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What Happens When You Fall Off a Mountain:

A firsthand account of a free-solo accident in the Sierra Nevada


Words and photos by Derek Cheng

The last memory I have before the accident is sitting calmly on a wide ledge, finishing a Clif Bar, and marveling at the beauty of a perfect morning in California’s Sierra Nevada.
The first memory I have afterward is waking up on a flat ledge on my side, rolling over and sitting up, and realising that my face was numb and covered in blood.

Apparently I’d been there awhile—a streak of blood around my left eye had already caked over, fusing it shut.

It was just after noon on a cloudless July day. I was alone and 300 metres up the southwest face of Clyde Minaret. Far below was Minaret Lake and a trail that meandered 13 kilometres through the forest and across a river to my van, which was another hour’s drive from civilization. My back whimpered in protest at the slightest movement. How the hell was I supposed to get down?

I’d been living in my van for three years, climbing all over North America. I’d done big mountain linkups in Canada’s majestic Bugaboo range and in the legendary Yosemite in the US. In other words, the Minarets Traverse was just the latest in a long line of many solo mountain missions. The full outing crosses the tops of 20-odd granite peaks over a little more than two miles in a remote area west of Mammoth Lakes. Most trip reports describe the vertical gain as “a lot of up and down.” Climbing legend Peter Croft was the first to do it in under 24 hours, declaring it one of his “toughest days in the mountains” but also one of his most spectacular.

I decided to start early, carry enough gear—a half rope, a half set of wires, and a bunch of cord—so I bail from anywhere, and trim the enormity of the undertaking by cutting out the first few, and possibly the last few, peaks.

The day proceeded as many alpine days before it: a predawn start and a slight stumble finding the trail, reaching Minaret Lake with the first rays of the sun, followed by the exhilaration of tagging my first peaks.

Somewhere on the southwest face of Clyde Minaret, a Class 4 scramble up the crown jewel of the range, I fell. Head-trauma amnesia meant I had only a vague and foggy recollection of where I had been, or how far I had fallen, but I landed on the ledge. My face and shins appeared to have taken the brunt of the initial impact before my body rolled into an unconscious heap. When I woke, I realised the shoulder strap of my pack had ripped off. I must have repaired it with some cord, taken a blurry selfie, and then passed out again. I have no memory of this.

The next time I awoke, about an hour had passed. I slowly rolled over. Pushed myself up. Exhaled deeply. Tried gingerly hopping on each leg. Everything seemed to be working OK.

All I could think was: I’m hurt—I should probably go down. I thought I’d escaped serious injury, but scans would later show that my left cheek, just below my helmet, had struck something with a force so tremendous that all the bones around my left eye collapsed. So heavy was the blow that the left frontal lobe of my brain started bleeding, while the impact reverberated through my skull with such a shock that it left my right eye black for days.

The injuries on the rest of my body indicated some rag-dolling. My bloated hands suggested I’d held them out to soften the blow. There was a discolored mark on my chest above my right lung. A cut in my pants revealed bloody streaks down my right backside.

My movements were far from fluid as I descended the nearest col. When it became too steep to downclimb, I pulled out my half rope and set of wires and started abseiling—although I’d struggled with my swollen hands and blunt knife to cut and tie cord into slings to abseil from. After a while I was too exhausted to continue, found somewhere to lie down, and immediately fell asleep.

It took me about eight hours and five or six rappels before I reached the scree slope. The lack of depth perception from having only one good eye sent me tumbling over frequently, and I soon resigned myself to falling onto my back, thinking it was the fastest way down, with the least amount of fuss. As soon as I reached the snow, I moved onto my butt and slid.


The descent would normally have taken a couple of hours, but it was almost dark by the time I reached Minaret Lake. I stopped to try and eat a Clif Bar, but I couldn’t chew. Just bruising, I thought. It didn’t occur to me that my jaw might be broken, which it was.

The glare of my headlamp replaced the evening hues of the sky as I hiked into the forest. My memory of this period is hazy. I seem to have circled around repeatedly, deliriously lost; it took six hours to travel a distance that should have taken one.

At one point, I lay down on the forest floor and passed out again.

I began discussing strategies to get home with a number of friends beneath the forest canopy. I was either hallucinating or having vivid dreams.

At first light, after a few hours of shivery sleep, I woke to mosquitoes. My hallucinations were so fresh in my mind that I expected to see familiar, friendly faces next to me. But I was alone.

I had no idea how far from the trail I had strayed, and I headed vaguely toward river sounds. To my good fortune, the woods eventually parted to reveal the path.

Within a few hours, I got to Minaret Creek. I knew that the trail ahead was wider and more and more frequented, as this section is a popular hike. It wasn’t long before I crossed paths with a young couple who were aghast at my blood-covered self. Somehow I convinced them that I was perfectly capable of making it alone to the trailhead, but the next people I encountered were not so easily persuaded.

A soft-spoken young guy accompanied me for the final 45 minutes of the return. We reached the trailhead roughly 24 hours after the accident, and this good soul then drove me in my van to the Mammoth Hospital.

Soon I was in the safe bosom of emergency care, slipping in and out of consciousness as a nurse gently dabbed the blood from my face. The nurse’s notes, which I later read, show that I told staff that I didn’t think I had any broken bones, nor did I consider myself in severe pain. They must have thought me mad, or at least completely incapable of self-diagnosis.

“Patient covered in blood,” the hospital report states. “Essentially covered head to toe in contusions, abrasions, and lacerations … multiple internal injuries including 1-2cm head bleed … multiple facial fractures … possibly unstable.” I’d also lost about a third of my blood and was so dehydrated that I was experiencing the beginnings of renal failure. I had fractured my neck and spine, and torn ligaments in my left shoulder, right knee, and left wrist.

