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May 09, 2013 8:53 am

Harrowing night: Ice climber breaks legs, lives to tell tale

Written by Dante Geoffrey

Kenneth Richmond, 54, poses underneath Curtains, an ice waterfall on Carter Mountain. Richmond broke his right ankle and both legs May 1 after falling approximately 50 feet down the first pitch of High On Boulder. He is in good condition and waiting surgery to repair his legs. Kenneth Richmond, 54, poses underneath Curtains, an ice waterfall on Carter Mountain. Richmond broke his right ankle and both legs May 1 after falling approximately 50 feet down the first pitch of High On Boulder. He is in good condition and waiting surgery to repair his legs. Courtesy photo/Kenneth Richmond

Karen Richmond wasn’t sure what to expect when her husband Kenneth left their Powell home the morning of May 1. But in their 32 years of marriage, she’s come to expect (if not fully accept) the unexpected.

“He’s trained me for all those years not to worry, because he’s never done things normally,” Karen said over the phone Wednesday.

Just one week earlier, on May 1, her husband — a general contractor by trade and generally unpredictable by nature — was hiking through the South Fork, crossing the no-longer-frozen Shoshone River and heading to what nearly was the last place he’d ever take a breath.

“I was relying on not getting hurt. I was relying on rubbing it into a friend, ‘Hey, you missed out on some great ice!’” Richmond said from his blue recliner Monday, his casted legs covered with a blanket.

Kenneth, 54, has been ice climbing for only two years, but he has trained with professionals and has extensive rock climbing experience. He knew what he was doing. He was chasing one last good climb before the season was over for good.

His morning began with a brief climb up the first pitch of the ice fall Chasing The Sun, but the ice wasn’t up to par so Kenneth headed back down.

“I wasn’t sure where I was going to go, but I knew High On Boulder (a popular three-pitch fall that sits atop a deep drainage south of the river) would probably draw me that way,” Kenneth said.

Back in the valley, Kenneth scoped out the fall he’d been wanting to climb since last year.

“I had my field glasses (binoculars) and I looked at High On Boulder and it just looked beautiful,” he said. “It was like dangling a carrot in front of me.”

Kenneth couldn’t resist. He took the bait and began his hour-long approach up the gully, and by mid-afternoon he had made his first incision into the ice face.

Had he been leading the climb, as he often does, he would have been methodical, carefully planning his route and making sure that he and those beneath him were safe and secure.

“I was doing a solo climb, freestyle. I had no anchors, no ice screws in,” he said. “It was just so featured, I was thinking, ‘I can do this, no problem.’”

Kenneth was almost to the crest of the first pitch when he encountered his first problem.

“I got up almost to the crutch and I had sunk my (left) ice pick to China,” he said. His right axe plunged into the ice next, but didn’t feel completely secure. Kenneth said he had thought about resetting it but assumed it would be fine.

It wasn’t.

THE FALL

Kenneth had to really work to get his left axe out, his whole body straining to remove the only thing keeping him from a free fall. But Kenneth is strong, and he eventually released the axe from the ice’s frozen grip, and in doing so released his entire body from contact with solid matter.

“It’s OK,” Kenneth thought in that moment. “I’ve free-fallen before; I’ll just let the rope catch me like it’s done many times before.” A split second later: “Oh, there is no rope.”

The next thing Kenneth knew, he was sliding down the ice flow with nothing to break his fall. But when he finally stopped some 50 feet below, a funny thing happened. He felt fine.

Surprised that he felt no pain, Kenneth thought he had caught a lucky break and was ready to restart his climb, but a few moments later he saw that his breaks were threefold, and not of the fortunate kind.

“I’m moving myself; ‘That didn’t hurt. I’m going to do this again!’” Kenneth said. But when his legs wouldn’t follow his brain’s orders, he knew something was wrong. “I look down at my (feet), I’m going, ‘I guess I’m not going to do that.’”

Both of his legs were broken and the skin of his right ankle was pierced due to a compound fracture. He wasn’t walking out of there on his own.

Now the game had changed. What started as a personal challenge to overcome man’s limitations in nature had turned into an immediate threat to Kenneth’s mortality.

Not wasting any time, Kenneth began to plan how he would at least get off the ice flow. “It’s going to suck all the heat out of me.”

With his crampons removed and his butt planted on his backpack, Kenneth was able to pull himself around the slick floor with his axes. To keep his legs from slowing him down, he tethered the knees of his pants to the gear on his chest so that when he leaned back, his legs lifted off the ground.

Kenneth was able to pull himself about 200 feet down the drainage before loose rocks “like ball bearings” made any attempt to travel further too dangerous. He pulled himself off the ice and on top of a rock that would serve as his kitchen, gym and bed for the night.

It was about 4 p.m., and “I knew I was going to spend the night,” Kenneth said.

THE NIGHT

The wind and cold came quickly, and Kenneth began to shiver. Ever the problem-solver (albeit for problems he sometimes helped create), Kenneth began to exercise. He alternated between sit ups and leg lifts to keep warm. That would stop the shivering for about 15 minutes, after which he’d do the routine again.

“I would take that cold and that wind until I couldn’t take it anymore then I would lay down,” he said. “When I couldn’t take the cold ground no more then I would do my sit ups.”

Kenneth passed the time by looking up at the sky and shaking his water bottle so the water wouldn’t freeze. He remained focused and did his best to remain warm.

