Niki Rellon Writes History on the Appalachian Trail
Posted by: Mary Beth December 30, 2015
Niki Rellon, better known as Bionic Woman along the Appalachian Trail, recently etched herself into history as one of the most astounding thru-hikers on Earth. The 40 year old German native lost her leg in a canyoneering accident when she fell 45 feet, just over two years ago. She suffered countless injuries and ultimately agreed to the amputation of her left leg. But that didn’t stop her from beginning her massive trek on the Appalachian Trail, a mere 14 months later.
A difficult endeavor in itself, this adventure proved to be particularly challenging for Niki as she learned to walk again. She set out with only 40% of her leg strength, staring down the barrel of a 2189.2 mile hike.
During her expedition, Niki faced obstacles like 80mph winds on Katahdin and several infections of her stump. She lost a significant amount of weight, which facilitated the need to get fitted for a new prosthetic leg. A combination of grueling circumstances cost her time, slowing her pace more than intended. Eventually she evenwore out her prosthetic foot. But no challenge would prove grisly enough to stop her.
Niki gives an inspirational speech at a boarding school near the AT.
Niki worked her way up to 12-17 mile days, rebuilt her muscle mass and alleviated much of her pain. She walked her way back to life.Not only would she conquer her goal of walking to recovery, but she would also emerge as an icon. Complete strangers voiced their support, willing her to accomplish this incredible feat. She was a display of human capacity, inspirational in her glory.
On December 27th 2015, after finishing her last mile, she became the first woman with a prosthetic leg to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail. After spending over 9 months in the wilderness and overcoming incomprehensible circumstances, Niki arrived in Glasgow, VA wearing a relieved smile. She had done it.
Niki in her final moment of triumph in Glasgow, VA.
No doubt, her grit and humor aided her in the completion of such an astounding achievement. Bears and rattlesnakes have nothing on this woman. Until her next adventure, Niki can be found touring the country and working on her upcoming book, “Niki Rellon: My Walk to Recovery on the Appalachian Trail”.
Niki Rellon ~ Facing Life’s Mountains & Valleys on the Appalachian Trail
Written by Robert Sutherland on 3rd August 2015
Let’s pretend for a moment that this is your story:
I was a triathlete, a paramedic, kick-boxing champion, solo Pacific Trail thru-hiker, ski instructor and climber.
On Friday, November 1, 2013, I fell while rappelling in Utah. I broke my pelvis, spine, and shattered my left foot. The damage was so severe they had to amputate my foot.
The pain and depression required medication. Then came the need for meds and the troubles that caused.
I am young. I am a woman.
My name is Niki Rellon.
So. What will the next chapter of your life look like? Which exit or on-ramp do you take on the Road of Life:
- The Rocky Road of I Cannot
- The Dead End of I Will Not
- The Long Road to Recovery
Niki Rellon cannot be properly defined by the single word “amputee.” Victor, perhaps, but not amputee. ~~ Photo from Nike Rellon’s Facebook page
Most of us cannot imagine the kinds of struggles that are Niki’s.
We freak out when the refrigerator conks out, overflowing tubs leak into rooms on lower floors and when we can’t find our car keys.
A few among us must cope with words like “lump,” “overdue,” “accident,” “met someone else” or “cutbacks.”
Hearing a doctor say you must have an amputation? That’s got to be big-time difficult.
Niki Rellon — against considerable advice — decided to face her suddenly new life on the Appalachian Trail. With determination, hiking poles and one new leg.
Taking “Bionic Woman” as her Trail name, she headed north from Georgia’s Springer Mountain and set her sights on Maine’s Katahdin mountains, home of Baxter Peak, the end of the Trail.
Bionic Woman “only” hiked seven miles her first day on the Trail. As if that’s something to be ashamed of because she “should have” done more while carrying a pack on her back with all her gear. Can you imagine?
Years ago I tried to talk my older brother, Jim, into hiking the AT. That’s been a dream of his for most of his life. I think his reference to the Trail was my initiation into its existence. Jim is pushing 70, in great shape and really could make the trek.
Jim (I call him “Jimmy” of course) said he has bad knees and a pain here and/or there.
I smugly replied with advice that I would never accept for myself:
Pffft! You could make it! If you got into trouble, the blind hikers and the folks on crutches would help you, until the little girls and old men arrived to care for you.
Laugh, but that’s true.
Great pain and great tragedies can birth great triumphs.
I marvel at the life and achievements of Niki Rellon — when she had two good legs and now that she is the Bionic Woman.
If I understand correctly, as of the end of July, 2015, Niki has hiked more than 1,000 miles. She made it to Harpers Ferry, WV, then flip-flopped to Maine.
That’s where hikers climb an almost-mile-high-mountain in order to begin to hike the Appalachian Trail southward to Georgia.
Here’s the story of her descent from Katahdin posted at http://clickmedical.co/news/niki-rellon/:
There is good reason that the north end of trail closes early. On Niki’s second day heading south, she learned firsthand how quickly the weather can change. As she was descending off Mt. Baxter, she was caught in a wet and windy storm with gusts over 80 miles per hour. She was literally being blown off the mountain. She had no choice, but to hunker down in her sleeping bag and call for help. A ranger came to her aid and the pair was able to escape to lower elevation. Unfortunately, the long wait in wet sub-zero temperatures resulted in frostbite to Niki’s toes and fingers. She was forced to take yet another recovery break of several days.
She was literally being blown off the mountain.
Now (early August), Niki is back on the trail and making progress. Her sights are still set on becoming the first female amputee to finish the AT thru-hike. However she has already accomplished her main objective – to regain her strength and become med-free. Niki expects to finish in late October or early November.
In my estimation, Niki doesn’t need to walk another foot to be my hero. She’s done plenty.
Suzannah the Muse
When I told Suzannah (my muse) about Niki, she replied “Now, that’s a story! Wow!”
And all Appalachian Trail hikers said, “Amen!”
Niki and You
What are you sure that you cannot do in life? What uniquely insurmountable troubles and woes whup your butt? What is too hard for you?
Does the fact that Niki is hiking the AT on one leg mean that your problems are insignificant? No.
Does it mean all your issues are easily overcome? No.
Niki Rellon hiking the Appalachian Trail after having one leg amputated does mean that we do not have to give up on life, crawl into a hole and have a lifelong pity party.
Cheer up! Life could be worse … and if you life long enough it will get worse! It’s all a matter of how you will deal with your life, wherever it leads.
I admire the way Niki Rellon tackles the mountains and valleys in her life. May God bless her.
You go, girl! Everything’s going to be all right.
Lynchburg, VA - Niki Rellon is not a woman who sits down for long.
She's led an incredible life. A native of Berlin, Germany she now calls Denver, Colorado home and she's a former professional boxer, ski instructor, sky diver-you get the picture.
And she's a woman who when she hears "no," she says "Oh, yes I can." So, she said 'yes' to becoming the first woman to hiking the Appalachian Trail on a prosthetic leg.
Two years ago she survived a devastating fall which cost her a leg, but not her bravery nor her never say die spirit.
It was November 1st, 2013- Rellon was in Lake Powell Utah- "canyoneering"- with a group of friends.
Before the trip: Her rappelling gear got mixed up with the group's.
Niki Rellon, "Usually I would check the harness the night before and that was the reason it was put together in the wrong order."
A near fatal mistake- a synthetic loop instead of a metal loop was all that held her 150 feet in the air as she rappelled off a canyon wall.
"And I came off the last remaining 45 feet and I completely got snapped out of that synthetic loop and it was amazing that synthetic loop held me up for that time. I tell people that it was not likely I would've survive that 45 feet (fall)."
Rellon broke her pelvis, her ribs, punctured a lung-and shattered her left tibia. It took eight hours to get the critically injured Rellon to a hospital.
"That's another miracle right there-that I was able to survive."
Doctors had to amputate her leg below the left knee.
She returned to her native Germany for rehab-and while there-she eventually grew bored going to the gym.
"I don't like routines."
That's when the avid hiker-got the idea to hike the 2,300 mile Appalachian Trail as a way to continue her recovery.
"So I knew I would have to force myself to go quick, way, fast better, by convincing myself that I have to hike everyday."
On March 9th of this year-she set out alone to conquer the trail-and in nine and a half months on a prosthetic limb-she became part of what she calls the "Class of 2015."
