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Out Alive Podcast

Broken and Alone in a Canyon Bottom

After Jacob Velarde fell 50 feet while on a solo hike, he could hardly move, let alone hike out.

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Out Alive is a podcast about real people who survived the unsurvivable. Check out more seasons and episodes here.

Many hikers and backpackers search out areas off the beaten path. There’s something alluring about visiting a trail or lake or summit that few other humans get to see. We covet peace and solitude, and we thrill at the idea of having a campsite, swimming hole, or waterfall all to ourselves. But tranquility comes at a price. Secluded beauty tends to be safeguarded by challenging terrain. And when things go wrong, it’s hard to tell the difference between solitude and desolation. Jacob Velarde learned this firsthand when he fell 50 feet from a cliff while backpacking alone in a remote Arizona canyon. Hear the story from Jacob’s perspective below, or subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

Transcript

Host: [00:00:00] Many hikers and backpackers search out areas off the beaten path. There’s something alluring about visiting a trail, or a lake, or a summit that few other humans get to see. We covet peace and solitude, and we thrill at the idea of having a campsite, swimming hole, or waterfall all to ourselves. But tranquility comes at a price.

Secluded beauty tends to be safeguarded by challenging terrain, and when things go wrong, it’s hard to tell the difference between solitude and desolation. 

Trailer: [00:00:48] I made a decision to survive. When you’re in that survival mode, the idea of dying wasn’t in my head. It was the worst case scenario. I was in a fight for my life. Whenever you walk out on these trails, you’re in their house.

Host: [00:01:02] I’m Louisa Albanese and you’re listening to Out Alive by Backpacker. In each episode of this podcast, we’ll bring you real stories of real people who survived the unsurvivable. 

Trailer: [00:01:13] I saw the rope zip through the rappel ring, and I couldn’t do anything.

Host: [00:01:17] learn what went wrong, what went right, and how you can escape if the worst case scenario happens to you. 

Trailer: [00:01:23] There is no way we would find anybody alive.

Jacob: [00:01:34] I’m Jacob Velarde. I grew up in the Phoenix area. I grew up hiking my whole life. Since I was knee-high to myself, we would go camping, fishing, anything outdoors. When I grew up a little bit older, I joined the Boys Scouts and did that for quite a while, but I’ve hiked in the US, like all over the US including Alaska.

I’ve been to Peru, hiked there, Japan, I’ve hiked all over the world. And never really thought anything like this could happen to me.

Host: In August of 2020, Jacob and his younger brother set out for an overnight in a remote, rarely-visited canyon in central Arizona. The seven mile trail rewards rugged scrambling and some tricky route finding with a waterfall and idyllic swimming holes.

Jacob: Leading up to the hike, for weeks I’d studied the trail, reading everything about it, read that it’s going to be a hard hike because it’s a little bit sketchy on finding a way down to the water.

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:02:40] I was aware of this backcountry area that was pretty inaccessible. And a lot of times you love places like that because you want to get away from people. 

Host: [00:02:48] This is Eric Glomski. He and his wife, Gayle, and their daughter Zoe visited the area for an overnight the same week as Jacob. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:02:56] it looked pretty legit, it’s like quintessential gorgeous red rock country, isolated.

And to get to the final point you really need to know what you’re doing. You need to be committed. You need to have a lot of planning skills. 

Jacob: [00:03:12] So I had planned to do this hike with my little brother, and we drove out that morning and it was a little bit chilly in the morning given it was the summer, but it’s also in the middle of the desert. We arrived at the trailhead just as the sun was coming up and started our hike. It was honestly, probably one of the most perfect, most beautiful days that I’ve ever hiked. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:03:34] It was incredibly beautiful, like classic Arizona at the top geologic strata was all like the steep two, 300-foot basalt cliffs.

