after being buried by an avalanche. Photo by David Clifford

A tsunami of snow carried him down the hill, and when it stopped, Morlang found himself buried. Although the early-season snow was relatively light, it was packed tight. Morlang could barely move2. Morlang assessed his situation and tried not to panic. He was warm enough, wearing his yellow rubber mining suit and boots over long underwear and thick rubber gloves. His head was cold, but he could feel his insulated miner’s hat right behind him in the snow. Saliva was running toward his eyes, so he knew he was upside down.

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Morlang was able to free his hands and dig a space around his face. He swung his elbows to compact the snow around his torso and then freed his legs. Right side up, he began to move diagonally toward the surface3. He counted his steps. One. Reach up with one hand and grab a handful of snow. Two. Bring his hand down to his knees and pass the snow to the other hand. Three. Push the snow down by his feet. Four. Compact the snow with his boots. Pushing into new snow meant Morlang was moving toward the surface, and it also expanded his all-important air pocket4. After 22 hours—and 30 feet of snow—Morlang broke the surface5.

But he was not yet saved. The storm was still blowing, and there was no sign of Ritter—who had died in the avalanche—or any rescuers. Night was falling, and Morlang was getting cold. He did the only thing he could: He dug a ledge into the snow where he’d been buried and pulled some pine boughs over him for insulation6. After failing to get a fire going, he hunkered down for the night7.

Early the next morning, Morlang began half sliding, half climbing toward a cabin he knew was lower on the mountain. By noon, the storm was letting up, and Morlang saw a helicopter. He climbed up to a rock outcropping and stripped to his red long underwear, waving wildly. The chopper was only 100 feet away, but the pilot didn’t see him because he was looking up the mountain. Alone again, Morlang heard explosions from above—search-and-rescue teams were triggering avalanches to secure the slope so they could look for survivors. At one point, Morlang had to duck behind a big tree as an avalanche swept past him. Around 4:30 p.m., the miner heard another helicopter. This time, the pilot saw him.

Morlang was in a canyon too narrow for the chopper to land, so when the pilot maneuvered close enough, he leapt onto the skid, throwing the chopper’s balance off and sending its blades thump-thump-thumping into the snow on the canyon wall. After a few minutes of fumbling, Morlang climbed aboard. He spent the next few days in the hospital, losing parts of two fingers to frostbite, but otherwise was remarkably unhurt.

1. The golden rule is to expose only one person at a time to the hazard. If we’re skiing across a risky slope, we go one at a time to cross it. Of course, this doesn’t always work at a job site. They were taking a calculated risk.

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2. They didn’t have avalanche rescue gear with them, but in those days few people—much less workers on job sites—did. Even if they’d had gear, it wouldn’t have made a difference because both of them were buried.

3. It would have been much more difficult to dig straight up.

4. Only one in three people survive being buried for more than 35 minutes. You either have an air pocket or you don’t. Morlang was lucky in that he had one, and he immediately began expanding it by digging through the snow.

5. One of the most remarkable things about this story is Morlang’s will to survive. That’s an important intangible.

6. Digging a snow trench was the best thing he could have done. Snow is a great insulator.

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7. Fire is obviously great for warmth, but he was also just trying to take care of himself. That’s a really important part of survival—trying to rest when you can, eat and drink when you can, sit by a fire when you can. If you can care for yourself, you’re going to stay mentally sharp.


Don’t Eat That!

These tasty-looking plants can kill you. —DM

The Deadly Galerina Galerina marginata

Appearance: Small, honey-tinged mushroom with gills under the cap and a smooth stalk; only fungi expert are able to discern it from its harmless cousins.
Grows: On rotted wood in subalpine or montane areas such as the Peak to Peak Highway.
Warning Label: The amatoxins in this poisonous mushroom may cause liver failure or possibly death after eating just one or two.

Red Baneberry Actaea rubra

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Appearance: These glossy, red and white berries, each with a tiny black dot on the tip, are clustered on tall stalks above leafy plants.
Grows: In mountain forests—like those around Beaver Creek—between 7,000 feet and treeline.
Warning Label: Ingesting as few as two of these little berries can lead to intestinal distress, violent vomiting, and—in larger quantities—cardiac arrest.

