Survival Stories: Free Fall Above Death Canyon

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

ClimbingJames HoranHer 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 that she’d had no time to be frightened. Now she fought the panic rising in her chest.

Thirty feet above her was the overhang from which she’d dropped. Nine hundred feet below lay the floor of Death Canyon, a carpet of pines and brush strewn with house-size boulders. Her ankles were already swelling, ballooning over the tops 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 vacations hiking, fly-fishing, and horseback riding at her family’s lodge in British Columbia. In college, at the University of Montana, she took up rock climbing. 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, traveling 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.

Next: Inching closer to the edge »

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