Jeffrey Wright, 61, is a lifelong Sitkan and an avid outdoorsman.
“I’ve always been interested in the outdoors, and it kind of declined a bit when my father passed away in ’98. We did a lot in the outdoors, boating and stuff,” Wright told KCAW in an interview on Monday.
But a heart attack in 2018 moved hiking to the forefront of his life.
“And I realized at that point that I needed to make a change in my lifestyle,” he said. “I started watching what I ate, and then we started, you know, hiking parks all over the West Coast.”
He’s hiked every trail in Sitka, but Mt. Verstovia is his favorite. The trailhead is only a 15-minute walk from his home. He’s hiked it at least 14 times in the last year.
He always has a plan, and tells his girlfriend, Carrie, where he’s going. But he really likes solo hiking.
“There’s something about doing something by yourself,” Wright said. “You’re in the moment. You’re absolutely awake, absolutely alive.”
So far this winter, he’d hiked up Mt. Verstovia at least half a dozen times with one goal in mind: hiking the full trail in the snow.
But every time he tried, the conditions weren’t quite right to make it far beyond Picnic Rock, a granite outcropping situated just over 2,500 feet above the trailhead. It was either too windy or the snowpack was too soft, even with snowshoes, to traverse the saddle to the summit, which rises another 800 feet.
But on March 26, the snowpack was firm and the skies were clear.
“I knew pretty much right away that was the day,” Wright said. “I had snowshoes on, and I wasn’t sinking that far. And I was able to pretty much scamper up that slope to Picnic Rock. You know, compared to the previous seven times — much, much easier.”
He made it about two-thirds of the way from Picnic Rock to the next landing, and the snow got harder. He took off his snowshoes, replacing them with spikes. And then, just shy of 3,000 feet elevation, he took a photo, smiling into his cellphone’s camera with a panorama of peaks and a bluebird sky behind him.
“It was just absolutely beautiful up there,” Wright said. “It’s really indescribable.”
Climbing a bit higher and arriving at a narrow ridge that’s generally known as the sketchiest part of the summit route, Wright said he underestimated the snowpack. That’s when he slipped.
“I made a mistake. I shouldn’t have crossed at that point,” he said. “Because once I fell, I was on the way. And there was no stopping.”
At first he was aware enough to reach for nearby branches to try to stop himself. But then he picked up speed.
“It was basically like a luge, you know, like an Olympic luge,” Wright said, describing the feeling he initially had while falling. “It was kind of like, you know, a swervy-type path. And I was going really, really fast.”
As he slid down the side of the mountain, he hit snow boulders that would explode and spray him in the face with powder at first.
“But then things changed, and everything went like a yellow, whitish — and then it was clear,” Wright said. “That’s what I was seeing. And I got very calm. There was no pain. I had no fear. Yeah, it was very peaceful. And then, the next thing I know, I’m reaching for my phone.”
Wright had been knocked unconscious for over half an hour. When he sat up, there was a pool of blood beneath his head. His GPS remained on, and he would later calculate that he’d fallen more than 1,100 feet over the course of a couple of minutes.
Likely in shock, he stood up, hoping he could hike out of the snowfield.
“I felt a pop in my right hip,” Wright said. “Now, it wasn’t painful. And it ultimately turned out to be a fractured pelvis. But I knew I couldn’t hike out of there. And that was very, very concerning to me.”
Wright’s phone somehow survived the fall. He was able to dial 911 and reach dispatchers in Sitka. About 45 minutes later, he guided an Air Station Sitka helicopter to his location.
“I was, like, waving furiously. And they saw me — of course they did — and they turned the nose of the [helicopter],” Wright said. “It was a very emotional moment. I knew I was going to live.”
Just as a Coast Guard rescuer was pulling Wright to safety in the helicopter, snow began hurtling down the side of the mountain — an avalanche that’s visible in the Coast Guard’s rescue video.
“Just an incredible, extraordinary act of bravery on his part,” Wright said of the rescue swimmer who brought him to safety. “You know, I’m very impressed that he would put his life out there for someone he didn’t even know, but I guess that’s what they do.”
Wright spent several days in the hospital. Now he’s out and about, on crutches and healing. In addition to the broken pelvis, he suffered an injury to his lower spine, a laceration on the back of his head requiring five stitches and a bruise “the size of a turkey dinner plate” on his hip.
“People are surprised that I’m alive. And I understand that,” Wright said. “But you know, I’ve survived things far greater in my life. I had a heart attack. And I rate that fall with this heart attack as far as severity. And there’s other things that have happened that I’ve overcome that were much, much greater.”
“And that helps me — not downplay what happened to me — but it puts it into perspective,” he said.
Wright said he’s thankful for the first responders from the Coast Guard and Sitka Mountain Rescue, and he won’t make the same mistake in the future. He said fellow hikers should do what they’re comfortable with and what they’re prepared for.
And while solo hiking isn’t for everyone, it’s still for him.
“This isn’t gonna change who I am. I learned from my mistakes. I’m still gonna go back to Yosemite, I’m still gonna go back to Zion, [and the] Grand Canyon,” Wright said.
“This isn’t going to break my spirit,” he said. “I’m going to continue to enjoy the outdoors and enjoy hikes and maintain my good health.”