Reader's Digest - - Contents - NICHOLAS HUNE-BROWN

A sci­en­tist do­ing re­search in the Hi­malayas plunges 70 feet into an icy crevasse. If he can’t climb out, it will be­come his grave.

An Amer­i­can sci­en­tist is in the Hi­malayas when the ice sud­denly gives way, plung­ing him 70 feet into a crevasse. He sur­vives, suf­fer­ing 15 bro­ken bones and in­ter­nal bleed­ing. But if he can't climb out, that crack in the ice will be­come his grave.

OHN ALL un­zipped his tent, poked his shaggy blond head out into the thin alpine air, and took in the view. The sun sparkled off the freshly fallen snow on the jagged peaks and crags of Mount Him­lung. It was just be­fore 10 a.m. on May 19, 2014—a per­fect morn­ing in the Hi­malayas.

All, a 44-year-old sci­en­tist, had come to Nepal on a re­search ex­pe­di­tion to col­lect snow sam­ples for his study of pol­lu­tion. His two climb­ing part­ners had re­treated down to base camp un­til one of them could re­cover from a stom­ach ail­ment. They were ex­pected back in a day or two, but for now, All was alone at 20,000 feet.

JClimb­ing solo in the Hi­malayas is never ad­vis­able, but All’s plan was to re­main cau­tious, stick near camp, and be­gin col­lect­ing sam­ples. But first, he was dy­ing for a cup of cof­fee. He grabbed his snow axes and walked to­ward a flat area a short dis­tance away that looked like an ideal spot to gather fresh snow to melt for wa­ter. The tem­per­a­ture was be­tween 25 and 30 de­grees. Af­ter weeks at high el­e­va­tion, that felt pos­i­tively balmy, so All was dressed lightly in wind pants, a thin jacket over a T-shirt, and hik­ing boots with cram­pons—metal spikes that help climbers tra­verse icy ter­rain. He took a step and then another. Sud­denly the ground gave way be­neath him, and he plunged into dark­ness.

All’s face smashed into some­thing hard as he plum­meted down­ward. He in­stinc­tu­ally reached out with his right hand, try­ing to jab an ax into the ice to slow his progress, but the weight of his fall­ing body wrenched his arm out of its shoul­der socket, leav­ing be­hind a mess of shat­tered bone and torn soft tis­sue. As he ca­reened against the icy walls with grow­ing speed, his mind seemed to slow down. He re­al­ized with hor­ror what had hap­pened: He had stepped into a crevasse, a crack that had opened in the glacier and ex­tended down who knew how deep. How did I make this mis­take? he thought. Then he had another thought: There’s no way you can sur­vive a crevasse fall.

All’s right side slammed into some­thing hard, his fall stop­ping with a

crunch of bones. I’m dead, he thought. Then he felt his lungs heav­ing, strain­ing to suck wind back into his body, each gasp bring­ing a jolt of ex­cru­ci­at­ing pain. He looked down and saw his legs hang­ing over a chasm. He had landed on a shelf of ice sus­pended above the black­ness. Over­head was a pale halo of blue-white light, seven sto­ries up, where he had punched through the crust of snow. The en­tire right side of his body had been crushed. He couldn’t move. But for now, he was alive.

JOHN ALL WAS NOT sup­posed to be on Mount Him­lung. A month ear­lier, he had been at Mount Ever­est Base Camp shar­ing black tea with a young Sherpa. As­man Ta­mang, a shy fa­ther of a nine-month-old, was climb­ing Ever­est for the first time, and All teased him, say­ing Ta­mang would make record speed up the moun­tain. All had climbed Ever­est be­fore, but this time he was lead­ing an ex­pe­di­tion of sci­en­tists to Ever­est’s sis­ter peak, Mount Lhotse, to col­lect ev­i­dence of “black dust,” emis­sions from fac­to­ries thou­sands of miles away. For All, a pro­fes­sor at Western Ken­tucky Uni­ver­sity, the moun­tains were a se­cond home—the rare place where the six-foot-five for­mer triath­lete could com­bine his love of phys­i­cal ad­ven­ture with his sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity.

