- Cover Story
I Survived! Falling Off A Mountain
When faced with certain death, you need bravery, determination—and plenty of luck. This is the story of one who lived to tell the tale
When I was 13, I climbed my first mountain—a fairly gentle 3,900-foot peak near where I live in Surrey, British Columbia. I was overweight at the time and out of breath when I reached the summit. But I loved the challenge of conquering something bigger than myself. Soon I’d climbed nearly100 peaks. My parents were happy I’d finally found a hobby.
I often go climbing with my friend Mel Olsen, whom I’d met in a Facebook group. Two years ago, on 30 December when I was 16, she and I drove to Oregon to tackle 11,240-foot Mount Hood.
It’s safer to start winter climbs at night when there’s less risk of the sun melting the snowpack. That day, we started at 3 a.m., following the path alongside the ski runs. The temperature was about –10 degrees, and we wore layers we could easily remove, knowing the exertion would make us warm. Along the way, we met two other climbers, and the four of us continued on together.
After about five hours, we reached Devil’s Kitchen, a plateau at about 10,000 feet, just before the final push to the top. By this point, the wind conditions were nasty. My exposed skin felt as though it were burning. The other climbers decided to turn back, but Mel and I went ahead. We had ice axes, helmets and crampons(ice cleats). We were prepared for the climb.
The trail we followed grew narrower and steeper. At around 9 a.m., we reached a patch of ice called an ice step. It was about three or four feet tall and sloped at a 75-degree angle. I volunteered to go first. I placed my left foot on the ice step.
You gain a sense of the ice when you stick your axe and crampons into it, and it felt good. Confident I was safe, I put my full weight on it. Suddenly, I heard a crack, and a whole slab of ice broke off the step, right under my foot.
In an instant, I fell backwards. I could hear Mel calling my name as I tumbled down, bouncing off the rockface and rolling down the mountain as if I were a character in a video game. I remember thinking, This is it. You’re done.
I stuck out my arms and legs, grabbing at anything. That stopped my somersaulting down the mountain, but I was still sliding. After a few seconds, I came to a stop on a shallow incline just above the Devil’s Kitchen. I’d fallen 600 feet. My clothes were shredded, my helmet was broken and my face was bloodied from cuts and scratches.
I wanted to make sure I had all my faculties, so I asked myself, Where are you? Mount Hood. What’s the date? 30 December. Good. My brain wasn't scrambled.
Then I took a survey of my body to see where I was hurt, starting with my head, then my neck and arms. For the most part, I was fine, except that I was suffering from a sharp, agonizing pain in my left leg.
Later I’d learn that I’d fractured my femur and that the bone was slicing into my skin and muscle. Oddly, when I touched my left leg, I couldn’t feel anything, so I frantically tried wiggling my toes. Fortunately, that worked— at least I knew I wasn’t paralyzed.
As Mel made her way down, I yelled for help, and other climbers came to assist me. A couple of them were trained EMTs. They splinted my leg and called Portland Mountain Rescue. Mel stayed by my side while I tried not to cry from the pain.
I’d been lying on the ice shivering and in agony for four hours by the time the rescuers reached me. They strapped me into a sled and pulled me down the mountain. I have a pretty high pain tolerance, but I screamed with each bounce.
At the bottom of Mount Hood, I was loaded into an ambulance and taken to a hospital, where I stayed for four days. The doctors told me it would be a year before I could climb again, but I was back on the trails within six months.
The fall has made me more cautious. One slip on a mountain can change everything. But the experience also made me grow as a person. There was a lot of media attention following the accident; strangers commented on the videos, calling me vile names and saying I’d put others in danger.Some said I should go back to India. I think handling all that at such a young age helped me mature.
Since the accident, I’ve climbed another 60 mountains. I’m not going to let one fall and its aftermath keep me from doing my favourite thing in the world.
—By Gurbaz Singh, 18, Student, As told to Emily Landau
Check out three other stories from the series I Survived!