"I got told many times that I'm kinda stubborn or determined. We are probably famous as German people for being really determined."
Rellon plans to write a book about her survival and extreme sport experiences when she returns home to Denver-on her motorcycle
‘Bionic Woman’ gets leg up while hiking Appalachian Trail
By Christopher Cousins, Posted Aug. 11, 2015
LEWISTON, Maine — The hardest thing about hiking the Appalachian Trail for Niki Rellon is being called a “trail snail.”
There’s no way around it: She’s slow.
That’s a tough reality to accept for Rellon, who in her 40 years on this planet has been a world-class boxer, a kickboxer, a swim racer, a ski patroller, a competitive snowboarder vying for the 2018 U.S. Paralympic team, a yoga practitioner, a rock climber, a cross-continent bicyclist, and in 2006, one of the relatively few extreme athletes in the world who has through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Now everyone is faster than I am,” said Rellon on Monday. “I’m used to not being passed by anyone.”
Across the miles, she’s learned an important lesson: Keep putting one foot in front of the other. That isn’t so easy now that one foot is made of titanium.
On Nov. 1, 2013, Rellon was climbing a rock face in Utah when tragedy struck. Her climbing harness unraveled and she fell 45 feet. She shattered most of her ribs, and broke her sternum, her spinal cord and her pelvis, which for a time was held together with steel rods.
Her left leg was so devastated that she told doctors to just “take if off” below the knee. The months that followed were a blur of surgeries, painkillers and for someone who has logged more than 20,000 miles criss-crossing North America on a bicycle, the agony of staying put.
“Every day was the same. I was going into the stages of depression,” said Rellon, a German-born Colorado resident. “Exercise, rehab, yoga, physical therapy. After a while I was able to come up with excuses not to do it. I decided to walk to recovery because I didn’t like myself anymore after my accident.”
On March 9 of this year — 14 months after that fateful fall — she took her first steps on the Appalachian Trail’s southern terminus in Georgia. If she finishes, she will become the first woman with a leg amputation to ever through-hike the trail — and as far as she knows the first person to do it unaided. Rellon is going it alone, and so far she’s accomplished about 1,200 miles of the 2,180-mile trek.
Rellon averaged more than 40 miles a day on the Pacific Crest Trail; on the Appalachian Trail she’s lucky if she can cover 12 miles in a day.
“I had no idea when I started that it would be a record,” she said. “I just wanted to go for a long hike and walk to recovery. I don’t want to prove anything to anybody. I just wanted to be the way I was before the accident.”
Rellon is a “flip-flop” hiker, meaning she started in Georgia and walked about halfway north before flying to Maine and starting atop Mount Katahdin for the journey south. She’ll finish somewhere in the middle.
Some of the hardest challenges so far have been right here in Maine. She hiked Katahdin on a 90-degree day but ran into trouble when thunderstorms and 80-mile-per-hour winds struck her near the top. The blasts of air knocked her over several times before she conceded to the danger and called to be rescued.
She and the ranger who saved her had to crawl on their hands and knees at times to avoid being blown over. They reached the bottom about about 1:30 a.m.
Then, weeks later, after going through the notoriously rigorous 100 Mile Wilderness portion of the trail, the stump of Rellon’s left leg began to hurt. She’d lost roughly 25 pounds during her journey and the fit of her prosthetic leg became loose.
Her skin chaffed and infection threatened. For the last two miles before she reached the trailhead in Andover, her pain was a nine on a 10-point scale.
“I was hiking with tears in my eyes,” she said. She had plans to fly to Denver to have her doctor refit the leg, but that’s where “trail magic” and a team of “trail angels” came in.
Jami Morton, an employee at Sound Limbs Orthotics and Prosthetics of Lewiston, had been following Rellon’s progress on Facebook and just hours before the hiker was to board a plane for Colorado, Morton suggested she could have the work done here. Sound Limbs and an Ohio company called Willow Wood donated most of the labor and materials to re-fit Rellon with a new prosthetic leg.
“She needed some help with her prosthetic leg, and because of where I work at Sound Limbs, I was able to help her out,” said Morton on Monday, as technicians made tweaks and adjustments to Rellon’s leg.
