Despite the early November chill, it was a relatively bluebird day in Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness. Ryan Cairnes was there for what was to be a short peakbagging trip in the Enchantments, a particularly stunning area of the Cascades that boasts a pair of lake-filled basins ringed by a collection of steep, glaciated peaks. He planned to stay the night, so carried a 45-pound pack that included a helmet, crampons, ice axe, four-season tent, and zero-degree sleeping bag. The weight wasn’t an issue, though; Cairnes had just completed a month-long challenge with his buddies—no booze, healthy eating, and frequent workouts. He felt strong.
While he hoped some of those same friends might be able to join this dream trip to knock off a few entries from what’s known as the Bulger List, a collection of Washington’s hundred most prominent peaks, Cairnes struck out. So he decided to roll solo, feeling extremely lucky to score such an incredible weather window—and grateful that he didn’t have to jockey for a permit, since the season for those had wrapped only two days before. “People told me I won the lottery,” says Cairnes. “And I’m like, I did win the lottery—for my life.”
“You’re falling off a cliff and people don’t survive this; you’re about to die.”
Cairnes was an outdoorsy kind of kid, having spent summers rock-hopping and daydreaming along the Susquehanna River in the Pennsylvania backcountry. But after college, he became an urbanite, eventually landing in Seattle where he took a job with Microsoft. But a rough breakup a year and a half ago inspired him to resurrect those childhood joys and better appreciate Washington’s famed natural resources.
When his pursuits morphed from simple camping trips into “things that scare you,” Cairnes joined The Mountaineers, a Seattle non-profit dedicated to outdoor education, conservation, and recreation. He embarked on trips with others who shared his interests, taking the sharp end during climbs of Mount Olympus and Mount Rainier. Cairnes also furthered his education with the organization’s Basic Alpine Climbing Course, which covers topics like routefinding, snow travel, emergency bivouacs, and mountaineering-specific first aid; he couldn’t have imagined that these skills would help save his life only a few months after completing the course.
Back in the Enchantments, Cairnes departed the trail at Colchuck Lake. He’d also leave the crowds behind here, spotting only a few others while ascending toward Aasgard Pass and the day’s first summit, Dragontail Peak. Cairnes saw a group stop ahead of him to set up a belay; realizing that the ground ahead was slicked with ice, he unearthed his crampons and ice axe, then carefully picked his way up. Later, he’d learn that a climber died a few days earlier while descending from the pass.
Further along the ridgeline atop Little Annapurna, Cairnes paused to appreciate a distant Mount Rainier bathed in sunset alpenglow, acutely conscious that not many people get to witness such grandeur. As the light faded, he made his way to a bench perched above a smattering of gemstone lakes. Though the night was cold and windy, Cairnes was cozy in his winter bag, warmed not just by the down, but also by a day of perfect pleasure-seeking in the mountains.
Cairnes woke with the sun, then visited McClellan Peak and returned to break camp before continuing to Enchantment Peak. He was surprised by how fast he was moving that day, but feeling good, and continued toward Cannon Mountain, his final summit. Cairnes was following a rough GPS track he’d downloaded, but even so, he was careful to pick the safest route around any sketchy bits, and arrived on top around 4pm without incident. He considered calling his mom, but texted instead as his phone battery was dwindling.
Cairnes saw darkness quickly approaching. He moved 2000’ down a sandy gully before encountering a field of boulders—shoulder-height at their smallest, two stories tall at their largest. Fighting through would slow his pace, so Cairnes stayed high. Eventually, he reached an area he’d need to downclimb for a short bit in order to avoid steep ice. Checking that he wasn’t too far off the GPS route, Cairnes faced the slope, placing his left hand on a solid hold. But as he lowered down, something went wrong. He slipped, then began to careen down the mountainside, falling for 300 feet.
Cairnes was lucid for the entire fall. “I just had this disappointment in my head, like, you knew better than this,” he says. “You’re falling off a cliff and people don’t survive this; you’re about to die.”
Instead, his body slammed into a boulder. Stunned by the impact, Cairnes struggled to breathe. He was confused—what happened? He slid off his pack and attempted to stand, but his legs wouldn’t cooperate. His head hurt. His ribs moved in a strange rhythm inside his chest cavity. He could feel blood spurting from his legs.
And then, a realization—You were climbing down a mountain and you fell off of it.