Poison Hemlock Conium maculatum

Appearance: A tall plant with parsley-like leaves and clusters of tiny white flowers.
Grows: Near Denver; find it close to Red Rocks Amphitheatre.
Warning Label: This plant contains a mixture of poisonous alkaloids (including the neurotoxin coniine) that can induce paralysis, respiratory failure, and ultimately death.


DIY Medicine

Despite our best efforts, sometimes even the most prepared among us get hurt or lost deep in the backcountry. So what do you do when you’re hypothermic and stuck far from the trailhead and out of cell phone range? We asked wilderness and emergency medicine experts to weigh in on what steps to take when help isn’t available. —PD

Problem: Dehydration

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What’s happening to me?

As your cells and tissues dry out, the blood vessels in your brain can rupture. If the temperature is mild and you’re not exerting yourself, you might last three days without water—fewer if it’s hot.

What does it look like?

With mild dehydration, you may experience thirst, dry mouth, lethargy, headache, infrequent urination, and pee that’s amber or dark and smells funny. More serious cases can mean sunken eyes, changes to the texture or color of skin, fever, and increased heart rate and breathing.

What should I do?

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Don’t hesitate to drink from a lake or stream (if you’re not near either, look for puddles or pools in rock formations). Getting a water-borne illness is more rare than you’d think.

Problem: Hyperthermia

What’s happening to me?

Once your body temp climbs above normal ranges, you’re in heat exhaustion territory. If it rises above 104 degrees, you’re at risk of heat stroke and multi-organ failure.

What does it look like?

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Heat exhaustion’s classic symptoms include heavy sweating, clammy skin, and feeling faint. You might also experience cramps in large muscle groups, disorientation, rapid breathing and heartbeat, and nausea.

What should I do?

Cool off, fast. Only have a water bottle? Douse yourself and start fanning. Focus on cooling areas where your skin is thinnest and blood vessels are close to the skin’s surface (e.g., the armpits, groin, and neck).

Problem: Hypothermia

What’s happening to me?

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As your body cools, your heart and nerve cells begin to function more slowly. Once your body’s core temp drops below 95 degrees, you can become confused and have trouble pumping blood. Poor blood flow to the brain isn’t just bad for your health; it means you may make questionable decisions.

What does it look like?

Mild hypothermia results in shivering and increased heart rate. Moderate hypothermia is characterized by the “umbles”: stumbling, fumbling, and mumbling. In severe hypothermia, shivering usually stops, speech becomes slurred, pulse weakens, and you may lose consciousness.

What should I do?

Move around, make food, find shelter, build a fire, add a layer, and remove any wet layers next to your skin. If you’re with someone else, don’t think that stripping down and sharing a sleeping bag will do much good: There is actually very little heat transfer.

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Problem: Acute Mountain Sickness

What’s happening to me?

We’re not talking about the fairly benign version most people call altitude sickness. The more serious, life-threatening versions of AMS include high-altitude pulmonary edema (HAPE), during which fluids build up in your lungs, and high-altitude cerebral edema (HACE), in which your brain swells with fluid.

What does it look like?

With HAPE, you’ll have a shortness of breath even when resting; with HACE, you may experience confusion and a loss of balance. Try the heel-to-toe drunk-driving test. Fail? You may have HACE.

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What should I do?

Get down the mountain immediately. Don’t stop until you feel better, and even when you do, if you’ve had symptoms of HACE or HAPE, you’ll still want to get checked out at the hospital.

Medical Sources: Dr. Boleslaw Czachor, Kaiser Permanente orthopedic surgeon; Paul Dryer, wilderness EMT; Drew Hildner, wilderness medicine physician assistant; Dr. Anne Klokow, Kaiser Permanente emergency medicine physician


Fix It on the Fly

How to handle a broken bone in the backcountry if 911 and a doctor aren’t options.

