Canyon Tales
I Fell 106 Feet. And Lived.
by Kaitlyn Bohlin

As a backcountry ranger in Utah’s Zion National Park, I learned how to canyoneer—rappel into canyons from heights as great as 200 feet. On a day off, I headed for Pine Creek Canyon, a route I had completed several times. This time was different. At the last rappel—a blind free–hang of 106 feet—my rigging failed.

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The morning started poorly. Complications with a friend delayed our departure and ruffled our feathers. Despite our efforts to pack all necessities, we arrived at the top of the route without helmets.

I had been through Pine Creek Canyon half–a–dozen times, but it was my best friend AnnaMalia’s first time canyoneering. We agreed that I would descend each rappel first and belay her from below. I would carry the rope and AnnaMalia would carry the food, first–aid kit, and my park radio.

“Soooo,” I said casually, passing it to her, “just in case anything happens, here’s how you turn on my radio. Tell them it’s an emergency, and you’re with a ranger.” She looked at me skeptically, took the radio, and stuffed it in her bag. We strapped into our harnesses. We were ready for adventure.

As we maneuvered below the bridge at the top of the canyon, I filled in our route for AnnaMalia. After lowering into a pothole of chocolatey, ice–cold water—leftovers of a recent flash flood—we arrived at the first rappel.

We took it slowly, and each rappel, scary as it was, ended with thrilling satisfaction. We were wet from the start, and after multiple breaks to photograph the darkening canyon, I became nervous about our stamina. The route ahead included a frigid swim through a stinking river, and if we didn’t hurry, it would take a toll on our body temperature. We pressed on, shivering, until we turned into a wide, sunny canyon some 150 feet above the floor.

We decided to take a break, dry off, warm up, and put energy in our bellies, so out came the lunches. After a solid hour of sunbathing, we packed up and headed for the last two rappels.

Approaching the second–to–last anchor, I heard a group on the canyon floor. They had made their presence known a few times—yelping through those nasty swims—but I was surprised by how close they were, given the length of our siesta. Why hadn’t they moved down the canyon yet?

The answer appeared as we reached the last rappel. Their rope had a knot in it; they were unable to pull it through the anchor. Unless they wanted to leave the rope behind, they had to wait for someone to untie it from above.

“Need some help?” I yelled down.

“Yeah!” a voice echoed up. “Could you get our rope untied, please?”

“No problem.” Chuckling over their predicament, I untangled the knot and watched the rope effortlessly slip through the little metal ring. How long had they been waiting for us to fix their problem?

It occurred to me that we could use their help. Generally, the individual on rappel clips their belaying device through both sides of the rope. But our rope was not long enough. We would have to clip into one side and attach some cord to the other in order to reach and pull it through once we were at the bottom. It required some extra technical skills, but I had done it before, and felt reassured that the guys below could take the guesswork out of matching up the rope ends so that both would reach the floor.

“Hey!” I called out. “Could you let me know when both sides are even?”

“Sure,” they offered. After a few tugs they confirmed everything was in place. “Happy rappelling,” they shouted and headed downcanyon.

Nothing can prepare you for Pine Creek’s final rappel. Not only is it a blind ledge with no hints as to what lies below, but, frankly, there is nothing below. A 106–foot free–hang—it’s nothing to take lightly.

As I tied a figure–eight knot and clipped it with a carabiner into the other side of the rope, AnnaMalia sat back from the anchor. Until now she had successfully hidden her fear of heights, but as I asked her to hold an extra carabiner, she could hardly lean forward to take it. Once I had clipped the rope and my safety device into my carabiner, I faced her.

“This is a biner block,” I told her. “It will hold the rope in place so that while I’m sliding down this side, the other side won’t slip through the anchor.”

“OK,” she forced a response.

“And this is a prussic. If for any reason I let go, it will lock down on the rope and stop me from moving.”

“OK,” she said again.

“When I get to the bottom, I’ll walk you through a checklist to make sure you’re clipped in correctly. I guess if that doesn’t work, I don’t know what to tell you. It’s in God’s hands.”

“Right...” I could tell she wasn’t convinced, but what more could I say? I had done this before and had double–checked all my work. All I could do now was lean back and take the step.

I took a deep breath. I looked over at AnnaMalia and smiled. I stepped off the edge into the empty air. And something felt wrong. I couldn’t complete the thought, but as I flew down toward the sandy alcove below, I had just enough time to perceive that I was moving too fast. Way too fast. And right as I saw the rope whiz up past me, I blacked out.

When I opened my eyes, I was in a world of confusion. Is this a dream? I think so. But why can’t I wake up?

