When Hao Yan moved to Boise last month, he knew he wanted to climb Idaho's tallest mountain.
The New York native, who has been attending school in Pennsylvania, came to the western United States to fight forest fires this summer. Last Saturday, he had some free time so he traveled to Mount Borah for an experience could have been deadly.
He started to climb the north face of the 12,662 foot mountain by himself around 3:30 a.m. Using a GPS program on his phone, he had planned out his route but somewhere along the way, he took an unexpected detour.
"I got lost very early," Yan tells EastIdahoNews.com from a hospital bed at Eastern Idaho Regional Medical Center. "I wandered from my route and had to get back on track. That wasted several hours in the morning."
Once Yan was back on his planned route, he took photos and enjoyed the "perfect" weather. The experienced climber was prepared with water, food and a backpack full of gear should he encounter any problems.
"I've taken classes at the Colorado Mountain School and have been hiking for years," Yan says. "It's just something I really like to do."
Yan made it near the top of Borah Peak by 6 p.m. At that point, he was hiking in snow and had changed into boots. He says he was 600 feet from the top and there was a tall rock directly in front of him.
"Instead of going around the rock in the snow, I decided to go up the rock face," Yan says. "I made a lot of bad decisions that day and I don't think I was thinking straight."
Yan pulled out his rappelling gear and began climbing the rock. When he was about 20-25 feet up, his rappel anchor suddenly broke from the rock and Yan went tumbling to the ground below.
"It happened so fast and once I hit the ground, I ended up triggering an avalanche," he recalls. "Then I started to slide another 200 or something feet and I became tangled up in all my gear. It was really bad."
Yan was somehow able to stop himself as the snow continued to slide around him. He was buried up to his neck and felt like he was suffocating. He did have an ice ax but it was in his backpack, which was buried somewhere in the avalanche.
"My entire body was tangled in the (rappelling) ropes so I tried to sort it out but by then I was in so much pain and had so much adrenaline that my body was shaking like crazy," Yan says. "I couldn't really do much. I would do one thing and it took so much effort that I would just collapse back to the ground."
Using his elbows and knees, Yan slowly dug himself out of the snow. It was 6:30 p.m. and he figured he could hike back down the mountain after resting.
"But the pain only got worse. My legs and back and neck were very painful and everything hurt," he says.
To make matters worse, Yan ran out of water and was becoming dehydrated.
Around 9 p.m., nightfall began setting in and Yan knew he needed to call for help. Miraculously, he was able to get a cell phone signal and called 911.
"The most the emergency dispatcher could receive was Yan had fallen, he could not move, he was lying in the snow covered by a blanket and he was very cold," a news release from Custer County Search and Rescue says. "He relayed he was at approximately 11,500 feet, just below the north face access routes."
It would take at least six hours in daylight for a rescue team to climb to Yan's location, according to officials, so Custer County Search and Rescue called for the Two Bear Air Rescue helicopter team from Kalispell, Montana. But it would take two hours for the helicopter to arrive.
"My phone was on power-save mode so every 30 minutes I called dispatch to check in," Yan says. "I put on my coat and just waited up there. I wasn't pessimistic or afraid. I thought, 'If this is really the end, it would have ended already.' The fall could have killed me, the avalanche could have killed me, so I was like if I survived this, God wouldn't let me freeze here to death."
Yan recalled a hike several months ago in Colorado where he got lost and ended up spending the night in the wilderness without a flashlight. When daylight arrived, he was able to hike out on his own to safety.
Fortunately, he didn't need to wait until sunrise on Mount Borah. Rescue crews arrived around 1:50 a.m. and spotted Yan from the air.
"I held out for five hours in the snow. I was shivering like crazy the whole time. I was dehydrated and it was painful and cold but I knew help was on the way so I just had to hold out," Yan says.
A member of the rescue team rappelled down to Yan and together they ascended back up into the helicopter. Yan was flown to an ambulance and taken to Lost River Medical Center before being taken by air ambulance to EIRMC.
"I had hypothermia and a lot of spine fractures. Fortunately I don't have to have any surgeries and everything should heal on its own," Yan says.
Yan hopes to be released from the hospital soon and is sharing his story to remind others not to hike alone. He also wants to thank the men and women who came to his rescue, the EIRMC doctors and nurses and everyone else who helped him survive.
"I'm so grateful for everything they did. They saved my life, and I was so relieved to see them. I just really appreciate them," he says.