The Life-Saving Voice on the Mountain

A rock climber gets some heaven-sent help after losing his grip during a free-climb on Mount Thompson. 

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- Posted on May 26, 2020

Len Ludwig between climbs

I was about halfway up a cliff face on Mount Thompson, with California’s Sierra Nevada spread out behind me. But I didn’t have time to enjoy the panoramic view. I was focused on reaching the summit. I was free-climbing—scaling the cliff face without safety ropes. I’d gone 70 feet so far. I had about 100 feet left to go.

I swiped the sweat from my forehead and prepared for my next move. This section was tricky; the cliff face was smooth and flat. Not many places to grip, save for a baseball-size handhold just within reach of my right hand. I’d use this to hoist myself up. My fingers closed around it.

Crack!

The rock crumbled in my hand! I flailed around for something to grab. The dizzying drop spun below me. My left hand tightened on my remaining handhold, my feet awkwardly bracing the wall. My heart pounded in my ears as I tried to get my bearings. I clung desperately to the cliff face. I could feel my left hand cramping up.

I’m a dead man, I thought. My mind flashed to my little brother, Russ, who’d stayed back at base camp. How would our friend Roger break the news to him?

It was June 1991. Russ, Roger and I were on a much-anticipated expedition in the Sierra Nevada. Roger and I had been climbing together for years, but this excursion was Russ’s first.

We started off the trip by hiking to Sunset Lake, at an elevation of more than 11,000 feet. We set up camp on Saturday night. The next morning, Roger and I wanted to tackle Mount Thompson—part of the Thompson Ridge along the eastern and southern sides of the lake. Because Russ was a beginner, he stayed behind. We told him we’d be back in a few hours and set off. We left our ropes back at camp. Most climbers scaled this short stretch without ropes, and we were confident in our abilities.

Roger went first. “See you up there!” he said.

I watched his ascent, carefully observing the handholds and footholds he used. Of the two of us, Roger was the more experienced climber, and it was helpful for me to see how he tackled the cliff face. I took special note of the difficult hold he leveraged near the middle—a fist-size protrusion in the rock—and watched him finish the climb. Once he reached the summit, I started my own climb.

It was that very hold that had broken off in my grasp. It must have been loosened by Roger’s weight. Now I was clinging for dear life, my legs trembling from exertion.

“Roger!” I shouted.

Only my voice echoed back. He must’ve been too high up to hear me.

Okay, focus, I told myself. I glanced down. My grip was too weak to lower myself safely. My eyes shot up. I spotted a crack in the rock, a solid handhold a few feet above me. But it was out of reach. There was no way up to it.

I was going to fall. It was just a matter of time. This was it. I was going to die. I closed my eyes. Oddly, I felt a sense of calm wash over me.

“Hey!”

A voice coming from below me startled me out of my thoughts. I looked down and spotted another climber at the foot of the cliff. “Are you okay?” he shouted up to me.

“I’m stuck!” I said.

“Look to your right hand!” he said. “There’s a place to put your foot! You can use it to boost yourself up!”

I saw only a flush expanse of stone. “I don’t see it!”

“Look higher!”

There it was, level with my shoulder. A tiny bump, no bigger that the tip of my thumb. How had he seen it from all the way down there?

“Found it!” I said. “But I don’t think I can raise my foot that high!”

“That’s okay! I’ll talk you through it! Grab onto the shoelaces of your right boot!” Using my free hand, I reached down and hooked my fingers into the lacings of my boot. “Good! Now pull your foot up to that foothold!” This was a little harder. Slowly, I dragged my foot up to the bump on the rock face. “Make sure your boot is really on it before you push off!” the man shouted.

I gathered my strength. It was do-or-die. I took a deep breath. I pushed down with my right leg and surged upward, catching the crack above me with my fingertips. The rough surface bit into my skin. It hurt, but I tightened my hold and pulled myself up, then resumed my climb.

Next thing I knew, I was at the top. I collapsed gratefully onto the ledge. I was safe! I couldn’t believe it.

I sat there, breathing heavily, sweat drying in the breeze, as the mystery climber quickly scaled the ridge and joined me.

“Thank you,” I said, once he pulled himself up onto the ledge beside me. “You don’t know how lucky I am that you showed up when you did.”

“I think it was a bit more than luck,” the man said.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, this might sound odd, but I was planning to climb the Koip Crest today,” he said. “Then a voice woke me at four in the morning and told me I had to climb the west ridge of Mount Thompson today. I’ve done this climb before, and I didn’t want to do it again. It was an hour’s drive away from my house. But this voice was insistent. I’ve never had anything like it happen to me before. It was strange, but it seemed so pressing that I felt I had no choice but to listen. Eventually, I gave in.” He paused.

“You see, if I had left a moment sooner or later, I wouldn’t have been here now. And from the looks of it, neither would you.”

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