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As I flailed for anything to help slow my fall, my water bottle flew out the pocket of my daypack. I didn’t hear it land.
I looked over my right shoulder for anything that could stop me. All I saw was more cliff, more speed. Then one thought sliced through the fast-motion blur unfolding around me: My life is about to end.
A few hours earlier, my sister Stacy and I had set out on a warm spring day to hike the Triple Falls Trail, a moderate route in the Columbia River Gorge outside Portland. On the way up, we’d climbed over a tree that had fallen across the crumbly path, and we marked this place as a waypoint for our return trip: Once we passed the tree, we knew it would take an hour or so to get back down to the trailhead. We hiked past steep cliffs and dense stands of trees and lunched at Triple Falls. On the way back, we walked for what seemed like a very long time, expecting to see the fallen tree any minute.
We rounded a bend and, finally, there it was—by now I was hot and ready to go home. At the same time, we crossed paths with a man and a child. I stepped aside to make room for them, my eyes still glued to the tree.
I don’t remember exactly how, but suddenly I was sliding down. Fast. I slid on my left side for 10 feet or so, looking over my right shoulder. As I flailed for anything to help slow my fall, my water bottle flew out the pocket of my daypack. I didn’t hear it land. I rolled onto my stomach and started clawing at the cliff. After another 10 feet or so, somehow I managed to grab onto a very thin tree branch and stopped myself. It looked like it would snap as soon as I bent it. My heart was beating madly but I didn’t dare move for fear that I would start sliding again. I glanced up at my sister and her face was all pale and it looked like she was going to throw up. She was looking down, at the sheer drop-off below me, and I knew she was trying to find a way to pull me up. I felt limp.
After a 10-second eternity, the thin branch snapped and I started to slide again. I didn’t scream or yelp. I slid in complete silence, trying to remain calm and save myself. I clawed at the cliff again and surprised myself when I found my hands stacked on top of each other, clinging to a root the width of my thumb. My arms were stretched straight overhead, and I found a place to brace my left knee. I kicked my toe into a crumbly part of the cliff.
“Someone come help me!” I yelled at the top of my lungs. Once it sank in that I was hanging from a root, I slowly looked down. I swallowed hard as I saw nothing but small bushes on the cliff that descended straight down at my waist. I knew the ground was far away. My breaths grew shallow and short.
I heard my sister talking frantically to a 9-1-1 operator, but my mind drifted. I thought about the big moments and memories in my life: high school graduation, my last season of track, my family and friends. Then I felt my thoughts turn negative: I can’t hold myself up. I will fall. Stacy is going to see her little sister die today.
It was hot, and my hands were starting to sweat. Above, my sister was balancing words of encouragement to me with spurts of frustration to the four dispatchers whose calls kept dropping. My neck started to hurt from looking up at the path, so I took to closing my eyes or staring straight at the cliff in front of me.
After about 30 minutes, a crowd gathered on the trail above and I saw a man climbing down toward me. Then a rope made of raincoats, sweatpants, and other clothing fell down from above, hurling loose rocks and dirt toward my face. What is he doing? I thought. Then: Oh, he’s risking his life to try to save mine. The combination of weakness and relief compelled me to yell up at my sister, “Stacy, I love you so much.” I heard her crying, and that’s when my attitude changed: I can’t let my sister down. I used that as motivation to access strength I didn’t know I had. It became about so much more than just holding on; it was about staying strong for Stacy. I took some deep breaths, and I held on, and I waited.
The man climbing down to me wasn’t from a search-and-rescue team—I know because I’d been asking Stacy every 30 seconds if rescuers were on the way, but they weren’t on the trail yet. “Thank you so much, you are the most amazing man I have ever met. I love you for doing this,” I told him again and again as he got nearer, lowering himself with the aid of the improvised rope.
He told me his name was Wim. He had found a little ledge sticking out of the cliff, 4 or 5 feet to my side. Holding onto a tree with one hand, he leaned and looped the rope around me, tying a one-handed knot. I hesitated, but trusting the knot on a makeshift rope was my only option.
Wim pointed out a spot on the ledge next to him and told me to step. I got my leg over, but the part that I stepped on crumbled and fell. My stomach surged into my throat, but Wim grabbed onto my right arm, and the others above pulled on the rope at the same time. I made it onto his ledge.
My legs started shaking so hard that I could hardly hold myself up. Wim calmly explained the plan to me, then he pushed me up from below as I pulled myself up the rope, struggling through the bushes. I climbed up about 15 feet to a woman named Sarah, who took my backpack. A chunk of steep cliff still separated me from my sister. Someone had shown up with a thin rope, and Sarah and her husband, Adam, looped it through trees and then down to me. Wim climbed up behind me and I used his knee as a booster, and Adam and another man grabbed my arms and hoisted me to safety.
I crawled along the path exhausted for a few seconds, until a woman pulled me to my feet. I walked as fast as my shaky legs would let me and threw myself into Stacy’s arms. That’s when my tears finally fell.
Attempting to rescue someone with an improvised rope or other tool not designed for the task is questionable, of course. (See below for tips on assessing a situation.) But April Mead’s rescuers deemed the situation so dire that they took the risk. They were part of the Mazamas Climbing Group, based in Portland. They learn rescue skills and embark on weekly hikes. April hopes to join them in their training soon.
Know when to attempt a rescue: Ask yourself these questions before being a hero.
1. Am I putting myself at risk?
It’s only worth the attempt if you’re not putting yourself in harm’s way. “Know your abilities, and know your limits,” says Jeff Sparhawk of Rocky Mountain Rescue. (Obviously Wim decided that April’s immediate danger outweighed his personal risk in this situation.)
2. Do I actually know how to help?
Search-and-rescue teams receive lots of training; well-meaning Samaritans can sometimes do more harm than good (though Good Samaritan laws protect bystanders who try to give reasonable help).
3. How acute is the situation?
Left unchecked, grievous wounds or tenuous situations can progress rapidly, sometimes leading to loss of life or limb.
4. How far is help?
The farther from the trailhead, the more you’re expected to do. Even a sprained ankle can become life-threatening if it occurs deep in the backcountry.