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Eating insects kept injured climber alive on mountain

Derek Mamoyac survived five days on Washington state’s Mount Adams with a broken ankle by eating insects — even a venomous wolf spider. “He told us dying was never an option," the climber’s father said.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

When it’s man versus mountain, it’s usually unwise to bet against the mountain. But Derek Mamoyac beat the odds, surviving five days on Washington’s Mount Adams with a broken ankle by employing entomophagy — the eating of insects.

The 27-year-old veteran climber embarked on a one-day climb Oct. 12, reaching the 11,657-foot summit of Piker’s Peak, one of the mountain’s three peaks. But the weather, and Mamoyac’s luck, turned bad going back down; during his descent, a snow patch gave way and sent the climber tumbling down the mountain.

Mamoyac’s right ankle was dislocated and broken in several places. Worse yet, his loved ones didn’t know where he was.

Scrounging to survive
“Derek typically does things without informing us,” his father, Steve Mamoyac, told TODAY on Monday. “It’s something we’ve been concerned about, and we’ve talked to him about it before, but he’s climbed other mountains by himself.”

Derek’s family reported him missing when he didn’t show up for work the next morning. And while rescue teams fanned out in a search effort, the Philomath, Ore., resident fought to survive in brutally frigid conditions.

Despite his debilitating injury, Mamoyac continued to descend Mount Adams by crawling on his knees and, when that became too painful, scooting yards on his backside.

And, most amazingly, the plucky Mamoyac found sustenance to fuel his efforts by eating centipedes, ants and even a venomous wolf spider.

“He said he ate … just whatever kind of protein he could scrounge up,” Steve Mamoyac said of his son. “So he was thinking all along. He wasn’t just out there, sitting down to wait. He was actively doing everything he could to survive and get off the mountain.”

While not generally on the diet of North Americans, the insects Mamoyac consumed are often staples in Asia, Africa and South America. Those insects, along with wild berries and drinking water from a creek, helped Mamoyac stay alive.

Still, as the days crawled by agonizingly, the Mamoyac family was hit with a sinking feeling about Derek’s fate.

“In the five days he’d been gone, me, my wife, daughter and I, had been inseparable,” Steve Mamoyac told TODAY. “And as the week progressed, we’d had to prepare ourselves for the worst.”

A ray of hope
But foreboding gave in to hope when a King County, Wash., rescue dog named Trulee sniffed a granola-bar wrapper Mamoyac had left on a mountain trail and began zeroing in on the injured climber.

Search team member Greg Varney said they knew they were closing in on Mamoyac when they detected drag marks on the trail. “I did a voice check, where I yell out his name,” Varney said. “Derek yelled back. That’s when [your] heart starts pounding: ‘Did I hear that right?’ ”

They finally found Mamoyac, much worse for wear but very much alive. In addition to his injured ankle, he suffered from frostbite and dehydration. In a show of amazing resolve, Mayomac had managed to drag himself nearly 2,000 feet down the mountain after suffering his injury.

While waiting for a military helicopter to transport Mamoyac to the hospital, rescuers fed him energy bars, water and a ham-and-cheese sandwich, and tried to warm him.

“We put all our coats on him, and he was still shivering,” rescuer Jill Bartlett said. “He was in very good shape for what he went through. I don’t know how he did it.”

Father Steve credited Derek’s steely resolve for his survival.

“He told us dying was never an option,” Mamoyac told TODAY. “In his mind, it was just a matter of how inconvenient this was going to be. But in his mind, he was never going to die.

“I told myself, if anyone could do it, if anyone could survive, it’d be him.”

‘They found him!’Steve Mamoyac said he and daughter Sophia were driving up the mountain, where cell phone reception is spotty, when the phone rang. Steve could barely decipher a trio of words from the other end saying, “They found him!”

“We were in the car, having one of those solemn, depressing conversations about having to prepare ourselves for the worst, when suddenly the call came in,” he said. “It was just the most incredible experience, going from really the lowest point in our lives to the highest.”

Derek spent a day in the ICU at Legacy Emanuel Hospital and Health Center in Portland, Ore., before being transferred to a regular room. He had surgery performed on his ankle and is still dealing with the effects of frostbite.

“It could be several weeks before they know the extent of the damage,” father Steve said. “He’s dealing and resting now; he will be convalescing for quite a while.

“He might not recover fully, but we’re hopeful.”

Once he does recover, Mamoyac may have to brace himself for another hardship — a tongue-lashing from his parents for not informing them of his climb.

“We were having those kinds of conversations while he was missing, going over what we’d say to him if we ever got the opportunity to say it,” Steve Mamoyac told TODAY. “But right now …we just want him to recover. He’s not going anywhere anytime soon, and believe me, I’m sure we’ll get to those conversations.”