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This Scientist Fell 20 Metres into a Crevasse and Managed to Climb Out—with 15 Broken Bones

Mountain climbers often fall through cracks in the ice, but those who survive haven't fallen a long way, aren't by themselves and aren't injured. John All was all three.

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Glacier illustrationIllustration: Kagan McLeod

“He couldn’t move, but he was alive.”

John All unzipped his tent, poked his shaggy blond head out into the thin alpine air and took in the view. The bright sun sparkled off the freshly fallen snow on the jagged peaks and crags of Mount Himlung. It was just before 10 a.m. on May 19, 2014—a perfect morning in the Himalayas.

All, a 44-year-old scientist, had come to Nepal on a research expedition to collect snow samples for his study of pollution. His two climbing partners had retreated down to base camp so one of them could recover from an illness. They were expected back in a day or two, but for now, All was alone at 6,100 metres. Climbing solo in the Himalayas is never advisable, so All’s plan was to remain cautious, stick near camp and begin collecting samples. But first, he was eager for a cup of coffee.

He grabbed his axes and walked toward a flat area a short distance away that looked like an ideal spot to gather fresh snow to melt for water. The temperature was between -4 and -1 C. After weeks at high elevation, that felt positively balmy, so All was dressed lightly in wind pants, a thin jacket over a T-shirt, and hiking boots with metal crampons to help him travel over icy terrain. He took a step, then another. Suddenly the ground gave way beneath him, and he plunged into darkness.

All’s face smashed into something as he plummeted downward. He blindly swung the axe in his right hand, hoping to slow his progress. It caught into the ice for a moment, but the force of his body free-falling was too much, wrenching his arm out of its shoulder socket and creating a mess of shattered bone and torn soft tissue.

As he careened against the icy walls with growing speed, All’s mind seemed to slow down. He realized with horror what had happened: he had stepped into a crevasse, a thin crack that had opened in the glacier and went down who knew how deep. How did I make this mistake? he wondered. Then he had another thought: there’s no way you can survive a crevasse fall.

All’s right side slammed into something hard, his descent stopping with a crunch of bones.

I’m dead, he decided. Then he felt his lungs heaving, straining to suck air back into his body, each gasp bringing a jolt of excruciating pain.

He looked down and saw his legs hanging over a chasm. He had landed on a shelf of ice suspended above the blackness. Overhead was a pale halo of blue-white light, seven storeys up, where he had punched through the crust of snow. The entire right side of his body had been crushed. He couldn’t move, but he was alive.

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Fell into a glacierPhoto: Courtesy of John All

“He had roughly six hours to make it to the surface and to his tent, or he would die.”

John All was not supposed to be on Mount Himlung. A month earlier, he had been at Mount Everest Base Camp sharing tea with a young Sherpa. Asman Tamang, a shy father of a nine-month-old, was climbing Everest for the first time. All joked with him, encouraging him, saying the eager young climber would probably make record speed up the mountain.

All had climbed Everest before, but this time he was leading an expedition of five researchers and volunteers to Everest’s sister peak, Mount Lhotse, to collect evidence of “black dust,” emissions from factories thousands of kilometres away. For All, the mountains were a second home—the rare place where the six-foot-five former triathlete could satisfy his love of physical adventure and his scientific curiosity.

On the morning of April 18, All woke to the ground rumbling. An ice shelf had collapsed, sending a chunk of ice the size of an apartment building tumbling down the side of Everest. Sixteen climbers were killed, Tamang among them.

Everest and Lhotse were shut down for the season, so All and two of his partners headed to nearby Mount Himlung to continue their work.

From his icy seat 20 metres deep in the earth, All gasped for breath and tried to gather his thoughts. Climbers fall into crevasses all the time, but those who survive usually fall only a short way, aren’t by themselves and aren’t badly injured. All knew of only one person who had made it through a similar predicament: the mountaineer Joe Simpson, in Peru 29 years earlier.

Taking in his surroundings, All realized he wasn’t actually on a shelf but a chunk of ice that had fallen through the fissure and had become wedged between the walls. In an ever-shifting glacier, how long would it stay stuck?

All had 15 broken bones in total, he would learn later, including six crushed vertebrae. His right arm was useless, and the ribs on his right side were shattered, making every breath agony. His abdomen felt sore and stiff, a sign of internal bleeding, and he had a coppery taste in his mouth, an indication of possible kidney or liver damage.

It took All nearly 10 minutes just to wrench himself upright and squirm over to a secure perch on his block of ice. The effort left him panting. Icy air blew up from the depths of the glacier. Already he could feel his body shivering and his fingers becoming numb. By 4 p.m., the shadows cast by the high mountain peaks would leave him in the dark and unable to climb. His partners weren’t scheduled to come back to camp until the next day or the day after. By then it would be too late.

He had roughly six hours to make it to the surface and to his tent, or he would die.

All, a researcher used to keeping a record of everything he does, reached in his pocket, brought out his camera and pressed record. “Thank God I stopped on this ledge,” he said into the lens, his breath ragged, spatters of blood visible in the snow. “How do I get back up there, though?”

Where he had landed, the width of the crevasse was about two and a half metres, but looking to his right, he saw a spot dozens of metres away where the fissure appeared to narrow. If he was lucky, it just might be tight enough for him to “chimney” his way up—that is, climb by bracing his body against both sides of the crevasse until he reached the surface, all while using only one arm. On the way were a couple other ice chunks on which he could take breaks. But first he would need to use his crampons and snow axes to move across the wall of sheer ice.

