Survival Stories: Free Fall Above Death Canyon

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


Her 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

ClimbingJames HoranGrowing 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.


Death CanyonJames HoranIn August 2011, McLean and fellow Wilderness Ventures instructor Dana Ries, 21, traveled to Grand Teton National Park, where Ybarra joined them. McLean was far more experienced than her friend, a curly-haired junior at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Both, however, were eager to learn from Ybarra, who’d led technically complex climbs everywhere from the Himalayas to the Andes. The trio spent three days clambering up difficult rock faces by day and bedding down at night in rustic cabins at the Grand Teton’s Climbers’ Ranch. On day four, they tackled a route called the Snaz, on the south face of a formation known as Cathedral Buttress.

They started out at dawn, hiking through Death Canyon (so named because an explorer vanished there in 1899) to reach the base of the cliff. At 8 a.m., they stepped into their harnesses, tied themselves to nylon ropes, and began the 1,800-foot ascent. It would take nine stages, called pitches, to reach the top, 9,600 feet above sea level.

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Ybarra climbed first, threading his rope through metal cams that he jammed into cracks in the rock; such devices are meant to prevent climbers from falling too far if they lose their footing. When he finished a pitch, Ries and McLean followed, using the safety gear he’d left behind. Ybarra managed their ropes—a process known as belaying—reeling in slack until the women reached his position. Then he climbed the next pitch, and the cycle began again.

The day was gorgeous, and at first the going was smooth. But as the hours wore on, the group’s mood shifted from ebullient to grimly determined. The dark clouds that began gathering around 4 p.m. seemed to reflect the change in attitude. The Teton Range is notorious for sudden late-afternoon thunderstorms. “We’d better hurry,” Ybarra said. “Let’s get this done before it starts pouring on us.”

There were two possible routes for the last pitch, which started from a narrow ledge. As was his practice, Ybarra opted for the harder one. It required the climbers to scale a ten-foot overhang, clinging to the bottom before heaving themselves over the protrusion. As Ybarra ascended, the women could hear him grunting with effort for the first time all day. “If this is tough for him, we’re in trouble,” Ries said, exchanging a worried glance with McLean.

After Ybarra disappeared over the bulge, Ries tried to follow. She made it partway, then lost her grip and dangled from her rope, 900 feet above the canyon floor. She and McLean yelled to Ybarra for help, but the wind carried away their voices. Lightning crackled over a nearby peak. The pair knew they would be perfect targets if the storm came closer.

McLean pushed herself off the wall and dangled next to Ries. “Why don’t you try shimmying up my rope?” she said to Ries. “When you get to the top, tell Michael to lower me a little so that I can reach the rock and start climbing again.”

Grabbing her friend’s lifeline, Ries managed to haul herself to the granite protrusion a few feet above their heads. “See you soon,” she called, as she cleared the overhang.

Next: The fall »

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