Host: [00:03:43] Here’s Eric again. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:03:45] And then it went into these blue, very loose, steep escarpments then down into a classic red rock. And there had also been a fire through there, which I think made it looser and more messed up because there were a whole lot of areas where a lot of erosion had occurred. And so there were a lot of cut gullies and loose, steep, rocky cliffs sitting in this red rock.

Jacob: [00:04:12] And about a mile into it, the trail kind of just goes at a steep angle and it’s all gravel. And my brother started slipping a little bit and he turned to me and he’s like, hey, this, this is not the hike for me. I’m not going to be able to do the rest of this. And that’s when I made the decision to hike it on my own. I tossed him my keys.

I said, hey, you know exactly where I’m hiking. You know, the trail, I sent it to my parents. I sent it to you. I’ll see you in the morning. And I kept going. 

Host: [00:04:47] Jacob’s brother returned to the car, where he’d spend the night. They planned to meet up the next day. 

Jacob: [00:04:53] Everything was perfectly fine for the next, you know, mile or so. I was walking around.

I found a little rock, actually that I thought my little brother would like threw that in my pocket and just kept hiking. And then I got close to the water and you could see it down there. And now I had to figure out a way to get down. So I just kept walking a little bit farther and I noticed an area that looked like I could get down.

So I looped back around and I kind of had a hug a bush to get around to this area to go down. And I was like grabbing on, I slid right past the bush. And I realized it is not a way down. It is a lot steeper than I thought it would be and a little bit, like, a little bit more gravelly. Um, so I decided to get out of that area.

There was about a 5-foot ledge that I figured I could just hop up and get, go back up from there and be fine. So I threw my front pack and my trekking poles up top, but as soon as I started to push up, and I pushed with my legs, the ground broke beneath me. And in a split second, I was gone. I fell and my face hit first and I just started tumbling down the hill. And as soon as I started to fall, I thought I was going to die. 

If you’ve ever had a dream of falling, it felt pretty much like that. Just the ground snapped and I slid, hit my face first. And then in an instant, I was just tumbling down the hill. It was quicker and, like, people tell you when you’re falling, you cover your head and everything. It just happened so fast. There was no time to do anything. And I hit a few times just rolling until I got to the very bottom. And I slammed flat on my back, with my head hitting, the back of my head hitting a rock at the bottom about the size of half a fist and, uh, laid there for a bit. Because I was in so much pain and confusion.

Host: [00:07:20] Jacob had tumbled 70 feet down to the riverside. 

Jacob: [00:07:24] When I originally landed, I was like, shoot, I’m alive. Falling was the easy part. Now I have to stay down here and I have to figure it out. I knew I was in for the long run from the very beginning and it was going to be painful. 

Now, with hitting the back of my head I knew I had to have a concussion. And I tried opening up my eyes and I really only opened up one. The other one was swollen shut. I started to move my extremities, making sure everything can move. And I could tell my left wrist, I thought it was broken. I could barely move my hand. And even when I did, it was just full of pain, and my right ankle was just terrible.

I started feeling my face a bit because I knew it had to be bad. My eye was swelling up. I couldn’t breathe out of my nose. And I was just in a lot of pain. As I rolled over, I got quite dizzy and the world just spun. With the one eye, I could see everything was spinning around and I just had to fall back down on my back.

I felt up my pockets and luckily enough, I still had my phone, and I slid that out of my pocket. Not even a scratch on it. I saw that I didn’t have any signal, but I dialed 911 anyway, hoping for some reason that I’d be able to get out or get anybody because I knew it was bad. I was in the middle of a canyon in the middle of nowhere and nothing was getting out.

Host: [00:09:04] The steep canyon walls made escape nearly impossible, but Jacob had fallen into a fortuitous spot to wait for help. 

Jacob: [00:09:14] You can see there was the canyon wall. The water’s probably about 20 to 30 feet wide. Not very deep, probably about waist-height at the deepest. And then it was just green and trees on the other side and then the other canyon wall heading up.

