After the Fall—Climbing Back from a Near-Fatal Accident

On Oct. 19, 2020, while rock climbing in Utah’s Little Cottonwood Canyon, The Big Outside creator Michael Lanza fell about 25 feet, crashing onto a ledge and suffering severe injuries. This is the story of that nearly tragic day and its aftermath.

By Michael Lanza

The morning sun felt warm on my back as I led up the first pitch of a rock climb called Crescent Crack. Around me, the granite faces and steep, rocky mountainsides of Little Cottonwood Canyon, outside Salt Lake City, Utah, soared into a cloudless October sky. Belaying me on the ground, my 20-year-old son, Nate, fed me beta about the route. We planned to take advantage of the last pleasant weather of fall by spending a couple of days climbing together. Before long, I’d risen beyond sight of him, although we could hear each other’s calls.

Some 150 feet off the ground, near the top of the pitch, I reached a section that looked challenging. I had already placed much of the gear on my rack in the crack below me and lacked the size I needed to protect the next move. I reached down, grabbed my last piece, a cam, and bumped it up higher—keenly aware that the next piece below that one was now more than 10 feet down. I reset the cam a few times. It wasn’t the ideal size for the crack, but I believed I finally set it securely.

As I attempted the move, a foot slipped and I dropped, expecting the cam to immediately stop my fall. But it didn’t.

Michael Lanza of The Big Outside rock climbing at Idaho's City of Rocks.
Nate shot this photo of me climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks about two weeks before the accident in Little Cottonwood Canyon.

I kept falling.

What transpired next occurred in just a few seconds but felt like an eternity. I got flipped upside-down, probably by the rope catching behind a leg. The brain works fast enough that I formed the terrifying thought: I’m falling too far. Then I crashed onto my head on a wide ledge—my helmet undoubtedly saving my life—and crumpled in a heap.

Pain seemed to engulf my whole body and my head spun more than I’d ever experienced in my life—more than the few times my head actually rang for minutes after hard collisions while playing high school football, more than when I rolled and wrecked my Jeep on a remote Montana highway 18 winters ago.

But there’s a human instinct when one has fallen to pick yourself right up if you can. I rose shakily to my feet.

I looked around, trying to focus, but everything in my vision was quite literally a spinning blur. I could make out the rope running from my harness up to the piece of gear that I had placed below the cam, confirming the cam had popped out—possibly the first time in 30 years of climbing that a piece of gear I’d placed didn’t hold when I fell on it. I had fallen at least 25 feet.

Far below me, Nate didn’t see or hear anything. He would tell me later that he felt my weight come onto the rope but it “felt smaller than the majority of falls I’ve caught belaying—it just locked up the device, without pulling me anywhere.” The rope apparently didn’t come tight until I hit the ledge—not absorbing any of my impact. I never lost consciousness and still remember all too vividly how hard I spiked head-first onto that rock.

Excruciating pain pulsed through my neck, back, and right thigh and I could hardly turn my head. Trying to think clearly, I realized the possibility of severe neck and spine injuries and a broken femur and knew I had to keep my spine straight.

I called out, “Nate, I’m hurt!” But my voice seemed to barely emerge from my mouth and sounded like it came to me from far away. I couldn’t process whatever he was yelling to me or immediately think of what else to say.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.


A rock climber high up the Elephant's Perch in Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Nate high up the Elephant’s Perch in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, which we climbed together in August.

Feeling like I might pass out, I sat on the ledge, eyes closed, head in my hands. My chest heaved, hyperventilating wildly, heart like a pounding fist; even as I told myself to remain calm and think, my breathing raced out of control. I stood again, looked around at the cliff and canyon fuzzy and whirling around me, sat back down.

I had no sense of how much time passed. Nate would tell me later that after hearing I was hurt, followed by several minutes of “anxiously waiting” and hearing nothing from me, he began using his self-locking belay device to ascend the rope. But he’d only gone up about five feet when I resumed talking to him, so he returned to the ground.

Standing again, I called out once more, “Nate, I’m hurt!” I told him to lower me to another ledge with a small tree where I could set up an anchor at a height where he could then lower me to the ground. That simple operation—one I’ve probably repeated hundreds of times over 30 years—would tax my ability to focus both my vision and my mind. It felt like trying to teach myself quantum physics by reading a book about it after downing a bottle of wine.

