Surviving Alone After a 100-Foot Fall in the Arizona Wilderness

Amber Kohnhorst was hundreds of miles from her nearest friend when she fell down a cliff and broke her back.
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Amber Kohnhorst was hundreds of miles from her nearest friend when she fell down a cliff and broke her back.
Amber Kohnhorst, 25, fell 100 feet in Cane Beds, Arizona, on May 20, 2016. She was photographed three months after her fall. It was only her first week off bed rest. Photo by TK

Amber Kohnhorst, 25, fell 100 feet in Cane Beds, Arizona, on May 20, 2016. She was photographed three months after her fall. It was only her first week off bed rest. Photo by TK

My feet touched the summit of the sandstone bluff and I paused, alone, proud and stunned by the distant view of Zion National Park fanning out before me. It was just as beautiful as I’d imagined. When I went to descend along the edge of an 800-foot cliff, I realized I couldn’t downclimb the way I had come up. Take a breath, I told myself. If I could climb this, I can find a safe way down. I hopped between boulders and stemmed down a slot. My eyes set on the sun melting on the desert landscape. Then, everything went black. 

When I woke up an hour later, I felt shattered. A pool of sticky blood surrounded my head like a halo. I lay trapped in the bottom of a smooth-walled pit with an empty water bottle. It was getting dark. Only my Airbnb hosts knew where I’d gone.

My plan was to stay in the small town of Cane Beds, on Arizona’s northern border, for a week in May, volunteering at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Kanab, Utah. I’m from Minnesota originally, and I’d hoped to spend all my free time exploring the canyons, cliffs, and desert terrain I’d never seen before. I was barely in town an hour before I set out. I could hear my mother’s advice to never hike alone, but I just couldn’t wait.

I got a recommendation for a nearby hike—an easy one, since I’m not used to high altitude or slickrock—and off I went.

After gaining about 600 feet over a little less than a mile, I’d had my fill. I sat, took a swig of water, snapped some photos, and began my descent. Just then, I caught sight of a bulbous sandstone escarpment that I couldn’t resist.

The rock was grippy and stair-like in places. I climbed by adrenaline and happy mountain vibes, energized by how well I was moving.

I kept going until I reached the top and that sprawling view. That’s when my euphoria turned to panic. Oh my God, I don’t know how to get down. I could spot my end destination—a tree at the bottom of the 800-foot cliff—but the way was invisible from my perspective. I told myself to keep calm while attempting to descend by various routes, but every one dead-ended above a sheer cliff face.

How could I have been so careless? I knew panicking would get me nowhere, but I couldn’t stop.

Stuck somewhere below the top, I took my phone out and dialed 911 with shaking fingers. No service. The silence, which earlier I’d cherished, was now horrible. I had to go down. Half downclimbing and half jumping down 10-foot cliffs, I landed on slanted, narrow ledges.

It was around 8 p.m., almost sunset, when I fell.

I regained consciousness after 9 p.m. with a pulsing pain in my head. I was terrified. I knew I’d fallen far, but wasn’t sure where I was. I called 911 again because I knew by the pain that my back was severely injured, if not broken. My ear was torn badly and I figured I had a concussion. There was still no service. I dug through my bag to assess my supplies: two carabiners, one paracord survival bracelet, some trail mix, a whistle, a mini first-aid kit, and wipes.

I put the whistle around my neck and blew, though I knew no one would hear me. It was 9:15 p.m., I was miles from a town where I had no friends, and I was alone on the floor of a narrow canyon. I used the wipes to clean off as much blood as I could.

Brushing away sandstone chips to make a smoother rock bed, I carefully lowered my head onto my backpack and tried to rest in my 10-by-10-foot alcove, protected from the wind, but still shivering in the 50-degree weather.

Sleep was out of the question. Soon, hallucinations began. I’d see someone open a magic door to rescue me and I’d crawl for a couple feet before slinking back to my reality: I was trapped.

When the morning light illuminated my rock room, I decided to get moving. I slithered through a small opening, but when I peered over the next edge, my heart sank: there was a 30-foot drop. There was no way down. I retreated, taking quadruple the time to jam my swollen body through the slot.

I rested. I ate trail mix, screamed, blew my whistle, and let myself think the unthinkable. What if they can’t find me? What if this is it?

It sounds cliché, but I tried telling myself, If this is my time to go, at least I died doing something I loved. Small comfort. A heavy sorrow settled on me every time I thought of my family. I took a photo of my puffy, bruised face and traced a sloppy note on the image with my finger.

“I’m sorry. I’m trying to blow my whistle. I’ve fallen.”

Kohnhorst intended this selfie as a goodbye to her family. Photo courtesy Kohnhorst

Kohnhorst intended this selfie as a goodbye to her family. Photo courtesy Kohnhorst

That was my goodbye. I was out of water, and I knew with that extreme Arizona heat in the day and bitter desert cold at night, I wouldn’t last long.

Still, I wasn’t going to wait around for death. Strapping on my backpack, I climbed. I somehow managed to ascend 50 feet up 6-foot natural rock stairs. I was trying with all my ability, but safety was another 50 impossible feet above me.

I settled onto a 2-foot wide, slanted ledge and stopped to rest. The pain in my back was immense, the despair I felt was getting stronger. My whistle blows became weaker and my voice hoarse and soft.

There was nothing left to do but sit and pray.

Around five hours later, a growing buzz in the air broke the dreadful silence. This was no hallucination—rescue was coming.

I couldn’t look too far up because moving my back was impossible, so I got on my knees and whistled. The helicopter hovered close to me, and the motor drowned out my calls for help. They flew over me once, twice, four times and they still could not see me, although I was waving my arms frantically. Then, just as it was starting to get dark again, the helicopter passed and I locked eyes with one of the men inside. He pointed right at me.

It was difficult for the SAR team to get to me. For hours they tried different rescue techniques, and at one point I yelled, “Hello?” to make sure they were still coming. Six hours later, in the middle of the night, one crewmember rappelled in, gave me Gatorade, and helped me into a harness. We attempted to ascend, but the four guys above couldn’t rope-haul us up.

I would have to help with my rescue. With the aid of the rope dragging me upward, I semi-climbed to the top of the bluff. Finally, with a rescuer under each arm, I walked to a place the helicopter could land and eventually made it to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah.

The rescuers told me how my Airbnb hosts had contacted the Mojave County Sherriff’s Office and how community members joined the search. Twenty-eight hours after I began and nine and a half hours from the start of the search, everyone was celebrating my return.

I’m still recovering from compression fractures in my sacrum and vertebrae, a broken nose, and a damaged ear, but it could have been so much worse. I’ll return next year to explore the places
I didn’t get to see, but I’ll make sure I know where I’m going.

Scramble Safely

Climbing without ropes always harbors risks, so know your abilities and don’t scale terrain that makes you uncomfortable.

Pack smarter. Keep your center of gravity close by putting heavier items just above the small of your back.

Choose routes wisely. Plan your path according to your skill level and always have an escape plan.

Focus on safety. Three points of contact are essential to maintain stability and balance. Keep your center of gravity over your feet, not bent toward the rock. Test your hand- and footholds before committing your weight.

Climb down. Turn back at the first sign of danger; route problems compound quickly when you’re scrambling. Face inward on steep descents, and use a trekking pole for front-facing descents on low-angle rock like gullies or slabs. Note: If you feel like you’re pushing yourself on the ascent, you’ll likely be over your head on the descent. 

–Jackie Montalvo