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MU professor survives harrowing ordeal on Spanish mountain

His family waited for two days at the mountain's base anxiously hoping for good news.
Wednesday, January 20, 2010 | 8:28 p.m. CST; updated 10:41 p.m. CST, Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Sean Ireton, an MU associate professor of German, is shown on the day he was released from the hospital in Granada, Spain. He was injured while mountain climbing.

COLUMBIA — Even before Sean Ireton started his solo ascent of El Mulhacén, Spain's second highest peak, his 11-year-old son, Aidan, sensed something might go wrong.

In fact, Aidan was worried "even before Sean left, and he became very upset even after Sean had only been gone after a few hours — which seemed odd to me since I'm usually the one who worries," said Aidan's mother, Megan McKinstry.

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Two days later, Ireton, an associate professor of German at MU, returned to his family after a harrowing descent through winter storms. He had broken a leg, endured two freezing days and nights and hobbled on ski poles for more than 12 hours.

Ireton, 44, is on leave this academic year at the Philosophisches Institut at the University of Düsseldorf in Germany. His wife, McKinstry, 39, is an adjunct instructor of German education at MU. The family had camped out in a tent near the ski village of Pradollano as part of a short vacation.

On the afternoon of Jan. 3, Ireton, an experienced mountaineer, began climbing the 11,423-foot peak in the Sierra Nevada mountains. He and his wife shared their stories this week in e-mail interviews.

Ireton made it to the snow-packed summit; a photo he took suggests a crisp, clear day. But on his descent, a sudden storm forced him to find shelter in what he described as a small refuge 1,000 feet below the summit.

Back at the tent, his wife and son waited in the dark cold for him to appear. At one point, they went into the village to contact police. Finding no one who could help, they returned to the tent and waited anxiously.

Aidan slept fitfully, but McKinstry stayed awake. "I was terrified, and with every passing hour, I became more frightened," she recalled. "The storms were formidable, and I knew that the fact that Sean hadn't yet returned meant that he had suffered some sort of injury."

Still, they tried to keep up each other's spirits. "We were both trying to keep positive while Sean was missing," McKinstry said.

On the morning of Jan. 4, Ireton began his descent to a ridge that he knew "would lead me back to the ski area and my waiting family." But just before he reached it, a second, far more severe storm struck.

"This storm was probably the worst I've ever been in — almost zero visibility and winds that nearly blew me off my feet several times," Ireton said.

The storm prevented him from finding the pass leading down to the ski village. He struggled for about an hour before he "realized I just had to get down quick," or risk "freezing to death or getting blown off the mountain altogether," he said.

Edging away from the storm, Ireton found an alternate route, but the trail led away from his family's campsite. "At least I'd get down safely, even if it meant keeping my family in suspense for another day or so," he said. "Not ideal — but at least it meant survival."

Ireton then followed a river until he came to a final obstacle, "a small patch of ice right above some big blocks of talus."Thinking the sloping mass of rock was just a thin layer over snow, he tested the ice with his boot. "Suddenly I was rolling down the slope and bouncing off the rocks below until I finally came to a stop," Ireton said. He realized right away his leg was broken.

Luckily Ireton found he could still walk, "as long as I kept my leg straight and locked." He started down again, using ski poles as crutches. But the leg was still trouble: If he bent it even slightly, it buckled and collapsed.

The break also produced two puncture wounds, and walking incorrectly caused it to "spurt blood out onto the snow." Ireton hobbled down the trail for more than 12 hours before reaching a village. Rain drenched him as well as the dry clothes he kept in a pack, leaving him in a "mild state" of hypothermia, he said.

Meanwhile, about 5:30 a.m. on Jan. 4, McKinstry and Aidan returned to the village and spotted a van. Even though neither speaks Spanish, the mother and son were able to communicate with the van's occupants. They contacted the police, who sent for a rescue team from the Guardia Civil.

While the team searched for the next day and a half, McKinstry and Aidan waited at a hotel. "When we got the call that Sean was OK, we ran through the hotel telling everyone, and all of these strangers were hugging us and congratulating us," McKinstry said. "I will never forget the kindness that the Spaniards showed us."

Ireton was sent to emergency care at Granada's Hospital Clinico, where doctors operated on his leg. X-rays showed the kneecap was smashed and the tendon connecting upper and lower leg was torn.

Back in their home-away-from-home in Germany, the family has begun to recover. "It was awful for me to watch Aidan go through this," McKinstry said. She described her husband as an experienced mountaineer in excellent shape. "If he hadn't kept going," she wrote, "he most certainly would have died."

And while she can't speak for her husband, she remains "most convinced that he will climb again, as soon as his leg permits."


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