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 Aftermath

Ryan Schuster spent the night on the rock, as he had after many other rescues. Ybarra and Ries decided to rappel down after dark, aided by headlamps. Both were clumsy with exhaustion, but they made it safely back to their cabins by 2:30 a.m.

At the hospital in Jackson Hole, McLean learned that she’d broken both legs and feet, her pelvis, and a vertebra in her lower back. The damage to her left foot was so severe, the doctor told her, that it might have to be amputated. That night, a dose of morphine helped her sleep. The next morning, she was flown to the University of Utah Medical Center, in Salt Lake City, where she underwent four hours of surgery on the mangled foot. When she awoke, she was relieved to find that it was still there. But the surgeons said it was too early to deliver a long-term prognosis.

Three days later, McLean’s father, the president of a small software company, drove her back to Portland; McLean spent her days in a hospital bed her dad had installed in the living room of his apartment. (McLean’s parents were divorced, and her mother had died the previous year.)

A month into her recuperation, McLean told her dad to put her old bike on a stand on his patio, which overlooked a grove of Douglas firs. An orthopedist had told McLean she would never run again—never even walk up a steep hill. She decided to prove him wrong. Though both legs were still in casts, she pedaled every day. And when the casts came off, she threw herself into physical therapy.

In January 2012, six months after her accident, McLean took off for New Zealand, where she spent the season working as a fruit picker and trekking in the countryside. By May, she was back to rock climbing in the mountains of Montana. And in June, she took another job leading youth expeditions—this time in Fiji, where she also learned to surf.

McLean’s goal to return to the Grand Teton with Michael Ybarra will remain unfulfilled. Tragically, he died on a solo climb in July, after falling from a 200-foot cliff in Yosemite National Park. “His death is still hard to process,” McLean says. “He was one of the strongest climbers I’ve ever seen.”

As for her own near-death experience, she says, it simply made her more determined to live fully. “I try to keep a good attitude. Just go slowly and methodically, and you can get through it all.”

Photo by Darcy Padilla

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