"Suddenly I felt my pack tighten around my chest. My brother had caught me by my pack strap and pulled me back from the 1500 foot void below."
On solstice day June 21 of 2003 I fell over 30 feet off a cliff after pulling a refrigerator size rock off of 14,080' Polemonium Peak in the eastern Sierra mountains of California.
Changed by Mountains-
My oldest brother Dirk Anderson convinced me to climb Colorado’s fourteen-thousand-foot Mount Sneffels September 20, 1990. That day changed our lives, and maybe yours as well. The weather changed all day, we formulated ideas for clothing and gear to change with the weather. Our lives changed on that summit. We vowed to climb all the 54 mountains (now counted as 58 high-points) above fourteen thousand feet in the state, together as brothers.
Over the next few years we worked toward our climbing goals and began upping the ante by climbing harder routes, climbing and skiing in winter and began climbing other mountains like Whitney, Grand Teton, Rainier and Mexico’s highest Pico de Orizaba, working toward climbing Denali.
I started climbing less crowded thirteen thousand-foot mountains when Dirk was busy with work and family. I thought I was invincible. I wanted more and more lists of peaks to climb, thrilled by the views, experiences, and sadly, bragging rights of accomplishing greater goals.
We had just summited 18,500’ Pico de Orizaba in Mexico February 2003. I thought if my brother Dirk could set goals, I could add California’s fourteen thousand-foot peaks to our list.
We set sights on a summer trip of climbing North Palisade Peak then traversing south to Polemonium Peak, Mount Sill, and Middle Palisade over a three to four-day backpack trip.
Dirk’s life got busy and the only training we put in was climbing up the Swan’s Neck of Grand Mesa Memorial Weekend.
Undaunted I charged on planning the trip for mid-June. We crossed the western US in my hand me down Carols barely escaping over-heating in Death Valley. We were improving packing light, but the added climbing gear dig into my shoulder straps as we headed up the trail from Glacier Springs on California’s Eastern Sierra.
Above Lake 3 we passed some descending climbers, one limping and leaning on their trekking pole. They did not seem like they wanted to chat. I recall feeling like “we were better than that” with our light loads and past successes on other mountains...
We thought we could reach the North Palisade Glacier on the approach but settled on the lower Sam Mack Lake and enjoyed more time in the alpine beauty. The next day we climbed slowly and set up camp on a huge flat rock next to the Glacier and then water of the Tarn. The views of the massive alpine rock walls and V-Notch and U-Notch Couloirs above were epic, and serious.
The next morning we woke well before sunrise ascending the glacier and crossing the bergschrund crevasse to the U-Notch Couloir in good time. We climbed with relative ease up the crusty snow to the U above. We broke out the rope and ascended two interesting but relatively easy chimney pitches, the scrambled rope free to the granite summit of North Palisade, the second highest peak in California! We tried to make a phone call to our dad. We had no signal.
We descended the rocky but less steep Southwest bowl of the peak finding snowmelt / water to refill our light two-liter bottles.
At the U-Notch the dynamic changed. The route description suggested Polemonium Peak was a relatively easy 4th Class scramble out of the U-Notch not requiring rope. Dirk expressed some doubt as to wether we should proceed with our ambitious plan did two more fourteener scrambles that day. I grit my teeth. Dirk had driven me up nearly every trip and never backed off due to my hesitance. I said come on let’s just try. He agreed, but with noticeable lack of enthusiasm.
We found the closest ways up to be more like a committing boulder problem at first but soon were on what seemed to be to correct right angling ledge to the small tower in the guidebook’s description.
Upon reaching the notch of the small tower we knew to turn back left up the ridge, but nothing presented itself as easy to get on either side or top of the ridge. I led ropeless up and left across a ledge then up a shallow dihedral to the top of a block. Above I started to hand jam a vertical crack and quickly decided to back off. I yelled to Dirk, “I’m coming down, we need to get rope for find an easier route.”
I grabbed the back and side cracks of the large granite block. I lowered my feet to a narrow foot hold. I recall gripping the rock with extra emotion at being defeated by the route - and more so by not having my brother’s enthusiasm.
I felt a vibration through body as the granite block rumbled loose from the mountain.
I knew I was going to die, I could see the block crushing my chest to the boulders give-hundred feet below on the Pacific side of Polemonium Peak.
My life flashed before me. Time slowed to infinity as a flicker of seemingly thousands of the souls and faces I had experienced in my short thirty-year life flashed before me. The flashes went back to my earliest memories of my grandmothers, my parents, and then, my brothers... Dirk! My brother Dirk was on the narrow ledge below me. I accepted my fate - but Dirk did not deserve to be hit by this rock.
As the rock teetered over the edge I tried to pull the rock to the left away from Dirk. I tried to pivot and push myself toward to ledge. As I pushed off the huge rock crushed my ankle against the wall.
Time continues in its slowed state of infinity. My boot flew by followed by blood drops across my view. I tumbled towards the deadly impact five-hundred feet straight below me.
Miraculously my feet touched the ledge thirty feet below. They quickly slid off the ledge as I hit my butt and slid again... I was a goner...
Suddenly I felt my pack tighten around my chest. My brother had caught me by my pack strap and pulled me back from the void.
I couldn’t believe I was not falling through space and still breathing. I looked down to mangle shoeless foot bleeding. I was lucky to be alive but shock and fear to stay alive set in fast.
I tried to stand and quickly winced in pain and almost fell over the ledge again. I steadied myself and crawled across the ledge to the gap next to the tower. Dirk called 911 on his cell phone. We were not able to call from the second highest peak in the state. We couldn’t believe it but our call went through! We were patched through to Inyo County Sheriff Office. “This is Corporal Keith Hardcastle, where are you?”
Dirk explained our predicament and position. I cringed as the word helicopter came into discussion... “I can’t afford that,” I mumbled.” Keith heard me. “Will you get in the chopper?” he demanded. “Yes,” I relented.
Dirk went down and retrieved my boot that landed on a ledge fifty feet below us. We duct taped my wounds and wrapped climbing webbing tightly around my boot and lower leg to restrict bleeding.
I followed dirk across to two rock rappels and two-thousand feet of rappelling down to the bergschrund of the icy U-Notch Couloir.
My right knee was bashed and cold from using it to steady myself on the steep descent.
Once in the glacier we saw headlamps getting closer. Search and Rescue climbers reached us surprised and relieved that we had rescued ourselves from the technical upper section of the mountain.
They put me in a sled. I helped steady the descent with my ice axe and almost rolled it once. We crossed boulders with my brother and a rescuer securing my shoulders as I hopped. We reached camp and Dirk retrieved our tent and extra gear.
The next morning, we flew down the eastern Sierra in the small helicopter land in the baseball diamond in Independence. We were greeted by news cameras and a few on lookers and soon by SAR Director Kieth Hardcastle. Being a pain in the ass again I declined to go by ambulance north to Bishop. “Dirk can drive me, it’s just my leg, and I know that short Ambulance is going to cost at least a thousand dollars.” “Kieth fired back, please get in the ambulance, nobody wants to see you come out of near death rescued and watch you drive away in your own car...” “OK I agreed.”
The Bishop hospital wrapped my leg to let the swelling lessen for surgery back in Colorado. Dirk drove us back home, by way of Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. My mother called it “Providence” that I survived. My leg ached but I smiled happily on the road home, hopping along on crutches lucky to have survived a mountain ordeal of my own making.
Link to Summit Post Article: