Starry Night

A startling story of survival

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Nearly three years ago, longtime alpinist Isabel Suppe was lying at the bottom of a mountain in the Bolivian Andes wondering if she was going to die.

She and her climbing partner, Peter Wiesenekker, had fallen more than 1,100 feet, and both of their injuries were potentially life-threatening. Suppe’s right ankle was broken and her tibia and fibula bones were sticking out through her skin. Wiesenekker had similar injuries, as well as trauma to his head, and was unable to move.

What happened next can only be described as miraculous. After spending a night hoping for help to come and trying to stay awake to stave off hypothermia, Suppe realized the next morning that immediate action was required if she wanted to survive. At that point, Wiesenekker was no longer coherent, and Suppe set out not knowing if she’d see him again.

Because she only had one good foot and crawling across the sharp ice formations wasn’t an option, Suppe came up with a process of moving forward by sitting on the ground, lifting her body weight with her arms behind her, moving her torso over the ice toward her feet, then lifting her injured foot with a trekking pole that was looped through her crampon strap and moving it forward a few painstaking inches at a time.

“I didn’t know at all whether I had a realistic chance to make it off the mountain alive,” Suppe says of the ordeal. “At some point I was wondering whether I was simply putting myself through a senseless torture, but then I thought that if I were to die, I wanted those who were to find my body to see that at least I had fought to the last.”

By the time she was rescued the next day, it was too late to save Wiesenekker, who’d succumbed to his injuries after Suppe went for help. And even after doctors initially told her they might have to amputate her foot, she never, ever contemplated quitting climbing.

In the three years since the accident and the many surgeries she’s endured, she’s kept her promise to herself to not give up on the sport she loves. In fact, one year after the accident, she summited, on crutches, a new climbing route, again in the Bolivian Andes. She recently hand-cycled over the Alps and next week—after she speaks July 6 at the Bellingham Public Library about Starry Night, the book she wrote recounting her ordeal and recovery—she’ll be starting a bike trip from Washington to Colorado in order to rebuild the muscles in her legs and promote the English version of her book.

The title of the tome, Suppe notes, depicts much more than the view she contemplated while wondering if she’d make it through the night.

“When I was sitting on the glacier, not knowing whether I was going to live to see the next dawn, I looked up at the starry sky above the Condoriri massif and despite everything—despite the fact that I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die, whether Peter was going to live, and even though my bones were sticking out of my leg—I felt moved by the beauty of the starry sky,” she says. “It simply was too beautiful to die. In hindsight I find it extremely comforting to know that we are able to be moved by beauty, even in the face of death. This capacity is what makes us human.” 

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