Luckily enough, where it had fallen was probably about 20 feet from the water. So I took my one good arm and one good leg and kind of shuffled over to the water, leaned over it, and started cleaning up whatever stuff I had on my face. And I started sliding off my shirt because I knew I wanted to see what was the damage underneath my clothes.

I had a decent gash in both my shoulders, cuts up and down my arms. Now, as I started looking at my shorts, that rock that I had picked up earlier for my little brother had punctured through my shorts and slightly into my leg. And you can see down my shins and my knees were just covered in blood all the way down.

So I slid into the water to hopefully clean off any of the cuts that I can’t see, because I knew my back was pretty bad. It stung like someone had just took a knife and just kept slashing down my back. So I was hoping to stop any swelling or anything. And then I had to crawl myself out. Then it went over to my pack and started going through it, seeing what I had, because I was a little bit disoriented. Because I hit my head so hard that everything was just swirling in my head, a little bit hard to remember anything. 

Host: [00:10:57] Jacob had been carrying two small packs, one had tumbled down the cliff with him. The other was still at the top, in view, but out of reach.

Jacob: [00:11:08] that pack had my water and my food. And I knew I was going to be in there for the long run.

I happened to have a water filter. I’d fill that up and take a drink of it. Probably eight times. I just kept filling it up and can never quench my thirst. 

I knew my brother wasn’t expecting me for about 29 hours. And then from there you would call 911. And from there, they’d send somebody out, but they had no idea where I was on the 6 mile hike. So I knew it was going to be a long while. 

Now I grabbed my towel out and laid it on a rock that I’d crawled over to and laid down. And I passed out for a little bit, waking up to see that my head was still bleeding on everything, but it was all underneath my hair so I couldn’t really take care of it. And I couldn’t see through one of my eyes and the other one was spinning.

I just laid there trying to stay out of the sun. There was a little tree branch over me and it was starting to get pretty hot. And it was going to be about 105 that day. And at that point, I realized just how far I fell as I looked up. Now, I had lost my glasses, so I couldn’t really see as is, and everything was already spinning anyway, but I calculated, it had to have been at least a 50 foot fall.

And I could see my pack at the top of the hill, which was even more annoying because I knew that’s where my water, my food, my flashlights were. And so I grabbed all my stuff. Laid it out and started going through it.

I had a hiking pillow, my towel, a nice brand new hiking tent that I had bought, but there was no way I was going to be able to slip into that. It’s so small and compact that it hurt too much to even try. So I hung that in the branch above me to just give me shade. I just had to lay there in pain. It was honestly pretty excruciating. And I slipped into the water a couple more times throughout the day, just to cool off.

By that point night was coming in and a little bit, so I slept near the water, but I was in so much pain through that night that I was up probably every 10 minutes rolling over. And it’s cold cause you’re in the middle of the desert. Now it had gone from 105 to probably 60 or lower. And you could feel the bugs just crawling all around, which is honestly torture.

The next day, the sun popped up and I moved back over to where the shade was underneath the tree. And that day I looked around and found a stick that I could use as a crutch to walk around. So I moved around and tried to see if there was any way I could get back out. But even in that, I fell a couple of times, just cause of the dizziness and the headaches. There was no way I was going to get out. There was too much climbing. It was too far. It was too steep. And I just had to pray that my little brother was smart enough to start calling somebody as soon as he could.

When I first started the hike, I remember seeing where everybody’s sign-ins for the hike was. And the last one had been about three days before I was there. So it wasn’t necessarily a common hike that a lot of people do. So I did not expect anything. I didn’t expect to find anybody. I expected to sit there and wait. Because there was nothing else I can do.

Host: [00:15:18] Here’s Eric Glomski again. That morning, he and his family were beginning their hike into the canyon. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:15:24] When we finally got out of the, kind of the upper area, I started getting down into the lower canyon, we started hitting red rock and then the trail kind of started to disappear on us. And then that was when you know, we’re looking at maps, trying to figure out how to get down these last cliffs. The river bottom was actually sitting in this red rock and had clearly cut down through it. And there were, you know, maybe two or three 20- to 50-foot ledges where there’d be a straight red rock and then all the eroding material and then straight down to the platform that the river was cutting into.