Rescuers evacuating a rock climber in a litter from Little Cottonwood Canyon.
Rescuers evacuating me in a litter from Little Cottonwood Canyon.

I checked that the tree was sturdy and then wrapped a sling around its base. I carefully untied from the rope and began pulling it through the gear now well above me. But I forgot a critical step that, again, I’ve done hundreds of times on a cliff: I didn’t secure the rope to my harness first, in case I accidentally dropped it.

Then it slipped from my fingers. My end of the rope shot upward toward that piece of gear as the rest of the rope began whistling past me down the cliff. I bent slightly, pain shooting through my back and neck, reached for the moving rope and missed, then stabbed for it again and snagged it an instant before it whipped past me. I tied the end back into my harness—still hyperventilating furiously, heart hammering, head reeling. 

Nate slowly lowered me. Pain knifed through my thigh with each slight bump of my right foot against the cliff. Eventually, he got me down and helped me take off my harness and lie flat on the ground. A wave of relief and enormous mental and physical exhaustion washed over me—and finally, some 20 to 30 minutes after my fall (according to Nate’s later recollection), my breathing slowed almost to normal. I explained what happened and my injuries to Nate and then lay there, awake but eyes closed, content to let my mind shut down.

Michael Lanza of The Big Outside and his 17-year-old son, Nate, rock climbing Cathedral Peak in Yosemite National Park.
Nate and me climbing Cathedral Peak in Yosemite in 2018.

Nate responded as calmly and effectively as I could hope. He checked me for any bad bleeding and found none. Fortunately, we were in the lower canyon and had cell service; he called for a rescue. Minutes later, two other climbers showed up, one of them a physician, and she performed a rudimentary check for neurological damage, reporting the good news that I appeared to have normal sensation in my hands and feet.

When Nate heard the emergency vehicles pull up far below us, he ran down the steep trail to lead them up to me. About 45 minutes after my fall—a remarkably fast response for a backcountry accident, considering that, had we been miles from a road and without cell service, the response time could have been hours or more than a day—a team of EMTs and search-and-rescue volunteers gathered around me. Nate later told me that, in all, some 40 people showed up. (I still had no accurate sense of time: I later estimated two hours passed between my fall and the arrival of rescuers, but Nate certainly has a more reliable recollection of it.)

I remember answering questions from the lead EMT, him informing his team, “I’m administering morphine now,” and them loading me into a litter. Then everything got peaceful and dark.

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Severe Injuries

A patient in Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah.
Me in Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, Utah.

The next thing I recall was blinking my eyes open, still very groggy, to find myself sliding in and out of a CT machine, and fading out again. Memory informs me that I awoke fully in my hospital room bed, but Nate says I answered questions from doctors and nurses in the emergency room well before that. He told me later, “I knew you were going to be okay when a nurse asked you how you fell, and you answered: ‘Downward.’”

I was in Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, outside Salt Lake City—another lucky stroke that a Level 1 trauma center lies minutes from Little Cottonwood Canyon, although probably no coincidence, given the numbers of climbers and especially skiers flocking to that canyon.

The CT scan showed severe injuries: fractured C1 and T3 vertebrae. Known as the “atlas” vertebra, the first cervical vertebra, or C1, occupies a critical location and function at the base of the skull. Fracturing it can result in a host of catastrophic outcomes, from the inability to breathe without assistance to the inability or impaired ability to speak, loss of physical sensation, numbness or tingling below the neck—and partial or complete paralysis in the torso, arms, and legs.

People who fracture C1 sometimes become quadriplegic. They sometimes die.

The third thoracic vertebra, or T3, located in the upper one-third of the spine, helps protect the nerves of the spine and feeds into the chest wall, aiding in breathing. A bad T3 fracture can also result in immediate paralysis.

I did receive one bit of good news: The thigh was just a contusion, though apparently massive—it would hurt for more than a month.

I vomited through that first night from the nausea brought on by pain narcotics. My wife, Penny, flew to Salt Lake City the next morning, a Tuesday. By that afternoon, after refusing any more narcotics—choosing the pain over the terrible nausea—I nibbled partway through my first meal since breakfast the previous day.

Taking my first “walk” in the hospital.

I took my first “walk” that afternoon: I’ve hiked more than 30 and 40 miles in a day several times—including, almost exactly a year before this accident, running the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim, 42 miles and over 21,000 vertical feet, in 15 hours—and today, I felt overjoyed to shuffle three laps around the hospital floor. And that left me exhausted.

On Tuesday evening, not long after Penny and Nate had departed for the night, the neurosurgeon who saw me when I arrived at Intermountain Medical Center, Dr. David Nathan of Wasatch Brain and Spine Surgery, came to my room. Shaking his head in disbelief, this doctor who must routinely have to give patients heartbreaking news told me I’d been extraordinarily lucky: The fractured vertebrae remained in alignment, with no other damage. I had no neurological symptoms—no numbness, zero loss of sensation. I would not need surgery. I would spend several weeks in a neck and back brace and just might fully recover.

I felt so happy that, for a moment, I almost forgot about the pain in my body.

The next day, able to keep fluids and food down, I was discharged. As Penny and I walked—very slowly—out of the hospital, the concussion I’d suffered made itself apparent: It shocked me how painfully bright the sunshine seemed and how hard it was to simply focus on walking across a flat parking lot.

As Penny began driving us out of the parking lot, I told her, with no small degree of surprise, “There’s absolutely no way I could concentrate to drive a car right now.” (Unable to turn my head in a neck and back brace, I couldn’t drive for weeks, anyway.) Fortunately, my concussion symptoms faded by the third day after my accident.

But my neck pain would endure for months. And for our entire five-plus-hour drive home to Boise, every tiny bump in the highway felt like a collar of nails bouncing against my neck.

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Woman and two young children backpacking the West Rim Trail in Zion National Park.
Nate, Penny, and Alex on a family backpacking trip in Zion National Park.

Raising Kids Outdoors

Ever since our kids’ first days of life, our son, Nate, and daughter, Alex, have been regular companions of my wife’s and mine in the backcountry. Each took their first hike at two or three days old, riding in a carrier on my chest. They started skiing not long after they first ran across a playground. They climbed small cliffs and floated gentle rivers before they sat at a classroom desk. When they were young, I began a tradition of annual father-son and father-daughter trips. They have taken far more backpacking trips than either can remember and visited more national parks and natural landmarks than most Americans see in a lifetime.

Backpacking became the default mode of family vacations—and was something we could do together starting when the kids were quite young. (As a young teenager, Nate memorably corrected me, saying only half in jest, “Dad, backpacking trips with Mike Lanza are not a vacation.” Just last summer, Alex, at 17, laughingly confessed to us that she usually cried on the first day of our family backpacking trips. Fortunately, should this story get around, my kids are too old for the state Division of Child Protective Services to come after us.)

Perhaps more than any other activity, those countless days on trails provided fertile soil for our family growing closer—mostly because, in the wilderness, we had nothing but nature and each other. We talked for hours while hiking, gaped at mesmerizing sunsets together, and laughed in tents, mountain huts, and backcountry yurts over our adventures.

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Young children rock climbing at Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve.
Alex and Nate rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks.

For many of my best times with each of my kids and our finest moments and memories together as a family, the outdoors served as setting and catalyst. When I think about climbing, just as when I think of backpacking, skiing, and many other activities I’ve shared with family and friends, I think about the hazards of those pursuits, sure. But mostly I reflect on all the happiness those times have brought.

As our kids grew older, I let them decide whether they were interested in activities with an elevated risk level: rock climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling whitewater. I never wanted to push them into anything uncomfortable. But they both developed those interests—and I started living moments I’d dreamed of for years.

As Nate’s attraction to the mountains and rock climbing flowered into a passion, we did more and more together. When he was 15, he and I made a snow climb of the Mountaineers Route on Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest peak in the Lower 48. Two summers later, the two of us took a climbing trip to Yosemite. Although wildfires kept us away from Yosemite Valley, we spent four days rock climbing around Tuolumne Meadows.