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1. You can do more harm than good tugging on broken appendages, especially wrists and thumbs. So don’t muck around too much resetting the bones. If the bone easily goes into alignment, that’s fine. Otherwise, the goal is just to stabilize and make it comfortable enough to get to professional help.

2. You’ll want to immobilize the break at the joints above and below the injury. So if you cracked your shinbone, you’ll want to splint the leg from the ankle to the knee.

3. Use padding above and below the joints and whatever immobilizing device you have handy. Got a splint? Great. Some sticks, athletic tape, and your T-shirt? That’ll work, too. If there’s bleeding from a compound fracture (i.e., the  bone has broken the skin), don’t use a tourniquet unless you’re sure there’s life-threatening blood loss. In any case, get to a hospital as soon as possible.

—Shutterstock

Free Falling

Coral Bowman should have died when her rappel line unclipped nearly 300 feet above the earth. She didn’t. Climbing pro Phil Powers explores her remarkable self-rescue. —Alison Osius

* Check the footnotes for expert analysis from Phil Powers, the CEO of the American Alpine Club.

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—Coral Bowman saved herself from almost certain death while rock climbing. Photo by Chris Hinkle

When Coral Bowman roused at dawn after a poor night’s sleep that September day in 1979, she was in no mood to climb. But the well-respected climber and her partner, Sue Giller, had planned to attempt the Naked Edge, an iconic, wind-raked prow rising 450 feet in Eldorado Canyon. If they were successful, they’d earn the first all-female ascent. They’d trained for it, and Giller was leaving soon on a mountaineering expedition. There wouldn’t be another chance1.

A few hours later, the women were standing on a belay ledge an airy 270 feet above the ground when the skinny nine-millimeter haul rope with which they were carrying a small pack snagged. Bowman, impatient and blaming her own rope management for the trapped line, took over with a flurry of activity. She decided to rappel to free the line, then climb back up, belayed by Giller. Bowman set up an anchor—an arrangement of equipment to secure her rope to the rock as she rappelled—in a niche that was clogged with gear from previous climbers2. Bowman clipped her rope through two carabiners3 attached to the anchor and then inserted the rope into the rappel device on her harness. As she leaned out to rappel, she gave a little hop to clear a small overhang just below. Then something shifted, the rope popped out of the carabiners, and she was falling. For a second, the women’s eyes met in disbelief.

She’s dead, Giller thought.

I’m dead, Bowman thought.

Bowman free-fell, by Giller’s reckoning, 20 to 25 feet. “I had time,” Bowman says. “There was looking at Sue, then turning and looking at the ground and thinking, I’m gonna die.” As she turned back to the rock, she saw the rope attached to the haul bag dangling in front of her. She grabbed it.

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At first, Giller saw no decrease in her friend’s speed. But Bowman hung on, sliding about 20 feet down the rope as it seared into her palms, giving her second-degree burns4. Finally, she stopped. Still hanging only by her hands, Bowman whipped the rope around her thigh a few times for traction and swung into the wall to a ledge, where she waited for her partner to rappel to her5. Once Giller arrived, she lowered Bowman to the ground, and they headed for the hospital.

Bowman largely stopped difficult roped climbing after that. She still bouldered and for five years ran a climbing school for women. She says she rarely thinks about the accident now but at the time considered it a wakeup call. “My life was pretty out of balance, all about climbing,” she says. “I needed to move on.”

1. If you wake up and you’re not motivated, you might not pay attention as well as you should.

2. A messy anchor like this can conceal potential problems.

3. Haste can be a factor in accidents. In retrospect, Bowman figures that, in her hurry, she neglected to orient the two carabiner gates in different directions. Before committing to the rope, look over everything a final time. Check each other’s systems.

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4. Grabbing a nine-millimeter rope and catching a fall is extraordinary. Bowman’s feat may have been helped by her strength and lightness. The five-foot-four-inch, 105-pound climber regularly did three sets of 10 finger pull-ups on her door frame.

5. Even in a moment of shock, Bowman used friction to her advantage by wrapping the rope around her leg. Whether it was mindful or ingrained from experience, doing so gave her the purchase she needed and likely saved her life again.

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