Matt Miller, MBA ’10, was left for dead atop a Mexico mountain after suffering a horrific fall with his father. Eight years later, the thing that nearly killed him might just be bringing him back to life.
By all estimates, the temperature that night on the Pico de Orizaba mountain was between 20 and 40 degrees below zero, but Matt Miller had removed his gloves, boots and socks.
The hypothermia had tricked his body into feeling much warmer than it was. He knew the helicopter that left him stranded on the mountain glacier 14,000 feet in the sky had been his only hope for rescue. There was no Plan B. His eyes were swollen shut, but he peeled them open so he could see his father, Dennis, sprawled next to him on the ice. He wanted to say goodnight, to reminisce about their fly-fishing trips and baseball games. Most of all he wanted to tell his dad this wasn’t his fault.
They jokingly told each other, “See you in the morning,” knowing they’d never last that long. Then Matt folded his arms underneath his head and waited to die.
This wasn’t how Matt envisioned things ending.
Good looking and confident, he was popular at his private high school in Phoenix and enjoyed a close relationship with his parents and sister in what he describes as his “Leave it to Beaver” family. Matt made friends with ease, despite a habit of telling corny jokes. He played guitar, was a gifted triple-sport athlete and attended Santa Clara University on a baseball scholarship.
When Matt graduated from college in 2001, he joined his dad’s investment advisory firm in Phoenix. The next year, his father suggested they go on a mountain climbing trip together. Dennis had recently taken up the sport, and the pair had a history of adventure outings, from Alaskan fly fishing to hiking the Grand Canyon. The destination: the volcanic mountain Pico de Orizaba, the highest peak in Mexico and the third-highest in North America. Despite an elevation topping 18,000 feet, it was known to be a relatively easy climb. The plan was to go in November, when the mountain would be blanketed in soft snow from the preceding monsoon season—ideal climbing conditions. Matt was in.
Joined by four other climbers, including one person who had guided Mount Everest treks, Matt and Dennis flew to Mexico City, then took a two-hour bus ride to Puebla, where the mountain was visible in the distance. From Puebla they drove to base camp in the town of Tlachichuca. Their host, Gerardo Reyes, ran a mountain guide and rescue operation and had been leading climbs for years.
During dinner the night before they set out, Matt was feeling a touch of invincibility until Reyes cornered him with a warning.
“Man, I just want you to be careful,” Reyes cautioned. “One thing about mountain climbing: you listen to the mountain, and if it is talking to you, listen and come down.”
At 2 a.m. on Nov. 22, 2002, the group of six set out for the summit. After four hours, Dennis developed altitude sickness, a dangerous condition that impairs a climber’s mental and physical capacity. Matt stayed with his dad, now moving at a slower pace, while the other four surged ahead. The monsoons had not delivered that season, so instead of a soft layer of snow, the glacier surface was a slick rink of ice, which slowed them down even more.
Matt and Dennis pressed on until, just 100 yards shy of the summit, Dennis slipped and fell. With nothing to stop either of them from sliding down thousands of feet of ice or falling off the edge of the mountain, Matt dove after his father, grabbed hold of his jacket and pinned him to the mountain with his ice ax. Matt was able to drag Dennis, who had briefly lost consciousness, to a ledge where they could sit, drink water and catch their breath.
When the color returned to Dennis’ face, they decided to give it another go. Dennis stood up, but something wasn’t right. His eyes rolled back, he lost consciousness a second time and started a rapid slide down the ice. Without much thought, Matt once again dove after his father.
They tumbled roughly 3,000 feet down the glacier. Matt reached for his ice ax to try and stop their fall, but when he swung it, it bounced off something—maybe a piece of volcanic rock or an ice block—and shot back to hit Matt on the forehead. The blow knocked him out. When he came to 20 minutes later, he was laying on the ice about 60 yards away from the edge of a cliff. He had a few broken ribs, his nose had been ripped off completely and his right ear was just barely attached. His head had swollen to the size of a basketball. His contacts had fallen out, and both eyes were swollen shut.
Matt’s dad lay on the ice 15 feet away. “Matt, don’t f—ing move,” Dennis said, tears filling his eyes.
No one can explain why Matt and Dennis stopped sliding. Numerous other climbers had died that week on Pico de Orizaba, falling off the mountain’s edge.
As they descended from the summit, the Millers’ climbing partners saw the blood trail splashed across the ice and encountered other hikers who said they saw two people fall. They found Matt and Dennis and radioed for help from Gerardo Reyes. Nightfall approached as one of Reyes’ guides arrived—it had been 15 hours since the group began their day. They wanted to stay, but in the interest of their own safety, the other four climbers were forced to leave Matt and Dennis in the care of the guide and returned to base camp.