He was coherent enough to remember seeing a headlamp flash from somewhere above, so Cairnes knew there was at least one other person on the mountain. Unable to move, he painfully winched his sleeping bag from his pack, maneuvered his battered body inside, then set an emergency light to blink behind his head. And then he gave in to fitful sleep interrupted by the rumbles of nearby rockfall and a recurring dream that he just couldn’t get comfortable at home in bed.
The next morning, Cairnes awoke to a much louder, more ominous sound. Though he couldn’t crane his head to investigate its source, once football-sized rocks began sailing overhead, he realized that he hadn’t moved an inch from his fall line. He covered his head with his arms—better to crush those bones than his skull. The gully above was unstable and would continue to deteriorate as the sun loosened the ice; he needed to move.
Walking was not an option. He didn’t know it then, but Cairnes had fractured his right patella. Instead, he rolled onto his stomach and pushed against the ground until his chest lifted. Dragging his sleeping bag, puffy, and rain jacket, he inched toward a vertical wall that might shelter him from the rockfall. Upon arrival, Cairnes began convulsing; he was in shock. Spent from the exertion, it was all he could do to eventually work his body back into the bag and fall asleep.
Hours later, Cairnes awoke, hungry and dehydrated. He’d depleted his water and snacks during yesterday’s descent. His brain returned to survival mode: no matter what it takes, get yourself to water. There was a stream about 200’ away so he dragged himself over. The journey was excruciating. Cairnes collapsed after gulping down a cup, maybe two of water. He laid down once more, wedging his body against rocks to avoid slipping further down the slope.
As night approached, Cairnes realized that there would be no rescue today. His thoughts began to spiral. “I start asking myself: Who knows I’m out here?” he says. “I started getting really bummed out. I remember telling myself—and I know it’s not the case—that I’m here by myself, and nobody cares about me.”
Cairnes also took stock of his surroundings—the starlit alpine, a place he’d come to love, where he felt the freedom to be his fullest self. “You know, people don’t get to choose when they die and where they die,” he remembers telling himself. “If you go now, this is pretty magical, man. At least you had a good run.”
But guilt proved a stronger motivator than complacency—What if I die out here? How could I do this to my friends and family? Cairnes resolved to try and rescue himself. After another night of nightmarish sleep, he used boulders and tree branches to hoist himself over to his backpack to grab his phone. Fashioning a walking stick from a downed tree, he began limping down the mountain, inch by inch, disassociating with each painful step.
After hours spent inching downward, Cairnes perked to the sound of helicopter blades whirring nearby. He laid down perpendicular to his sleeping bag, hoping rescuers would spot him from above—a tattered, bloody X-marks-the-spot. Instead, time and time again, the copter veered away just before reaching him. Facing a third night out—one his weakened body might not survive—Cairnes steeled for one final push toward the trail. His mantra was simple: Don’t fall. Don’t fall. Don’t fall.
In a fantastic stroke of luck, when Cairnes finally stumbled across a trail, it was moments before he spotted headlamps shining to the left—two members of the search and rescue team, along with a pair of nurses. They gave him food and Gatorade. He knew the ordeal was over. Later, the trauma surgeon would be shocked that not a single one of Cairnes’ multiple injuries—including a fractured sternum, patella, ankle, and C7 vertebra, along with deep lacerations across his body—required his services.
Cairnes isn’t sure how or why he survived a 300-foot fall down an icy mountainside. He acknowledges the things that he did right—technical training, good trip planning, appropriate gear. And he figures that his helmet and pack helped cushion his short stint as a human pinball. But still, the questions gnaw at him. “People aren’t that lucky,” he says. “I just had this thought: Man, someone’s looking out for you.”
The experience changed him, as it would anybody. Cairnes knows that for all of the things he did right, he also made some mistakes. He didn’t have a partner. He didn’t bring a personal locator beacon or satellite communication device. He didn’t carry enough food or water. He didn’t leave a detailed plan with anyone. And perhaps most of all, he rushed on the descent. He vows that he’ll be better prepared in the future.
But Cairnes also knows that he’s incredibly lucky—and he’s not about to take that for granted. Inspired by his experience, and especially by the selfless actions of his eventual rescuers, he plans to tighten his skills and pursue additional training not just to benefit himself during future outings, but also to help train others on how to be safe in the mountains—and to help them tap into that same sense of wonder he experiences outdoors. “I said—Ryan, you weren’t given this lottery ticket just to think about you, right? You were given it to do something bigger.”
all photos courtesy Ryan Cairnes