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My Walk to Recovery on the Appalachian Trail
My Walk to Recovery on the
Jeremy Elvis Herman
Only those who risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.
- T.S. Eliot
Click. Oh, Scheisse!
I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong.
That click—the last time I heard such a sickening sound was when my right shoulder dislocated during free fall while I was skydiving. The force of the wind pushing up against the injured joint was agony, but I didn’t have time to dwell on the pain. I also couldn’t afford to let the misery cloud my judgment. If I reached over with my left hand and pulled the ripcord handle on the right side of my body, my parachute would have wrapped around me like a burrito. I would have struck the ground with enough force to shatter my bones and explode my organs. Fortunately for me, I remembered my training, and I pulled the auxiliary ripcord on my left side. The reserve parachute deployed perfectly, and seconds later, I landed outside of the drop zone in a horse pasture.
The landing threw me onto my rear end. I wanted to sit there for a moment so my heart could settle down, but a dozen well-fed horses were galloping right at me. I was sure they were going to trample me to death, so I jumped up to my feet. The horses stopped short just before they reached me. And then they did something curious: as I tried to collect my parachute, they trailed after me. I’ve heard that horses are quite intuitive. I wondered if they were following me out of concern. Maybe they sensed that I was in excruciating pain.
That story ended very differently from this story. I walked away then, thanking my lucky stars. But this time I wasn’t so lucky, and I didn’t walk away.
November 1, 2013, started out as a cold day, but that wasn’t unusual for autumn in Utah. I woke up at 4 a.m. with seven other adventurous souls ready to begin our canyoneering trek through Montezuma Canyon. We’d driven down the night before so we could get an early start, knowing that it would take the whole day to get through this magnificent canyon. I didn’t really like waking up before dawn, but we wanted to be sure we exited the canyon before dark. Safety first!
Montezuma Canyon bragged a 250-foot drop on the back end. Rappelling down the near-vertical rock face should have been the exciting finale of our day, and then we should have had an hour-long, straight-forward walk out of the canyon to our car. But things didn’t exactly go according to plan that day.
Before we headed into the canyon, we checked our own gear. The ropes were sound. The anchors and neoprene suits checked out. The backpacks were all full. So we ventured in, certain that we had everything we needed for a successful day. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been confident in my harness.
In other sports like scuba diving or skydiving, we always check our gear for each other, but on the day that I repelled down that cliff, we hadn’t double-checked each other’s harnesses, maybe because canyoneering is a relatively new sport and no routine has been established yet. The harness that I’d used previously had been an American-style one, but it was long gone, taken by my ex-boyfriend when we broke up and split up our belongings. The harness in my backpack on that cold November morning was a European-style harness, and I’d never used one like it. The French guy who’d sold it to me, Louis, was one of the canyoneers with me that day. He’d given me a quick lesson in how to use his harness, but it’s clear to me now that I should have asked more questions. I should have insisted that he explain more thoroughly how it worked. I know this sounds ironic, but I probably would have been more careful if I’d had less experience. When I was a beginner, I double- and triple-checked my gear before doing anything dangerous. But here I was getting ready to repel down a canyon as tall as a giant sequoia with a harness I’d never used, and I’d only asked a couple questions. I had just enough experience to have developed a false sense of security. It just goes to show you that there’s a fine line between confidence and carelessness.