The Scariest Day of my Life: A Leader Fall on Guye Peak

In this feature from Mountaineer magazine, read about the harrowing experience of a nearly deadly fall and the emotions that followed.
Liana Robertshaw Liana Robertshaw
11-year member and climb leader
October 15, 2022
The Scariest Day of my Life: A Leader Fall on Guye Peak

I had a premonition. My partner was gone for the weekend and I was alone in bed, snuggled up with a stuffed sheep and an abundance of fear. I don’t know why I knew something bad was going to happen, I just had an anxious feeling in the pit of my stomach. I remember thinking I should wear better undergarments, as that was something I had heard long ago (maybe from a family member?) - “If you get in an accident, make sure you at least have decent underwear on!” I sent my boyfriend a snuggly selfie and went to bed early, but still couldn’t shake that ominous feeling. Looking back, I should have canceled the trip, but thought, who does that? based purely on a strange feeling.

The accident

Flash-forward one day - I didn’t know if I was going to make it home. I was breathing, I think, though it took a while for me to comprehend where I was, and if I was still alive. My eyes fluttered open. I saw white. I was cold. Everything was silent. I saw my climbing partner, her face hovering over me in a fog, but I couldn’t hear or understand what she was saying. Everything was muted. I was in a snow-white, cotton cloud-like dream, an ocean of endless silent waves.

The last thing I remembered was telling our students to get under the overhang to avoid rockfall, then grabbing the end of the rope and moving over as well while flaking the pile hanging from the recently-set handline. I blinked, saw more white. Blinked again and heard trails of whispers. I opened my eyes fully and felt the reverb of an imaginary electric fence shoot down my back and realized that I couldn’t move my arms or legs. I closed my eyes and took a few deep breaths, contemplating the outcomes. I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t feel my legs. I couldn’t feel my legs. I went into panic mode.

scariest2.PNG Liana’s back immediately following her injury.

“Don’t touch me!” I yelled to anyone who was listening. Survival instincts kicked in. I realized what was happening and what I needed to do to make it better. I was hurt, a wounded animal. But I also felt strong, and could communicate with my team and tell them what to do. First, I needed to gauge what was happening with my body. I knew I was injured, but to what extent? Two minutes prior I had been blindsided by a force that knocked me unwillingly into the snow, and the only thing that had saved me from falling hundreds of meters downslope was this moat at the base of the rock we were all about to climb.

I heard my climbing partners yell to the climber above, “Don’t move! Clip into your anchor. Don’t move! Liana’s hurt!” My mind and body finally came to... I was wiggling fingers, toes, anything I possibly could before trying to ask for help out of the icy snow. About five minutes passed, and I was coherent enough to ask for assistance from my prone position to shelter under the overhang with the rest of the team. My students gave me extra clothing, and my partner and I hashed out our plan. Due to the terrain, we decided it may be better to ascend than descend at that point. A father-son pair had a micro traxion I used to raise myself to the base of the first pitch, via the handline. We would then look for an easier descent off the route than the one we were currently on.

scariest4.PNG The rock that hit Liana.


After ascending painfully to the top of the handline with much assistance, everyone took a quick break to grab a snack and water while we sent a scout ahead to try and find an easier way off the route. None being found, we were forced to descend the approach route. The other instructors rigged a rappel down to the snow slope past where my injury occurred, to a small group of trees that would offer a perfect anchor for the next snowy gully leading to the boulder field descent. I rappelled slowly with my partner on fireman’s belay in excruciating pain. The worst part was plunging the ice axe into the snow and trying to remove it while trying to self-belay after the end of the second rappel down the remainder of the snowy gully. I used up every ounce of energy I had. I must have been riding high on adrenaline - in retrospect there was no other way I would have ever made it down that mountain without an evacuation.

Medical care

After an eternity, we finally reached the boulder field. I put on a smile as we carefully picked our way through the boulders until hitting the basin, where we would ascend again to gain access to the road. We debriefed on the road as my adrenaline high came down, and I drove myself to the closest walk- in clinic where they promptly sent me to the ER. I had broken my spinous process at the C-7 vertebrae. “The best place you could have been hit in that situation,” the doctor said. A few centimeters higher and the rock would have caused my vertebrae to knock my windpipe forward, cutting off my air supply - death by suffocation. The initial impact of the rock had shocked (compressed) my spinal cord, which is what caused me to lose feeling in my arms and legs. If that rock had hit me even a tiny bit harder, there was a chance it could have broken my vertebrae, possibly leaving me paralyzed.

scariest3.PNGThe climbing team’s rappel down the approach during Liana’s self-rescue.

Searching for meaning

Realizing the gravity of the situation, and that somehow I had been spared, was mind-numbing and incredibly sobering for me. I don’t know what I did to deserve to be inflicted with this pain, but I also don’t know why I was spared from a greater catastrophe. Someone or something is watching out for me, during this and other close calls. The past few years I’ve not had much luck in my rock climbing adventures. In 2016 I was in Red Rock Canyon, Nevada, at a crack-climbing clinic, when a huge block of sandstone broke off in my hands as I was downclimbing a ledge during our break. I happened to instinctively try pushing away this microwave-sized chunk of rock in my hands and rotate sideways before hitting the ground, saving me from a pelvis or chest-crushing injury. Unfortunately, I was left with a huge transverse abdominis hematoma and permanent nerve damage from my back through my hip and partway down the side of my leg.

Surely, I thought, some higher being must be watching over me... dishing it out to someone who can take it and saving the lives of others who otherwise might have been lost. I have bigger and better things planned for me, and I trust in and live by that principle. I won’t let this get to me, even though I break down and cry thinking about everything I’ve been through and how I’ve been spared every single time. What is my purpose? I ask, tears streaking down my cheeks. Maybe it’s to clamber up from these dark places and show others that there can be a love for life in the midst of grief, and in the midst of pain.

scariest6.PNGLiana with her Tahoma climbing team at Mt. Rainier National Park one year after the accident. 

Gratitude, patience, kindness. Three keys to overcoming anything the universe throws at you. It’s hard sometimes, it truly is. And you want to give up, but do you know how many people you would let down if you actually gave up? At the very least, one - yourself.

I refuse to give up. No matter how many times I’ve ever said I’m not climbing alpine rock again, it doesn’t count for anything, because you know what? I’ve said that before. I’ve actually said that three times, after three injuries. And I’m still scared. In fact, I’m terrified. But you know what else? I’m still putting on my harness and tying into my rope.

Lead image of Liana and Dennis Kiilerich successfully summiting Mt. Daniel via Lynch Glacier one year after the accident. All photos courtesy of LIana Robertshaw.

This article originally appeared in our fall 2022 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, visit our  magazine archive

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