Leah Brown was laughing as she clung to Mount Hood with crampons on her feet and an ice ax in one hand on a clear Saturday morning as a fellow climber took her picture from above.
She was happy.
“This is hard, but this is great,” the 36-year-old Portland woman said she was thinking. “Like, I love this.”
Minutes later, something happened — Brown doesn’t know what — and the chiropractor’s office administrator found herself tumbling, accelerating fast down the hard and icy mountain slope. She tried to grab the ax tethered to her harness, her last, best hope to stop the fall before near-certain death from an abrupt plunge down the mountain’s south face.
“I’m going to die,” she thought. “There’s nothing I can do.”
About a week earlier, Brown was excited when she spotted a message about a group climb up Mount Hood on Nov. 25. It was a little early in the season, Brown thought, but she felt ready.
An avid and experienced mountain trailrunner, she had picked up technical mountain climbing several years earlier. She did a multi-week training course on mountaineering with the Mazamas climbing organization and climbed Mount St. Helens several times, as well as tackling Mount Adams and Mount Hood.
Leading the group for the Mazamas was Pushkar Dixit, who over the previous decade had climbed the mountain more than 40 times and is a volunteer with Portland Mountain Rescue. Dixit said he deliberately planned to take only experienced climbers on the outing, given it was early in the season, meaning the conditions were icier — and more dangerous — than in the spring and summer.
He wasn’t worried about Brown, he said, because she was fit and experienced. They’d climbed together before.
“I’ll let you know when I’m alive,” Brown texted a friend before the climb.
The alarm in Brown’s Northeast Portland apartment rang at 2:30 a.m. last Saturday, and she went downstairs to the kitchen to a ready pot of coffee. She packed snacks and sundry items that she hadn’t packed the night before and hit the road for Timberline Lodge.
It was still dark when she and about 10 others started their ascent around 5 a.m. The moon was bright, and she could see in the distance on the slope the dim light from a handful of other climbers’ headlamps.
Close to the top, the climb became physically difficult, Brown said. She was ascending on her hands and knees, taking a swing with her ice ax, taking a step, briefly resting, and then repeating these actions, over and over.
“We’re thinking, ‘God damn it, the mountain goes on forever!’” she recalled.
And then she was standing at the top of Oregon’s highest peak, celebrating, then getting in position for a group selfie and sitting down to eat some chocolate-covered berries.
Going down, she knew, wouldn’t be much easier than going up. Setting off with the group, she swung one foot and ice ax or ice tool after the other into the ice. She was about a third of the way down through the Old Chute route, having just passed the steepest part of the slope, when she lost control.
“Falling!” Brown yelled to the people below as she went airborne and tumbled.
Brown had practiced what’s called self-arrest before, a standard mountaineering technique that involves driving an ax into the snow and pushing down with your body weight, but she had nothing to self-arrest with: she had accidentally let go of the ice tool in one hand and couldn’t grab on to the ice ax tethered to her harness.
“‘If I can’t stop this (fall), I will die,’” she recalled thinking in that moment. “I didn’t have time to think about anything else. I didn’t want to die.”
She grabbed hopelessly at the air and tumbled several hundred feet before hitting a bare patch of rock, mud and gravel called the Hot Rocks, where thermal heat prevents ice from forming. This stopped her fall.
Lying on her side, she panted and her heart raced as she processed the fact that she was alive. She raised a hand in hopes someone could see her. Dixit, the group leader, saw her fall and was among the first to make it down to her. Another Portland Mountain Rescue member saw her fall and radioed to others on the mountain to send help.
Within an hour, Brown was surrounded by a small group of people who cocooned her in a sleeping bag and put her on a mat as they strategized how to get her to a place from which they could get her down the mountain.
Rescuers carried up a lightweight toboggan and tied it to a rope they tied around a rock, then they moved her about 100 yards across the mountain, down into a crater and then up to a point from which the search and rescue organization Hood River Crag Rats could take over and ski her down to Timberline Lodge.
It was around 11 p.m. by the time she arrived at a hospital, where she stayed overnight.
Incredibly, she wasn’t seriously injured in the fall. She walked carefully out of the hospital the next morning with aches, bruises and a concussion.
She is still sore and bruised nearly a week later, but she’s carefully getting back to her job at the chiropractor’s office, Brown said.
Beyond her physical recovery, Brown said, it will take her some time to understand if there’s a deeper meaning behind what happened and why she was lucky enough to survive.
Had she fallen 10 or 15 yards further west, a rescuer later said, she would probably have kept falling and died.
“Why me? I don’t know,” Brown said, starting to cry. “I think I need to do something good. I don’t know what that is yet.”