There were no facilities in Mammoth Hospital for traumatic brain injuries, so I was choppered an hour away to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno, Nevada. But I was too out of it to assess what any of that meant.

My main priority was to message the climbing partner I was meant to meet the following day, as well as the few people who knew about my solo climb. I did so, switched off my phone—for some reason I thought that saving the battery would be a good idea—and then passed out.

My messages were typical of someone who wasn’t thinking straight. “I got hit by something … Now in the hospital” did nothing to reassure friends. A flurry of phone calls and hospital drive-bys led to the amazingly pleasant surprise of having two angelic friends, Alaina and Lauren, at my bedside when I awoke in Reno in the intensive care unit.

“You looked fucked up, covered head to toe in blood and swelling,” Alaina told me later. “You clearly had a brain injury. You kept repeating the same things to us: ‘So nice of you to come visit,’ ‘What did you climb today?,’ ’So nice of you to come visit.’”

Thankfully, my left eye was OK, which the surgeons discovered after freeing it from its prison of congealed blood. But they also told my friends they would have to slice open my skull to ease the pressure of the swelling if the bleeding worsened.

All of this went on without my awareness. I was full of fentanyl—an opioid stronger than heroin—which seemed to embolden my facetious nature. When my delirium was broken up with discussions about facial reconstructive surgery to repair my dented face, I started requesting half a dragon or penguin face, to complement my existing human one.

Later I was given a breathing test and told that my lung capacity was extremely impressive. When I was later asked standard health questions about my alcohol, smoking, and drug habits, I dryly answered that I was a heavy whiskey drinker, a daily smoker, and that LSD was awesome and directly responsible for my amazing lungs. The nursing staff thought my response was a sign that my brain injury might be worsening, but my friends assured them that it was more or less normal banter.

When I came out of surgery, still on fentanyl, my friend Hannah was at my bedside, trying to convince me to keep my clothes on. Apparently, I found the temperature unbearably warm and thought the only solution was not only to remove all my clothing but to announce this with repeated use of the words “expose” and “penis”.

It wasn’t until days after my surgery—when I was on less powerful drugs—that the severity of my injuries hit me. It had been almost a week and my face was still all puffed up and resembled some sort of lopsided Frankenstein’s monster.

The surgeon had pinned five titanium plates across my shattered, displaced facial bones to hold them in the right position and give them a chance to heal. The area under my eye was also shattered, and a titanium plate was inserted in the base of my eye socket to prevent my eyeball from dropping down.

Damage to my infraorbital nerve, just under the eye, numbed all sensation from my lips to my left temple. While my continued coherence meant that any bleeding in my brain had thankfully diminished, the reality of a long recovery with an uncertain outcome remained.

Friends called and came to visit as word of my accident spread. Many went above and beyond, responding to messages when I was unconscious, collecting my van from Mammoth, offering me a place to recover, bringing me milkshakes, burgers, and noodles, and generally being the most amazing people in history.

My energy reserves were low for the initial few weeks following my discharge. I’d sleep, cook, sleep, walk around the block, then sleep some more. Much of my time was spent wrestling with my insurance company, which, predictably, was reluctant to pay the $300,000 in medical bills.

After six weeks, I had a checkup with my neurosurgeon, whose first question was whether I remembered him at all, which of course I didn’t. He then shared our last conversation, during which I had apparently become increasingly disheartened at his prognosis of no climbing for several months.

When he said my bones were healing well, I asked if I could stop eating so many sardines. He gave me a puzzled look, and after I explained that the internet suggested I eat them in order to promote bone growth, he said that I could, indeed, stop eating so many sardines.

My brain appeared to be fine, he said. I asked him what his thoughts were about my attending Burning Man. He responded with noncommittal hearty laughter, which I took for a full endorsement.

Roughly three years have passed, and one of the biggest surprises in that time has been the amount of swelling I’ve had in my face and how long it has lasted. It was noticeably lopsided in the months after returning to New Zealand, and when I applied for a new passport, the passport office told me that my photo had been taken too close to my face because it was “all distorted.” “That’s just how my face looks now,” I told the embarrassed caller. It’s still fairly numb, but in a way that feels like I’ve been slapped rather than flattened by a freight train.

About 18 months after the accident, I spent two and a half months on the South Island of New Zealand, climbing as much as possible. It was my first real attempt at climbing since the fall, and I was delighted to be able to do it without feeling stymied by injury.

Giving up climbing altogether has never crossed my mind. Would I try the traverse again? That’s a harder question. There are always so many variables in the equation, including the weather forecast, your level of recent experience, and how you’re feeling that day.

I don’t think I was punching above my weight with the traverse, but I’m certainly aware that I could have died. My general summation of what occured is that it’s just one of those things that happen. You can be the most prepared alpinist in the world and be swept away by rockfall, or a complete gumby and return from an adventure unscathed. There is an element of risk and luck in every alpine excursion, and unless you’re willing to avoid them altogether—which I’m not—anything can happen.

My accident could be viewed as bad luck, had I been in the path of random rockfall. The most devastating blow also would have hit my helmet had it struck me two inches higher, possibly sparing me a broken face and brain injury.

But it’s also immeasurably lucky that I didn’t break a leg, ankle, pelvis, or any other bone that would have made self-extraction a much more doubtful prospect. Nor did I have any seizures—one of the symptoms of a brain bleed—while I was abseiling.

I had also bought insurance only two weeks before the accident. I usually shun insurance unless there is a good reason for it, but I decided to sign up a day after an unnerving experience on El Capitan, in Yosemite.

As far as luck goes, the timing of my insurance purchase is only surpassed by the ledge that I happened to land on. Bouncing all the way to the bottom would have surely been lights out for good.


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