Jacob: [00:16:06] I got out my phone and then set up some texts to my brothers and my parents.

I had taken a picture of my face, which is actually the first time I had seen my face. And it was horrible. There was about a quarter of my face just right around my right eye was the only thing unaffected. My eye was just swollen shut with cuts around it. Bruises, cut down my cheek. My nose was just covered in blood. And I sent that picture to my family, and I know it wouldn’t send until I actually got signal, and I told them, hey, I’ve been in an accident. It’s pretty bad. You probably won’t see me for another few hours. I’m seriously injured, but I think I’ll live. When sending the texts, I just wanted to make sure that they knew what had happened to me. I obviously sent the picture, told them I love them. And I was a little bit afraid, to be honest, I was stuck in a canyon. You’re injured. You can barely move. Barely see. But I knew that if I gave into that fear that it was just going to get worse from there. So I just had to stay strong and keep moving forward. 

I sent them a second one. “By the time you’re seeing this, I’m probably already in a helicopter,” because there was no way of getting me out otherwise. I put my phone back away and kind of just laid there. I couldn’t even think of this going sideways and me dying. Just that wasn’t an option.

Earlier in the year, my dad had a heart attack. And it was pretty serious. My uncle had died about a month before I went on this hike, and this is mixed in with family and friends’ deaths throughout the year. And I just couldn’t do that. I couldn’t, I couldn’t do that to my parents. Just give up.

I had found an emergency whistle in my pack. So I had laid down about every five to 10 minutes I’d blow it as loud as I could hoping that somebody, maybe if there’s a nearby hike or anything, that somebody could hear it. And I sat there doing that for hours.

I just had to keep my mind occupied. Thinking, all right, I’ve got this many hours. I told my brother the next morning. So by noon, one o’clock, if he doesn’t see me, he’s going to start calling 911, because he knows that I’m like, I’m always on time. Counting down the hours and just switching from the shade to the water and back, crawling all over, scooping up more water laying back down on the towel and the hiking pillow, which, at that point, it was covered in blood. 

Now I had fallen about eight o’clock in the morning on the first day, and about eight o’clock the next day, I started hearing some rocks move and I looked over to my right and there was hikers.

Eric & Gayle Glomski: I thought I heard somebody, but wasn’t sure.

Host: [00:19:50] Here is Gayle Glomski. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:19:52] I heard Eric and Zoe say, oh, somebody is yelling for help. And I was like, what? Because I saw a guy and he was kind of waving at me and I was like, oh, hi.

Jacob: [00:20:00] It was a family, a mother, father, and their daughter. And I just started screaming, help. I’ve fallen and I’m really injured. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:20:10] So my daughter and I kinda started walking towards them. We sped up cause it did sound like they were yelling for help. And we literally walked over a like big dried pool of blood, like, and that apparently was where he hit.

Jacob: [00:20:25] The dad sees me and he runs over, he sets his stuff down. He’s like, hey, are you okay? Can you move? What happened? When did you fall? 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:20:39] He basically at first glance looked like he had a broken nose and one of his like brows, I guess you call it the orbital, was like really messed up. And, uh, one of his ankles was really swollen up, and his arm was messed up, you know, and the guy fell off a cliff.

Jacob: [00:20:59] He grabs out his phone, puts a pin, right where he is, so he gets a GPS location. Tells his family, “hey, I’m going to go call 911. There’s no signal here. So I have to hike it out.” This man, with just his phone, sprinted back up the trail and started running out. They set up their packs for me to lean against. And all we did was talk. 

Gayle Glomski: [00:21:26] We’re just trying to nurture him, care for and make sure again, he was staying conscious and, you know, trying to offer him food, but it was very uncomfortable for him. And so I lifted his shirt up and it was definitely a really beat up.

