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Climber rescued from Tower Rock, ‘I was probably gonna die’

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GIFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST, Wash. -- A climber rescued from Tower Rock in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest more than 1,000 feet up was dangling in his harness for nearly 10 hours. Rescue volunteers say  it could have turned out very differently for the recreational climber.

The 24-year-old had a lot of time to think, “Whether or not if I decided to try cutting the rope if the fall would kill me, but you know I decided that it definitely would.”

After nearly 10 hours, dangling in a harness 1,000 feet up, his options began to dwindle.

“Just thinking about, you know, that I was probably gonna die, and how I was gonna die," Stephen said.

Stephen is a recreational climber. He didn’t want his last name used, but says he and his friend set out to climb Tower Rock at about 10 a.m. on Wednesday, July 17th. The two hiked up a trail and came to the top of the rock instead of the base.

“He would leave off the top and hike down and I would rappel down and we would just meet at the road so that’s how we got separated.”

While Stephen was rappelling down, things took a turn.

“I couldn’t really reach to grab any rock or push myself to swing more. I was just kind of flailing around.”

His friend was getting help. Stephen was left alone with his thoughts for roughly 10 hours.

“There was a point I was thinking maybe I should write something on the memos of his phone in case I don’t live, but I didn’t actually do that so I guess I was still hopeful.”

Flailing in free space, this was no longer a race down the rock face but instead, a race against time.

“My legs definitely were getting numb and definitely got more numb as the hours went on and tingly.”

Little did he know, the volunteers of Tacoma Mountain Rescue were already mobilizing.

“You’re at high risk for something called suspension syndrome...”

TMR's Operation's Chair Justin Ramsey says when they get this kind of call,  “if you know that there’s a subject that has been missing for a short amount of time and they are in good condition, those are the ones you stop—you put your fork down in the middle of a meal and you start getting ready.”

The cold, wind and rain all made this extremely rare rescue even more challenging.

“A mid face pick-off is what we call this in mountain rescue… It’s a unicorn, you train to it," Ramsey says.

The team of nine volunteers made the more than a mile hike with hundreds of pounds of gear, taking them roughly more than an hour to get to Stephen and start pulling him back up.

“Once we heard he was awake and talking and even cracking jokes with our line attendant it was very very reassuring at that point in time. There were quite literally a bunch of high fives.”

Once the climber was back on solid ground, Dr. Ben Constance, with the help of an emergency physician from Olympic Mountain Rescue, assessed Stephen.

“Immediately started warming him, giving him IV fluids, electrolytes, sugar and glucose in order to give his body energy to continue to shiver and keep himself warm, medication for nausea, for pain—and then just seeing how he responds.”

Stephen miraculously was able to hike himself back off the mountain, with very little injury. Dr. Constance says he was cold, dehydrated and had some early muscle breakdown.

“There are many reasons why he shouldn’t have survived this incident. The fact that he created the leg loops to start equalizing some of the pressure on his legs and to get the circulation into his body and get the circulation moving is really what saved his life.”

While TMR is giving Stephen credit, Stephen won’t soon forget what those volunteers risked for him Wednesday night. One of the team members even broke his ankle on the way back out.

“I’m thankful for them and they are doing great work. I am glad there are people like them around to keep us all safe on the rocks.”

TMR, along with other search and rescue groups across the state, are volunteer based and are funded through donations.

For more information or to donate, click here: Tacoma Mountain Rescue.

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