KC native’s will to live defeats a Montana glacier

Kansas City Star – by Donald Bradley

Ted Porter slips on the ice, lands on his rear and goes flying across the high Montana glacier on his back.

That’s how his story begins. Or maybe it starts before, when he failed to put ice-digging crampons on his boots.

Or does it really begin years earlier when Ted, growing up a Kansas City kid, decided he would rather climb mountains than play tennis?  

But now 36, there he was, racing and bouncing down the steep slope of Jackson Glacier, using all his mountaineering skill to try to slow himself, but his trekking poles don’t grab and his heels don’t dig in. He goes faster, ice and snow spraying into his face.

He sees the crevasse ahead. Nothing he can do.

He sails over the lip and slams into the far wall, then drops 40 feet onto a ledge below.

He’s alone. It’s late in the day. Nobody knows he’s there. He’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt and he’s surrounded by ice. Raw meat in a freezer.

Oh, and he broke his back. In two places.

He looks up at the narrow crack in the earth above him. Cold rain drops onto his face. This is where he will die, he decides. He thinks of his parents back in Kansas City and reaches for his cellphone.

This part of the story, Ted, a strong, athletic guy who left his hometown for Hollywood, tells with a sure voice and even a chuckle or two.

But the next part, about the rescue helicopter coming through the trees. And the stranger, a girl who held his hands for four hours, leaning to him and saying, “I think that’s for you.”

That’s when his voice cracks and tears fill his eyes.

The Porter family loves the mountains. Always has. Ted and his parents, David and Cindy, spent the last week of August hiking in Glacier National Park.

David had worked at a hotel there when he was a young man. Ted, who has two sisters, worked at the same hotel not long ago. After graduating from Pembroke Hill School in 1995, Ted attended the University of Montana.

He later studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and makes his home in North Hollywood. He acts and does voice-over work for commercials. Like many in that line of work, he also tends bar.

But for a guy who sought the bright lights, Ted couldn’t shake the call of the wild. He often jumped in the car and drove to mountain trails north of Los Angeles. Also, despite moving to a metro area of 12 million people, he liked to hike alone.

That rugged individualism led to the events of Sept. 3.

After the week of hiking, his parents flew back to Kansas City. Ted set out on a solo hike up Mount Jackson on the Continental Divide near the Canadian border. At 10,000 feet, Jackson is the fourth-highest peak in Glacier National Park.

Ted likes Glacier because it’s not the tourist haven of Yellowstone or Yosemite. Plus, a mountaineering friend had given him grief about not climbing Jackson.

“And it’s not even some crazy, technical mountain,” Ted said Thursday in the living room of his parents’ home in Brookside. “It’s more of a hike.”

He got a late start that morning. It was 11 a.m. when he set out on a brisk pace up the 6.2-mile trail to Gunsight Lake, which has a campground. On the way, he came upon a group of hikers with big packs. He assumed they were spending the night at the campground. That would be a key memory later on.

After Gunsight Lake, he began the trek into the back country. His route was up and across the glacier until the ice joined the mountain rock. From there he would climb to the summit.

As he crossed the glacier, he noticed two crevasses. After crossing from ice to rock, he removed the crampons. All had gone as planned.

Then it started to rain. The rock ledges became slick. He fell and bloodied his hand. It was 4:30 p.m. and he was still 400 yards or so from the summit.

“I knew I shouldn’t be there, so I decided to quit, to head back down,” he said.

His descent took him a different route. When he crossed back to the glacier, he realized he had made a mistake. He hadn’t put the crampons back on. But he thought he could “boot ski” across the ice.

He fell. And that put him into the wild ice ride — toward the crevasses he’d seen earlier. His only hope was to try to jump and maybe clear the opening. But in the position he was in, pretty much on his back, he didn’t get much of a jump. He planted his face against the opposite wall and dropped to the bottom, landing in a place probably nobody on the planet had ever been.

Scared but conscious, he noticed immediately that if the ledge hadn’t caught him, he would probably have fallen deeper and out of sight into a cavelike opening that curved down and under the glacier and into darkness.

He sat there and assessed: arms fine, legs fine, head fine. But something was wrong with his back. The cold was already taking over his body. He took out his cellphone and made a video for his parents.

“Mom, Dad, I fell into a crevasse. … If I don’t make it out … I love you,” he said between moans.

Then he decided he would fight.

He began to plot a way out. He studied the crack above him, the tapered walls leading to the sky. One face curled in as it rose. The other wasn’t much better, but for a few feet it slanted in a way that would support him.

“I knew if I was going to get out, that would be my way,” he said.

Intense pain came with leaning to put on the crampons. And he had only one ice ax. He had some of the equipment he needed, but he’d never had any training for technical ice climbing.

He stood, swallowed the pain, rammed those crampons into the wall and swung the ax. He pulled himself up, clawing with his bare hand in the ice. He knew if he fell, he could go into a dark cave and probably never be found. He climbed on, repeating the steps — crampons, ax, pull — over and over again.

It took him only about five minutes to get to the top. He knew he would live.

He climbed out into the rain and the solitude he’d long ago chosen. Cheers came from the wind on a cold mountain.

But he still had work to do, and miles to go. He remembered those hikers with the big packs. They were at the Gunsight campground, he hoped, and headed that way, using his ax as a crutch.

Three miles, in the rain. He fell several times on slick rock.

Janet Bumpas, an independent consultant from San Francisco, and six friends were camping at Gunsight that night.

They were bedding down when a lone figure appeared in the falling light. The man was obviously injured. He told them he had fallen into a crevasse and needed help. He collapsed in front of them.

Some of the campers knew basic emergency training and did what they could. They removed his wet clothes, got him down, immobilized his legs and gave him the only thing they had for pain — acetaminophen.

Campers from other sites heard about the injured man and came over, offering blankets and warm socks.

“The fall should have killed him,” someone told Bumpas. “How did he ever climb out of there?”

Worried about internal injuries he might have, they discussed going for help that night. But they decided against it. Rain was falling and it would soon be dark. It would take more than a 2-mile hike. It was bear country.

Their best hikers would head out at first light.

Thus began the worst night of Ted Porter’s life.

But he didn’t want it to be the worst night of the campers’ lives. He wanted them to be ready to go the next morning. So at times he crammed a pillow into his mouth to muffle his moans.

At 5 a.m., three in the group began the hike out for help. Bumpas went to sit with Ted. She took his hand in hers and held on.

For four hours, until they heard the helicopter.

“I told him, ‘I think that’s for you,’” she said. “He started crying. Then I started crying.”

She will never forget his will to live, she said Friday.

“I think his first hour was about surviving,” Bumpas said. “And the rest was about enduring.”

She also will remember his sweetness.

“It’s one thing to be nice and polite when things are going well. It’s another thing when things are bad. He was in tremendous pain all that time and he was always so thankful to us.”

The chopper crew gave Ted an IV and synthetic morphine. Bumpas and the others helped carry him from the campsite to the helicopter.

One wrong move in the high country and things can go dreadfully wrong, said Linda Chambers, chief flight nurse for ALERT, a helicopter rescue service from Kalispell Regional Medical Center several miles south of the national park.

She has seen a lot of trauma cases, what with the area’s rough terrain, sheer faces, glaciers, mountaineering, hiking, cliff climbing and horseback riding. She was on duty when a crew wheeled Ted into the emergency room. It was a miracle he made it there considering his fall and injuries, Chambers told The Star.

“And then have the strength to pull himself out of there — and walk three miles to that campground,” she said. “Truly courageous.

“And as soon as comes through the door here, he’s thanking my staff for all they did for him. I will remember him as just a delightful young man.”

An hour or so after Ted arrived at the hospital, the phone rang at Cindy Porter’s work desk in Kansas City.

“I’m looking for Cindy or David Porter,” the caller tells her.

Ted’s mother asked: What’s this about?

“Ted has asked me to call you,” the woman said.

Cindy had dreaded that call for years. At least the woman phrased it the way she did.

“Can he walk?” Cindy asked.

“They’re evaluating now,” the woman said.

Cindy Porter flew to Montana the next morning.

Ted Porter spent eight days in the Kalispell hospital. One surgery. Diagnosis: a crushed ninth thoracic vertebra and a chipped first lumbar vertebra. Doctors were amazed his injuries were not more severe.

According to Cindy Porter, a neurosurgeon told Ted, “You won the lottery.”

His mother brought him to Kansas City a week ago. He faces four months of rehabilitation and therapy.

For now, he sits in his parents’ house wearing a custom back brace. He grimaces often and sometimes has trouble breathing.

He knows what he did wrong.

“I didn’t take the steps to be safe and I didn’t take the time to put on the proper equipment,” he said. “Those were bad decisions and it’s all on me.”

Cindy closed her eyes Thursday evening when Ted played the goodbye video on his phone. She can’t watch it. And it’s only 35 seconds.

She knows, too, that when her son is healed, he will head back to a mountain. That choice was made years ago.

She summoned a mother’s strength and said, “I want him to be who he is.”

Ted reached over and took her hand.

How to help

Ted Porter does not have health insurance. His family has set up a Web page for people to help pay his medical costs and to provide information about his recovery at GiveForward.com.

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