Check out the Latest Articles:

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.

***

Matt before the mountain climbing accident.

Matt before the mountain climbing accident. Courtesy of Matt Miller.

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.”

Mexico's Pico de Orizaba mountain is the third highest peak in North America.

Mexico's Pico de Orizaba mountain is the third highest peak in North America. Courtesy of Yenuan Iesus Gordillo Osorno

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.

***

Conquered: Matt\'s tattoo is a testament to overcoming tragedy. The design includes two volcanoes and a Ghanaian symbol that represents an "understanding of one\'s self," which he believes the accident can help him find.

Conquered: Matt's tattoo is a testament to overcoming tragedy. The design includes two volcanoes and a Ghanaian symbol that represents an "understanding of one's self," which he believes the accident can help him find.

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 doesn\'t think he\'s fully embraced his accident yet, but says perhaps he\'s happier now than he was before.

Matt says he hasn't fully embraced his accident yet, but that maybe he's somehow happier now than he was before.

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.

By Tracy Mueller

Photography by Michael O’Brien



  1. Allison Walters on Sunday 20, 2010

    This is an incredible story. I know Matt personal and he does live up to everything this article presents him to be. Matt is the most genuine person that you will ever meet.

  2. Todd Roper on Sunday 20, 2010

    I had the priviledge of going through the Texas Evening MBA with Matt.

    Matt was in my group and and I developed a deep and lifelong respect for him.

    As challenging as the MBA was for me personally and professionally,

    it was worth it solely for the chance to know and become friends with Matt.

    I am proud to know him and to be his friend.

    Hook Em!!

    Todd Roper

    MBA ’10

  3. Naufil Mulla on Sunday 20, 2010

    What a story! Truly an inspiration!

  4. Leigh on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt – you serve as an inspiration to us all. Great read.

  5. Mandy on Sunday 20, 2010

    This story was forwarded to me by a friend of Matt’s & I am truly grateful to have read it. Matt, you are more than inspirational…thank you.

  6. Harsh Kumar on Sunday 20, 2010

    I had the privelege of knowing and working with Matt. He is one of the most easy going and likeable persons I have met. Good luck in everything you do Matt. Best, Harsh

  7. Stephen Jones on Sunday 20, 2010

    If a runner blows past you on the trail, it’s probably Matt…A guaranteed future Boston qualifier and first rate man!

    Many thanks Matt for sharing your story of courage and inspiration.

  8. Sesha on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt – Shared my academic life with you for nearly 3 years and i feel bad not to know about this. Such is the simplicity and humility that you have carried about yourself. Truly an inspirational background,,

  9. Magesh Natarajan on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt, I missed the talk you gave in class but I am glad that I was able to read this. You are truly an inspiration for all of us and thank you for sharing this with us.

  10. Deepti Busireddy on Sunday 20, 2010

    Truly inspiring. It was a pleasure going through the MBA program with you…wish you all the best with everything. :-)

  11. Deepti Busireddy on Sunday 20, 2010

    Truly inspiring. It was a pleasure going through the MBA program with you…wish you all the best with everything. :-)

  12. Colleen on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt – My kids think you’re a SUPERHERO! And I think you’re super and a hero. So glad to know you. We are so proud of everything you’ve done, and we look forward to what’s ahead. . .

  13. Julie on Sunday 20, 2010

    What an inspiring, incredible story! So many would have just curled up and given up. I don’t know Matt personally, but sounds like he really is a superhero! Thank you for sharing your personal journey with us. Good luck and many blessings!

  14. Amy on Sunday 20, 2010

    What a remarkable man you are Matt! Thanks for sharing your story with us.

  15. Bill Moss on Sunday 20, 2010

    I know Matt from working with him and his dad at the Phoenix investment advisory firm. I have since moved on to my own investment firm and Matt is now our representative that we work with at Dimensional Fund Advisors. Having known him before and after the accident I can truly say that Matt survived the damage from the accident and having accepted it, through much effort and desire on his part, he became an even better person. A beautiful person on the outside is also a beautiful person on the inside. Love working with you Matt. Great article. Bill

  16. Bill Moss on Sunday 20, 2010

    I know Matt from working with him and his dad at the Phoenix investment advisory firm. I have since moved on to my own investment firm and Matt is now our representative that we work with at Dimensional Fund Advisors. Having known him before and after the accident I can truly say that Matt survived the damage from the accident and having accepted it, through much effort and desire on his part, he became an even better person. A beautiful person on the outside is also a beautiful person on the inside. Love working with you Matt. Great article. Bill

  17. Doris Stone on Sunday 20, 2010

    I received the article from my son, Brent, who is associated with Dimensional Fund in Austin.

    Today, I shall enjoy my health and physical abilities a bit more and this is because of Matt’s

    great story he chose to share. May your life continue to be blessed.

    Doris Stone

  18. Anu Kini on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt,

    This is truly an amazing and inspiring story. I did not know the background and details on your situation until I read this story. Your dedication, hope, perseverance, courage and high achievement is an inspiration to all of us! It was a pleasure having you as a classmate in the TEMBA 10 program. I wish you the very best in the future.

    Anu Kini

  19. Kelly on Sunday 20, 2010

    I too have had the pleasure of working and running with Matt (but I don’t keep up well!). He truly does have an amazing personality. I’m glad even more people are touched through this article. Thank you Matt for sharing so widely.