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Two rock climbers atop Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite National Park.
Nate and me atop Eichorn Pinnacle in Yosemite National Park in 2018.

Among many memories from those four days, I recall standing in early morning at the base of the Southeast Buttress of Cathedral Peak, a wall of white granite rising some 700 feet above us—thinking of how life sometimes comes full circle: I’d first climbed Cathedral Peak with a friend when Nate was a toddler at our campsite in Tuolumne with Penny and other friends. As we surveyed the cliff from below, two climbers about 10 years older than Nate started talking to me. One turned, looked at Nate and asked, “How old are you?” When he answered, “seventeen,” the guy grinned and said, “That’s awesome.”

Thinking the primary mission of that trip was to teach my son alpine rock climbing, I quickly discovered that, while he was still learning the hard skills, he’d surpassed me as a rock climber; he ended up leading some of the harder pitches we climbed that week.

On those many trips with my kids since they were young, many of the moments fused most firmly in memory came in the lulls between the thrills. Lying in our sleeping bags in our high camp on snow at 12,000 feet below the East Face of Mount Whitney, or perched side by side atop a granite spire we’d just climbed in Idaho’s City of Rocks—when he was still smaller than me and I was still leading the harder pitches—my son would throw an arm around my shoulders and tell me, “Dad, I love when we do these adventures together.”

And I’d tell him: So do I.

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Family of trekkers at Grand Col Ferret on the Tour du Mont Blanc.
My family and my nephew, Marco (right), at the Grand Col Ferret on the Tour du Mont Blanc.

Climbing Back

Recovering from a broken neck and back and living for several weeks in an extremely restrictive brace presents a daily obstacle course of inconveniences and pain that ranges from bad to grind-your-teeth awful.

Routine tasks become complicated and arduous and hurt more than I’ve ever imagined possible. Getting into and out of bed and dressing required an elaborate, multi-step procedure (taught to me in the hospital). Working on a laptop while lying down in a brace and able only to look straight up at the ceiling—and struggling to find a lying position that felt comfortable for more than 20 minutes—became an exercise in frustration. My batting average for steering food and drink into my mouth would not have earned me a spot on any baseball All-Star team. I won’t describe what it was like taking a shower or going to the bathroom—just trust me, neither provided the usual pleasurable experience.

Merely getting off a bed or couch—which I learned to do very slowly—often triggered sudden waves of throbbing at the base of my skull that spread outward like ripples on a lake, reverberating through my neck. I’d freeze, squeeze my eyes shut and grimace until it passed. More than a month after my fall, my right thigh still ached from the knot that felt like a shattered brick inside it.

Young boy and man in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.
Nate and my friend, canyoneering guide Steve Howe, in a slot canyon in Capitol Reef National Park.

Cruelly, even the simplest pleasures proved elusive. Before this, I didn’t think anything could suck the joy out of a good beer—until I drank one through a straw because the brace made it difficult to bring a glass to my mouth without pouring it down the front of my shirt.

By the third day after the accident, I began taking daily walks—the only activity I had the green light to do (wearing my brace, of course)—and quickly discovered a harsh reality. My soreness was such that every step on the sidewalk felt like a hammer tap to my neck. An hour of strolling the flat streets of my neighborhood left me tired and in such pain that I had to lie down for longer than I had walked. I spent most of my waking hours on my back.

As if the daily discomforts weren’t enough of a reminder of what had happened to me, my mind seemed quite unwilling to let go of that episode.

For two months after the accident, my first conscious thought waking up every morning was a replay of those seconds of falling and crashing onto my head and the minutes that followed. That memory always came unbidden, springing to mind even before the awareness of the stiffness and pain in my body. At the moment when wakefulness broke through the clouds of dreams, my brain clicked “play” on that mental video and I lived it all over again. Every morning.

I’d lie there for long minutes, reflecting on what happened, what I wish I had done differently, how I almost ended up. Of the many what-if scenarios my brain busily conjured, the worst were the thought of Nate ascending the rope to find me in a condition I don’t care to imagine and the impact of that on my family.

Then I’d push those thoughts away, commence the painstaking routine of guiding my body from lying to sitting to standing, donning my brace, and steering my arms and legs into clothes, and try to have as normal a day as possible.

