I sat in my tent watching the sun sink down lower over the Cirque de Towers in the Wind River Range. I was beginning to worry about my boyfriend (Kipp) and his climbing partner (Garret). Storm clouds were swirling menacingly around the tops of the peaks surrounding our tiny camp, and the wind was battering the walls of the tent. I had expected the pair back hours before. I knew that they had planned to beat the afternoon thunderstorms and the evening chill.
The Wind River Range is a huge, beautiful expanse of wilderness in western Wyoming—an impressive mountain range angling 100 miles northwest to southeast. The area is remote, a committing place, a place of adventure, a cradle for the winding Continental Divide.
We had decided to spend a few days hiking and climbing in one of the most beautiful areas within this wilderness: The Cirque de Towers. To get there, we hiked nearly 10 miles in from the Big Sandy Trailhead, ascending Jackass Pass (elevation 10,800 feet) and crossing the Continental Divide in the process. Our packs were heavy, digging into our lower backs at this point, and it had begun to snow. As thunder began booming down from the sky as well, we scampered down the pass and into the valley as quickly as we could.
The Cirque is an almost circular valley, carved out by a glacier nearly 8,000 years ago, and ringed by intimidating, glorious-looking granite peaks. The alpine meadow where you camp is spongy and wet. A creek runs through it, providing fresh water to drink for the area’s campers and climbers. The water tumbles over a rock in the middle of the valley, creating a rippling waterfall. The trail towards our camp, a single track depression in the grass like all of those in the valley, crossed its shallow crest.
We set up our tents in a relatively flat area between boulders and behind a stand of trees, and made a hasty dinner before diving into our sleeping bags.
The next day, the boys were up at 5:30 am and off running for their climb. I ate breakfast and walked around as the sun began to rise, watching its golden light hit the tops of the peaks. The air was absolutely frigid, my breath puffing up in front of my face. The dew on the grass (thankfully the snow from the night before hadn’t stuck) had made my shoes wet and frozen. I curled back into my sleeping bag, deciding to sleep a little longer and warm my toes.
Waking when the sun finally fully hit my tent, I got up to hike around the valley, excited to get to know the place in the light of day. Walking across the crest of the waterfall and scrambling up rocks towards the pass, I changed course and ran up a large mound rising across from Pingora, one of the most striking of the peaks. Brightly colored tents appeared far below me, tucked away amongst the rocks and the trees.
It was only around noon, but already clouds were beginning to form, so I looped around the valley back to camp, returning after only two or three hours out. I rolled out my yoga mat and began soaking up the shifting weather. The energy of the mountains is humbling—a profound stillness, a breathtaking strength.
I closed my eyes, listening to the calls of pika further up the mountain and the running creek and the wind through the few stands of brave pine trees.
It got colder, and I moved back into the tent to do some reading. This time of year, the mosquitoes have long since disappeared, and winter already seems just around the corner. The boys should have been back by now, we should have been having lunch.
My heart sunk when I heard the sound that anyone who loves a climber fears: a single pair of footsteps (not two) approaching—coming at a run. Garret appeared, explaining in a rush that a soloist (a climber climbing without a rope) had taken a big fall near the Wolf’s Head (another one of the area’s prominent peaks). Kipp wasn’t hurt, but was trying to help the guy get down the mountain. While Garret got out an SOS call for a helicopter using Kipp’s Delorme, I threw on warmer clothes and half sprinted out of camp, tumbling down towards the lower valley to see if anyone had medical experience or was in possession of a SAT phone (no one had a phone, but a few ER doctors headed up the mountain at a run).
I returned to camp, Garret still communicating with search and rescue and now also shoving his sleeping bag and pad into his pack. I grabbed a small backpack and threw in food and a water bottle. Finding my raincoat, a couple of plastic bags, and our water filter, I threw those in too.
Finishing with our supply packs, we began jogging up the mountain, skipping over rocks and charging up the alpine bog. Dark clouds began blowing in and a few snowflakes started coming down. Soon enough, we were ascending up in a full blown snowstorm, me barely able to see Garret up ahead.
Despite the cold and the snow, I was getting warm running up the hill. I stripped down quickly to a sports bra to keep from sweating, but the flakes were melting on my skin and hair in an icy liquid layer. I threw on my raincoat to keep the precipitation off, stuffed my coat and fleece in the backpack, and jogged to catch back up with Garret.
