Dispatches, December 1998
Everest? No Problem. Except for This Damn Full-Body Cast.
An avalanche-battered snowboarder resumes his climb-and-carve assault on the world's highest peaks.
By Tim Zimmermann
"I remember this sudden rush of speed and then total chaos," recalls Stephen Koch, "and I thought, 'This is how people die. I'm going to end up in a crumpled heap at the bottom of the mountain.'" He was wrong on only one count. Koch didn't perish after being swept away by an avalanche last April while attempting the first snowboard
descent of Mount Owen, a precipitous, 12,928-foot peak in Wyoming's Teton Range. But after careening 2,300 feet down an icy couloir — "It was interesting," he says, "how quiet it got every time I flew over a cliff band" — he found himself deposited at the bottom with two blown knees, a broken back, bruised ribs and liver, and blood trickling out of his
right ear. "We see a lot of those injuries," notes Norene Highleyman, a specialist at Four Pines Physical Therapy in Jackson, Wyoming, where Koch eventually underwent treatment after being rescued by a team of Grand Teton National Park climbing rangers. "But never all on the same person."
Before the mishap, few athletes could match the rarefied blend of high-altitude climbing and snowboarding skills that Koch, 30, had been honing for the better part of a decade. By the time of his crash, he had clawed up and carved his way down more than 25 of the world's tallest and steepest mountains and was more than halfway through an unusual interpretation of a
not-so-novel quest: to snowboard the Seven Summits. Having already completed South America's Aconcagua (1993), Europe's Elbrus (1995), North America's McKinley (1996), and Africa's Kilimanjaro (1997), he has invested the last seven months in a grueling physical therapy regime in preparation for what some might consider, given what he's been through, downright
This month, after slashing his predicted recovery time by about 80 percent, Koch begins training in earnest to resume his Seven Summits bid with an attempt on Antarctica's Vinson Massif in December 1999. If he pulls that off, he plans to move on to an ascent and descent of Everest, without supplemental oxygen, in 2000. It's a gambit that his friends are hoping he'll
undertake in a somewhat less blitzkrieg fashion. "In the mountains, you've got to play by the cardinal rules," warns Renny Jackson, one of the rangers who helped scrape him off Mount Owen. "Sometimes that means you just have to back off." Koch, however, seems convinced that in his case the usual rules don't apply. "I do what I do alone because I'm willing to take on
the responsibilities and risks for myself," he declares. "A lot of people don't understand that. And it scares them."