The mind chews on life’s traumas the way glacial ice grinds up rock—very patiently and methodically. I resigned myself to the inevitability of contemplating how I felt about this for a long time.

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Teenage boy backpacking to climb California's Mount Whitney.
Nate, then 15, hiking to our high camp to climb California’s Mount Whitney.

On Nov. 30, six weeks to the day after my accident, I had a follow-up telehealth virtual visit with the neurosurgeon who first saw me at Intermountain Medical Center, Dr. David Nathan. He gave me difficult news I had not anticipated: that my fractured vertebrae would never fully heal. There would always be scar tissue and a heightened danger of worse injury. “I don’t know how often you take a 25- or 30-foot fall when you’re climbing,” he said, to which I responded, “Once in 30 years of climbing.” Then he said, “Well, you better make it another 30 years without doing that again.” I assured him that I’ve now checked falling onto my head off my list.

He also cleared me to stop wearing the brace. After signing off with him, I took stock of my circumstances. I was walking. I could speak. I could type and work and pick my nose, the last item something I’d never thought I would need to celebrate. I felt confident I’d be able to take my family’s annual ski trip to a backcountry yurt a month later (which I did) and I had my first backpacking trip of 2021 on the calendar for early March.

Physical healing proceeds at its own pace and can feel torpid. But it happens. I’ve learned that over a few decades of occasional crimes against my body—none as bad as this, but some that leave lifelong aches as reminders and one condition that causes chronic lower back pain.

Not long after that telehealth appointment, it felt like progress that I started having days when my neck was not the part of me that hurt the most.

What Next?

Here’s what I’ve learned about surviving a near-fatal accident: I needed to talk about it with people close to me, agonizing as it was to relive—perhaps akin to how your body must violently purge itself of food poisoning. But I tired of unspooling the horrific details to someone new and watching a dark cloud pass over that person’s face as it twisted with agony over what I described.

Doctors I know personally kept telling me that many people who fracture C1 end up dead or a quadriplegic. (I didn’t miss it when they finally stopped reminding me about that.) People who understood the common outcome of a C1 fracture generally reacted the same way: They stared silently at me for a long beat—as if gazing upon someone who’d risen from the grave—and then said with unrestrained disbelief: “And you’re walking? You have the use of your fingers?” Or more concisely and directly: “And you’re alive?” As if that last query required my verbal confirmation, like when a flight attendant asks whether you’re willing to perform the duties that come with sitting in an exit row.

For a long time, I didn’t want to tell the story anymore, or post about it on social media, or write about it.

There’s a natural reaction to critique your decision-making that led to an accident. I’ve been climbing for 30 years; I know how to place protective gear in cracks quite well. It’s deeply unsettling to think I placed a critical piece poorly.

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Michael Lanza's family sea kayaking in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park.
My family sea kayaking in Johns Hopkins Inlet, Glacier Bay National Park, Nate age 9, Alex 7.

I’ve castigated myself ad nauseam over my decision to continue upward instead of lowering to a ledge where I could have built an anchor, belayed Nate up, and had the full gear rack to finish the pitch. I may have misled myself, in part, because the difficulty rating of that pitch was relatively easy, a grade at which I’m not sure I’ve ever fallen before. Despite all the good reasons to back off, I convinced myself: It’ll be fine.

Part of my hesitancy about sharing this story was knowing the variety of reactions I’d get.

One type of reaction is from people I’ll call “the judgers,” who respond to stories about backcountry accidents with sweeping indictments of those “stupid” victims. Judgers don’t see differences between accidents attributable to human error, inexperience, or just plain bad luck. They lump them all together in one towering pile of irrefutable evidence that the backcountry is overrun by inept neophytes who endanger themselves and everyone else.

I’ve seen that attitude for decades and I think it masks a dangerous self-deception: If you believe that only “stupid” people make mistakes—and, of course, you’re not stupid—then that judgment primarily functions to reassure yourself: It could never happen to me.

A few people have asked whether I’ll climb again. Some make their assumptions eminently clear, bluntly saying, “So, are you going to play it safer now?!” (None of them are people who know anything about climbing.) Others have questioned whether someone my age should be climbing. (None of them are the friends my age who climb with me.)

