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A Quarter-Inch of Metal Broke my Heart (and nearly killed me) - Ojos del Salado

March 1, 2022

Tyler Andrews is a pro runner for HOKA and a coach for and founder of Chaski. Over the past few years, Ty has established himself as one of the best high mountain trail-runners in the world, with records on the Everest Base Camp Trail, Cotopaxi Volcano, Ojos del Salado Volcano, and many more 20,000+ ft (6000m+) peaks. In 2021, he began the “Los 10” Project - an attempt to set 10 records on mountains and trails in the Andes. He planned to finish the project with the 10th record on Mt. Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in the Americas at 6,962m, and the most competitive record he’d ever attempted.

Note: This is a two-part essay, covering events on both Ojos del Salado (part 1 - you are here) and Aconcagua (part 2 - click here).

I had my heart broken twice by less than a centimeter of metal this past month. Once, the little spike cost me a world record; once, it nearly cost me my life.

A crampon’s primary purpose is to keep a climber safely attached to the mountain, specifically on ice and snow. Metal spikes protrude from two base-plates which sit under the forefoot and heel and are connected by a thin metal rectangle punched full of holes, which the climber can adjust and, thus, fit snugly onto the bottom of his boot. It’s a remarkably simple device at the end of the day, but a critical one for both safety and success on most snow-capped mountains.

Above: Four  different types of crampons, from the most minimal (left) to the heftiest and most maximal (right). I used the red-banded pair on Ojos and the black pair to its right on Aconcagua.

I’d come to Mt. Aconcagua with eight different pairs of crampons. See, like a movie star with different shoes for each night’s red carpet, different conditions call for different crampons, from the heaviest, longest-spiked pair for your real big-mountain boots to the tiniest teeth connected by a slim chain and held onto your shoe with little more than a hefty rubber band (and various options in between). Each pair I’d brought had its own purpose,  specific conditions which would call them to service. Given that it was my first time on Aconcagua and I wasn’t exactly sure what snow conditions I’d encounter on the mountain, I wanted to keep my options open.

If I sound uptight about my crampon selection, it’s because I was. Just a week earlier, those quarter-inch metal teeth had nearly cost me my life.

Ojos del Salado, Chile

“I really fuckin’ hoped I wouldn’t die.”

It’s the closing line of the (very) dark and (not very) Christmasy film, “In Bruges” and, in retrospect, it’s the line I hear my life’s cinematic narrator calmly speaking as I slide uncontrollably toward my death.

Spoiler alert: I’m still here.

At the time, though, at 6,860m (22,506ft) above sea level on Mt. Ojos del Salado, completely alone, I genuinely thought this was how my life would end.

I’d had a lovely solo ascent so far on the world’s highest volcano. The crampons I’d been wearing -- the aforementioned tiny-teeth-and-rubber-band style -- had fulfilled their duties perfectly so far, providing just enough extra traction for me to trust each step up the relatively gentle early slopes.

Upon reaching the edge of the volcanic crater at about 6,700m (21,981ft), I realized that I was on pace to break the ascent speed-record and excitedly continued towards the “crux”, the hardest section of any particular route. The crux on Ojos comes -- as cruxes often do -- near the very top of the route, where, above the crater, you traverse this big ol’ boulder field, hopping from one rock to the next, on an increasingly steep slope, until you finally scoot up a precipitous little gully, which then dead-ends at a small wall that you’ve got to scramble up with some easy rock-climbing moves to an extremely narrow and exposed summit ridge for the final twenty meters. It honestly sounds harder than it is, technically speaking, but the conditions and altitude can make it a fairly delicate passage.

The view from the edge of the crater at 6700m. The true summit is on far right in this photo and the trail leads diagonally up and right through the boulder field to the steep snow gully, which (mostly hidden from the photo) skirts up just behind the true summit ridge.

This turned out to be one of those delicate days. Christmas storms had dumped tremendous quantities of fresh powder on Ojos the week before, enough that no one had touched the summit since then. On the way up, the snow had been soft enough that my boots had punched a hole in the crisp upper layer and gripped well, but as I climbed higher, the snow became harder until, as I neared that final gully, my little legs couldn’t break through the concrete surface of the snow-pack, and I stood on a veneer of steeply angled ice, attached to the mountain by nothing other than the 16 finger-nail-length spikes strapped to my shoes.