Wade Bonneson of Sound Limbs, who did most of the work, said it takes the average person a couple of weeks of return visits to have their prosthetic fitted. However, he acknowledged that Rellon is not average.
“It’s who the person is that makes the prosthetic work or not,” said Bonneson. “It only works if the person has a great attitude about life, and Niki certainly does.”
A few weeks ago, she was toiling through some of the AT’s toughest terrain, right here in Maine, when she crossed paths with Scott Jurek, an ultramarathon runner who broke the Appalachian Trail speed record in July. There was no conversation between them.
“He couldn’t stop,” said Rellon. “He had to beat that record.”
Rellon is scheduled to restart her journey on Wednesday morning, when she will be dropped back at the trailhead in Andover. With about 1,000 miles left on her journey, she estimates she’ll finish in four or five months.
With the end of the Appalachian Trail moving closer, one foot in front of the other, Rellon has grown used to her “Snail Trail” personna, although most people call her by another name: The Bionic Woman.
Is she concerned that part of her prosthetic leg, which carried her so far, won’t finish the journey? No.
“The new leg has the same foot,” she said. “Never give up. There is always a way.”
THRU-HIKING THE AT ON ONE LEG
New amputee badass Niki Rellon thought walking from Georgia to Maine would be a great way to rehab.
Niki Rellon’s athletic resume is impressive. She has biked solo from Alaska to Mexico City and solo hiked the entire Pacific Crest Trail. She’s a certified ski instructor, certified scuba diver, and was even at one time the German women’s welterweight kickbox champion. But as she was rappelling into a canyon in Utah last year, we’d guess she probably hadn’t thought of adding “first female amputee to hike the Appalachian Trail” to that resume. In a heartbeat, a mistake led to a 40-foot fall, cracking her helmet in two, breaking her pelvis, and obliterating her left foot so badly it was amputated. Fifteen months of PT and re-learning to walk later, Rellon had had enough of her doctors’ prescriptions and her slow recovery and decided to hit the trail—the 2,168-mile Appalachian Trail. We checked in with her to find out how she decided to look to the AT for recovery instead of more meds and how her hike is going so far as she attempts to be the first one-legged woman to thru hike the AT.
What prompted your AT hike?
After I got out of the ICU—after I broke my pelvis, spine, foot/amputated leg, ribs and sternum, etc.—I went to Germany to do my rehab and live with my parents. After a long time doing all the PT and doctors’ visits, I found myself depressed, on pain meds, and with little leg strength to show for it. Having hiked the PCT before, I knew that a long hike on the AT would aid in my recovery, to regain strength. My goal is to reach 90 percent leg strength by the end of the trail. My goals are to return to ski instruction, become an adaptive ski instructor and compete on an adaptive snowboard team in Colorado. I plan to be finished by the second week in October.
How did you decide on the AT?
I completed the PCT in 2006. The AT is an easier trail than the PCT, physically and logistically, so it is a perfect fit for my goals. I knew it would be easier to get off the trail and find prosthetists along the trail to make adjustments to my prosthetic.
Were your doctors supportive?
Nope. I didn’t believe what they told me or that all the prescribed medications would help me recover. Massage, PT, opiates, etc., are not my idea of getting back to normal. In Germany, they prescribed so many medications for the pain that I was supposed to take daily but I found myself becoming angry and depressed. I knew I had to make a change because it all starts in your brain, and I think negative thoughts and depression beget pain. All I would hear from the doctors and my parents was “You cannot do…You cannot hike.” The AT is my escape from the negativity and truly, the pain has subsided so drastically. I only take pain meds every once a while, versus every day Germany. I am a trained EMT and paramedic, so I knew what would work for me. It’s important after injury to make your own mind up, research, and talk to people and educate yourself to aid your own recovery.
Do you have a trail name?
“Bionic Woman.” It was given to me by a friend and it stuck.
What were the first couple of days on the trail like?
Very frustrating. It was hard to have people pass me on the trail. I can usually hike any pace. I averaged 43 miles a day on the PCT, but my first day on AT, I only hiked 7 miles. But today I can keep up with the average hiker on the trail. I can do 20 miles without my pack or 12 to 15 miles with my 27-pound pack. Sometimes “trail angels” haul packs for hikers.
