Niki Rellon survived a 45-foot fall while canyoneering in November 2013. (Photos by Ben Fullerton)
I gazed over the ledge of Montezuma Canyon in southeastern Utah, a grin spreading across my face. Even though I was pretty new to canyoneering, I’d already come to love the sensation of a racing heartbeat, adrenaline flooding my veins. I stepped off the jagged lip and began the plunge, relaxed but excited.
After descending about 200 feet, I realized something was wrong. The rappel device wasn’t giving me enough friction. I needed to slow down. I pulled hard on the rope and came to an abrupt halt. That’s when I heard my harness pop. Then I was loose, falling into the 45-foot gap between me and the ground. Time slowed as my momentum gained. An eternity separated me from my fate. This couldn’t be real. That’s when I passed out.
I came to when my left leg hit the uneven, rock-ridden ground, bearing the brunt of the impact. My helmet cracked into two pieces as if it were made of clay. My sternum, ribs, pelvis, and a finger all broke, absorbing the impact of my fall. I felt my bones dissolving. My legs crumbled. I couldn’t breathe.
My friends rushed to my rescue as I lay with my head pointing downhill. I asked them to rotate my body so I could breathe. I’m a paramedic, so I knew moving a victim with a possible back injury might determine whether I’d ever walk again. But gravity was suffocating me. If I couldn’t breathe now, what did it matter if I’d be able to walk again?
I could feel the bones shifting in my pelvis when my friends adjusted me. But that was probably the least of my worries. I remembered it was common to tear an artery and to severely damage internal organs during a high-impact incident. Being positioned in a rugged canyon further complicated my predicament. I could bleed out in an hour.
I knew that proper protocol required applying a tourniquet since I was probably bleeding internally in my pelvic area. It would have to be placed above my hips, meaning that I would lose everything from the waist down. But in the frenzy of the moment, I couldn’t direct my friends to apply one at all. Pain blotted out my thoughts.
My companions descended farther into the canyon to signal a nearby motorboat for help. The captain called in a rescue team. An hour later, the medics climbed up to me. They moved me onto a backboard. I was in critical condition and I was in pieces, but, somehow, I was alive.
After the fall, my friends examined my canyoneering gear and found what went wrong: Rather than clipping the carabiner into the belay loop, I had clipped it into the non-weight-bearing webbing that orients the leg loops. I had gotten too comfortable with rappelling and failed to double-check the system. My abrupt halt caused the synthetic band to tear all the way through, releasing my carabiner, my rappel device, and myself from the rope.
I spent several weeks in the hospital, intubated for a punctured lung. My muscles atrophied. An X-ray of my left leg showed that the impact had rendered it into a 10,000-piece mosaic below the knee. There was no saving it. I consented to the amputation on November 22, 2013, less than three weeks after my fall.
I knew that I was lucky to be alive, but luck couldn’t save me from depression. I couldn’t walk, I had nerve pain, I grew frustrated when all my doctors urged me to drug myself back to health. My spirit weakened. Gone was the me ignited by adrenaline, the outdoors, or anything else. I sank into sadness.
But sadness turned to indignation. And the indignation started to burn. Refusing to let circumstance cripple me, I decided to walk my way back to health. Barely 14 months after I lost my leg, I took my first steps on the 2,189-mile Appalachian Trail. I’d hiked the PCT in 2006 and was hoping another thru-hike would offer me the same transformative experience. The Appalachian Trail offered the added safety of never being too far from civilization.
I set out weak but determined. On some nights, I wouldn’t even sleep due to the relentless aches radiating from my leg. When infection struck, I dressed my beet-red scabs time and time again. The skin burned with every step. But I kept going. I had to. I didn’t like who I had become after my fall and I needed to see who I would be after the hike.
Out on trail, a common mantra was: “No pain, no gain, no Maine.” Although I was a flip-flopper and would end my hike in Virginia, this phrase rang particularly true for me. Suddenly you’re in the middle of the wilderness. Even if you decide to quit, you have to walk 10 miles to the next road. So I moved forward as the socket of my prosthetic leg beat against the scar tissue.
But that was nothing compared to what Katahdin had in store for me. I’d heard about this mercurial mountain, but the weather looked fine at the outset of my summit bid—overcast and chilly but not dangerous. As I was descending from the northern terminus sign up top, that changed. Once-calm skies ripped with wind-driven rain, threatening to blow me off the mountainside. I decided to try to wait it out. Finding some protection behind a boulder, I crawled into my sleeping bag.
But there was no hiding. I felt the creep of hypothermia and was terrified to be alone. By some miracle, I had cell reception. Two hours after I called for help, a ranger came to my rescue. He and I crawled on our hands and knees down part of the mountain to minimize the fury of the 80-mph wind. We made it down, but not unscathed. I suffered mild frostbite on my fingers and toes, presenting yet another setback on my journey.
But I’d been through worse. Rather than beating me down, this hardship revealed to me how badly I wanted to succeed. On December 27, 2015, after spending more than nine months in the wilderness, I walked into Glasgow, Virginia, becoming the first woman with a prosthetic leg to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. But I’d gained more than a first; I was beginning to feel like myself again.
While climbing mistakes often result in injury, rappel mistakes often result in death.