I fell down a mountain while hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc

Walk from one country to another? Why not? The ability to see three countries and physically walk from France to Italy, Italy to Switzerland and Switzerland to France was a big draw for me when choosing a hiking trip. Here, I passed into Italy at the Col de la Seigne on July 7.
Walk from one country to another? Why not? The ability to see three countries and physically walk from France to Italy, Italy to Switzerland and Switzerland to France was a big draw for me when choosing a hiking trip. Here, I passed into Italy at the Col de la Seigne on July 7.
Published Oct. 12, 2016

A few days after I'd flown across the world, I sent a text message to my parents, telling them I loved them.

We're pretty close, and I knew they were itching for updates. My mom was first on the reply: "Love u too how r u?"

"I'm good."

"Done for the day?" she asked. I told her I was. "How was today's hike?"

I thought for a minute. Took a deep, shaky breath to settle myself. Started to sob, anyway.

I was sitting alone in a nook of the earth, lost in the woods of the Italian Alps. I was bleeding freely from a lightning-shaped cut below my left knee.

I had not seen another person for hours. No one had responded when I'd shouted, "Hello!" No one had been there later, after I had fallen and was screaming for help. You never really know what you sound like at your loudest until you have reason to try.

But I didn't want my mother, back in Florida, to know this. I didn't want to tell her how scared I was, how much I had messed up, how that scream you never practice scrapes the back of your throat, how your loudest, in the end, is not loud enough to save you.

"How was today's hike?" she asked.

I took another breath, and I typed, "Beautiful."

• • •

In February, I decided I wanted to hike the Tour du Mont Blanc. I wanted to go alone. It's more than 100 miles, it's across the Atlantic Ocean, through Switzerland, Italy and France. I didn't have much experience hiking, but there you go. I booked my flights to Geneva for the first weekend in July and began accumulating the things one needs to hike for eight days straight: a backpack, a compass, poles, boots, stuff.

The first day I thought I was going to die from exhaustion. I had been cavalier before, responded to worried friends with a "Hiking is just a fancy word for walking, and look, I'm walking right now." But you go up and up and up, on paths with more in common with rock climbing walls, and you wonder if you're ever going to catch your breath. Then you're going down, down, down, bracing your knees and using your poles to keep balance as you try not to crash-land on the ground again.

But the views — the views were spectacular. Snow-capped mountains everywhere I looked, fields of flowers, cows, sheep, blue skies all above. Sometimes I would stop and wonder how I had done something so right, had schemed and planned and put myself right into this panoramic postcard of a day.

I made friends with New Zealanders, Englishmen, Israelis, French, Canadians and other Americans. We slipped through snow together and ate picnic lunches on mountain passes, compared blisters and backstories and the hikes behind us.

In tiny villages and cosmopolitan Alpine hubs I ate garlic-butter snails, beef in sauce, perfectly cooked spaghetti and creme brulee with a char that reminded me of every perfect campfire.

On foot, I traveled from France to Italy. I walked from Switzerland to France.

It was challenging, yeah, but I loved it, loved waking up and getting on the trail, loved achieving through the pain, loved knowing that I was doing it on my own.

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But in the end, hiking is not just like walking. If you make a wrong turn in a grocery store, you're just in a different aisle. In a mall, at a different store. Hiking is the wilderness. It is safe until it isn't. And halfway through the Tour du Mont Blanc, I took a wrong turn.

• • •

Here is what I say when I tell people what happened.

On the fourth day of my hike, I finished a three-hour uphill climb to reach a resting stop called the Refuge Bertone. Here, I realized the page of directions I'd ripped from my guidebook had fallen out of my backpack. I looked in every pocket, I went back to the cash register where I had bought an orange soda, I walked in little circles. It was gone.

Still, I wasn't worried. The trail was well marked and well traveled, and I talked with an Australian tour guide resting with a flock of elderly Canadian women, going over the route on a map she unfolded and spread out over the picnic table.

I remember she told me, "This is my favorite day," and then louder, to the Canadian women: "I didn't want to tell you guys last night, but this is my favorite day of the trip." She looked back at me, and she said, "It's beautiful the rest of the way."

Rejoining the trail is always tricky, and it took a few of us consulting together to get on the right path, but once we did, I pulled ahead, eager to be on my own again. The slopes were rolling and gentle, and within a half-hour's time I was in a wildflower field, feeling the best I had.