How has this challenge pushed you beyond what you’d be doing in a typical rehab program?
Controlled rehab is very good at the beginning of the recovery process. You need to take it slowly as you begin to walk with a walker in a hospital. But as soon as I could walk with a cane, I knew that 20 minutes of rehab three times a week would never get me back to 100 percent— back to a real life. That’s why I left for the AT. On the AT there is no excuse. There are no day breaks, if you’re tired, you have to keep moving.
What have been the biggest challenges? Have you had specific challenges with your prosthetic and leg? Limbs can change in size a lot from day to day — has fitting your socket be difficult?
At the start, I had the wrong prothestic leg. It created a lot of friction. My stump was swollen with bad hot spots, and scar tissue was becoming a real problem. I had to quit the trail for 10 days and go on crutches and take antibiotics to ward off infection. Thanks to Click Medical and RevoFit, I have a new socket with vacuum system and the Boa closure system. The Boa dial is so helpful because I’m swollen in the morning, but throughout the day my circulation improves and I can just tighten the dial while I’m hiking for the perfect fit.
Nowadays, income is my biggest challenge. Adidas has supported me with gear, and GoPro to document my story. But I have no income for food, fuel, incidentals. I would love to spread the word about my CrowdRise fundraiser that will help me to complete the trail.
What kind of possibilities will new technology like that open for other amputees?
With what Click Medical is doing by providing a better fitting prosthetic with Boa, amputees are able to participate in more activities than ever before because the prosthetic fit can be changed instantly as the body changes.
What response do you typically get from other hikers? What kind of support do you expect along the way?
People seem more motivated and more confident. I think they think, “If she can hike this, I can, too.” I think an amputee, a man, hiked the AT in 2004 and was supported by a van. My goal is to do this 100 percent and carry my own supplies. I think I can do the whole thing. The biggest support is I have arranged for eight food supply boxes to be sent to me along the way and Boa and Click—they got me my new leg.
How many miles have you covered so far?
400. I’ve been on the trail seven weeks.
Dan MurphyMay 13, 2015Reply
She averaged 43 miles/day on the PCT? Holy crap.
She’s getting some bucks from me.
Thanks for the heads-up.
AlliMay 13, 2015Reply
Wow!!!! What an inspiring story! Thanks for sharing!
ChrisMay 13, 2015Reply
Makes me feel bad for not wanting to get up and out on some weekends when I am feeling less than stellar. Great story. She will be getting some support from me as well.
Jay LongMay 13, 2015Reply
Yeah, she’s amazing. I guess I can toss my excuses out the window. She is an awesome human being.
BoonesDaddyMay 16, 2015Reply
MaddyMay 19, 2015Reply
I think you made the absolute right decision. You are indeed an inspiration.
Thank you so much for sharing your story and I wish you the very best. Ever onward and upward!
Bob DMay 19, 2015Reply
Love the fortitude of this woman. Great interview!
SageGirlJuly 19, 2015Reply
Girl, you got what it takes! You have dialed into what works for you. Happy Trails!
CCJuly 25, 2015Reply
I ran into Niki on the AT in Maine on Thursday after she had come down the Crockers. It was great to run in to her. If she needs any support in VT let me know.
AmandaAugust 31, 2015Reply
Ryan (Green Tortuga) and I met Niki in Georgia at the start of her journey and I have some photos from that time that I would love to post! Such an inspiration!!http://www.anotherlongwalk.com/2015/03/day-1-springer-mountain.html
kimberlySeptember 20, 2015Reply
Just wondering….. I’ve always heard the AT is physically harder than the PCT . Read it heard from other hikers etc .
Which did she think was harder ?
Thia NewmanSeptember 25, 2015Reply
Wonderful job on this article and photo. Niki is amazing. I am writing about this also for the publication “The Best of the North Georgia Mountains, a print “fun” paper. May I use your photo with credit to you? Thank you in advance!
BurrbanNovember 23, 2015Reply
WhiteHawk and I (Burrban) ran into you in the hundred mile wilderness while you were having a pretty rough time with the roots and rocks on the trail. Still you were pushing thru! You were definitely one of the toughest people we met during our thru hikes
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