Eric Glomski:I just watched my phone and I just kept dialing 911, one every five or 10 minutes until I finally got through, which was almost all the way out of the canyon, of course. And, um, when I, uh, luckily, um, I had a map and I had pre-downloaded some stuff into Google Maps. So the spot where he was, I had exact coordinates for. So when I got through to search and rescue, I was able to tell them the exact coordinates.

Jacob: [00:22:11] And it took probably another one and a half, two hours until we saw the dad come back down the hill, panting because in all the rush he had forgotten to take water with him and he had just sprinted about four miles. And he got search and rescue, and they were going to send a helicopter. 

So they helped me slip into the water and get into the shade so I didn’t overheat, and that’s when we started hearing it. The helicopter was flying nearby. In this canyon it’s hard to see down. So they did a few circles. Then every time they’d fly away, I was like, crap, could they see me? Or are they missing us? And then you could definitely tell the next time the helicopter came back, that they saw where we were.

And then all of a sudden, one time they came in a little bit lower than the rest, and they dropped the ropes. I scrambled and the family helped me throw together my bags, everything into my pack. And you saw one of the medics slide down on the rope and start setting stuff up. Strapped me in, strapped my bag to him. And he asked me, “hey, have you ever been in a helicopter before?” I said no. He said, “it’s the best way to view the canyon.”

So they rolled me out. Now at that point, I saw my little brother pulling up in my car. He walks over to me and said exactly what I thought he’d say: I told you so. And if I wasn’t strapped down, I probably would have strangled him at that point. 

I only had two broken bones in both were in my skull. My orbital, the piece behind my eye, had broken.

And the back of my head where I hit that rock at the very bottom was broken. Luckily enough, my wrist and my ankle were just sprained, and everything else was just skin-deep. 

I just got myself stuck and it was stupid, ended up on some sheet rock and it broke out beneath me. Given the amount I’ve hiked before I felt pretty confident. But I had a small gut feeling that I probably should have just turned around with him. But with the fact that I had prepared for this hike for four weeks, and I had taken off the time to do this trip, to do this hike, I didn’t know when the next time I’d have the chance to do it. And so that’s when I decided I wanted to keep going.

Host: [00:24:48] It was Jacob’s bad luck that landed him in the bottom of the canyon, but profoundly good luck that got him out safely. 

Eric & Gayle Glomski: [00:24:57] So he had fallen pretty much right when his brother left him. So he was there all day, all night. And then we found him in the morning. It was, I don’t know, like a Tuesday, maybe, it was right in the middle of the week. And, you know, the likelihood of somebody else coming down there during the week is probably pretty low. So, I mean, he was doing what he could do. Like the smart things. 

Jacob: [00:25:22] The social worker for the hospital, she comes up to me. “Hey, I think your parents are here. They’re sitting outside the hospital.” They can’t come in because it’s 2020, it’s COVID. “They’re sitting outside. They’re worried. How are you doing? How are you feeling?” And I looked at her and I said, “Ah, crap. My mom’s going to kill me.”

It’s been a rough year and this is one of the first things I thought when I first fell was, crap is going to stress my parents out. And the social worker went back to my parents to tell them how I am and everything. She came back to me and I remember she said, “So I met with your mom. She said, she’s going to kick your ass.”

 And honestly, they finished up, I was in the hospital for four, maybe five hours and they released me. And that’s it.

Host: [00:26:24] This episode of Out Alive was produced by Zoe Gates along with me, Louisa Albanese. Story editing and sound design was by Matt Coddaire. Our script writer was Zoe Gates. This episode was mixed by Jason McDaniel from Electric Audio, Inc. Thank you to Jacob Velarde and Eric and Gayle Glomski for sharing your stories and perspectives. If you enjoyed this episode of Out Alive, please subscribe and leave us a review.