This had become a tenuous situation. I kicked in each step as hard as I could, trying for a flatter surface, a bit more give in the snow, but I still hung on by only, in retrospect, an alarmingly tiny length of metal. I angled myself towards the right-side wall of the gully, finding some slightly softer snow where I felt more stable, and looked up. The little rock wall couldn't be more than ten or twenty good steps ahead of me, and then I’d basically be on the summit.

This was the mistake that almost cost me my life.

I continued upward until I couldn’t find another footprint’s worth of soft snow. I scanned up, down, to the side, and decided I’m too freaked out -- this feels too precarious, said my gut -- and began to downclimb, backwards, like a ladder, kicking into my previous foot-prints and begging the little spikes to hold.

They did, and I descended five or ten steps more when I saw to my left, a few big rocks in the center of the gully that looked to make a good bridge to the other side. I thought: Maybe there’s better snow on that side, and began to traverse the icy face, kicking in my steps as hard as I could.

Everything happens extremely fast. I’m precariously placed, facing the mountain, really just the four points on the front of my crampons holding me now as I laterally tip-toe and sense that gut-feeling that only comes when your subconscious recognizes danger or disaster a few instants before your cerebellum.  I realize I am not happy at all about the placement of my feet and center of mass and then I’m sliding.

As an engineer, it’s impossible for me (in retrospect) not to see the little Newtonian, Physics-101 force diagram. You have the weight (m*g) arrow pointing straight down, and the little frictional force of the spikes in the ice pointing up and right, parallel with the slope, and the high-school exam question “At what angle, ϴ, would the slope have to be for the force of Ty’s weight to exceed the force provided by the crampon?”

All I remember is shouting “no, no, NO!”

Time does not slow down. I don’t see any memories or projections of my future flash before my eyes. I am sliding and accelerating and see nothing to stop me but the jagged rocks at the bottom of the caldera, nearly 200m (656ft) below me.

This is it. I’m going to smash into those boulders and that will be the end of me.

But I do really, really hope I won’t die. I scuttle and try to flip onto my stomach (as one is taught to do when falling on a mountain so you can try to kick your toes into the mountain or dig your ice-ax into the slope), but before I’m even able to flip over (which, by the way, wouldn’t have actually helped since my crampons didn’t have front-points and I didn’t have an ice-ax), I see one small pile of rocks zooming toward me and, without time to think about whether it would help or hurt my current predicament, I slam into them, my fall stopped mostly by the collision of my right knee-cap and the life-saving small boulder. My heartrate thumps in my head like a dryer with shoes in it, the tingly adrenaline-feeling pulsing through my arms and teeth and eyelids.

I fell about 65 ft. (20m) and stopped here. It might not look that steep, but it's steep enough and when the snow is icy, even a gentle slope can have you sliding out of control at high speed within a second or two.

I’ve stopped but I'm not out of the woods yet. I’m still in the middle of a vertiginous, icy face with a few hundred meters of exposure, but now I take my time and make an exceptionally deliberate traverse to the wall of the gully and then down to the boulder-field, where I hop my way back to the normal route and safely down the mountain.

This one really wasn’t the crampons’ fault; my own decision-making failed me. I should have known better than to ask so much of such an inadequate piece of equipment. Those of us who run in the mountains have a tendency to humble-brag about our minimal gear (“Yeah, I just ran up in trail shoes”) while expedition-style mountaineers are slogging up in five-pound, double-insulated boots and plush, down Everest-style snow-suits.

But, the consequence of that one poor decision came to fruition the moment those sixteen metal teeth lost traction. Yes, the crampons had broken my heart, but my choice had forced the issue. And I’d almost paid the final price.

Looking down from where my fall was stopped.  It's more than 600 ft. (180m) to the bottom of the crater. The snow may look soft but it's hard as concrete and slippery as a skating rink.

Continue reading in Part Two: Aconcagua.

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