Climbing 40 feet out of an icy cold glacial crevasse and then walking three miles off-trail for help — all with a broken back — was an excruciatingly painful experience last week for Ted Porter, but he feels fortunate because it could have been so much worse.
What if he wasn’t carrying an ice ax or crampons? What if he had broken an arm or a leg? What if he had been knocked unconscious? What if he didn’t find the campers who helped him survive a night in Glacier National Park and enable his rescue by rangers, ALERT helicopter and the medical staff at Kalispell Regional Medical Center?
“The injuries were extremely severe. The doctors and nurses said just how lucky I am to be alive,” Porter said Thursday in an interview from the Kalispell hospital. “If I would have had any more injuries, that would have been it for me.”
After hiking in Glacier for about a week with his parents, the 36-year-old from Los Angeles set out on a solo hike to Jackson Glacier and Mount Jackson on the morning of Sept. 3.
He got a late start but set a brisk pace on the 6.2-mile hike to Gunsight Lake. Along the way, he passed a group of hikers with full backpacks who appeared to be on an overnight trip, probably to the campground at the lake.
Another 1.8 miles brought him to the backcountry Jackson Glacier Overlook, and from there he set out on a route to Mount Jackson that would take him across the glacier with the hopes that he would get a good view of Harrison Glacier.
Porter’s parents first brought him to the park when he was a baby, and they frequently returned. His father had worked at the Many Glacier Hotel when he was a young man, and just two years ago, Porter himself worked there. He had attended the University of Montana and had considerable mountaineering and backcountry experience.
“So I’m definitely familiar with the park, and I’m not just some Angeleno who rolled up here and didn’t know what’s going on,” Porter said, adding that he has hiked alone in the park many times.
Carrying a day pack, using trekking poles and wearing crampons on his boots, Porter traversed Jackson Glacier along its lowest edge, walking among refrigerator-sized ice chunks that had broken off the upper part of the glacier.
At the far end of the glacier, Porter found a good spot to get back on the rocky terrain, where he took off his crampons and tossed some rocks onto the ice to mark a spot to get back on the glacier for his return trip. Rain began to fall as he started a short ascent of Mount Jackson.
But he found himself climbing up uneven, terraced ledges that were getting slick in the rain. It was about 4:30 p.m., and he was only about 40 feet above the glacier when he decided it was late in the day.
“I decided it was a good idea to come down ... it was wet and I had already slipped on one of these ledges. It just wasn’t wise to be up there,” Porter recalled.
But his descent took a different route, bringing him to the bergschrund — an area at the top of the glacier where the ice is making contact and separating from the mountainside.
“I found a part of the glacier that was butted right up against the rock ... and I could just climb right onto the glacier from there,” he said.
Moments after Porter set foot on the top of Jackson Glacier to begin his hike back to Logan Pass, he started to sense that he had made a mistake.
“I jumped on the glacier, and I was just wearing my boots and I was not wearing my crampons or my ice ax. ... That proved to be huge mistake,” he said. “I was just standing on the glacier, and my thought was I could just kind of boot ski out.”
But he didn’t get a chance to make that choice: He slipped on the ice.
“I just started careening down the glacier and I can’t stop. I’m sliding and I’m trying to boot ski as much as possible. ... I couldn’t stop sliding and this big crevasse just [approached] right in front of me and there was nothing I could do to stop myself.
“I just dropped right into the crevasse,” he said. “From what I remember, it was violent and fast. I hit the front side, the far wall, and bounced back and I must have just dropped straight down, and I ended up on my butt and my legs with a broken back. I just knew something was severely wrong. The pain was unbelievable.”
Porter estimates he fell about 40 feet down. He could move his legs and arms and his head. He was able to see daylight above. He had his ice ax and crampons in his pack.
He began to plot a way out.
“I thought, ‘How do I get out this alive and fast?’” Porter said. “I had everything in my backpack I needed. I thought if I don’t get out of here now, I’m not going to get out alive.”