“Throughout that night, I watched the stars and I probably did get a little bit of sleep, but I don’t remember sleeping. It was just a matter of me staying conscious and keeping the chill down.”

Kenneth’s mind wandered here and there, eventually touching on the inevitable topic of death.

“‘This could be it.’ I thought that for quite a while,” he said.

It was freezing, his legs were useless, and he was in grizzly bear country.

“I’m thinking, ‘Am I really alive? Is this really happening?’” Kenneth said.

He was alive. And it really was happening — a reality hard for anyone to swallow. But Kenneth’s anger fueled his will to persist.

“I would literally just get mad. And grit (my) teeth and just holler.” Kenneth growled from his La-Z Boy. “No one can get mad at yourself like yourself. And by getting mad at yourself you can make yourself do things that you probably wouldn’t do otherwise.

“I was mad at myself because I am a person who is very active and I can’t do nothing. And probably mad at myself for doing something stupid.”

Early in the morning, Kenneth began wondering who, if anyone, was coming for him.

He had left a message with his buddies Kenny Gasch and Jon Bates at Jackson Hole Mountain Guides in Cody.

The only other person that knew of his general whereabouts was his wife. But Kenneth questioned how much help she could be. Not because Karen didn’t care, but because at this point, she knew better.

“When we were first married it drove me crazy because I worried all the time,” Karen said.

“I knew, because of the years of doing this kind of stuff, that my wife would probably not be worried about me until midnight at least,” he said.

But it was well past midnight and Kenneth saw no headlamps, and he started to wonder if maybe his wife had had enough of this.

“Oh man, she’s probably so mad at me she probably kissed me off!” he thought. But Kenneth tried to remain positive. “If I can make it to the morning, I’ll probably make it.”

Kenneth spent the rest of his night listening to jet planes overhead and ice columns collapsing at uncomfortably close distances, wondering if a tumbling chunk of ice would end him before the harsh cold could.

And he waited.

“Everything hinged on my wife,” he said. “So I’m sitting there all night long calling out, ‘Babydoll, babydoll, I hope you called the calvary.’”

THE RESCUE

Back home, Karen was proving Kenneth right. She was “kissed off.”

“By 11 o’clock, I was pretty mad. By 12 o’clock, I was REALLY mad. By 2 a.m., I knew something was wrong,” she said.

She called the couple’s oldest son, Kade, a former Search and Rescue member and current Powell Police officer.

Kade gave her the number of Gasch, Cody director of Jackson Hole Mountain Guides, and the man Karen would later call her hero.

“I knew if Jackson Hole Mountain Guides (were called), things would get taken care of,” Kenneth said.

Gasch and Bates left Cody for the South Fork around 6 a.m. Thursday morning. Park County Search and Rescue was not far behind.

Meanwhile, Karen remained at home, still without sleep and wondering when she’d get the call no one wants to pick up.

“I kept thinking they’d call me and tell me they just found his body,” she said.

But back on the lonely mountainside, Kenneth heard a sound of hope.

“I was laying on my back, just thinking, and I heard the plane go by, and that’s what made me sit up.”

Kenneth began waving his arms back and forth hoping he’d be spotted amongst the rocks and trees.

“In the movies, if they see you they dip their wing tips ... well that didn’t happen,” Kenneth said.

So Kenneth kept waving, and the plane continued to miss him. But Gasch and Bates didn’t.

They had been walking along the Shoshone River when Gasch saw Kenneth’s beckoning arms.

“I was amazed,” Gasch said. “When I first spotted him, I said to John, ‘I got him! I got him and he’s alive!’”

Gasch and Bates raced up the mountain, communicating with Kenneth by whoops and whistles.

“I could see two guys just moving across that valley floor. Finally I could make out it was John and Kenny and, yeah, they were a good sight to see,” Kenneth said, his voice getting softer.

Once they reached Kenneth, Gasch and Bates were able to go into action. Kenneth’s legs were stabilized with an air cast, and he was given a blanket, jacket and a thermos of hot tea. A fire was built to his side.

“It was quite rewarding to see those professionals in their element, rescuing somebody. They’re out there risking themselves, but it’s rewarding to know that there’s people out there to help you,” Kenneth said.

Gasch was surprised Kenneth was found in such good condition.

“The reality of it is he’s lucky he wasn’t killed in the fall. Just to survive the fall alone with only broken ankles. He’s one lucky boy,” Gasch said.

Kenneth fell asleep on a gurney before he was even off the mountain. He was taken to West Park Hospital in Cody, where he saw his wife again for the first time since he left his Powell home.

“When I saw him he was smiling and happy,” Karen said.

Kenneth welcomed the sight of his wife.

“I told her I needed a big smooch because ‘you’re the one that called the calvary,’” he said.

Kenneth still faces at least two surgeries to repair his broken legs and ankle. Even after the harrowing near-death experience, he already has his sights on his next climb.

Gasch hopes Kenneth learns from his mistake.

“File a flight plan. Let people know where you’re going, what time you plan on going and what time you plan to be out,” he said.

Karen understands her husband’s desire to resume his active lifestyle, though she doesn’t necessarily endorse his decisions.

“He’ll keep living his life, and I don’t try to control him, because it’s impossible.”

But she may not be as eager to send in the cavalry a second time.

“The next time he doesn’t show up, I think I’ll just go to bed and go to sleep. If he ever does anything that stupid again ... oh brother.”

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