MU associate professor survives Spanish mountain

Thursday, January 21, 2010

COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -- If he'd just had the right equipment, it might not have happened. Or had the weather been more cooperative, it would have been a normal climb. But the fates didn't align for Sean Ireton -- a University of Missouri associate professor of German -- and this month he took a nasty spill on Spain's highest mountain that shattered his kneecap and forced him to descend some 9,000 feet on makeshift crutches.

It's a story of survival that reads like the plot of a movie. On Tuesday, Ireton shared that story over the phone from Dusseldorf, Germany, where he's conducting research this semester -- and recovering.

The weather had been awful in southern Spain, where Ireton, his wife, Megan McKinstry -- a lecturer in the German and Russian Studies Department -- and their 9-year-old son were on vacation. So when the rain stopped the first Sunday in January, Ireton saw it as his chance to climb.

Spain's Mulhacen peak is 11,423 feet. Normally, Ireton wouldn't make such a hike alone, but his normal climbing buddies weren't along for the trip. Plus, Ireton said, he has been climbing for more than 20 years and has made plenty of solo hikes.

That said, he's the first to admit leaving his crampons at home was risky. Crampons are the attachments that fit on boots to give traction in snow and ice. "That was my mistake -- near-fatal mistake," he said.

The weather was fine when he set out to scale the mountain at 4 a.m., and it cooperated during his ascent. When he started to climb down, though, clouds moved in, obscuring his view and bringing rain. Ireton realized he wouldn't make it far before darkness set in, so he opted to spend the night in a refuge atop the mountain. Sans sleeping bag, he curled up with his coat.

Ireton awoke to blue skies and sunlight, but by the time he'd hiked about 1,000 feet down, a storm hit.

"The winds knocked me back and forth, blowing snow and hail in my face," he said. "It was nasty. ... I had zero visibility and lost my orientation. I realized I had to get down, no matter what direction."

By this time, McKinstry had alerted authorities that her husband was missing. A search crew, however, had to call off rescue efforts because of the storm.

Despite the cold, snow and hail, Ireton made it down another 500 feet or so, nearly below the clouds. He could see a trail below him, just past a section of ice.

Up to that point, ice on the mountain had been relatively soft, so the hard, slick ice surprised him. Ireton slipped and fell 100 feet, bouncing off jagged rocks before landing in snow. The fall broke his left knee, tore a tendon and punctured him in two spots. It was the first time he questioned whether he'd live, Ireton said. But thoughts of his wife and child caused the adrenaline to kick in.

"You have to be stubborn," he said. "You know what you have to do. The only other option is to lie there and die."

Ireton used his ski poles as crutches, keeping his injured left leg straight. The leg would buckle every so often, though, causing him to fall and the wounds to reopen. Meanwhile, hypothermia was setting in: Ireton would spend the next 10 days without feeling in his fingers.

After a 14-hour descent, Ireton reached a village just before daybreak, two days after he had set out. Flooding had caused nearby homes and businesses to be evacuated, but after scaling a police barricade, Ireton reached a restaurant, where an owner directed him to his brother's house about 15 minutes away over a hill. With his last ounce of energy, Ireton reached the destination. He spent 10 days in a Spanish hospital, suffering also from kidney damage, a side effect of an adrenaline rush.

Those who know him say if anyone could survive those conditions, it's Ireton. Colleagues described him as a "tough guy."

"The fact that he made it down doesn't surprise me," fellow German Professor Roger Cook said. "He's extremely resilient and self-reliant."

Inaccuracies in international news reports, some of which have insinuated he was careless, added frustration, Ireton said. Although he admits he should have had his gear, Ireton said he couldn't have predicted the unusual weather.

"I did not have my crampons and took a fall," he said. "Next time, I'll bring my crampons, and everything will be fine. That's what it boils down to."

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