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Free Fall

Lauren McLean was a seasoned climber. No-one expected her to end up broken on a ledge.

Free Fall
James Horan

Her feet hit first, striking the rock with the force of a hammer blow. Then she toppled onto her side, facing the cliff on a ledge barely wide enough to support her body. The rope at her waist snapped taut almost immediately, but she clung to a knob of granite in case it went slack again. The fall had happened without warning, so fast she’d had no time to be frightened. Now she fought the panic rising in her chest.

Nine metres above her was the overhang from which she’d dropped. About 270m below lay the floor of Death Canyon, a carpet of pines and brush, strewn with house-sized boulders. Her ankles were already swelling, ballooning over the top of her climbing shoes. Ants began to swarm across her legs; as she reached to brush them off, a bolt of dizzying pain shot up her spine. She wondered if her back was broken, too.

The clouds grew darker. And then it began to rain.

A Life of Adventure

Growing up in a suburb of Portland, Oregon, Lauren McLean had starred on her high school ski-racing team; she spent holidays hiking, fly-fishing and horse riding at her family’s lodge in British Columbia. She took up rock climbing while studying at the University of Montana. After graduating, she spent a few months backpacking in Alaska, and then took a summer job leading youth expeditions for Wilderness Ventures, an outdoor-adventure company in the Pacific Northwest.

On an outing with her students to a climbing spot in the Oregon desert, McLean, 25, met respected mountaineer and extreme-sports journalist Michael Ybarra. Ybarra, 44, had discovered alpine climbing in his early 30s, while working as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal. He had thrown himself into the sport, travelling constantly in search of challenges to his skill and stamina. He was always ready to hit the rocks with another devotee.

McLean told Ybarra she’d be heading to the rugged Teton Range, in Wyoming, when her contract ended with Wilderness Ventures. “Let’s get together there to do some climbing,” he suggested.

A Challenging Ascent

In August 2011, McLean and fellow Wilderness Ventures instructor Dana Ries, 21, travelled to Grand Teton National Park, where Ybarra joined them. McLean was far more experienced than her friend, a curly haired junior at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Both, however, were eager to learn from Ybarra, who’d led technically complex climbs everywhere from the Himalayas to the Andes. The trio spent three days clambering up difficult rock faces by day and bedding down at night in rustic cabins at the Grand Teton’s Climbers’ Ranch. On day four, they tackled a route called the Snaz, on the south face of a formation known as Cathedral Buttress.

They started out at dawn, hiking through Death Canyon (so named because an explorer vanished there in 1899) to reach the base of the cliff. At 8am, they stepped into their harnesses, tied themselves to nylon ropes, and began the 550m ascent. It would take nine stages, called pitches, to reach the top, 2900m above sea level.

Ybarra climbed first, threading his rope through metal cams that he jammed into cracks in the rock; such devices are meant to prevent climbers from falling too far if they lose their footing. When he finished a pitch, Ries and McLean followed, using the safety gear he’d left behind. Ybarra managed their ropes – a process known as belaying – reeling in slack until the women reached his position. Then he climbed the next pitch, and the cycle began again.

The day was gorgeous, and at first the going was smooth. But as the hours wore on, the group’s mood shifted from ebullient to grimly determined. The dark clouds that began gathering around 4pm seemed to reflect the change in attitude. The Teton Range is notorious for sudden late-afternoon thunderstorms. “We’d better hurry,” Ybarra said. “Let’s get this done before it starts pouring on us.”

There were two possible routes for the last pitch, which started from a narrow ledge. As was his practice, Ybarra opted for the harder one. It required the climbers to scale a 3m overhang, clinging to the bottom before heaving themselves over the protrusion. As Ybarra ascended, the women could hear him grunting with effort for the first time all day. “If this is tough for him, we’re in trouble,” Ries said, exchanging a worried glance with McLean.

After Ybarra disappeared over the bulge, Ries tried to follow. She made it part of the way, then lost her grip and dangled from her rope, about 270m above the canyon floor. She and McLean yelled to Ybarra for help, but the wind carried away their voices. Lightning crackled over a nearby peak. The pair knew they would be perfect targets if the storm came closer.

McLean pushed herself off the wall and dangled next to Ries. “Why don’t you try shimmying up my rope?” she said to Ries. “When you get to the top, tell Michael to lower me a little so that I can reach the rock and start climbing again.”

Grabbing her friend’s lifeline, Ries managed to haul herself to the granite protrusion a few metres above their heads. “See you soon,” she called, as she cleared the overhang.

The Fall

Ybarra was sitting on a broad slab near the top of the buttress, where he’d anchored himself to the rock so that he could safely belay his partners’ ropes. He seemed surprised when Ries turned up alone, and he winced when she informed him of McLean’s position. “We need to get her out of there before the wind shifts,” he said.

The women’s ropes ran through a fist-size gadget attached to the harness at Ybarra’s waist. Known as an autolocking belay device, it’s designed to slow or stop a climber’s descent. Ybarra had rigged it to automatically clamp the rope if either woman fell; now he hurried to reset the mechanism, intending to lower McLean gently to the nearest ledge. Exactly what went wrong remains unclear, but in his rush Ybarra somehow released the catch completely. As metres of rope shot out, Ries gasped and Ybarra’s eyes went wide with horror. An instant later, he managed to apply the brake.

Shaking, he and Ries stepped to the edge of the slab. “Lauren,” they shouted, “are you OK?”

Long seconds passed before the response came, in a quavering voice: “Not OK!”

Ybarra pulled out his mobile phone and dialled emergency; the dispatcher patched him through to a search-and-rescue (SAR) coordinator for Grand Teton National Park. “We’ve got an injured climber,” Ybarra told the ranger. “I’ll tell you more when I have the details.” Then he re-tied his own rope and began rappelling down the cliff.

As he descended, the first cold raindrops hit his face, and he was half-soaked by the time he reached the overhang. He found McLean 9m below it, lying on a shelf of rock no more than 30cm wide. Thankfully, the shower ended the moment he reached her.

“I’m sorry, Lauren,” Ybarra said.

“What happened?”

“Something messed up with the belay. Where do you hurt?”

“Both legs and feet. And my back, whenever I try to move.”

“How bad is your pain, on a scale of one to ten?”

“Nine.”

“We’re going to get you taken care of,” Ybarra said. “But there’s no phone reception here. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

Ybarra quickly returned to the top of the buttress, using a stirruplike cord to climb his own rope. He called the ranger and described McLean’s condition. Then he handed Ries the phone for safekeeping and rappelled back down. “Would it help if I distracted you?” he asked McLean, dangling beside her. “Do you want to talk about your childhood?”

“Stay with me, but don’t say anything,” she said. “I need to focus on my breathing to keep away the pain.”

Ybarra fell silent and cradled McLean as best he could. As she lay broken above the abyss, his presence helped her find something that felt almost like peace.

Slowed by a Storm

Ybarra’s first phone call went to Martin Vidak, the SAR coordinator. At 4.55pm, Vidak paged his fellow Jenny Lake Rangers – the specially trained squad assigned to Grand Teton’s Jenny Lake subdistrict, whose 18 members constitute one of the foremost mountain SAR teams in the US. They gathered at the Lupine Meadows SAR base, a few kilometres from the accident site. And by 6.10, three of them had boarded the park’s helicopter for a reconnaissance mission to Cathedral Buttress.

The reconnaissance crew brought back worrisome news: thunderstorms were nearby, and it wasn’t clear whether the angle of the cliff allowed enough rotor clearance – a minimum of 9m – for the helicopter to extract the victim from her current location. Due to the late hour, she might have to spend the night there; the last rays of sunlight would be gone by 9pm, and safety regulations prohibited the chopper from flying after dark.

“We’re going to have to play this one by ear,” Vidak told his colleagues.

A Daring Rescue

At 7.45pm, Dana Ries was sitting glumly on the buttress, huddled against the deepening chill, when she heard the drone of helicopter rotors. Looking up, she was startled to see a ranger floating toward her, suspended from a rope. “I’m Ryan Schuster,” he said, as the aircraft set him down, along with a large gear bag. He began inspecting the site and reinforcing the climbing anchors.

Minutes later, the chopper returned and deposited another ranger, park medic Rich Baerwald. Then it came back with a litter full of medical equipment, food, warm clothing and sleeping bags.

Baerwald shouldered a backpack full of supplies, rappelled down the cliff, and reached McLean and Ybarra a little after 8.20pm. “How are you doing?” he asked the injured woman.

“I’d like to get off this mountain,” she replied. Baerwald checked her vital signs and splinted her left ankle, which was clearly shattered; if there were other broken bones, they could be set later. A more urgent concern was shock: McLean seemed stable for the moment, but Baerwald knew she needed fluids and pain medication to remain that way. Ideally, the  SAR team would get McLean off the rocks and to the hospital immediately. But with the approaching storm, fading light, and narrow space for the helicopter to manoeuvre, Baerwald wasn’t sure that was possible.

Baerwald radioed Schuster; both agreed that the helicopter could squeeze between the rocks if the wind remained calm. Schuster radioed the pilot and the ranger acting as his spotter. They confirmed that the storms were at a safe enough distance, but warned that gusts could still be a problem. The pilot suggested attaching an extra 30m of rope to the 45m length usually used for rescues so that the helicopter could stay farther away from the dangerous cliff.

“I’m going to put you in a screamer suit,” Baerwald told McLean. “It’s a full-body harness that’ll support your spine until we get you on the ground.”

“Why do they call it that?” she asked.

“You’ll see when you’re hanging from the helicopter.”

Ybarra helped strap her into the rigid suit, which had a ring at the front so it could be attached to a carabineer. With the chopper hovering above, Baerwald clipped McLean and himself onto the end of the extra-long rope. Together, they rose from the rock. McLean really did feel like screaming – but with joy, not fear. She was finally off the mountain. And the sunset was the most beautiful one she had ever seen.

The Aftermath

Ryan Schuster spent the night on the rock, as he had after many other rescues. Ybarra and Ries decided to rappel down after dark, aided by headlamps. Both were clumsy with exhaustion, but they made it safely back to their cabins by 2.30am.

At the hospital in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, McLean discovered that she’d broken both legs and feet, her pelvis and a vertebra in her lower back. The damage to her left foot was so severe, the doctor told her, that it might have to be amputated. That night, a dose of morphine helped her sleep. The next day, she was flown to the University of Utah Medical Centre in Salt Lake City where she underwent four hours of surgery on the mangled foot. When she awoke, she was relieved to find that it was still there. But the surgeons said it was too early to deliver a long-term prognosis.

Three days later, McLean’s father, the president of a small software company, drove her back to Portland, Oregon; McLean spent her days in a hospital bed her dad had installed in the living room of his apartment. (McLean’s parents were divorced, and her mother had passed away the previous year.)

A month into her recuperation, McLean told her dad to put her old bike on a stand on his patio, which overlooked a grove of Douglas firs. An orthopaedic surgeon had told McLean she would never run again – never even walk up a steep hill. She decided to prove him wrong. Though both legs were still in casts, she pedalled every day. And when the casts came off, she threw herself into physical therapy.

In January 2012, six months after her accident, McLean took off for New Zealand, where she spent the season working as a fruit picker and trekking in the countryside. By May, she was back to rock climbing in the mountains of Montana. And in June, she took another job leading youth expeditions – this time in Fiji, where she also learned to surf.

McLean’s goal to return to the Grand Teton with Michael Ybarra will remain unfulfilled. Tragically, he died on a solo climb in July 2012, after falling from a 60m cliff in Yosemite National Park. “His death is still hard to process,” McLean says. “He was one of the strongest climbers I’ve ever seen.”

As for her own near-death experience, she says, it simply made her more determined to live fully. “I try to keep a good attitude. Just go slowly and methodically, and you can get through it all.”

Watch below as climber Lauren McLean describes her terrifying experience – and what life has been like since…
 



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