Porter was on a shelf of sorts. To his left, it was much too steep to climb up. To his right, the ice wall had a shallower grade, but reaching it would require him to use a short snow bridge — and if that bridge gave way, he would have fallen deeper below the glacier.
At one point, Porter used his cellphone to make a 35-second goodbye video.
“I wanted to document that I fell down the crevasse,” he said “I was hoping that somebody would find my phone.”
Porter thought he might be found because his parents, who had flown back to their home in Kansas City the day before, knew that he was going to Jackson Glacier.
“I said, ‘I fell down the crevasse, my back is very badly injured.’ ... I said, If I don’t see you again, I want you to know I love you very much,’” Porter said of his video.
“He was afraid he wasn’t going to get out,” said his mom, Cindy Porter, who flew back to Kalispell to be with her injured son at the hospital. “That’s a pretty hairy thing to watch. He was basically saying goodbye to Mom and Dad. It’s hard to watch.”
The situation was very much like that of a climber who got stuck in a slot canyon in Utah several years ago, requiring him to amputate his own arm to get out. Porter has seen that story portrayed in the movie, “127 Hours,” featuring actor James Franco. In the movie, Franco’s character uses a video camera to film parts of his ordeal.
“It was just like that,” Porter said. “I didn’t have to saw off my arm, but I tell you what, it wasn’t too far away from that.”
After strapping on his crampons, Porter was ready to make an attempt at climbing out of the crevasse.
“That little snow bridge helped me gain access to that ramp, but I had to make sure it held,” he said.
And it did.
With his right hand he swung the ice ax into the crevasse wall, and it stuck. With his left hand he clawed at the ice as hard as he could and began climbing toward the sunlight.
“It didn’t take very long. The pain was indescribable,” he said.
Porter estimates it took about 25 minutes from the time he fell into the crevasse to the time he emerged at the top. Once there, he saw that there was yet another crevasse about 12 feet downslope, requiring him to remain prone and traverse very cautiously to avoid it. And from there, he was able to descend the glacier using his ice ax as a crutch.
Most of the three miles back to Gunsight Lake involved navigating through vegetation, rocks, boulders and loose talus. “I slipped and hit my hip really hard, which was terrible,” he recalled.
About the last mile of the journey was on trail, and Porter was desperately hoping the people he saw earlier would be camping at the lake.
“So many people were instrumental in helping me get through this ordeal,” he said. There were about eight to 12 people at the camp, he said, and they provided him with food and water and a makeshift shelter. They attempted to immobilize him to avoid any further damage to his back, and one man checked on him twice overnight.
He lay down at 9:15 p.m. and did not get off the ground until the next morning. Three campers hiked out early in the morning and encountered a backcountry ranger on the trail who called for help. A woman at the camp, whose name Porter can’t recall, held his hand all morning.
The ALERT helicopter flew in about 10 a.m., transporting him to the hospital where he has had three surgeries.
Porter said one lumbar vertebra in his lower back was “totally crushed” and another was damaged.
He said a doctor told him that his spinal cord was only a couple of millimeters from being damaged to a point where he would have had partial or total paralysis of his legs.
As part of his recovery, he must wear a cumbersome back brace, and he has been undergoing physical therapy. He has been visited by people involved with his rescue.
“Everybody at this hospital has been absolutely incredible. Everybody from the life flight guys to the people at the campsite. Everybody has been instrumental in me still being here. That’s a huge part of my story,” Porter said.
“It’s a miracle he’s alive,” his mother said. “If he had broken his legs or his arms, he wouldn’t have been able to climb out, or if he had been knocked unconscious.”
When Porter is released from the hospital, probably before the end of the week, his parents intend to fly him to Kansas City so that he can continue his recovery with them.
Porter has established a website to help raise money to cover his extensive medical costs at: https://www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/vz03/ted-porter-friends-and-family-fund.