Cresting the slope, we arrived at the upper bowl, near part of the rocky ridge (cliffs) that surround the Cirque de Towers area. We could make out a group of people on the far side of the lake filling this upper valley. They were huddled on the steep slope leading down from the base of the ridgeline, about 200 meters from the steep vertical wall but just before a tough looking slab section leading down to the lake edge.
Garret and I made our way gingerly towards them, traveling counter-clockwise around the lake by stepping carefully over a complicated maze of steep, sloping skree to reach the rescue party and Greg (the fallen soloist, name changed). It was still snowing, and I squinted to see out from under my rain hood.
By the raised sound of the voices ahead of us, it was clear that a pretty intense conversation loomed before us. The ER doctors that had run up the mountain earlier were against moving Greg further, especially on such difficult and potentially dangerous terrain. However, many of the other climbers, a few certified in Wilderness First Aide, argued that Greg had already rappelled down the cliff and been lowered by Kipp and a pair of Brazilian climbers an additional 400 feet to where he now lay. They thought it made sense to try to get him just a little further, around the lake to a flat spot where a helicopter could easily land and transport him out. If any spinal damage was to occur, it more than likely already had.
Garret put his pack down and pulled out his sleeping bag and pad. Six people helped lift Greg from the ground, pulling the bag around him and sliding the pad underneath to keep him off the cold ground.
Just then, the Delorme beeped, with a message promising that a helicopter had been dispatched and should arrive within 20 minutes. We decided to keep Greg where he was, hoping the helicopter would be able to short haul him out without having to struggle further down the mountain.
I approached the group and kneeled down next to Greg, asking him for his email so that we could retrieve gear later (Garret’s sleeping bag, pad, and coat, Kipp’s climbing gear that had been used to strap Greg in and lower him, and one of the Brazilian’s hiking poles). He was spelling his name for me, and I had to ask him to repeat it. Feeling sheepish, I realized I’d just been watching his lips move, the letters he was saying not really registering in my head. It had suddenly struck me as such a complete miracle that this man was alive. I was transfixed for a moment. He had fallen probably 50 feet off the ridge. And was lucky to have landed on a ledge, and not the rest of the nearly 900 feet down.
Looking at his bloodied face, I thought, “He should be dead. He should be dead”. And yet, there he lay, alive.
Greg had run into the Cirque de Towers early that morning, and was attempting to solo the entire Cirque de Tower traverse, before running back out that afternoon. He was in impeccable physical shape, and an experienced mountain guide. He had slipped on what was an easy move for him, on top of the ridge. The consequence had been a terrifying fall down the mountain, a fall that should have killed him.
Garret and Kipp told me they heard his scream—a piercing sound of absolute terror. They looked up from where they had just descended down the cliff to see Greg’s body cartwheeling through the air from the very top of the ridge. Kipp told me the sound of Greg’s body hitting rock was something out of a nightmare.
Landing by some miracle around 50 feet from the top, Garret and Kipp thought he was certainly dead. Miraculously, after several minutes he yelled to Kipp and Garret that he was okay, and set to the terrifying task of rappelling down an unmarked and unclimbed section of the cliff.
Finding rocks along the way to sling his rope around, the injured man navigated his way nearly 800 feet to a ledge system before calling for Garret and Kipp’s assistance with the rest. While Kipp began climbing up to reach him and help him down the rest of the way (Greg was unable to put weight on one of his legs), Garret sprinted down the slope to grab the Delorme, me, and more help.
As I knelt beside him, I couldn’t see Greg’s eyes, the hood of Garret’s jacket covering them. Half his face was completely bloodied, and his nose was badly broken. He was missing a few bottom teeth and most of his front top ones were badly chipped. His arms were crossed like a mummy. In a lot of ways he looked dead. But his lips were moving, speaking: lips connected to a perfectly functioning brain, in a bruised, battered, lacerated body. But a body and a mind that were alive. He spelled his name again, and I wrote it down.
I felt unfettered compassion for this man, as if my entire heart were melting into a warm syrup, covering him from the cold. I walked away, thinking about what my boyfriend Kipp had said. “I wonder what he’ll do?”, he’d pondered quietly too me, as we stood together, surveying the scene. He seemed exhausted, having been up since before the sun and having spent the last three hours helping Greg get down to where we had now, as a rescue party, stalled. “What do you do, when you get a second chance at life?”.
The first helicopter arrived, and landed across from us around the front side of the lake on the flat area where we had hoped to have Greg moved to originally (and where he had directed Kipp to take him while they were still up on the wall). The paramedics from the helicopter explained that they didn’t have the gear to short haul, and the air was too thin for the helicopter to safely take off again from where he currently laid.
