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On Random Chance and Heroism

TAY GLASS, HOST: And now for the first installment of our commentary series, where students tell stories from their lives that have impacted them. Will Walkey has a story about a time he’s been called a hero, and why he doesn’t like that label.

WILL WALKEY, BYLINE: Whenever I’m introduced to a member of my girlfriend’s family, the first thing they say to me is, “oh, you’re the hero. You saved Gretchen’s life.” I always laugh and blush and don’t know how to respond. Not only because, well, it’s all downhill from there, but also because what they’re saying is misleading. I went through a traumatic situation straight out of a movie -- a scene that ends with me suspended from a helicopter a few hundred feet over the French countryside. But I feel nothing like Superman.

My girlfriend and I were studying abroad, and were on a weekend trip to Geneva. We planned on summiting Mont Saleve, a mountain that overlooks the city. When we arrived, the trails were a bit uneven and washed out from the snowmelt of early spring. Conditions seemed sketchy, and the main trail to the top was closed.

Gretchen and I have both hiked all over the world. We’ve carried our own water filtration systems, pots and pans, and tents. What was one short hike where all we’re carrying is some water bottles, cliff bars, and wine? This was our first mistake: arrogance. We took the alternate route.

About 30 minutes in, we realized we were completely lost. We should’ve turned around. But we were determined to find the view. So we doubled back and split up.

I eventually chose the right path, but Gretchen did not. She ended up on a slope of loose gravel and dirt a few yards away from me. She tried to cross over to where I was and lost her footing. I watched her slip and tumble down some rocks. Finally, she disappeared over the edge of a cliff to a 30 foot drop below. If you take away anything from this story, it’s to never split up when you’re alone in the woods.

I can’t say that I screamed or even really reacted to what happened. I just stood there, in shock. I finally started skidding on my butt down the slope, following the probable path of her tumble.

I eventually found her pinned up against a dark-wood, leafless tree. Later, I found out her impact with the tree trunk had stopped her from tumbling further. She was delirious but conscious. The first and worst thing I noticed was a deep cut down her arm from the top of her shoulder to her elbow. You could see straight through her muscle to the bone. Blood flowed from the cut, glistening like a garnet.

Luckily, I knew how to check her vital signs and make a tourniquet for her arm before calling 911. I was fortunate enough to have cell service, and in English and broken French I relayed to a dispatcher what happened. 45 minutes later, three first responders dropped out of the sky on harnesses suspended from helicopters. They took it from there.

Gretchen broke 6 ribs and 8 vertebrae. She was left with a thick scar the length of her upper arm, which she hates because she can’t wear dresses without people staring at her. But things could have turned out differently had that tree not been there, or if my phone didn’t have service. But it did.

My friends and family say I’m a hero, but I don’t feel like one.

I’ll admit I recalled my wilderness training and made a damn good tourniquet. I told Gretchen dumb stories about my dogs for 45 minutes to keep her awake, and I flagged down a helicopter using my T-shirt. I did a lot of things right.

But none of that saved her life, and I don’t want the credit for it. The reality is fate kept Gretchen alive. And how can I be a hero when I was just cleaning up my own mess?

But people don’t like to think about the pure randomness, and occasional helplessness, this world creates. Who wants to think about the roll of the dice we all take on a daily basis? Gretchen’s parents can’t thank a forgiving hillside, or a tree for what happened. So they take comfort in the idea that I saved their daughter.

Whenever I think about Gretchen’s fall now, I know there’s no real hero to her story. But I’m happy to take on that label to help her parents, and maybe myself, get through what happened.

GLASS: Will’s favorite superhero is Iron Man. Probably because he worked for his powers like everyone else. He wants to thank Gretchen O’Brien for her consulting role in this story.

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