After an hour or so, I stopped for lunch, a delicious combination of meat and cheese and bread I'd cobbled together from local shops and affectionately called "ugly sandwiches." And when I started going again the trail had considerably thinned out, people dispersed by their varying lunch stops. I came upon ruins, a long, one-story building that used to be something, and at the far end of that building I saw a small trail in the grass. Footsteps led into the woods.

I stopped for a moment and looked around. I remembered the ripped-out instructions sheet I'd lost had said something about part of the trail being dense with vegetation and overgrown. I thought, this must be it. I looked around again, and there was no one around, but I told myself to trust it and go.

I went.

The trail was thin and crowded with plants to begin with, and after a few minutes, it seemed to vanish. I found what I believed to be the continuation, little more than a line of dirt in otherwise thick brush. I thought about turning back, but each time something stopped me.

I saw footprints in a muddy part.

I reminded myself how I had learned to walk in the snow and to find the trail by looking far in front of me.

I kept going.

Eventually, I was scared. The trail didn't feel like a trail. When I shouted, no one answered. I tried screaming louder, in the voice you don't use when you are just joking around. Still no one answered. The plants I was stepping on were slippery, and I almost fell a few times. By now, I wasn't sure I would be able to retrace my steps.

And then I did fall.

When I tell this story to people now, I realize they think I mean I fell down, like when you are walking and you trip and you fall in place. So I say, "I fell down the mountain." It sounds strange and overdramatic, like I made it up, and usually I laugh after I say it. But as far as I can explain in words, that's what happened.

I don't know how long or far I fell, but it was a while. I had my pack on and my hiking poles looped around my wrists and I fell heavy and hard down through the steep forest, thrashing and thinking, "I am falling" and "I'm still falling" and "I need to stop" and "S---, s---!" Eventually, my body bounced off a tree, slowing me down enough to reach out and grab something: a tree branch, reaching toward me. With my other hand I grabbed a plant from its root.

And I hung there, in the middle of the Italian Alps.

• • •

I've always kind of done my own thing. When I was a kid, my mom worried that I liked playing by myself too much. But in some ways, I found it less stressful. I'm not afraid of hiking a mountain by myself, but saying the wrong thing at a cocktail party or arriving first to a group outing are high on the list of things that scare the crap out of me.

I love hanging out with other people, but I spend a lot of time in my own head, sometimes to a fault, and do you know what sounded absolutely amazing to me as I planned this trip? Not having to worry about anyone else.

I wanted to hike as fast or as slow as I wanted, start at whatever time I wanted, eat and dress and spend my evenings however I wanted.

I wanted to not wonder if someone else thought I was gasp-breathing too loudly on uphill climbs or taking too many water breaks. I wanted to not concern myself with someone else's idea of how to kill a rainy rest day. (The obvious answer was ducking into a tea salon and eating croissants.)

I didn't want to be responsible for anyone's good time but my own. And I had loved this trip, loved it, every stupid minute, and if I had one thought hanging for my life in the middle of the woods it was survival. But if I had a second, and I did, it was why did this one thing, me maybe dying, have to overshadow all the good?

• • •

You never really think you're going to die. But at some point I realized I was in the exact situation as anyone who had ever gotten lost in the woods and died, and right up until the end, and maybe even then, they didn't think they were going to die, did they?

I started screaming for help. My chest was shaking like I was crying but nothing was coming out.

I tried to climb. I grabbed higher tree branches but they snapped, and the plant roots I grabbed came out of the earth. It was too steep to stand without falling. I tried, and slipped, and caught myself again. I managed to turn my body around and scoot myself up, little by little, until I realized I had no idea how far I'd fallen.

So I pulled my body into a nook of the earth above a small tree growing horizontally into the air and I took stock of the situation.

I was alive, and though my leg was cut up and bleeding, I was okay. Nothing was broken. I'd hit my head but was thinking straight. There was no one around. I'd lost one of my hiking poles. I fell every time I tried to walk. No one could hear me. I had my phone, and even though it said "No Service," and even though I was in Italy, I dialed 911.

In Europe, it doesn't sound like the phone is ringing; it is more like a series of polite, extended beeps. A man picked up and he must have said something but I said, "Is this the police? Do you speak English?"

I started to tell him what happened, as calmly as I could: I was American, I was hiking the Tour du Mont Blanc, I was lost in the woods, I had fallen. He struggled to understand me, and told me to wait, and I heard people chatting lightly in the background. I sat with my knees to my chest, insects buzzing all around me.