A feeling of frustration flowed through the rescue group, and I could tell that we were all silently cursing the decision to stop moving him. Garret ran over to the helicopter and grabbed a backboard to put under Greg, and someone brought up a C-collar. The helicopter called another, one prepared to short haul.
We waited and waited. The sun sunk lower, and the air became colder. Thankfully, the snow had stopped, but we knew the darkness was our greatest enemy.
All at once, a massive rumbling was heard echoing between the cliffs, and a second helicopter appeared. It couldn’t find us, instead zig-zagging back and forth in the Cirque. We desperately flashed our headlamps and waved as it made passes in the main valley, but it wasn’t coming up the gully to the lake where we waited. In desperation, we sent out our location via the Delorme, and the helicopter received it. It shut off its search lights, and turned towards us.
The helicopter landed across the lake (where the other helicopter had just vacated, heading down towards the lower valley and out of the way). A wiry man, clearly experienced in the mountains, leaped out of the cockpit with a rope cable in tow, and began sprinting around the lake towards us across the skree. A wave of relief rippled through our group of climbers. It was extremely cold, and everyone was growing increasingly exhausted. We knew Greg was in good hands now, and that he would be getting out tonight.
The ER doctors stayed on site, while the rest of us got out of the way. Kipp and I scrambled towards the helicopter (and towards home), as the rescuer readied Greg for transport. As Kipp and I started the long down-climb to camp, we watched as the helicopter lifted off, flew across the lake, and lifted Greg (now in a basket) and the rescuer high into the sky. Suspended on a long cable, the helicopter swung the two men out of the alpine, into the valley below, where he was transferred into the larger, transport helicopter waiting below.
We got back to camp, and Garret went to where the helicopters had exchanged Greg, to see if they’d left his sleeping bag there. His bag was there, but saturated with blood. It looked gory, as if someone had been stabbed in it. We debated about what to do, and finally pulled out a couple of survival blankets to wrap around Garret like a burrito, before stuffing him into the unsavory bag for a rather miserable night’s sleep.
Returning to camp, I walked down to the creek with a few water bottles and the water filter, feeling drained. The creek gurgled gently over rocks, the way it had earlier in the day. It was no longer sparkling in the intense alpine sun, but now lit by the moon. I savored the luxury of sitting down, leaning up for a moment to look up at the sky.
The stars felt close, and piercingly bright.
The wind was still blowing, unflinchingly cold.
My feet hurt, I was nearly shivering, and my throat felt shredded. I could tell that I was getting sick. Still, the stillness of the mountains felt calming.
Greg had said that he’d never climb again, that he was done coming to the mountains. Looking around, I couldn’t help but hope that he was wrong. There is something so fantastically magical about places like the Cirque, so hauntingly beautiful. I hoped Greg wouldn’t solo again. After today, the reality of what it meant to free solo, the horrible consequences of a fall, pained me. But as I sat beneath the massive peaks, humbled by their ancient gaze, I sent up a fervent wish that Greg could return here and find a sense of peace and closure. The mountains had spared him. It wasn’t time to go.
When you fall in love with the outdoors, you open yourself up to risk. This is grizzly country. There are lightening storms. You could get sick, you could fall while scrambling, you could drink tainted water, your sleeping bag could get wet before a cold night, it could snow. There are discomforts and painful nights and unexpected turns and sometimes long, long hikes out.
And then there is serious risk—there is falling off a mountain, body cartwheeling through space and limbs crushed against rock.
Everyone who participates in outdoor sports must decide (whether consciously or unconsciously) what kinds of risks they feel comfortable with. What they are willing to put on the line. What they feel willing to go through.
We are brought here though, united, usually by a love of the outdoors—for the experience of being in a space where nature is the true rule-maker, the task maker, the humbler. We are drawn by the freedom that the mountains offer, for the unfiltered space, for the thin air, for the starry nights, for the un-manicured terrain, for the wild, for the healing that the wild provides us, for the reminders it gently (or not so gently) offers us about life (and yes, also sometimes death).
For this, I think we can be nothing but grateful.
“Tell me, what will you do with your one wild and precious life?”, Mary Oliver (my favorite poet) asked me as I sat in my tent that night. “Live it here,” I thought. In the places that never let you forget how wild and precious life truly is.
We were lucky beings, all twenty some of us scattered amongst the rocks in that mountain valley. I hope we’ll all be back.