Wait, I am awake. I’m outside. Was I napping? Is it the weekend? What was I doing yesterday? I went canyoneering. Pine Creek. AnnaMalia. Was that yesterday? No, that was right now. Why is my head wet? Why is the water red? Am I bleeding? Why am I lying here? Did I fall? I did. I fell. I’m dying. I’m dying right now.


So it was real. I had fallen the entire 106 feet.

AnnaMalia called and called. “Kaitlyn?! Are you OK?”

I’m sure she knew the answer.

“Help,” I moaned. “Help. Help. Help. Help.”

I felt like someone was sitting on my chest. It wasn’t five minutes before the scout leaders whose rope had been stuck flew to my side. Unable to turn my neck, I watched their feet circle me, assessing the mess.

“She must have fallen the whole way,” one said. “It looks like she took the rope down with her.”

“She still has a pulse,” the other replied.

“What’s your name?” they asked.

“Kaitlyn,” I moaned.

“Kaitlyn, you’re going to be OK. We’re going to take care of you.”

“Please,” I begged, “tell my parents I love them.”

“We’re not going there, Kaitlyn. We’re going to get you through this.”

“My friend,” I ignored their coaching. “She’s still up there. Tell her I’m so sorry.”

“What’s your friend’s name, Kaitlyn? Does she have a first–aid kit?”

“AnnaMalia. She has it. She has my radio.”

“Your radio?”

“Yes,” I gasped. “I’m a backcountry ranger. Tell her to call dispatch. Tell her they need to send a medevac.”

“What’s a medevac?”

“A short haul. A helicopter. It’s the only way I’m getting out of here.”

And so it began. They called to her, and she radioed a ranger at the top of the bridge where we started only a few hours earlier. First–aid supplies flew about.

Interrogation ensued: “Can you wiggle your toes? Can you feel your feet? Can you squeeze my hand? Can we cut your pack off? Can we cut your clothes off to check for other injuries?”

“Just do what you gotta do!” I wailed. I was in no position to stop them saving my life.

They spent a half–hour trying to stabilize me. Word came from above that a search–and–rescue crew was on its way. Was there anything specific I needed? A list was given and the waiting continued.

The two scout leaders and I did all we could to talk about anything other than the plane–wreck that was my body: where we were from, what our families were like, how wonderful Zion was. They’d laugh. I’d smile and try to shift my legs. No use. They weren’t moving.

It didn’t seem long before yelling from above confirmed that the search and rescue crew had arrived. Team members rappelled down from a window in the tunnel above that had been cut into the canyon wall. My alcove erupted into a wilderness medical center. I was loaded onto a litter, wrapped in sleeping bags, and put on a respirator.

And then I heard it. A distant rumble crescendoing into the deafening roar of two Air Force Blackhawk helicopters. My chariot, at last.

I said goodbye to my rescuers, and floated towards the heavens. It should have been a once–in–a–lifetime experience, but my flight in the Blackhawk offered only one view: the metal ceiling I focused all energy on for an intolerable hour.

I was taken to Las Vegas’ United Medical Center. As I burst through the door, a barrage of doctors, nurses, and questions surrounded me.

It seemed unbelievable that they would trust someone who had broken her body on a canyon floor five hours earlier to accurately produce a social security number and emergency contact information, but I must have succeeded. A few days later—after the sedatives wore off—I found my Chicago–based family at my bedside.

Intubation prevented me from speaking when they first arrived, but someone produced a pen and notepad, and, just barely legibly, I wrote instead.

“Did I die?”

No, but I had come close. I shattered my pelvis, fractured most of my vertebrae, nicked my spinal cord, and both my lungs had collapsed. During those first 24 hours I fought to let go, but my medical team had other plans.

After a month in Las Vegas, I flew home to Chicago to continue my recovery. A few weeks in a wheelchair and some serious constipation from painkillers were the small price I paid for falling a hundred feet without a helmet. Ten weeks later, I was walking, driving, and back to apparent normalcy. No brain damage. No permanent injuries. One spinal fusion. One giant mystery.

What exactly happened with my equipment that day? No one is certain, but the official investigation speculates that I clipped into the pull cord side of the rope rather than the anchored side. It seems like a painfully obvious mistake, one that couldn’t have possibly happened amidst my double–checking and reassuring explanations before stepping off the edge. It doesn’t make sense, and I don’t pretend to understand. In the end, I’m just thankful.

Mistakes happen. Accidents happen. And so do miracles.


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© 2008 Kaitlyn Bohlin