All kicked the points of his crampons into the ice until they held. With his left hand, he planted one axe at eye level, then he reached the same hand across his body to plant the other axe as far to the right as possible. Clutching the first axe, he shuffled his feet to the right, kicked his crampons into the ice, shifted his weight and then grabbed the second axe, again with his left hand. His body screamed with pain, but he had moved. Now he just had to do this a few thousand times.

Stab with the axe, kick his feet, shift his weight, repeat. All was free climbing inside a crack in the mountain, trying not to dwell on the fact that one misstep would send him tumbling to his death. Instead he concentrated on getting to one of the slabs of ice that had become lodged in the crevasse, about 15 metres up.

Over the years, All had found that he functioned well in dangerous situations. He had a tattoo of a black mamba on his calf—a souvenir of the time he had kicked a two-metre-long poisonous snake in Botswana before it could strike. He tried to make the climb an academic puzzle, a question of geometry. If he could figure it out, he would live.

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Scientist John AllPhoto: Courtesy of John All

“Lying on that mountain, I realized you get only one chance to live.”

Stab, kick, shift, repeat. After about half an hour, he’d reached the higher slab of ice. He rested, gratefully gulping the meat locker–cold air into his lungs. He knew that if he didn’t make his way out, his body would likely remain inside the ice for years. Perhaps when the glacier had retreated, future generations would discover the corpse in a windbreaker and wonder what kind of person had been foolish enough to climb alone.

He started moving again, his eyes fixed on the next ice block, about 15 metres to his right. Suddenly, a jolt of inexpressible pain struck. He looked down and saw the void beneath him, the cavern disappearing into a black infinity. Against his will, the thought flashed through his mind: I’m going to die. He thought of his mother and imagined her sadness on receiving the news. Then he gathered himself again and forced himself on, stabbing the axe back into the wall.

Slowly he began to climb upward, swinging his ice tools into the walls and finding his footing, each step taking excruciating minutes as he tried to gather his energy. The crevasse was tight enough for him to chimney his way up now, and he braced his back against the wall. Stab, kick, shift, repeat.

After about four hours in the crevasse, All was within striking distance of a thin crust of snow, the glow of the sun behind it. He swung his axe upward and broke through. A tiny patch of blue sky appeared. As All cleared the snow, making the hole wider, he had the distinct feeling that he had just dug himself out of his own grave. He hauled himself up and lay there, utterly exhausted and unable to move.

Five minutes later, he staggered to his feet and immediately collapsed again. He couldn’t walk. He could barely get to his knees. That’s when he realized how much trouble he was still in.

In the Himalayas, death from hypothermia comes quickly. All was a three-minute walk from his tent, but it might as well have been three kilo­metres. You didn’t come this far to not make it, he thought. He pulled himself forward on his stomach, shivering in agony as he dragged his broken body across the ground. It was late afternoon, and two hours of crawling later, when he finally lunged into the tent. All reached for a hand-held satellite communicator. He knew he was bleeding internally and needed to be rescued soon.

The walkie-talkie–sized machine could only send messages, not make phone calls, and at the moment, it was connected to the Facebook page of an organization he’d co-founded, the American Climber Science Program. He prayed someone would see his cry for help. With numb fingers he typed out a message: “Please call Global Rescue. John broken arm, ribs, internal bleeding. Fell 70 ft crevasse. Climbed out. Himlung camp 2,” he posted. “Please hurry.”

From her house on the Big Island of Hawaii, biologist Rebecca Cole was getting ready for bed when she decided to log on to Facebook. When she saw John All’s message, she immediately recognized the severity of what had happened.

Cole and her husband, Carl Schmitt, were also co-founders of the American Climber Science Program. All was the guy they both referred to as their “charismatic megafauna”—a big, fun presence with a magnetic personality who drew people to the organization. When Cole read her friend’s cry for help, she began pinging messages across the globe, trying to arrange a helicopter rescue.

Meanwhile, on Mount Himlung, All was spending the longest night of his life. His throat was parched, but with only one working arm, he couldn’t open his water bottle. In dazed pain, he sucked down two energy gels and tried to cover his body with his sleeping bag.

Finally the sun crept up the tent, warming his chilled body. Meanwhile, Cole and a growing network of All’s friends were trying to find a rescue team that could send out a helicopter to get him.

At 10 a.m. on May 20, after 18 hours on his back—his broken body had tensed up, leaving him near paralysis—All heard the familiar whir of helicopter blades. Soon after, the tent’s door was unzipped and a Nepali rescuer poked his head through the flap. He then dragged All out on his sleeping mat before hauling him into the vehicle.

As the aircraft twisted through the Himalayas, the scientist finally allowed relief to flood through him. “I’m alive,” he whispered.

As All recovered from his injuries, he sometimes felt as if a part of him had never escaped the crevasse. In March 2015, almost a year after his near-death experience, All visited Rebecca Cole in Hawaii. He was physically healed, but Cole could see that her friend was still shaken.

One day they climbed Mauna Loa. As they trekked, it began to snow—a rarity in Hawaii— and soon they were breaking trail through a metre of it on their way to the summit. Being on a snowy mountain for the first time since his accident, and discovering that the experience still made him feel happy and at peace, marked the beginning of All’s true recovery.

All is now a professor at Western Washington University, where he is fulfilling a lifelong desire to train the next generation of climber-scientists at the Mountain Environments Research Institute, which he founded in 2016. “We all have dreams, but we usually say, ‘I’ll do it when I get a chance,’” says All. “Lying on that mountain, I realized you get only one chance to live.”

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada