Out Alive: Fall From a Cliff - Backpacker

Out Alive: Fall From a Cliff

When Shaina Maytum was 21, a slip in the desert left her broken, alone, and unable to move.
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Falling Off a Cliff

The blue Utah sky filled my vision as I lay motionless on my back. My right arm was bent at a grotesque angle, my back felt like it had been shattered by a boulder, and I couldn’t move one of my feet. Only one person knew where I was, and she’d left me like this an hour ago.

It was April 2008, and my friend Brie and I had just started a 3-day loop hike of Fish and Owl Canyons in southeastern Utah. Trail descriptions warned about minor route-finding challenges and short scrambles over drop-offs and pour-overs, but we felt confident, having traveled off-trail and in canyon country many times before. Brie and I were looking forward to pushing our skills to visit the ruins and petroglyphs the canyons are famous for.

We descended a series of ledges, chatting and enjoying the early spring sunshine. Eventually the cairns petered out and we couldn’t see an obvious way to the canyon floor a few hundred feet below. We’d have to do some scrambling. Looking for the best course, I sat to peer over the rim—but I leaned over too far. When I tried to shift my pack, my hips scooted forward and I started sliding down the sandstone. I clawed at the ground, but I couldn’t slow down. Then the rock fell away beneath me. I screamed.

I dropped about 15 feet, then crashed into the ground feet-first before buckling onto my side. I howled as pain radiated up my spine, and heard Brie yelling my name as she scrambled down to me. Crying and struggling to breathe, I scanned my body, trying to take stock of how bad it was. In addition to the crushing pain in my lower back, I had numb spots on both of my feet and was having trouble moving the right one. I regarded my misshapen, purple-and-blue arm with some curiosity—strangely, it didn’t hurt at all. Brie slid my pack off and gently rolled me onto my back. Walking, or even sitting up, was out of the question.

“We don’t have cell reception,” Brie said.

“You have to go get help,” I gasped.

We knew it would take her at least an hour to hike out, then another 20 minutes of driving over a dirt road to the ranger station. It was midday, but dark comes early to the desert in spring. She tucked my rain jacket around my head to remind me to keep my neck still. Her final words to me were, “I love you,” and “don’t f***ing move.”

There was no danger of that. I would find out later that I had broken bones in both of my feet, a compression fracture in my lower back, a small crack in my pelvis, and a broken wrist that would require surgery. It crossed my mind that we should have checked out my injuries more thoroughly before Brie left. We had both recently completed Wilderness First Responder courses, but despite our collective experience, adrenaline and fear caused us to forget almost everything we knew.

Alone, I watched the clouds floating by. A raven circled overhead, and I grew aware of my legs starting to burn, a sharper pain against the dull throb of my back. I reached for the hose to my Camelbak, but it was just out of range. As the minutes ticked by, the pain faded into numbness. Morning became afternoon. Over and over I whispered to myself, “You’re OK. You’re OK.”

Several hours later, I heard Brie calling my name. I tried to yell, but all that came out of my parched throat was a tiny squawk. Brie followed the sound and crouched down beside me, a ranger with her. I caught a flash of his white beard and recognized him from the permit office earlier that morning. Then he was off, running back out of the canyon to direct the search and rescue team.

Knowing that help was on the way, the primal floodgates in me opened. The pain that had ebbed while I was alone came howling back and I felt the pulsing agony of every broken bone. The anguish in my back had made its way to my abdomen, turning my stomach into mash. My swollen feet ached like they were being stomped on, and it seemed like my arm was being broken over and over again. I screamed. I swore. I was practically drowning in tears and snot. Brie sat in silence until it passed.

And then we waited. Brie asked me questions like my favorite ice cream flavor to try and keep me distracted. She attempted to splint my arm, causing me to let out a string of expletives. Mostly we were quiet; the desert afternoon passed slowly.

A few hours later, the search and rescue team arrived. With evening approaching, they strapped me into a litter and lowered me by hand and with ropes to the bottom of the canyon. Dirt fell in my eyes and my injuries throbbed as I bumped down the steepest sections of trail. Finally, they lifted my broken body and carried me another half-mile to a place where the helicopter could land. It descended, blowing off hats and spraying sand into everyone’s faces. Someone covered my eyes, a gesture of kindness I will never forget. Darkness fell on the canyon, but I was safe.