About two or three years ago, I was driving from St. Petersburg to the east coast of Florida. I was telling my dog to sit still when my car hit a wet spot, spun off the road, rammed through a fence and rolled through a cow pasture in the middle of nowhere.

When the officer came and saw my car on its side in the middle of a field, the rear window smashed so that the dog and I could escape, he was stunned. By my 911 call, he said, he thought my car was just stalled.

Sitting alone in the woods with blood running down my leg, I realized I may have a tendency to undersell things. That's when I started to sob.

The emergency operator, finally sensing the urgency, started repeating my name as he pleaded with me to stay calm — "LEEZA! LEEZA! LEEZA!" — not knowing he was pronouncing it like one of my favorite friends from home when he's trying to be silly. I cried harder. He told me, in broken, halting English, that I was going to be okay. I remember making him promise they were going to find me.

They traced my coordinates and decided the best way to reach me was by helicopter. They told me to hang up, to save my cellphone battery in case they couldn't find me. I did, and somehow, I had service. That's when I texted my parents.

The helicopter didn't see me the first time. There was a man standing by the open door, and he didn't see me. I waved my hat frantically and used my one hiking pole to shake a tree branch, but I was half under a tree in the middle of wilderness. As the red and yellow chopper came back around, I waved my arms so hard they'd be sore for days.

But holy hell, the man waved back.

The helicopter did another loop and then was over me, and the man was in a harness, and they dropped him next to me. It still didn't hit me, as he looped another harness around my legs and tied my backpack to his rope, that I was going up, too. The propellers were so close that I couldn't hear myself to ask and my hat blew off my head. The man reached down and caught it, stuffing it down the front of his shirt.

At that same second my body left the earth. I rose and spun through the air, suspended by a string over the most beautiful mountains I'd ever seen.

• • •

I'm okay. Look, I'm okay. That's what I tell people at this point in the story. I'm sitting in front of you, aren't I? I'm writing this, right? I'm fine. I'm okay.

At the hospital in Aosta the doctor twisted my limbs but found no broken bones. I didn't have a concussion and my blood work was fine. I found common ground in broken Spanish with elderly Italian women who patted my cheeks and petted my hair as I waited for my test results. Estoy bien.

I knew even then I was going to finish the hike. I didn't want it to end like this. I still wanted this trip to be about the amazing things I had seen, the people I had met, all of it, not just a bad mistake. And I knew if I didn't get right back out there, I'd always be afraid. Maybe it sounds crazy, but it wasn't a question.

After two days of rest, I hired a guide and took off again from Trient, Switzerland.

The guide was something I decided on because I knew when I had that conversation with my parents that I wanted it to be clear I had been responsible. He was nice and gave me tips to improve my footwork and pacing so that I wasn't gasping for air or stopping for water so much. Any time he saw a piece of litter, he'd stop to pick it up.

It rained the entire last day in France, from Argentiere back to Chamonix. There was almost no one on the trail and visibility was rough. I fell down a few times and I got back up. As we approached Chamonix, completing the trip, I paid the guide and walked into town by myself.

I spent two rest days swallowing crepes and wine with friends I'd met. I wandered the streets with a pack of British men who planned to scale the peak of Mont Blanc that weekend. I ate buffalo mozzarella with the Seattle hikers and made earnest promises to visit the Canadians.

• • •

At the time, with a single exception, I didn't tell anybody back home. Not my parents, until I was back in the United States. Not Facebook or my friends. It was two months before I mentioned it on a phone call with my brother, as an aside, while we were chatting about his recent trip to Greece.

I think the reason I kept the story close is the same one I took the trip in the first place. How does anyone deal with anything? You just do the next thing in front of you, take the next step, until you are safe or you are fine. I needed to figure out what this meant to me before I could share it with anyone else.

I landed here: I took the wrong trail but I wasn't wrong to think I could travel by myself, take this on myself. I made a small mistake that turned into a big problem and it was bad, but I also got myself out of there, and I don't regret anything except being just a little bit not cautious enough for a handful of seconds that ended up mattering.

A few weeks after I got back, I was watching television at a friend's apartment whose window faces a hospital. A helicopter landed on the roof and I stared at it. I lost a few minutes to breathing too fast, swallowing too hard.

She asked me if I was okay, and I told her I was fine. I'm fine. Most of the time, I am.

Lisa Gartner, 28, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning enterprise reporter at the Tampa Bay Times. Contact Lisa Gartner at Follow @lisagartner.