Just hours from their car, and promise of a hot shower, cold beers, and soft beds, Jim Davidson and Mike Price literally plunged into a nightmare that left one of them dead and the other struggling both to understand why his friend died and figure out how he would save himself.
It took Mr. Davidson nearly a decade to organize his thoughts and feelings to produce The Ledge, An Adventure Story of Friendship and Survival on Mount Rainier. The book, written with help from Kevin Vaughan, a finalist for a Pulitzer prize in feature writing, offered Mr. Davidson both an opportunity to search his soul for answers, honor Mr. Price, and come to terms with why he, and not his friend, survived.
Mr. Davidson tried to sort things out on June 23, 1992, two days after a snow bridge collapsed as the two descended Rainier and he fell roughly 80 feet into the hidden crevasse, stopping only when he landed on a small ice ledge. Mr. Price was unable to arrest his friend's fall and was pulled after him into the icy slot, falling and ping-ponging off the walls of the narrowing chasm before landing in a back-breaking heap.
On the 23rd, as he recovered from his ordeal at Mount Rainier National Park, Mr. Davidson wrote a letter to his friend.
Jesus man I'm sorry! I can't believe this happened to you and to us. I swear to God Mike, I didn't mean to fall into that crevasse and I certainly didn't want to pull you in behind me. ... Everyone tells me that it was all an accident and that it could have been the other way around just as easy. I suppose they're right.
I really enjoyed our climb. ... God -- weren't our bivouacs wild -- we were like real alpine hard men -- as you said, this climb should make some great stories....
I apologize if my nervousness made you mad or frustrated. Perhaps it was a lack of courage. Perhaps it was foreboding. My crevasse fear did build and build right up to the last few hours and minutes -- perhaps I knew.
I assure you that had you gone in first, I too would have dug in for all I was worth and then would have gone right in behind you. I think you know that though. I truly felt we were friends and partners.
... I shall strive to take this second chance I've been given and unfurl my wings and fly with it, not turn inward into a dark ball. I shall strive to live a strong, forward moving, vivacious life in your honor.
Take care Mike.
Your friend, Jim.
A quick read that's hard to put down, The Ledge traces Mr. Davidson's upbringing that stressed self-reliance and caution, and describes where Mr. Price developed his love for adventure and the outdoors.
The two met through mutual climbing friends in Fort Collins, Colorado, and quickly found a bond in sharing challenges in the mountains. The decision to climb Mount Rainier up the technically demanding Liberty Ridge route was not an easy one, as they realized the mountain's challenges and dangers -- ice, avalanches, and crevasses. "For us, earning rewards in adventure and personal growth means challenging ourselves with bigger mountains and, sometimes, bigger risks," Mr. Davidson explained in recounting their decision to head to Rainier.
Understanding life and death is never easy. Many wonder why a friend or family member died and they survived. A split second here or there and the outcome of an accident might have been much different. Had Mr. Davidson been belaying Mr. Price as they headed down the mountain, perhaps his greater weight would have made the difference in being able to set an anchor.
As he shivered 80 feet deep in that crevasse on Rainier with his friend dead at his feet, all those thoughts and more went through Mr. Davidson's head. Looming over them all was how he would climb back out. Staring up at the tiny band of daylight that marked where he fell into the crevasse and which now represented life, the climber struggled with his self-doubt in a mental conversation.
My eyes travel up the steep walls of the crevasse again. As I ponder trying to climb out, doubt swells in my mind.
You've never climbed anything like this in your life. What makes you think you can climb it now, all beat up and scared? Without any mistakes? If something goes wrong, you'll wind up at the bottom of this crevasse. Alone. Corked. That's where you'll stay.
I have never led or even followed anything this steep before. But logically I know I have only one chance, and that is to act.
You should climb out now, while you still can.
Emotionally, I still can't accept the idea.
But if I try climbing out now, then I take the huge risk now. I'll just wait and take the risk tomorrow if I have to, but I'm not going to take it now if I don't have to.
I recognize what's going on: Part of me is trying to talk myself out of climbing, to avoid the risk and the commitment. Another part of me, meanwhile, lays the situation out bluntly:
You won't be able to climb tomorrow. Either the ledge you're standing on will collapse, the snow bridge above will fall on you, your spirit's going to be crushed, or something else will happen. If you wait until tomorrow, you won't be able to climb out. If you're going to get out, you have to do it yourself. Today.
The details of the duo's climb up Liberty Ridge, and Mr. Davidson's solo ascent up and out of the crevasse -- with Mr. Price's encouragement that he could make it floating in his mind -- are riveting reading, pure adrenalin-pumping adventure. Just as riveting are the sections that explain the personal anquish and struggles Mr. Davidson grappled with in coming to terms with his friend's death, his survival, and his eventual decision to return to climbing mountains.
Mike and I each embraced a life that put us on Rainier, together. On the mountain, Mike and I swapped the lead every hour or so, alternating maybe thirty or forty times over four days. Why was I on the lead then instead of Mike? I don't know. Why did that snow bridge cave in beneath my feet when a thousand others did not? I don't know. I'll always wonder about those things. But gradually I come to accept that those are the ifs and what-ifs I'll never know the answers to. I'm stuck with that, so I must live with it.