  20. Buddy Reisinger on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt,

    Thank you for sharing your story with me nearly a year ago. I think about it often. In particular, how split-second decisions can change your life. You lead with your heart, and you should be proud of that fact. You saved one or two lives that night, and this story may save many others in different ways. I look forward to sharing your story with others and can’t wait to get you back to St. Louis.

    All the Best,

    Buddy Reisinger

    See the light!!!

  21. Prof. B. L. Turner on Sunday 20, 2010

    Exceedingly well written story! Matt is a fighter and made my problems in the world seem insignificant! A very interesting article, bound to make me a consistent reader of your journal!

  22. Sasi Konidena on Sunday 20, 2010

    Thanks for sharing this inspirational story . Matt has showed that with will power and hard work even the biggest hurdles can be crossed. Hats off to you Matt !!

  23. Sasi Konidena on Sunday 20, 2010

    Thanks for sharing this inspirational story . Matt has showed that with will power and hard work even the biggest hurdles can be crossed. Hats off to you Matt !!

  24. Jim Hagerman on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt…thanks for sharing your story in such wonderful detail. What an inspiration. I look forward to sharing it with my kids and talking with them about it.

  25. don don on Sunday 20, 2010

    Human Spirit triumphs adversity.

  26. don don on Sunday 20, 2010

    Human Spirit triumphs adversity.

  27. Irene Huseman on Sunday 20, 2010

    What a truly incredible story. Thank you for sharing it. God bless you always!

  28. mike stinson on Sunday 20, 2010

    I climbed that mountain in 1983. Seemed a bit different than described here.

  29. Kate on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt -

    Thank you so much for sharing your story. You’re an inspiration to so many people and should be very proud of yourself. Don’t worry about what people think…all of us have flaws, and if they get to know you they will see beyond. If not, what they think doesn’t matter.

    Hook ‘em, from your fellow Longhorn. =)

    Kate

    UT BBA in MIS ’96

  30. Blake Bollinger on Sunday 20, 2010

    Man, What an Inspiration. All the trials and tribulation’s I have EVER gone through, don’t even hold a candle to what you had to go through, Thank’s so much for a sharing your story. I will read and think about this and your story of motivation everyday, and try to be half as grateful as you are! Thank’s for your story.

  31. Rob Amoroso on Sunday 20, 2010

    I work with Matt and never knew this. It’s an incredibly inspiring story, and brings new meaning to “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” It’s hard not to feel motivated after learning what Matt endured, and how he climbed back out of the darkness. Thank you for sharing this.

  32. Joe A, Sosa on Sunday 20, 2010

    Dear Matt,

    Your story touched me. I’m disabled myself since five polio and some what deformed so I can relate. The difference the older you get one learns to adopt with what we have which makes us stronger. I admire your great spirit in yourself and as a inspiration to others. I also want to thank Tracy Muller for a well written article.

    I stop by the Business school every day to pick up something to read before I go to work and I’m MSB magazine Spring/Summer 2010 and what an honor to read your story. 50 years have gone so I can say I’ve had a very interesting journey I wish you the same your Joe A. Sosa.

  33. Stefanie Jones on Sunday 20, 2010

    Extremely well-told story!

  34. Joe Dolan on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt,

    I read your story and was overcome with awe and respect for you. I am an 18 marathon runner who thought I had to overcome issues ( heart ). After I read what you have been through, I have it made. This year I am running Chicago 10/10/10 and I will dedicate my miles to your success in qualifying for Boston. Thank you for the inspiration.

    Joe Dolan

  35. Regina Raineri on Sunday 20, 2010

    Matt,

    What an incredible story. I often feel that through times of pain and heartbreak, that I’m merely a channel of God’s message. Thank you for being a willing messenager. Your story will stay with me forever. I hope I have the priveldge to meet you one day. Peace.

  36. Rachel Coker on Sunday 20, 2010

    A great story & well told. Thanks!

  37. Rachel Coker on Sunday 20, 2010

    A great story & well told. Thanks!

  38. Terry Woods on Sunday 20, 2010

    God bless you, Matt. Your success is inspiring.

  39. Terry Woods on Sunday 20, 2010

    God bless you, Matt. Your success is inspiring.

  40. Rohit on Sunday 20, 2010

    I think whenever i feel like giving up…you are the person i am going to think about….:-D

  41. teresa green on Sunday 20, 2010

    I noticed this blonde guy at the gym here in austin, noticed the eyes and confidence., didnt know his story until now… a blessing he and his father are here..

  42. Edison Varble on Sunday 20, 2010

    Within your presentation the fragrance of the rose, you need to accept the thorns so it bears. (Isaac Hayes)

  43. Alan on Sunday 20, 2010

    Just happened to come across this post and what an inspiring story. I’m sure God was with you and he has a plan for you and your special life. I am a fishing guide and I have disabled anglers come out with occasionally and they seem to appreciate everything just a little more than most of us. Love to put a smile on their face. Matt I wish you the best and may God bless you more and more everyday!

  44. Brett R. Stahl on Sunday 20, 2010

    I am trying to think of something original that has not already been said…
    Inspirational
    Super
    Hero
    Super Hero
    Great Guy

    I do not know Matt, but I would sure like to meet him. I too, will think of him on those days that I think my life is so bad.
    Thank you Matt for being the wonderful gift to this world that you are!