The lawyer from Winnipeg was 13,000 feet up Mount Whitney, California’s highest mountain, in mid-January, wearing light clothing and with darkness setting in. “I figured I had screwed up really badly,” he recalls. “I knew that there was no way back in the dark. I hadn’t taken my sleeping bag or tent with me. I thought I had twisted my ankle. I was totally exhausted. The water in my water bottle was frozen. I lay down beside a big rock and was waiting to die. I was at peace with death.”
It turns out however death wasn’t ready for Ramage just yet. In late March, recuperating from his ordeal, he recounted his experience. While his left foot had largely recovered from frostbite, the toes on his right foot remained blackened — akin to third-and fourth-degree burns, he observes — and the foot was still bleeding everyday. “I may still lose some toes,” he says, “but with each day, that danger is lessening. The colour is beginning to return to one of my toes.” He adds he still doesn’t have a lot of feeling in either foot and the feeling in his hands still wasn’t fully back to normal.
The fair-haired, slightly built, soft-spoken Ramage is an inveterate traveler. Name a place and he has probably been there. He is also an experienced mountain climber.
Originally from England, Ramage began climbing mountains in the summer of 1986, shortly after passing the bar in Winnipeg. (The University of Manitoba Law School graduate does mainly civil litigation.) “I had a friend in Alberta who invited me out to do some climbing,” he recalls. “I had been working to put myself through school and hadn’t had a real holiday in some years. I accepted the invitation. We climbed Mount Edith near Banff. And I got hooked on climbing.”
Ramage has climbed many peaks over the years, most recently Mount Toubkal in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco last fall, without incident.
In early January, Ramage headed for California for a two-week holiday. He flew to Las Vegas where he rented a car and drove to Palm Springs, stopping off in Joshua Tree National Park to do some climbing. “It was so warm that I climbed wearing just shorts and a T-shirt,” he says.
From there, he went to Santa Monica, San Diego, and Oceanside, Calif., acoross the border to Ensenada in Mexico, and, finally, near the end of the trip returned to California to the 14,505 foot Mount Whitney in the High Sierras. “On Tuesday, Jan. 13, I drove to Mount Whitney, parked my car, and began my ascent of the mountain,” he recounts. “I was lured into a false sense of security. While the rest of North America was struggling with brutally cold temperatures, California was having a heat wave. It felt like summer at the base of the mountain. I checked the weather forecast and was further reassured. I decided not to take the snowshoes I had just bought. Because I figured I could do the climb and back in a day, I took a light pack with me.”
In hindsight, Ramage knows where he went astray. He lost the trail and ended up in deep snow. That slowed him down. He thought he could see the ridge he was aiming for, but he was already off track. He pushed on past the tree line to a section of rock and ice. “I decided to use my ice axe to create steps in the ice instead of putting on my crampons,” he says. “That took a lot more energy than I expected. I’m not sure exactly what happened after that. Maybe it was altitude sickness.”
It was at about that point darkness began to set in and he lay down to die, wearing Israeli army fatigues, an army sweater, and a baseball cap. He passed out, waking eight hours later. “I woke up in the middle of the night to this horrible smell,” he recalls. “I had vomited all over myself. Somehow during the night, I had managed to put on my North Face down jacket, two toques, and three pairs of mitts.”
He wasn’t sure he was really alive at first, but remembers the scene around him was beautiful. “There was a full moon overhead and I could see the frozen lakes below,” he says. “I was shivering uncontrollably and sure that I was dying of hypothermia. I didn’t expect to survive until daylight. I began to pray for death.”
But the sun came up and provided enough warmth for Ramage to melt some of his water. He also had a little bit to eat with him. Still, with the sun going down again, the temperatures dropping, his hands numb, and in a lot of pain, he figured it was just a matter of time before he became totally dehydrated. He decided to try to speed up the process of dying by trying unsuccessfully to cut his right wrist. “Suddenly, I stopped shivering, my pain dissipated, and I heard a voice in my head telling me that I had been laying here for 40 hours and wasn’t dead yet and that I wasn’t going to die. My entire attitude changed.
“I wasn’t looking forward to another night out there, but I figured out that if I started out early enough in the morning, I could get out.” The second night, he recalls, seemed longer than the first — but he had an iPad with him to keep him company.
At 9 a.m., he got up (“I didn’t realize that my feet were frozen,” he says) and started down the mountain. Part way down, he came across a stream where he took in a large amount of water.
When he reached the ice pack, he glissaded down using his ice axe for support. He got back down to the lower trails just before dark and found his way back to his car in the dark using his headlamp. He then drove to the nearest hospital.
After three days in that California hospital, he was airlifted back to Winnipeg where close friends let him stay with them until he could go home on his own. “They messed up in that hospital in California,” he says. “They should have put my frostbitten feet in warm water, not on a heating pad which they did,” he says. “When I came back here, my feet looked like slabs of meat.”
At the time of the interview, Ramage wasn’t sure how much longer he was going to be off work. He estimates he won’t be back in the office until at least June. “It’s a miracle that I am still alive,” he says.
Despite his near death experience on Mount Whitney, he is eager to return to the mountain one day and conquer the summit. And he might even return to the place where he almost died and revisit the memorial cairn he left there.