Survival Stories: Free Fall Above Death Canyon

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

By Kenneth Miller from Reader's Digest Magazine | June 2013

The Fall

HarnessYbarra 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 auto-locking 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 yards 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 cell phone and dialed 911; 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 retied his own rope and began rappelling down the cliff.

“How bad is your pain on a scale from 1 to 10?” Ybarra asked Mclean. “Nine,”She replied.

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 30 feet below it, lying on a shelf of rock no more than a foot 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 1 to 10?”

“Nine.”

“We’re going to get you taken care of,” he 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 stirrup-like 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.

Next: A storm moves in »

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