I paused, looking down at the damp piece of granite. It wasn’t the stone itself, or its worth as a foothold, that gave me pause, it was the large drop just past it. When it comes to heights, I’m not much of a risk taker. Some may snicker at that statement seeing the extreme places I’ve skied or hiked, but for the most part, if there is a large, sudden drop, I tend to stay away from the edge unless I am guaranteed a good handhold and better foothold (or am on skis ;) ). This drop looked huge, but it was the best path and the foothold looked solid.
I turned the pause into an opportunity to snag a few photos of the waterfall I was following down. (Not the picture right here, but the next one down)
We were most of the way down the Falling Water Trail that descends from Franconia Ridge. For the bottom third or so , the trail lives up to its name, following a stream that hits several beautiful rapids and impressive falls. The very last waterfall (going down) was huge. We were about six hours into the hike and he had climbed around 3900 feet (1190 m) uphill and most of that back down again. I had a pack full of supplies, including the cold weather gear that I didn’t need, on my back. It was unseasonably warm, feeling like late September instead of mid-November. We were ending the great day of hiking with a gorgeous waterfall.
After taking about a half a dozen pictures I continued, my eye on that one step. I was very sure of traction, but the drop was still troublesome. My brother was just a short way down, farther away from the edge, taking some pictures. I really didn’t weigh the options very carefully, but I could have waited for him to move and then taken his spot to shoot some more photos. I could also have stayed closer to him as I went past. But I didn’t, I continued on my chosen path, camera in my left hand, phone in my right.
After that last look at the foothold, the one where I decided it wasn’t as bad as I thought and that it should be fine, I’m not sure where my mind went. Was I looking ahead, picking a careful path past that place? Possibly. Was I looking at the beautiful waterfall just to my left. Maybe. Was I just in that Zen place I go when I hike? Perhaps. According to my brother’s fit-bit we had done about 25,000 steps by this point, there is no way I could remember every footfall and I didn’t remember this one.
Seemingly out of nowhere, with a sickening certainty I felt myself go over the edge. My mind reminded me of the height of drop, and though less than I had originally thought, it was big and dangerous. I scrambled with everything I had to not fall, but it was too late, I was weightless. Funny, things happened too fast to keep track of, and yet it was slow. I remember what was going on inside my mind much more than what was happening out in the world, of which I can barely recall a few flashes.
My brother yelled. I hit something and thought I was coming to a stop. I clawed into the cliff, trying to make sure I didn’t go further, but it wasn’t a stop, it was a bounce and I was airborne again, things once more totally out of my control. A brief moment of weightless and then there was another hit and more trying to stop. But something else happened this time, as I hit that second rock.
I’m not sure if I saw my legs and the ground rushing up, but I had a sudden vision of lying on the ground, my useless legs sticking out in strange directions. With that vision something inside of me subtly shifted. I no longer tried to stop the inevitable fall, I started to subconsciously prepare to land. It was so fast I wasn’t aware of the change, but it was a change.
I hit the bottom, my feet aimed away from the cliff, and continued down. I immediately moved my feet, started walking out from the wall and was able to get under myself so that my body never hit the ground. I think my hands grazed some rocks to balance myself as I stood up, but not hard. My momentum carried me a couple of steps out into the open and then I stopped in a full upright standing position, as if saying, “Ta Da!” or “I meant to do that!”.
My brother yelled down, “Are you OK?” I answered with, “Yes, but it hurts like (insert worst expletive you can think of here)” Yeah, I know that doesn’t make sense. Actually, at that time only my left hand hurt. A lot.
I immediately walked to the water’s edge and stuck my left hand into a little rapids. The ice cold water burned like a forge. I didn’t pay attention to the flapping and took my hand out and shoved it into my shirt. I then walked away from the water, put my phone into my pants pocket (it was still in my right hand), picked my camera off of my chest (it was on a neck strap) and took half a dozen pictures. My brother came down, checked me out, asked a few questions, shrugged and started to take his own pictures.
As I was taking pictures I was doing a bit of an assessment. I wasn’t really checking boxes, but in my deep subconscious I was keeping track. I was standing on my legs, walking backwards and forwards, stepping up on rocks with one foot or the other and stepping off of rocks with one foot or the other. I had no pain in either of my legs or in my feet. When I stopped and actually thought about it, I was pretty sure nothing was amiss. So after a few minutes I suggested we continue. My brother, after asking if I needed to rest, recuperate, or anything, finally continued, leading the way. I had been in front for most of the hike, setting the pace, but I let him lead for a while.
But before we continued I went back down to the rapids again and washed my left hand again. I looked closer and saw that although there was a little hanging flesh, it was from a wound on my pinky finger and not the tip of the pinky itself, as I had feared. I moved every joint in the hand and they all responded without further pain. My hand hurt, but I figured it should be fine.
As I walked a few things crossed my mind. One was the distance. I have no idea how far I fell. I did not go back and look up from the bottom to the point I fell from. I think between 10 and 15 feet (3 to 4 m), but I’m not sure. It could have been more, it could have been less.
I also realized that all of the injuries to my legs were on the fronts (shins) while I landed facing away from the cliff. It makes sense that I would turn inward, facing the cliff, to try to stop the fall. When and how did I turn around? I’m not sure. I can only think that if I landed “backwards”, my momentum would have brought me down onto my back and head, not an ideal situation. But I also half remember starting the fall facing away. Did I turn all of the way around during the fall? I never asked my brother how it looked, but I know I must have turned and twisted a few times.
We walked about another hour to the car. When we got there I realized that my right leg was swelling. There was no pain so I didn’t give up the keys and ended up driving the two hours home. That night my left shoulder started to ache. Not bad, but I’m sure something happened to it as I tried to catch myself or twisted around. A few days later my right foot and ankle swelled a bit. I’m not sure why it took a few days.
Anyway, in my years I’ve had a tumble or two and have had a few hard falls, but nothing like this. Of course I now say that if I ever stop and look at a footing more than once because I’m unsure, I need follow that intuition and find another way down! Besides the fact that I was aware something might go amiss but still went ahead and hurt myself, the problem is the shadow the fall put onto the great day of hiking. And it was a great day of hiking! So after this post, it is over and I will go back to the good parts of the hike – the other 6 hours 59 minutes, 55 seconds, not that 5 seconds as I fell off the cliff!
So no real point to the story, except to tell the story that I’ve hinted so much about the last few days. A little scary, but I’m alive and mostly in one piece ;) (Read more about the hike here)
By the way, these are all different pictures – I told you I took a half a dozen from the trail and another half a dozen from the bottom!
And a second “by the way” – The swelling has reduced a bit in the last day or two. In ways it looks uglier since the bruising is more apparent, but it is on the mend.