Teenage boy rock climbing at Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve.
Nate, then 15, rock climbing at Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve.

Our culture has weird and, it seems to me, unhealthy relationships with both risk and aging. We tell someone who’s 50 or 60 that they’re too old for sports like skiing or climbing. But we cheer the 80-year-old who celebrates a birthday by skydiving or rock climbing—which seems to say, “Well, you’re 80, so what do you have to lose?!”

I still remember an acquaintance telling me, when we were both in our early thirties, “I already feel like I’m getting old;” and a friend who’d hiked and backpacked with me for years announcing when we were both 39 that he’d gotten too old for that stuff. Two decades later, both judgments seem at once laughable and sad to me.

My role model for aging gracefully has long been my mother. She started hiking in her forties and her many adventures since include summitting Half Dome at 58 and Mount St. Helens at 76 and trekking hut to hut with my family on the Tour du Mont Blanc the summer she was 80. Today, at 84, she walks or hits her gym almost daily.

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A young family at Skilern Hot Springs, Smoky Mountains, Idaho.
My family on an early backpacking trip in Idaho’s Smoky Mountains. Click photo to read my “10 Tips for Raising Outdoors-Loving Kids.”

I try to make decisions objectively (although, clearly, not always with success) and recognize that risk exists on a continuum: Hiking on a trail is safer than off-trail. Sport climbing is safer than multi-pitch traditional climbing in the mountains, which is much safer than climbing the world’s highest peaks.

A few summers ago, I had a hard crash on my road bike, and not because I ride at crazy speeds. A slow leak in my front tire had softened it just enough that the bike went down as I turned a corner. Fortunately, I suffered only a nasty road rash down one side of my body, but it could have been worse. And I recognize that every trip on a bike down a road poses the real and uncontrollable danger of being hit by an inattentive motorist.

In fact, I don’t believe for a second that road cycling, mountain biking, or downhill skiing at resorts are inherently safer than much of the rock climbing I do. Skiers are littered off resort slopes every day. But I have no plans to give up any of those things and no one has suggested I should.

How about rafting or kayaking relatively safe class III rivers? How about, for that matter, driving to all the places where I do these activities?

I don’t mean to diminish the hazards of climbing—quite the opposite, in fact: I want to keep all risks in proper perspective. I think we all have a predilection to exaggerate the unfamiliar hazards and underestimate the familiar risks that we encounter so routinely that they become easy to ignore. Upwards of 40,000 Americans die every year in car accidents and over four million annually are in accidents serious enough to require medical attention. Ask yourself how many of those would happen if people always drove at speeds appropriate for the road conditions.

A young girl at Kaweah Gap in Sequoia National Park.
Alex at Kaweah Gap on a family backpacking trip in Sequoia National Park.

I’ve endured the worst that can happen outdoors, but those episodes are far outnumbered by the scores of times I’ve lived all the best that it brings. I’ve felt many times the natural anxiety over bringing my kids into situations that pose risk, but also see how those experiences have beneficially shaped the young adults my kids have become and serve as parables for making good decisions.

I’m not certain how I’ll feel about tying into a rope until that moment comes. Right now, I’m inclined to think I’ll return to rock climbing. But I feel no obligation to do that or urgency to decide. And it’s okay to quit something. This stuff is supposed to be fun. You get to choose.

Some decisions cannot be reached quickly. They only emerge from weeks, months, sometimes years of thinking them through—and not because you want to take that long. We can’t help but think about life’s most impactful events endlessly. I knew this would be the case with this accident the first evening I laid in a hospital bed half-drugged and feeling the multiple aches in my body as if they were the percussions of drums being played in the next room. (And to anyone who’s read this story up to this point and still believes that I haven’t thought about that decision more than anyone else, I suggest they read it again, more closely.)

Teenage boy rock climbing the Lost Arrow Spire in Idaho's City of Rocks National Reserve.
Nate climbing the Lost Arrow Spire in Idaho’s City of Rocks National Reserve.

