If you are piloting a plane and the plane catches fire, what do you do?
You put the fire out… but you cannot forget to fly the plane.
Bill Justice and Matt Sterns weren’t flying a plane, no, their story of Mental Toughness started about 1,500ft from the summit of Mt. McKinley (Now known as Denali) in Alaska. Justice had hired Sterns to guide him up the mountain. Both men were in fantastic shape, Justice, who was a former Army Ranger, had completed two Ironman races and Sterns was an avid mountaineer who had reached six of the ‘Seven Summits’.
Their story of peril begins about 1,500ft from the summit of Mt. McKinley. Sterns, who was ahead of Justice, looked back and asked Justice if he would like to take point and be the first to summit. Justice said no, that Sterns had already gotten him this far and that he should be the first to summit. Sterns took another step and slipped.
He fell 20 feet slamming his crampons into Justice’s thighs, ripping into his flesh and causing Justice to fall another 150ft slamming into the Ice Shelf. Sterns, looked down and saw Justice hanging on by a thread of their climbing rope. He tried yelling down to Justice, but could tell that he was unconscious and the blood from his thighs had begun to pool. Sterns quickly climbed down to Justice to wake him up.
Upon waking Justice up, Sterns realized that Justice’s thighs were not only ripped apart, but both legs had been shattered by the fall. If Stern had attempted to carry Justice down to safety, the climb down would kill him. Sterns had no choice but to pin Justice to the ice shelf and make the descent alone.
As Sterns started the trip down to base camp to alert the Coast Guard, Justice decided that he was not going to die on Mt. McKinley. Justice, a former Army Ranger, had been well-trained in survival techniques. Justice realized that though his legs were shot, he could still move his torso and arms. He understood that if he fell back asleep, he probably was not going to wake back up. So, Justice put together a plan to keep himself awake while Sterns was getting help. Justice began doing 100 arm rolls with his left arm, after he finished 100 arm rolls with his left arm he switched to his right arm and did another 100 arm rolls, then he began doing 100 crunches. After the 100 crunches he would start again with the arm rolls. Justice did this routine for 40 hours. For 40 hours Justice would do 100 arm rolls and 100 crunches and repeat because he had decided that he was not going to die on that mountain.
While Justice was doing his arm rolls and crunches, Sterns was climbing down to base camp. It just so happens that while Sterns was climbing down, he spotted a plane and signaled it for help. The plane was able to land, pick up Sterns and take off towards base camp. When they arrived, Sterns notified the Coast Guard about Justice. It turns out that one of Justice’s old friend was apart of the Coast Guard team going up to rescue Justice and in fact would be the team member going out the helicopter door.
The Coast Guard team eventually spotted Justice pinned to the mountain side, and they immediately sent his friend out the door to rescue him. While his friend, the diver, was rappelling towards Justice, the communications link between the diver and the Pilot failed and according to Coast Guard protocols that means an immediate abort. Someone could die or the helicopter could crash. However, since the diver was a friend of Justice, they resorted to hand signals. Eventually, the diver was able to reach Justice. He took his mask off so that Justice could see it was his friend.
“Bill, Bill; it’s me, your friend… I am here to take you home.”
They were able to rappel back up to the helicopter, and safely return back to base camp. Four hours later a storm came through and grounded all aircraft for the next three days.
And as always, thank you for reading.