On the morn­ing of April 18, All woke to the ground rum­bling. An ice shelf had col­lapsed, send­ing a chunk of ice the size of an apart­ment build­ing tum­bling down the side of Ever­est. Six­teen climbers were killed, As­man Ta­mang among them.

Ever­est and Lhotse were shut down for the sea­son. Af­ter a week of mourn­ing his friend, All and his two part­ners headed to nearby Mount Him­lung to con­tinue their work.

FROM HIS ICY SEAT 70 feet deep in the earth, John All gasped for breath and tried to gather his thoughts. Climbers fall into crevasses all the time, but those who sur­vive usu­ally fall only a short way, aren’t by them­selves, and cer­tainly aren’t badly in­jured. All knew of only one per­son who had made it through such a long fall and climbed out by him­self: the moun­taineer Joe Simp­son, who had sur­vived a fall in Peru. All would try to be­come the se­cond.

Tak­ing in his sur­round­ings, All re­al­ized he wasn’t on a shelf but a chunk of ice that had fallen through the fis­sure and be­come wedged be­tween the walls. In an ever-mov­ing, ever-shift­ing glacier, how long would it stay wedged? He rocked his body slightly, test­ing his lim­i­ta­tions, and a jolt of pain ra­di­ated through him, leav­ing him dizzy. He had 15 bro­ken bones in to­tal, he would learn later, in­clud­ing six crushed ver­te­brae. His right arm was en­tirely use­less, and the ribs on his right side were shat­tered, mak­ing ev­ery breath agony. His ab­domen felt sore and stiff, a sign of in­ter­nal bleed­ing, and he had a cop­pery taste in his mouth, an in­di­ca­tion of pos­si­ble kid­ney or liver dam­age. He touched his face and found that blood from gouges in his eye socket and fore­head had con­gealed in the cold, stop­ping the bleed­ing mo­men­tar­ily.

It took All al­most ten min­utes just to wrench him­self up­right and squirm over to a se­cure perch on his block of ice. The ef­fort left him pant­ing. Icy air blew up from the depths of the glacier. Al­ready he could feel his body shiv­er­ing and his fin­gers freez­ing, quickly be­com­ing numb. By 4 p.m., the shad­ows cast by the high moun­tain peaks


would leave him in the dark and un­able to climb. His re­search part­ners weren’t sched­uled to come back to camp un­til the next day or pos­si­bly even the day af­ter. By then, he would have frozen to death. He had roughly six hours to make it to the sur­face and to his tent, or he would die.

All is a re­searcher, some­one who makes a record of ev­ery­thing he does. Now, out of instinct, he reached into his pocket, brought out his cam­era, and pressed record. “Thank God I

stopped on this ledge,” he said to the cam­era, his breath ragged, spat­ters of blood vis­i­ble in the snow. “How do I get back up there, though?” Above him, the snow was soft; the air from the crevasse con­densed on the walls and left a sur­face the con­sis­tency of whipped cream. Where he had landed, the width of the crevasse was about eight feet, but look­ing to his right, he saw a spot hun­dreds of feet away where the fis­sure ap­peared to nar­row. If he was lucky, it just might be nar­row enough for him to “chim­ney” his way up, or climb by brac­ing his body against both sides of the crevasse un­til he reached the sur­face, all while us­ing only one arm. First, though, he would need to get there, us­ing his cram­pons and snow axes to move across the wall of sheer ice.

All kicked the points of his cram­pons into the ice un­til they held. With his left hand, he planted one ax at eye level, then he reached the same hand across his body to plant the other ax as far to the right as pos­si­ble. Clutch­ing the first ax, he shuf­fled his feet to the right, kicked his cram­pons into the ice, shifted his weight, and then grabbed the se­cond ax, again with his left hand. His body screamed with pain, but he had moved. Now he just had to do this a few thou­sand more times.

