“Push On: My Walk to Recovery on the Appalachian Trail”
Available in Hardcover, eBook April 2017
Available in full color, with pictures throughout the book.
When extreme athlete Niki Rellon fell forty-five feet from the side of a Utah canyon in 2013, she thought she was going to die. She survived thanks to her physical fitness, but her doctors told her that the devastating injuries she suffered would likely put an end to her thrill-seeking outdoor lifestyle.
But Niki is tougher than most. Not only did she bounce back, stronger and more determined than ever, but she took on a challenge that defied the odds and the advice of friends, family and medical experts.
Now you can read Niki’s inspiring story in Push On: My Walk to Recovery On the Appalachian Trial. It is the memoir of her horrific accident, her rehabilitation and her ultimate recovery on one of the longest hikes in North America. Just fourteen short months after her fall, she became the first woman to hike the entire Appalachian trial on a prosthetic leg. Her incredible story may just change your life.
Achtung! Reaching this book may cause the following side effects: you may feel the urge to sell all of your possessions. You may abandon your family and friends and wander along in the wilderness for months at a time. Contact for doctor if you become a free spirit. Complications might include tremendous weight loss and the development of muscles you never knew you had. You might also meet incredible people, make friendships that last a lifetime and have experiences unlike any you’ve ever imagined.
Chapter One: Free FallPush On: My Walk to Recovery on the Appalachian Trail
Excerpt From Chapter One, Free Fall
I knew immediately that something was terribly wrong.
That click—the last time I’d 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 on my butt. 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. To my relief, they stopped just before they reached me. Then they did something curious: They trailed after me as I tried to collect my parachute. 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 that time, 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 that magnificent canyon. I didn’t really like waking up before dawn, but we wanted to be sure we exited the canyon before sunset. Safety first!
Montezuma Canyon bragged a 250-foot drop on the back end. Rappelling down the near-vertical rockface should have been the exciting finale of our day, and then we should have had an hour-long, straightforward 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 at all confident in my harness.
In other sports like scuba diving or skydiving, we always check gear for each other, but that morning we didn’t double-check each other’s harnesses, maybe because canyoneering is a relatively new sport and no routine has been established yet. The harness I’d used previously had been an American-style harness, but it was long gone, taken by my ex-boyfriend when we broke up and split up our belongings. The one 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 traveling with me that day. He’d given me a quick lesson in how to use it, 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 rappel 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.
As the sun rose over the horizon and warmed our chilled bones, the electric buzz of enthusiasm energized the group. The day was shaping up to be spectacular, and we chatted and joked like eager kids on a school field trip. I was drawn to one of the canyoneers, Sabrina, a German chick who shared my love of Jägermeister (a.k.a. German medicine). She was new to the group, but we quickly bonded over discussions about our childhoods in Germany. She volunteered to carry my camera, so she could take pictures of me throughout the day, and I asked her if she’d be my backup on that final descent down the canyon. We were well on our way to becoming good friends.
After an hour and a half of walking, we stopped to put on our neoprene suits, so we wouldn’t freeze our butts off when it came time to swim. This Meetup group advertised itself as a crew that loved “spectacular adventures,” and they were keeping their promise.
We spent more than eight hours hiking, swimming, and climbing before we arrived at the brink of the canyon wall. I was practically giddy as I dug my harness out of my backpack. We all geared up, then the most experienced members of the group drove the stainless-steel anchor bolts into the granite stone. I was fourth in line, so I didn’t have long to wait to rappel down that intimidating red-brown rockface.
As soon as I pushed off, I knew I had a serious problem. I was spinning round and round like a carousel. 360 degrees, 360 degrees, 360 degrees. Blue sky, brown canyon, blue sky, brown canyon, blue, brown, blue brown. Faster and faster, over and over again. I was twirling out of control, and I was quickly descending toward the craggy bottom of the canyon. I panicked, and my breathing became heavy. Knowing that I had to stop these rotations, so I could determine what had gone wrong, I pulled on the rope as hard as I could. About forty-five feet from the bottom, I finally stopped spinning like a fishing reel. And then I heard a sickening sound: click.
Suddenly I was in free fall, and I saw the rope flying unattached above me, my body plummeting toward the unforgiving ground below. It would take me less than 2 seconds to fall those final 45 feet, and I’d be traveling at 50 feet per second in the instant before I hit the ground. I like free falling I’m a skydiver but without a parachute?! I screamed: Scheisse! I don’t want to die! I screamed so loudly that my throat ached, and my solar plexus burned from the fear of death. Then the world faded to black as I lost consciousness.
Those people at the bottom of the canyon who could see me watched helplessly as my harness came completely unattached from the belay rope. Sabrina, who was my safety person, couldn’t see me from where she was standing, so she didn’t know what was happening. She continued to pull down on my rope, just as she was supposed to.
I was unconscious when I collided with the earth, my left foot first. I’m probably lucky that I was insensible when I crashed onto the rocks; if I’d stiffened in anticipation of the impact, I might have shattered every bone in my body. The collision shocked me back into alertness.