Two of Dennis’ leg bones had snapped in half, and Matt was in no shape to move, so an air evacuation was the only option for rescue. After bundling father and son in heavy-duty sleeping bags, warm boots and extra gloves, the guide called for a helicopter.
With both eyes now swollen shut, Miller listened as the guide spoke to the helicopter pilot. He heard the whir of the helicopter get louder as it came close. Then the sound went away. Now it was loud again. Now quiet. Miller heard the pilot saying something over the guide’s radio and a response after a long pause. Then, silence.
“Matt, you got to say goodnight to your dad,” the guide said, explaining the altitude was too high for the helicopter. “It’s going to be a tough night, you may not see him. God bless.”
With that somber benediction, the guide made his way back to base camp, and Matt and Dennis were left alone at 14,000 feet, not a living creature within 4,000 feet. No birds, no trees. Only the sound of the wind screaming over the glacier.
“It was the worst kind of quiet I’ve ever heard,” Matt remembers. His voice pierced the silence as he screamed out, “Ayúdeme! Ayúdeme!” (“Help me, help me!”)
He spent a restless, hallucination-filled night on the mountain. In the morning, he awoke to the sounds of a helicopter. Someone on the mountain had a connection in the U.S. embassy in Mexico City, and they managed to get an American military helicopter up the mountain to evacuate Matt and his dad. As he was lifted up in the rescue basket, Matt somewhat gleefully took in the stunning view around him.
Suffering from severe head trauma, pulmonary edema, hypothermia and hallucinations, he was nowhere near his right mind and had no idea that the worst was still to come.
The Army helicopter was Matt’s rescue, but it was probably also his undoing. The false warmth of hypothermia compounded by the mind-altering pulmonary edema had caused him to remove his gloves and boots during the night. So when the helicopter hovered over him, it blasted at least a 40-mile-an-hour freezing wind over his bare flesh. Frostbite was inevitable.
Matt bounced around a few Mexican villages before landing in a Mexico City hospital. Three days after the accident, doctors still could not conduct a CAT scan because Matt couldn’t stop shaking—his body temperature had plummeted and was slow to warm up. (Matt’s father suffered a broken leg but sustained no other serious injuries or frostbite.)
A few days later, he was flown home to Phoenix. Because most doctors in the desert aren’t practiced in treating frostbite, Matt’s family started calling around for answers. A few days after Christmas, Matt and his parents flew to Dallas to meet with surgeon Greg Anigian, who had operated on Beck Weathers, one of the survivors of the 1996 Mount Everest disaster chronicled in Jon Krakauer’s book “Into Thin Air.” The Millers knew Weathers through a business contact, and he agreed to offer Matt advice and connect him with Anigian. Matt says when he walked into Anigian’s office, he immediately knew he was in trouble.
“When I saw his eyes, I knew that something was really bad,” Matt remembers.
Anigian found himself looking at a 22-year-old with a black scab for a nose, a severely wind-burned face and fingers as white as marble, the bones suffocating from frostbite and loss of circulation. Anigian took Matt’s hand and picked up a scalpel. Matt started yelling, and Anigian told him, “Trust me, Matt, you won’t feel anything.”
The doctor sliced Matt’s blackened skin—where it was dying—and flayed his hand open, exposing the bone and a bad infection.
Anigian showed Matt where dangerous gangrene was setting in and insisted on immediate surgery.
Matt spent 25 hours in two surgeries over the next two days. All eight fingers were amputated; his thumbs survived. Over the next two years he would have nine more surgeries and lose eight toes.
The surgeries—and recovery—were agonizing. New physical and emotional trauma lurked around every corner. He got severe staph infections and had to live with a permanently attached catheter for a year so he could receive antibiotics intravenously.
There was no formal physical or occupational therapy treatment for Matt, so he was left to fend for himself. Something as simple as re-learning how to button a shirt became a panicky three-week ordeal of trial and error. While coping with this daily nightmare, Matt was prescribed the painkiller OxyContin, to which he developed an addiction. To fully face his trauma was simply more than he could bear. A world clouded by medication was infinitely more tolerable.
Eventually Matt the fighter re-emerged. A conversation with his friend Quinn, who lost all his fingers and both feet after being stranded for 16 days during a mountain-climbing accident, changed Matt’s perception of himself.
“I was really struggling this one day because it was the first time since my fall that I had met an attractive girl, and she reached back her hand and was kind of startled when I tried shaking her hand,” Matt remembers. “I called Quinn, and he told me, ‘Every single person around you has scars, just as bad as you and I for the most part. But ours are just on the outside.’”
