News of the avalanche that swept Stephen Koch 1,600 feet over three cliff bands and destroyed most of thetendons in both knees, broke his back, and bruised his liver came as no surprise to many who know of hisSeven-Summits quest.
That he survived a night outdoors in freezing temperatures wearing a thin synthetic zipT-shirt, Alpine climbing pants, water-logged gloves, and damp boots seemed par for the course, too, as didhis anticipation of a full recovery. The shocking part was that Koch wasn’t snowboarding Mount Everestwhen he almost died April 22, 1998. He was climbing alone in his own backyard, en route to ride 5,000 feetdown the northeast snowfields of Mount Owen, the second-highest peak in the Tetons. Some view Koch’sdream to ride the Seven Summits as foolish. So far, he’s proven them wrong. Before the avalanche, he’dsummited and snowboarded Denali, Kilimanjaro, Elbrus, and Aconcagua.
The next step was Everest in the fall. In retrospect, impatience is the reason Koch’s now spending four hours a day in physical therapy insteadof planning his trip to Asia. “I should have waited for the conditions to be even better,” he says. “But I knewit would sock in soon, and that would be it for the season. I wanted to do the first descent.” When the slidebegan, Koch stepped left and planted two ice tools before the snow pushed him down and ripped off hisbackpack. His memory of the fall is blurred.
Koch recalls the popping of ligaments and a complete lack of control. “I remember being hit and I remember the acceleration. It got quiet every time I went flying in the air over a cliff, because I wasn’t rumbling around on the rocks and snow.” Koch managed to self-arrest with theone ice ax he still held. Snow forced its way into his mouth and throat, nearly choking him as he sloweddown. Koch quickly left the avalanche zone, using his less-injured left leg to kick steps, then lifting hismangled right leg into each footprint. After several hours resting in the sun, he rigged a sling for his leg, lacingpower straps from his boot through his lower buckles. Pulling on the straps, he lifted his right leg onto his leftfoot and slid 1,000 feet down a snow slope to a small cache that contained pocket warmers he’d stashedthat morning.
That night, an almost tantric concentration on breathing prevented Koch from slipping intohypothermia. Alternating between hugging his body toward his legs to keep warm and straightening out torelieve the pain of his broken back, he quickly forced air in and out of his mouth. “That’s what I did thewhole night,” he says. “I was just focusing on my breath. I’m sure it was some sort of meditative state.” Twoof Koch’s friends were worrying about him that night because he hadn’t checked in. Thinking the trip hadtaken longer than planned, or maybe Koch had returned and was out partying, they waited until the followingmorning to call park rescue rangers. Koch lost his resolve only when he saw help had come. “I got a littleteary-eyed and let go of my defenses,” remembers Koch. That’s when I started shivering and my teethchattered.” A tumble this serious would cause most people to reevaluate their goals. Koch’s reaction istypically atypical. “It didn’t make me rush out, find a wife, and start having kids,” he says. “I’ll have to seewhat it’s like back on snow, back in the mountains. I think about the dangers of avalanches, especially onEverest. The North Face is a snowy, dangerously steep slope. I’m still going for it.” -Jean Weiss