Survival Stories

First, the Long Fall. Then, the Even Longer Wait.

When his brother turned back a few miles into their overnight hike, Jacob Velarde decided to continue solo. Then, he fell.

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The weather couldn’t have been more perfect as my brother and I set off from the trailhead shortly after sunrise. The air was cool, but I knew that wouldn’t last long—it was summer in the central Arizona desert, after all. I’d chosen this hike for a hot day like today: We’d scramble down into a redrock canyon, where we would swim in crystal pools and camp by a picturesque waterfall. I knew it wouldn’t be an easy hike, though. I’d researched and planned for weeks, knowing the descent into the canyon is notoriously challenging.  

About a mile in, the trail started to dip down to the river and the footing became gravelly and steep. Traction was difficult. After repeated slips on the loose ground, my brother turned to me and said, “This is not the hike for me.” He decided to turn back to the car. Loath to give up on my plan so soon, I opted to continue alone. I was prepared, and it was only a few more miles to the waterfall. I tossed him my keys and made a plan to meet up at the car the next day. 

After another mile or so, the river came into view below me, but the trail became less obvious. I scouted a few possible routes to the canyon bottom, then opted to descend a  brush-covered slope. As soon as I began hiking down, though, I realized the ground was much looser than I’d thought. I decided to climb back up and find another way. 

“I slammed flat on my back, my skull cracking on a baseball-size stone.”

Anticipating some deep water crossings, I’d packed my gear into two medium-size dry bags instead of one large pack. I wore one on my front, and one on my back. I removed the front bag and tossed it, along with my trekking poles, up on a ledge a few feet above me, and began to haul myself up. Then the rock I was standing on broke beneath me. 

My face struck earth first. I was tumbling, dirt and red sandstone flying beneath me as I picked up speed. I am going to die, I thought. 

I slammed flat on my back, my skull cracking on a baseball-size stone. To my surprise, I was alive, but everything hurt. After lying in confusion for a few moments, I tried to look around. One of my eyes was already swollen shut, and through the other, the world spun around me. I could hardly move my left hand, and my right ankle throbbed angrily. 

Fighting my unsteady vision, I pulled out my phone. Somehow, it was unscathed, but there was no service. This was bad.

I’d landed in the canyon bottom about 20 feet from the river’s edge. Nearly 70 feet above me, I could still see one of my dry bags—which contained my water and food—perched on the ledge. I shuffled to the river and began splashing my face, the cold soothing my cuts and bruises. Gashes adorned each of my shoulders, and my legs were covered in blood. My back felt as though someone had taken a knife to it. I peeled off my shirt and submerged myself in the river, hoping to alleviate any swelling. 

“I prayed he had the sense to call for help soon.”

My other bag had fallen with me. I crawled to it to take stock, my brain still clouded in confusion. It contained a water filter, a towel, and my tent, though I doubted I had the strength to set that up. Instead, I tossed the canopy over a tree branch to create a spot of shade, knowing the temperature would climb above 100°F later on.

My brother wasn’t expecting me for another 29 hours. The trail itself wasn’t popular—the most recent sign-ins I’d seen at the trailhead register were from days prior. I was hopeful he’d call for help when I didn’t show up around noon, but in the meantime I could only wait. With my injuries, there was no way I could get myself up and out of the canyon.

The pain was excruciating. Throughout the day, I slipped in and out of the water to cool off and numb my numerous aches. When night fell, I decided to sleep by the river. The temperature dropped by almost 40°F and I shivered all night long, unable to sleep. I could feel ants biting me for hours. When the sun rose, I imagined my brother sitting in my car with the AC blasting. I prayed he had the sense to call for help soon. 

Even though I knew there was no service, I pulled out my phone and drafted some texts to my family. With my brother expecting me soon, I was confident I’d make it out alive, but I wanted them to know exactly what had happened to me as soon as I did. When I turned on the camera to take a selfie, I was shocked at my appearance: One eye was still swollen shut, and blood was crusted all around my nose. My right eyebrow was slashed open, and only a small area around my left eye looked normal. I snapped a photo, put away my phone, and lay down to wait.

It had been about 24 hours since my fall when I heard the sound of rocks moving. Hikers. I spotted a family of three picking their way down the canyon wall. “Help!” I screamed. The father rushed to my side and I told him what had happened. Shortly after his wife and daughter arrived, the man turned and ran off toward the canyon rim to call for help.

“I told you it was dangerous,” my brother said as the paramedics assessed me on the canyon rim a few hours later. After two helicopter flights and a bumpy ATV ride, I lay in the hospital being treated for two fractures to my skull. Other than that, my injuries were miraculously minor. A social worker entered my room and told me my parents were outside. My mom is going to kill me, I thought. But at least the canyon hadn’t.