How two Adirondackers came back after near-fatal falls
One day in February 2017, Matt Horner, then 47, was using crampons and a pair of axes to pick his way up Rhiannon, an Adirondack ice-climbing route on the cliffs that form the far side of Chapel Pond. The pond is a small, calm body of water beside Route 73 at the foot of the Great Range. As far as ice climbs go, its cliffs are best known for Chouinard’s Gully, first climbed by Yvon Chouinard, the man known for starting the clothing company Patagonia and the equipment company Black Diamond.
It’s more common for ice climbs to be named by their first climbers, rather than for them. As for Rhiannon, maybe some climbers in 1987 had a thing for Fleetwood Mac. Thirty years later, Matt, a professional guide, was leading his way up the route for a longtime client. She belayed him as he went. At the top, he would get situated and then guide her up. The climb is about 200 feet, and Matt knew he could do it in one push; he had climbed it many times before.
But not that day. When he was about 120 feet off the ground, for some reason, he blacked out. “I woke up a second later,” he recounts, “and I was upside down, facing away from the ice. I was falling like a lawn dart.”
Matt had just placed a large metal screw in the ice below him and clipped his rope into it. It was a pro forma measure to protect him from such a fall. Guides tend to use fewer of them than recreational climbers because they know the climb and their abilities well and they don’t want their clients to freeze while removing too many screws on the way up. He had since climbed about 25 feet, so his rope wouldn’t arrest him until he fell that distance below the screw when the rope started to pull on it and then stretch. By this math, he would fall for almost 60 feet, but only if the screw wasn’t ripped from the ice and his client could stop the rope from paying out under a shock load.
It all worked. The screw didn’t pull out. His client held the rope steady in her belay device as it yanked at her. Matt thinks this was because when he finally twisted and then hit the ice, most of the impact was absorbed by his face. After the shock wore off, he marveled at the blood everywhere. He was elated that he was alive, but he was still 60 feet off the ground, dangling from a rope, and his brain was bleeding.
I know how Matt felt. In June 2018, I was 13 miles north of Chapel Pond on Route 73, riding a triathlon bike. It was a training ride: I was finishing up the 56-mile loop for Lake Placid’s new half-Ironman. For me, it would end with a steady descent from Cascade Pass down into Keene. My wife and children were at home waiting for me. The hard part of the ride was over, and now I would let gravity do the work.
After half a mile of gradually increasing speed, something went wrong. The pavement, the wheels, the fork, the frame and my body: they all worked with each other to produce a harmonic vibration that just got worse and worse until the shaking was downright violent. I checked my speed. Forty-five miles an hour. I had just bought the bike used, and I had never gone that fast on it before. I brought my body out of an aero tuck and distinctly recall thinking, calmly like a pilot, that I had to slow the bike down. Looking out ahead, I noted Owls Head Mountain in the distance. Then nothing else.
I have a hazy memory of someone asking me if I was OK and looking up at them, embarrassed to have fallen. A couple put me in the back of their car. Boy Scouts stopped and tried to help. Or so the state troopers say. I don’t remember any of that. I had been found lying in the road, unconscious, with a fractured skull, broken ribs and a broken clavicle and shoulder bones. I had a lot of oozing road rash and one of my lungs had collapsed a little. My brain was bleeding.
It turns out, there is a ritual to Adirondack High Peaks head trauma: you are flown by helicopter across Lake Champlain to the University of Vermont Medical Center, in Burlington, the closest hospital that can reliably perform brain surgery, and end up in its ICU. Matt recalls being lowered to the ground and then walking out across frozen Chapel Pond under his own power. He was greeted by a forest ranger who happened to be parked off the road. She drove him to Elizabethtown, where the doctors at the hospital called for the chopper. Matt worked for Rock and River, the guiding and lodging compound at the head of the Jackrabbit Trail behind Pitchoff Mountain. Rock and River’s Teresa Palen rushed to see him. Matt’s face had burst open at the mouth and most of the bones in it were broken. “Is this gonna leave a scar?” he asked her as they got ready to load him onto the bird. She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
At the time Matt took his fall, he was one of the most experienced ice-climbing guides in the Adirondacks. He was born in Seoul, South Korea, and adopted by parents who brought him home to Mamaroneck, a town in Westchester County, New York. It was a comfortable suburban enclave. Matt would be the first to tell you that when he was young, he was restless, into all types of sports, and easily distracted in the classroom. His parents encouraged him to pursue a career in physical education. They sent him off to the state university at Cortland, which is known for its jocks. He barely lasted a semester.
Matt describes his attempt at college as a lot of bouncing around with little success. For her part, his mother knew he would respond to the outdoors, and so in 1993 she encouraged him to go to the National Outdoor Leadership School’s mountaineering course on Wyoming’s Gannett Peak. That trip set the course of his life; Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills became Matt’s bible. He and his best friend, Kevin Stefani, a fellow Boy Scout from childhood, soon became self-styled dirtbag rock- and ice-climbers of the lower Hudson Valley. “We were doing crazy things,” he says of his time with Kevin in the valley’s Shawangunks. “We solo climbed a lot, just scrambling up cliffs and seeing what we could do. It was dangerous. It was a miracle we survived.”
The desire to both climb and survive won out, and so he relocated to the Adirondacks in 1994 to take coursework at the Wilderness Education Association in Saranac Lake. One of the classes was taught by Ed Palen, owner of Rock and River. Matt spent his time honing his skills, climbing hundreds of routes a year on rock and ice with a throng of newcomers to the scene. They embodied the stereotype of the itinerant climber, living out of tents and on couches. By 2000, having established his bona fides, he became one of Ed’s guides.
Nearly two decades of climbing, and bringing other people to the mountains, rounded out and filled in Matt’s life. He traveled to Peru with the acclaimed Adirondack writer Russell Banks. Spending time trekking with a gifted novelist gave him a new perspective on the power of observation. “As I watched him,” Matt says, “I got to see how a writer sees the world. He picked up on details and emotions that I would have missed, based on the slightest cues in a situation.” He compared it to how he sees the routes he climbs: subtle features of the rock or ice that mean little or nothing to a novice climber reveal, to the experienced one, the story of the climb. It is a matter of what our experience trains us to see.
About a decade ago, the Adirondack rock that Matt climbs became the subject of his own art. A client he was doing stonework for in the off-season encouraged him to sculpt rock instead of simply stacking it. Now he works with diamond files and hand chisels to shape rocks into things that are improbably smooth and flowing while still maintaining the essential qualities of the rock. “At first I would pick rocks that had interesting shapes,” Matt says, “but now I know what form I’m looking for, and I go find the rocks that will let me produce it.” He’s exhibited his sculptures throughout the Northeast and sells his work on summer weekends at the Keene Valley farmers’ market. He has made signs and abstract pieces for The Mountaineer, the outdoor outfitter in Keene Valley that is a second home to the region’s guides. His sculptures seem like an effort to bring a climber’s grace and fluidity to the rough and unyielding nature of the rock.
But sometimes it’s the other way around. It may have been exhaustion and dehydration, or a vitamin deficiency, but that day in February 2017, nature was rough and unyielding to Matt, and he took his fall. What he lived with for nearly a year was a constant, low-grade buzz in his head that disrupted his thoughts, and he still feels his long-term memory has faded a bit. He will live every day knowing his life’s work and passions brushed him up against the inevitable void.
I can relate. Owls Head Mountain, its slopes ripe with blueberries in the summer, is a playground for my young boys, from hiking to rock-climbing to ascents in snowshoes. In June 2018, this little peak could have been the last thing I ever saw.
When Matt and I sat across from each other on a Sunday night at the Ausable Inn, in Keene Valley, we remarked that the community was small and that so many people at the bar knew us, but now as the guys who fell and almost died. For most people, the High Peaks are about gravity. Whether you hike, climb, ski or bike them, it is all about changing your altitude with enough skill and luck to enjoy the experience but avoid the consequences of uncontrolled acceleration. But the risk of a fall has to be there, or the rewards can’t be, either: the reward of managing and overcoming that risk in a way that fills you with feelings of mastery and accomplishment, or the simpler one of doing the hard work of moving a human body upwards against the constant pull of the Earth. But these feelings take their meaning from the context of the times when it all went wrong. We had served as living examples.
“Now I put my health first,” says Matt. “I get enough rest, I eat better and I don’t push myself as hard. I don’t care if it means I need to slow down a little. Every day is a gift. If I’m not constantly climbing and wearing myself out, that’s OK. I have more balance in my life now.”
After Matt’s fall, the people who rescued him cleaned his gear off Rhiannon and returned it to him. The rope belonged to Rock and River, which retired it. He put the ice screw that held his fall back into service on his climbing rack. The screws are expensive, and he felt he had no reason not to trust it. It had, in fact, worked. After the fall, he spent four days in intensive care, then began the long process of recovering from brain trauma. He spent the rest of the season convalescing and sculpting. He took time off from guiding. Still, by the end of 2017, he was restless and ready to ice-climb again. His most trusted climbing partners took him to the north face of Pitchoff, a short hike from Rock and River. “I went slow. It was scary,” he confides. “First I followed my friends, but then I was leading again. And I put in a lot more protection,” he said, referring to the ice screws that saved his life. By early 2018, he was back to guiding clients.
After my accident, I spent weeks in a dark room waiting for my head to clear. But then one day I studied the data from my bike’s GPS and returned to what I determined was the site of the crash with my 11-year-old son. After we searched along the side of the road, he found the red plastic arm to my racing sunglasses, meant to twist off a set of interchangeable lenses. It had been ejected from my face when my bike helmet shattered during my long slide to a halt. I put the piece back onto my sunglasses. I went home, and later that day got on a bike. I would ride it on gravel roads, slowly, out of traffic, I told myself. For the time being, anyway. By fall, I had signed up for the 2019 Lake Placid half-Ironman.
When I bike through the High Peaks, I know Matt Horner is out there, too, climbing.