Matt stopped taking OxyContin. (“After everything I went through—throwing toes in the trashcan, surviving on a day that was 40 below zero—nothing compares to getting off OxyContin. Nothing, not even close,” Matt says.)
Sick of holing up in hospital rooms, Matt took up running, a sport he previously thought was “something that people did who weren’t coordinated to do anything else.” The physical exertion and fresh air invigorated him, made life seem sweeter. Running became something of a spiritual quest. It allowed him to be alone with his thoughts and empty the sludge building up in his soul. “I still find myself randomly crying on runs,” he says.
In the summer of 2003, Matt’s parents encouraged him to return to work at his father’s investment firm. He doesn’t remember what he did that first day back. “Probably cried,” he guesses. But a routine emerged: two hours getting dressed, usually with help from his mom or girlfriend. Go to the office for a few hours. Practice writing, typing and using the phone without any fingers. Make a game plan for how to get coffee from the kitchen without looking foolish in front of coworkers. Go home, exhausted.
Eventually, though, the work of physically getting through the day took a backseat to the work of being an investment analyst. By 2004 he was working full time again, and in 2005 he approached the Los Angeles-based investment firm Dimensional Fund Advisors (DFA) about a job. He worked with them at his dad’s company and was inspired by their passive investing philosophy that valued client education over brokerage fees. It was his dream job with a company he admired. But when DFA extended Matt an offer, it took him four months to accept it because the idea of the move to California terrified him.
“I had never lived by myself as this new person. Here was the most materialistic city in the world, and I’m going to go there with no fingers,” Matt recalls. Realizing he had to confront his fears or give up altogether, he took the job.
A trip to the grocery store during his first week in L.A. forced that confrontation, when he pulled out his wallet and all his credit cards fell to the floor. “That’s when I learned that if I press down on a card, it will stick to my palm and I could grab it with my other hand.” Crisis over. One less thing to be anxious about.
Matt also had to learn how to explain his injuries to other people. On his first day at DFA, he felt intensely self-conscious while completing paperwork with other new employees. Someone offered to help Matt with the forms, but—unsure of how to respond—he turned down the assistance and hurriedly fumbled through a story about his accident.
As he became more comfortable in his new life, Matt gained confidence on the job and bonded with coworkers. Still, Los Angeles was lonely. Apprehensive about new people and unfamiliar surroundings, he hibernated in his apartment and spent most nights and weekends alone.
Matt left L.A. in 2006 to help open a Dimensional office in Austin. Meeting with a career coach had inspired Matt to look past his accident and forge a new path for himself.
Once settled in Austin, he enrolled in the Texas Evening MBA program in 2007. He was attracted to the program because of both the new skills he’d learn and the group projects and classes that would bring out his personality—force Matt to just be Matt again.
Even as he starts to recognize signs of his pre-accident self, some effects linger. He is anxious outside when it’s dark and cold, feeling like he needs to find shelter. He used to love spur-of-the-moment solo camping trips, but the thought of being alone in the wilderness doesn’t hold the same charm anymore. He’s gone from popular jock to a more philosophical type.
After the accident, a priest told Matt he should feel blessed to have been chosen for this. At the time he was angry, but now he agrees. “I always thought I was supposed to be someone special, I just didn’t expect it to be because of this,” he says.
He finds rituals that help him see past his physical limitations. He runs nearly every day—even when it makes his feet bleed—and hopes to qualify for the Boston Marathon soon. He also loves helping others. Because Matt’s loss is so obvious, other people—clients, classmates, anyone he talks to, really—feel safe sharing their own stories of heartbreak with him.
“I view clients as friends, and I think a lot of that has to do with my accident. People want to know the story,” says Matt, now a regional director at DFA. “People see my scars, so they think they can share with me their scars. So it’s this incredibly powerful conversation where we haven’t even talked about investments.”
He can’t say he’d take back the accident if given the choice—it’s so much a part of how he’s grown up. And yet despite his defiantly optimistic outlook, Matt believes he hasn’t fully embraced his new lot in life. He says he’ll know he’s truly at peace with everything when, the night before a new client presentation, he isn’t kept awake by worrying what people will think of his hands or whether he should make an announcement regarding his accident. He just wants to worry about the content of the presentation, if he’s done a good job.
“If you absorb something like this and you learn from it, you realize you’ve gained as much as you’ve lost. I thought I was a little happier then, but maybe that really wasn’t happiness like it is now,” says Matt.
He is not so different than anyone else.
Photography by Michael O’Brien