I don’t want to be eulogized with the words “He died doing what he loved” because of an accident resulting from human error. (On the other hand, if I give up the ghost on a hike when I’m 95, I’m good with that.) I intend to end my climbing career by choice—not have it ended while climbing. I don’t know when my body will let me know that time has come, but I’ll accept it. And if I’m able to follow one of my kids up some easy rock climb when I’m 80, well, I think that would be pretty damn cool.

When so much of the joy you draw from life depends on being outdoors—hearing the songs of birds and the tumbling of a creek; seeing how the clouds and sun waltz over the mountains, canyons, rivers, and lakes, following a rhythm as old and settled as the planet; feeling your body propelled under its own power over dirt, rock, or water either liquid or frozen—the deprivation of that joy is like going without air or light for too long: Only once reunited with it can you really breathe and see again.

Can I give that up? I have trouble even imagining that life.

However we spend it, life itself is fragile. Do what makes you happy and you not only find what you love—you find yourself. Anything less seems not the point of living.

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A father and son below Jacob Hamblin Arch, Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.
Nate, age 12, and me below Jacob Hamblin Arch in Coyote Gulch, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.

Alive

Today, four months since my fall, my injuries have mostly healed. I’m going through physical therapy for the lingering stiffness in my neck—which, sometimes when I turn my head, does a convincing impersonation of a popcorn maker. But I resumed running two months after my accident and skiing 10 weeks after it.

I’ve jokingly referred to myself as Humpty Dumpty with my family and close friends. But it wasn’t the king’s horses and men who put me back together; it was simply time, working hard to recover, and some good luck. I’m deeply grateful to the EMTs, doctors, nurses, and other medical professionals who treated me and the many volunteers from the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue team (to whom I sent a donation after I got home from the hospital), to friends who’ve helped and cared, and most of all to my family. Whatever time—and luck—I have left, I intend to remain thankful for and try to use it well.

Looking back on the four months since my accident, one day in particular felt like a big turning point.

Upper Hulls Gulch in the Boise Foothills.
Upper Hulls Gulch in the Boise Foothills.

On Dec. 18, in a final telehealth appointment with neurosurgeon Dr. David Nathan, he cleared me for resuming normal activities—with the admonition to “listen to your body” and stop if anything causes pain. As we ended our conversation—when his expression told me that he genuinely felt nearly as happy about my outcome as I did—he said, “You got kind of lucky.”

I thought: Lucky in more ways than even he realizes.

The next day—exactly two months to the day after my fall—I went out alone for my first trail run in many weeks.

I headed up a path in our local foothills that I’ve probably run and hiked well over a hundred times in the past 20-plus years. The temperature was 48, balmy for mid-December, and a slight breeze reached me in spots where the trail rounded the nose of a ridge or climbed out of the valley bottom. I ran at an easy pace, resolved to walk anytime I felt the need.

Nearing the end, with the December sun glowing dimly through diaphanous clouds, deepening the blue of the sky between clouds and creating soft, faint shadows that gave the hills depth, I lengthened my stride and picked up my pace just a tick.

On legs that hadn’t run in over two months—that hadn’t done more than short, slow neighborhood strolls for a month after my fall—and with my lungs unaccustomed to this exertion and my neck still stiff, that run felt much harder than usual.

But in many more ways, it felt really good.

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57 thoughts on “After the Fall—Climbing Back from a Near-Fatal Accident”

  1. What a moving story! Thanks for sharing, and as a fellow northender and avid outdoorsperson who also tried to raise a son with an appreciation for nature, I so appreciate your candor and self-reflection. I used to be a recreation therapist treating spinal and brain injuries, so yes indeed, am very happy that you are on this side of things!

    Reply
  2. Hey Michael, I’m glad you endured and felt like sharing this incredible story! I am fond of the saying “Adversity introduces a man to himself,” and I have no doubt that you will continue to provide inspiration to us mere mortals! No doubt this was a big hiccup in your charmed life, but I’m sure there are countless adventures ahead for you and your family…enjoy as many as you can! All the best going forward, and thanks again for ALL your contributions and inspiration to us fellow adventurers!

    Reply
    • Thanks for those very kind words, Kenny. I have many adventures I still plan on enjoying. We’re all mortals and I’ve certainly been feeling my mortality in recent months. