I was climbing Rainier the day I fell into a crevasse and found myself upside down hanging by my boot.
A bit of the backstory: Mt. Rainier is 14,411 ft. and on this particular year there were a lot of exposed crevasses, so to get across you had to traverse a metal ladder laid over the frozen gap. Jon, my guide, a rockstar mountaineer, quickly danced across it with ease. This was my first ladder crossing. I took several steps on the ladder before I realized it was not secured tightly, and as I attempted to cross, it teetered and I fell into the crevasse.
I was extremely lucky. Miraculously the Velcro on the gator around one of my boots got caught on the ladder as I fell. But I still found myself hanging in the crevasse, upside down, suspended by my gator. Somehow I had managed to wrap the fixed line, which wasn’t taut as it should be, around my arm several times as I was falling. Chances are if my boot didn’t get caught, the fixed line would have surely broken my arm from the force of the slide. But that would have been a small price to pay if it meant not falling into what appeared to be a bottomless pit.
As I hung upside down, unable to pull myself up, and unable to reach the side of the crevasse, I waited and waited and waited. It felt like FOREVER before I heard from Jon. Not wanting to panic, all I could manage was a, “Hey Jon, do you have any advice for how I get out of this?” (which I got teased about later).
As I dangled there, what I couldn’t see was that Jon was busy fixing an anchor to ensure I didn’t fall any further. He eventually peered over the edge, looked at me perplexed, and asked if he could un-velcro my gator. “Duh” was all I could think of, but I fortunately responded politely with a simple, firm “YES!”
After Jon released the Velcro I swung to the side of the ice wall, and with his assistance climbed out of the crevasse. After catching my breath, we continued climbing. Yeah, there was no way I going to come out of that situation and not finish! Besides, I was proud of the fact that I hadn’t let go of my ice ax; a key piece of gear many would drop in that situation. That day I reached the summit of Mt. Rainer and descended, exhausted but safe.
So what did I learn that day?
1. Breathe deeply and remain calm.
Ok, it’s easier said than done. Especially if you feel the rush of panic coming on, or you simply have no clue what to do next. But we all know yelling and getting worked up doesn’t help, and it also makes it very difficult to hear instructions or get help. It’s also good to save your energy to resolve the situation. Additionally, it’s not cool to take your shit out on someone else. When I find myself struggling with something, the first step is to just keep breathing (a lot).
2. Surround yourself with people that know more than you.
Not only will you learn a lot, but it’s super helpful in situations where you aren’t sure what to do. Of course this doesn’t mean you don’t need to pull your own weight. On the contrary, I usually work pretty hard in the areas I can, to make up for the areas I’m weaker. My strengths may be someone else’s weakness. This is the basis of teamwork.
3. Be ready.
This is different from being prepared, which is important too, but you’ll never be able to plan for every conceivable scenario. Being ready is being agile, creative and alert to improvise. It’s being open to what wasn’t even considered, and being ready to solve problems, improvise, or try something new. Sometimes the planned route has unforeseen obstacles or becomes dangerous, and you need to find a new route.
4. Be sure someone has your back.
And be sure you have theirs. This is more than teamwork. This is support that will step up and lean into the tough moments. It could mean a rope-burnt hand because they didn’t let go in that moment of danger. Or it might mean helping you navigate in a lost situation, and not blaming you (like that time you forgot the extra batteries to the GPS). That doesn’t mean playing with death, but definitely out of the comfort zone.
5. Take care of you.
This is last because I believe it’s the most important lesson. Taking care of myself means when the action starts I have the foundation to carry a heavy pack, deal with stress, and be in a state of readiness. It’s an everyday commitment over the long haul. Eating right, exercising regularly, sleeping well, hydrating, practicing mindfulness. Especially when there are so many other priorities to balance as well. Without this foundation, you won’t have room for much of anything else.
People sometimes ask me why I would intentionally put myself through so much. It’s simple: because I can and it’s freaking awesome! Besides, everyday life is a lot easier to deal with after coming back from hanging upside down in a crevasse.