I rose to a sitting position and sat on the snow, but then I began sliding down feet first. I could see where the cliff was about to drop off, and I was heading there. At that moment, I knew that this was it—I was going to die.
It was in the year 2000 that I made a significant accomplishment in my life: I summited Mt. Rainier! It was a great experience and one that I will always remember for two opposing reasons: I had the joy of climbing to the 14,408-foot peak of Mt. Rainier with my older brother, and we both survived an avalanche on the way down.
I consider myself to be a veteran rock climber and mountaineer, and would never have imagined that my climb would end with an avalanche plowing my brother, me, and 20 other climbers down Mt. Rainier, injuring several of us and killing one. I was lucky in that I suffered only two broken fingers and a torn PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) in my left knee.
This is my story.
AN HOUR AT THE PEAK
My brother and I were part of a climbing school with those 20 other climbers, camped at Muir Hut on Mt. Rainier at 10,000 feet learning and practicing mountaineering techniques.
On the last day, we left for the summit at around 3 a.m. It was a beautiful clear day and by the time we reached the bottom of Disappointment Cleaver, the sun was rising and the moon was setting. Amazingly, we could see both at the same time.
We made the summit around 10 in the morning. It really was a gorgeous day, allowing us to see Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson and Mt. St. Helen’s. We stayed up at the peak for an hour and then decided to head back down because the snow was starting to get mushy.
Summitting a mountain can be exhilarating.It was getting warmer, perhaps approaching 70 degrees, and I shed my clothes to only the essentials, putting the excess clothes in my pack before we started the descent.
The snow was quite slushy, causing me to sink up to my knees with every step of the descent. As we approached the traverse at the bottom of Disappointment Cleaver, a few of us had snapped ourselves onto an 800-foot rope anchored by aluminum spikes into the side of the mountain along the ledge, which had created a makeshift hand railing. We were also attached to one another, in groups of five, by ropes attached to our harnesses.
As I moved along with the group, I suddenly heard someone yell, “Snow!” Immediately after, I heard the terrifying call: “Avalanche!” followed by “Run, run, run!”
COLD WATER RUNOFF
When I tried to unclip myself from the rope that connected me to the anchor line, I looked up and saw the avalanche coming toward me. I grabbed onto the rope, hoping to ride out the avalanche, but then I felt the impact of moving snow. It just took me with it.
After the avalanche carried me from my place on the ledge, I was buried in the snow for what seemed like hours, but it was only maybe 10 to 15 seconds. I sat up and that’s when I began sliding toward the cliff. I came to an abrupt stop, but the snow continued to move past me. After 15 to 20 seconds, it subsided.
After the avalanche was over, 10 of us were spread over 100 feet, connected by a tangle of rope. The safety line was taut and strained. Another line was fraying. Six of us would hang on for dear life for hours.
I was pinned to the jagged face of a rock. Across my chest was a rope connected somewhere above me and pulled taut by the weight of two people hanging below me. My hand was broken. If I looked down, I would see two people in the crevasse, which darkened from light blue to black.
There I was, suspended over a cliff with a 1,500+ foot drop, but I knew inherently that I had to think clearly. When I decided to give up some of my outer layers of clothing to help those below me on the cliff who were drenched in freezing cold water runoff, I found the true meaning of giving from the heart.
AN AMAZING SIGHT
Daylight seemed to be fading, even though it was mid-afternoon. Finally, after what seemed like several hours, the rescuers started to arrive, commencing a delicate and slow operation. Rescuers arrived by helicopter and rappelled to the climbers, securing each one of us with new ropes that allowed us to crawl to a safe rock to rest.
In total, we had been hanging there for more than five hours. I was hypothermic, dehydrated, and suffered two broken fingers and a torn PCL. But, overall, my injuries were not bad considering the experience.
Authorities were alerted by walkie-talkie and a helicopter arrived to transport us to local area hospitals. We waited for an extended time due to severe cloud cover that limited the helicopters from flying safely.
Unfortunately, in order to reach the helicopter rescue, I had to crawl back up the hill and walk more than a mile with my injuries. However, making the trek with a broken hand and torn PCL, while dehydrated and hypothermic, allowed me to discover how tough my mind and body can be.
In the ordeal, Gregg Swanson suffered from the following ailments:
- Two broken fingers
- A torn posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)
54 – The number of miles southeast of Seattle, Washington, where this volcano is located
14,408 – The summit elevation of Mt. Rainier
840,000 – In years, the estimated age of its early lava deposits
500,000 – The age of its cone
16,000 – The previous height of the mountain before a “major debris avalanche” and mudflow occurred some 5,000 years ago
1820 and 1854 – The most recent recorded volcanic eruptions
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the Winter 2013 print issue of American Survival Guide.