I landed facedown with my head pointing downhill. The canyoneers at the bottom rushed to my aid. Gasping for breath, I told them not to worry about taking precautions to safeguard against spinal cord damage. If they didn’t turn me over and move me up the hill so I could fill my lungs with air, they would soon be performing CPR compressions on me.
As they picked me up and repositioned my broken body, I could hear the fractured bones of my pelvis scraping against one another. Crepitus, I’ve discovered, is infinitely worse than the sound of fingernails on the chalkboard or a dental drill boring through enamel. I had experience as a paramedic in Germany, and I took EMT basic training as a ski patroller here in the US, so I knew that I needed a tourniquet around my pelvis to prevent internal bleeding. I weighed 143 pounds (65 kilograms), which meant that I had four to five liters of blood in my body. Unless they acted quickly, I could bleed out in less than forty-five minutes.
After they turned me and set me back down on the ground, I felt an excruciating pain in the center of my back. I wondered how my friends could be so stupid as to set me down on a sharp rock. I’d later learn that the broken vertebra in my back was the source of that pain. Twelve broken ribs, a fractured sternum, a collapsed lung, a mangled middle finger, a shattered pelvis, and a splintered leg were the source of the countless other pains that were tormenting me.
The adrenaline that had flooded my body during the fall was quickly receding, leaving me in unbearable pain. It was pain like I had never known before, pain that to this day, I can’t really describe to other people. It was so horrendous that it prevented words from escaping my lips. It covered me like an unwelcome blanket. The pain was so severe that I nearly broke the fingers of whosever hand I was squeezing for comfort. The pain seemed to last forever. I thought it would never end, or that it would end me.
All seven of the people who were with me whipped out their cell phones to call for help, but no one had service. It would have taken an hour to walk out of the canyon, but I probably didn’t have that long. Someone suggested that they check for boats on Lake Powell, which wasn’t far from where I’d fallen. Jeff, one of the canyoneers, raced down to the lake with an emergency whistle in his pocket. He spotted a boat not far from shore and blew his piercing whistle as loud as he could. Shouting and gesturing, he somehow communicated our need for urgent help. That boat passed the plea on to a second boat, the second boat alerted search and rescue, and search and rescue called for a helicopter. It wasn’t long before I heard the whirl of helicopter blades, but the sound soon faded. There wasn’t enough space to land in the canyon, so the pilot set the helicopter down about a thousand feet below me. The nurse and the paramedic sent to save me had to hike up to where I lay.
While I waited for help, I squeezed the hands of my fellow canyoneers—one after the other—to cope with the agony that stripped me of the ability to think straight. Every couple minutes, the person whose hand I was crushing pried off my fingers, and one hand was substituted for another. To their credit, they didn’t complain. They willingly submitted to my vise grip in the hope of offering whatever small consolation they could in an unreal situation.
After what felt like an eternity in hell, the nurse and paramedic, who had to hike that steep canyon wall, finally arrived. They immediately gave me morphine, which was blissful relief from the misery, then they stabilized me on a spinal board. I don’t remember everything from this stretch because the drug has blurred my memory, but I do recall being told that a second helicopter had landed about an hour and a half after the first one.
I remember being loaded into the second helicopter, which had one landing skid halfway in the air because the pilot couldn’t find flat ground to put down both skids.
After they crammed me into the smaller chopper with no room for anyone except me and the pilot, we flew to the rendezvous spot, where they transferred me into the larger helicopter.
I remember distinctly a conversation between the pilot and the nurse. The nurse told him that she wanted him to fly to the hospital in Grand Junction, Colorado, but he said he couldn’t.
“My air time’s up,” he explained. “I can’t fly all the way to Grand Junction. I have to call another pilot to relieve me.”
“If you don’t fly Niki to Grand Junction now, she’ll die on us. Is that how you want to end your day?” she replied.
That’s interesting, I thought. I’m dying.
It took a few minutes of arguing, but the nurse eventually convinced the pilot to fly directly to Grand Junction. I was quite impressed with her stubbornness. I guessed that she had some German heritage.
About The AuthorNiki Rellon
Niki Rellon is a trained chef, paramedic, boxing and kickboxing champion, ski instructor, and motivational speaker, among other things. She’s also the first woman to have hiked the Appalachian Trail, from Georgia to Maine, on a prosthetic leg.
Born in Germany, Niki became a US citizen and immersed herself completely in American culture. She has cycled from Alaska to Mexico City and has ridden her motorcycle across the continent multiple times.
While she was rappelling in Utah in 2013, Niki suffered a traumatic fall that left her with horrific injuries, including a broken pelvis and spine. And her left foot was so badly damaged that it had to be amputated.
This would have meant the end of extreme sports for some, but for Niki it meant new challenges. Against all advice, she decided to hike the Appalachian Trail with only a set of hiking poles, her new prosthetic leg, and bags of determination.
Niki’s memoir, Push On: My Walk to Recovery on the Appalachian Trail, tells the story of courage and resolve. Her journey will inspire you to never give in, even when it seems like you’re facing impossible odds.
Niki hasn’t let her injury define her, and she continues to participate in numerous sports.