Stab with the ax, kick his feet, shift his weight, re­peat. All was freeclimb­ing in­side a crack in the moun­tain, try­ing not to dwell on the fact that one mis­step would send him tum­bling to his death. In­stead he con­cen­trated on get­ting to another slab of ice that had be­come lodged in the crevasse about 50 feet up. Over the years, All had found that he func­tioned well in dan­ger­ous sit­u­a­tions. He had a tat­too of a black mamba on his calf—a to­ken of the time he had kicked a

six-foot-long poi­sonous snake in Botswana be­fore it could strike. He tried to make the climb an aca­demic puz­zle, a ques­tion of ge­om­e­try. If he could fig­ure it out, he would live.

Stab, kick, shift, re­peat. At times the ice gave way be­neath All’s cram­pons, send­ing chunks of the wall tum­bling into the chasm, but his ax held him tight.

Af­ter about half an hour, he’d reached the slab of ice. He rested, grate­fully gulp­ing the meat-locker– cold air into his lungs. The sound of his own jagged breath as he strug­gled to get enough oxy­gen at this al­ti­tude mixed with the crack­ing of the glacier, that liv­ing, mov­ing mass of ice that sur­rounded him. He knew that if he didn’t make his way out, his body would likely re­main there for years. Per­haps when the glacier had re­treated, fu­ture gen­er­a­tions would dis­cover the corpse in the green wind­breaker and won­der who had been fool­ish enough to go climb­ing alone.

He started mov­ing again, his eyes fixed on the next ice block, about 50 feet to his right. Sud­denly, a jolt of in­ex­press­ible pain struck. He looked down and saw the void be­neath him, the cav­ern dis­ap­pear­ing into a black in­fin­ity. Against his will, the thought flashed through his mind: I’m go­ing to die. He thought of his 67-year-old mother and imag­ined her sad­ness on re­ceiv­ing the news. Then he gath­ered him­self again and forced him­self on, stab­bing the ax back into the wall.

Now the edges of the crevasse were nar­row­ing, the sur­face of the walls a tan­gle of icy pro­tru­sions and de­cep­tively frag­ile crys­talline for­ma­tions that All scraped aside with his frozen fin­gers. Slowly he be­gan to climb up­ward, swing­ing his ice tools into the walls and find­ing his foot­ing, each


step tak­ing ex­cru­ci­at­ing min­utes as he tried to gather his en­ergy. The crevasse was tight enough for him to chim­ney his way up now, and he braced his back against the wall. Stab, kick, shift, re­peat. Time moved strangely in the crevasse—marked out by un­even breaths—but he was mak­ing progress. Af­ter about four hours in the crevasse, All could see the glow of the sun be­neath a thin crust of snow.

Fi­nally he swung an ax up­ward and broke through. A tiny patch of blue sky ap­peared. As All cleared the snow, mak­ing the hole wider, he had the dis­tinct feel­ing that he had just dug him­self out of his own grave. He hauled

him­self up and lay there, half­way in and half­way out, ut­terly ex­hausted and un­able to move. Five min­utes later, with a fi­nal burst of en­ergy, he forced his body to flop for­ward onto solid ground. He stag­gered to his feet and im­me­di­ately col­lapsed again. He couldn’t walk. He could barely get to his knees. That’s when he re­al­ized just how truly bro­ken his body was and how much trou­ble he was still in.

In the Hi­malayas, death from hy­pother­mia comes quickly. All was a three-minute walk away from his tent, but it might as well have been three miles. You didn’t come this far to not make it, he told him­self. He pulled his body for­ward on his stom­ach. His face plowed through the snow. All shiv­ered in agony as he dragged his bro­ken ribs across the ground.

