June 24, 1992 – Seattle, Washington: It had been three days since the tragic climbing accident on Mt. Rainier. Jim wrote a letter to his best friend. He began, “Dear Mike, I will strive to take this second chance I’ve been given, unfurl my wings and fly with it, and not turn inward into a dark ball. I will strive to live a strong, forward-moving, vivacious life in your honor.”
Jim Davidson grew up around high-altitude painting projects. His father owned a painting business in Concord, Massachusetts, which painted tall towers and big bridges – work so dangerous that few contractors would take it on. Jim’s father repeatedly preached to him, “Son, don’t ever let go of the safety rope. You hold on regardless. If your hands are tired, wrap the rope around your leg and hold it in your teeth. If I fall off this tower, I expect you to hit the ground right after me.” Jim learned early not to quit just because a job was hard.
Jim met 23-year-old Mike Price in the fall of 1986 while they were graduate students at Colorado State University. Jim was earning a masters degree in geology and Mike in English. Mike had grown up in Colorado and was an experienced mountain climber. He taught college students to learn to climb through the Outward Bound program. Jim and Mike dreamed of climbing Mt. Everest one day.
After summiting several mountains in Colorado and South America, Jim and Mike decided to climb Mt. Rainier. They chose the more difficult Liberty Ridge route on the north side of the mountain. On the first day of summer, June 21, 1992, after three days of climbing roped together, they reached the 14,400-foot summit. Pictures were taken, and they headed back down looking forward to a shower and a steak.
As they crossed a glacier at the 1500 feet elevation, just an hour from the car, the snow suddenly collapsed under Jim and he fell into a crevasse – a large crack in the glacier. Mike, 50 feet back and attached by a safety rope, dug in to break Jim’s fall, but he too was pulled into the crevasse. They fell 80 feet and landed on a two-foot by seven-foot ledge. Mike died within minutes. Miraculously, Jim wasn’t seriously hurt.
Shock, fear, guilt, and grief gripped Jim as he sat in the dark with the body of his dead friend. He blamed himself. He had no idea what to do. Instinctively he yelled for help, but he knew no one would ever hear him. He would freeze to death. Jim was a good ice climber, but scaling these sheer 80-foot ice walls would require world-class skills.
After an hour, Jim pulled himself together and started to plan his climb. He might die in a fall, but it beat freezing. He secured Mike with a rope, in hopes of pulling him out later, took his five ice hooks and started up the wall. He never had self-belayed; he had only read about it. He fell multiple times – and the safety rope saved him each time. It took five brutal, exhausting hours, but Jim Davidson did the impossible; he climbed the sheer wall of ice to get out of the crevasse.
Almost as difficult as climbing out of the crevasse was traveling to Colorado to visit with Mike’s parents.
In the years following the accident Jim married, had children and got busy with his job as an environmental engineer. It was years before he climbed again. The memories were too painful. But eventually, he quit his engineering job and became an Outward Bound climbing instructor.
On Sunday, May 20, 2017, on his second attempt, 54-year-old Jim Davidson stood at the 29,029-foot summit of Mt. Everest and remembered that fateful first day of summer 25 years earlier. His had honored his commitment to Mike Price. Today Jim travels the country sharing his story of resilience and teaching college kids to climb mountains.
“Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.” Frederick Buechner