On June 6, 2006, Michael Andereggen—an alpine guide and graduate of the Swiss Army’s survival training program—started up Canada’s 11,624-foot Mount Temple with his climbing partner, Kyle Smith. They planned to summit via the East Ridge and were prepared to bivouac. But on the descent, after 18 hours of climbing, Andereggen, 31, lost his footing and fell 34 stories, leaving him semiconscious and alone.
"It was the snow and cold that I noticed when I first came to. My face was badly beaten, my eyes were almost swollen shut. I had fallen 400 feet down the snowfield-scree slope. My climbing rope had coiled around me, arresting my fall and keeping me from dropping over the Big Step, a distance of 600 feet. The rope must have caught on a nub, because when I pulled on it, it came loose and I slid a body length down the slope. From then on I knew I had to remain very still. Exhausted, I drifted off to sleep.
"When I awoke, I realized my pack containing warm clothing and food was missing. I was lying on melting snow, and my pants, jacket, and base layer were wet. The rope wrapped around my torso was my only means of retaining body heat. I crisscrossed my arms over my chest, but I couldn’t do anything for my legs or feet. I didn’t have the strength to bring my knees to my chest. Instead, I flexed my leg muscles just to get some blood flowing.
"Kyle was my only hope of rescue. But he had a difficult journey back to the lodge, made harder because I had our only rope. I knew that I probably wouldn’t last another 24 hours in my condition. I was tired and couldn’t stay awake. (I later learned that my core temp had dropped below 85ºF, a state of profound hypothermia.)
"I wondered if I would be rescued. I wondered if I would ever recover. I wondered if I should just cut the rope that held me in place. It seemed a rational trade-off: an end to my suffering versus a struggle in recovery. Would I be able to climb again, to ski again? I decided then that if I did not have help before nightfall on the second day, I would cut the rope rather than slowly freeze.
"As I grew weaker, it took more energy to concentrate on staying warm, to wait for the morning. I thought of a warm sanctuary and tried to keep awake, to hold on to my rope.
"When I woke up next, I felt warm. The sun was up. Though faint at first, I heard a noise in the distance. Was it getting louder or was I imagining it? I still could not see well, but I knew I had to do something. Summoning all my strength, I waved in the direction of the sound. Please see me, please help me! Then, a voice. ‘Are you all right?’ It was the park warden. Overcome with emotion, I let myself relax and started to sob."
—As Told to Douglas D. Ofiara
Analysis: Michael has great training. But experience doesn’t give you a get-out-of-jail-free card. Anyone who climbs radical slopes for 18 hours will be impaired. However, once in trouble, Michael adopts the only strategy he can: He does the next right thing, remains logical, and takes on an attitude of survival by surrender. He admits he may die.