Lucky To Be Alive

By Dillon Kato

When his foot sunk deep into the snowfield, Toby van Amerongen thought he had just stepped in a stream. A second later, his other foot broke through and he plunged more than 40 feet straight down into a crevice in the ground.

He reached out, trying to catch himself on the edge. But he descended too fast, and as he grasped for a handhold, the force of the fall ripped him loose, dislocating one of his shoulders. He fell into darkness.

Wet rocks slipped past his hands, the wind rushed past his ears, and van Amerongen thought this was the end: This was how he was going to die.

He thought of the student-athletes he worked with, his friends, his family.

Photo courtesy of friends of Toby van Amerongen
Photo courtesy of friends of Toby van Amerongen

“I remember that I wasn’t thinking of me. I was thinking, ‘Who will take care of the team? Josh, it was his idea to come here. How guilty will he feel? My mom, who once told me the worst thing as a parent would be to have a child who dies before them,’” he said.

Van Amerongen pushed against the walls as he fell, trying to slow himself down: I don’t want to die here. I’m not going to die here. Please let me hit the ground. I have to hit the ground.

At the end of June 2012, van Amerongen, his best friend Josh Schmidt, and Schmidt’s girlfriend, Alice Jones, went backpacking on the eastern range of the Mission Mountains,. Their goal was to stop and make camp at Glacier Lake. That early in the season, large patches of snow still covered the ground. Schmidt, experienced and comfortable in the backcountry, led the way.

“I’m not in as good of shape as Josh, so I was a little bit behind him,” van Amerongen said.

It was on the way back, while crossing a snowfield, that he broke through.

Van Amerongen, who had been a gymnast in college, took a landing stance, bending his knees to take the impact before he hit the ground. When he finally touched the bottom, he felt a sharp pain in his ankle. It was broken. He reached over and felt a lump at the front of his left shoulder, the joint out of its socket.

An athletic trainer for the University of Montana’s soccer, cheer and dance teams, van Amerongen managed to reset the joint and pop it back into place before yelling up to his friends, at the height of a four-story building above him.

“I should have been dead. That fall should probably have killed me,” he said.

When they heard him, Schmidt and Jones ran back to the edge of the hole their friend had disappeared into. They then decided to fetch other campers they’d met earlier. One of the campers had an emergency beacon device, which he activated, sending a message and GPS coordinates to local search and rescue.

“It threw me,” Schmidt said. “It was such a freak occurrence. You take courses on wilderness survival and readiness, you can pack and prepare, but when it happened, all of us were sitting there going, ‘What do we do now?’”

While near-death experiences like van Amerongen’s are very rare, hiking in the backcountry requires extra precautions. This includes leaving a detailed plan of where you’re going if you’re traveling alone and packing more food, water and clothing than you require, just in case.

As the trails program coordinator of the Swan Lake Ranger District of the Forest Service, Joy Sather is in charge of maintaining the integrity of trails in the Mission Mountain Wilderness.

“We do a lot to maintain the designated trails, but if you’re going to go off of them, you do so at your own risk,” Sather said. “We can’t patrol every square inch of the forest.”

A crevice the size van Amerongen fell into might be highly unusual. Creeks, deep depressions, or small dropoffs are not. If there is any doubt, Sather said, try to go around large patches of snow.

After more than an hour, and with snow continuing to fall, van Amerongen got cold and wet. The crevice was narrower than the width of his shoulders and ran a length of about 80 feet. At one end were two logs that had fallen in against the wall. He asked his friends if they could dig down to the top of the logs, where they might be able to get down and help him. But without being able to see the edge through the snow from above, someone else could have fallen in.

Not knowing when or even if outside help would arrive, van Amerongen decided his best shot was to climb up the log himself. Jones threw down a hiking pole and van Amerongen started to inch up the fallen tree. When he reached the top, he still had almost three feet of snow between himself and the surface. Using the hiking pole, he slowly carved away.

On top, one of the campers heard him through the snow and yelled down to back away from the progress he had made. The group began to dig down, using cooking pans and a hatchet as substitutes for a shovel.

“I have a lot of good memories, but when they broke through, I can’t explain how good it was, the feeling that you’re going to be rescued,” van Amerongen said.

When his friends pulled him out of the hole, he was shivering, hypothermic, and in no condition to hike out.

It took another hour until a helicopter, called to the area by the emergency beacon, flew into sight. But after circling the area several times, the helicopter left. It hadn’t seen them.

“So we’re there, and it’s like, now what?” van Amerongen said.

The beacon had also sent an automated message to the spouse of one of the campers, so Schmidt took all of the cell phones from the group and climbed up to the ridge. He got through to the camper’s wife, and she called the sheriff’s office, telling law enforcement to send the helicopter back.

When van Amerongen finally arrived at St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula, a doctor confirmed that he had broken both his ankle and shoulder,and was suffering from hypothermia.

Nine months later, van Amerongen was training for the Missoula Marathon.

In June, he is meeting the group of people who helped him out of the hole for an anniversary hike in the Mission Mountains. It’s his way to make sure he’s finally put the fall behind him. He won’t let it stop him from doing what he loves.