The short walk took two hours of crawl­ing. It was late af­ter­noon and the shad­ows were deep­en­ing when he fi­nally lunged into the tent. All reached for his hand­held satel­lite com­mu­ni­ca­tor. He knew he wouldn’t sur­vive un­til his part­ners reached him. He was bleed­ing in­ter­nally and needed to be res­cued. The walkie-talkie– sized ma­chine could only send mes­sages, not make phone calls, and at the mo­ment, it was con­nected to the Face­book page of an or­ga­ni­za­tion he’d co­founded, the Amer­i­can Clim­ber Sci­ence Pro­gram. Back home in Ken­tucky, it was 4 a.m. Ev­ery­one he knew was likely asleep, but he prayed some­one would see his cry for help. With numb fin­gers he typed out a mes­sage: “Please call Global Res­cue. John bro­ken arm, ribs, in­ter­nal bleed­ing. Fell 70 ft crevasse. Climbed out. Him­lung camp 2,” he posted. “Please hurry.”

FROM HER HOUSE ON the Big Is­land of Hawaii, bi­ol­o­gist Re­becca Cole was get­ting ready for bed when she de­cided to log on to Face­book. When she saw John All’s mes­sage, her heart sank.

Cole and her hus­band, Carl Sch­mitt, had co­founded the Amer­i­can Clim­ber Sci­ence Pro­gram with All. He was the guy they re­ferred to as their “charis­matic megafauna”—a big, fun pres­ence with a mag­netic per­son­al­ity who drew peo­ple to the or­ga­ni­za­tion. When Cole read her friend’s cry for help, she quickly be­gan ping­ing mes­sages across the globe, try­ing to ar­range a he­li­copter res­cue.

On Mount Him­lung, All was spend­ing the long­est night of his life. His throat was parched, but with only one work­ing arm, he couldn’t man­age to open his wa­ter bot­tle. He sucked down two en­ergy gels, tried to cover his body with his sleep­ing bag, and lay in a dazed pain in the dark.

Fi­nally the light out­side be­gan to change, the sun creep­ing up the edges of the tent and warm­ing his chilled body. On the other side of the world, his friends were try­ing to find a res­cue team will­ing to take a he­li­copter to such an al­ti­tude, where the air is thin and air­craft can act er­rat­i­cally.

Af­ter 18 hours on his back—his

bro­ken body had tensed up, leav­ing him near paral­y­sis—all heard the faint whir of a he­li­copter. Soon af­ter, the tent’s door un­zipped and a Nepali res­cuer poked his head through the flap. The res­cuer dragged All on his sleep­ing mat be­fore haul­ing him into the he­li­copter.

As the copter twisted through the Hi­malayas, All fi­nally al­lowed the re­lief to flood through him. “I’m alive,” he whis­pered.

AS ALL RE­COV­ERED from his in­juries, he some­times felt as if a part of him had never es­caped the crevasse. He talked freely about Ta­mang’s death and his own es­cape, but he did it from a re­move—keep­ing him­self the teller of the story, not the sub­ject. “It was all so raw and over­whelm­ing,” says All. “I had to keep it in the third per­son.”

In March 2015, al­most a year af­ter his neardeath ex­pe­ri­ence, John All vis­ited Re­becca Cole in Hawaii. By now he was phys­i­cally healed, but Cole could see that her friend was still shaken. So, she says, “I took a week off to take John on as many hikes and ad­ven­tures as he was phys­i­cally able to han­dle.” One day, they climbed Mauna Loa, the largest vol­cano in the world. As they trekked, it be­gan to snow—a rar­ity in trop­i­cal Hawaii—and soon they were break­ing trail through three feet of snow on their way to the sum­mit. Be­ing in the snowy moun­tains for the first time since his ac­ci­dent and dis­cov­er­ing that the ex­pe­ri­ence still made him feel happy and at peace marked the be­gin­ning of All’s true re­cov­ery.

All is now a re­search pro­fes­sor at Western Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­sity. He is also ful­fill­ing a life­long de­sire to train the next gen­er­a­tion of clim­ber sci­en­tists at the Moun­tain En­vi­ron­ments Re­search In­sti­tute, which he founded in 2016. “We all have dreams, but we usu­ally say, ‘I’ll do it when I get a chance,’” says All. “Ly­ing on that moun­tain, I re­al­ized you get only one chance to live.”

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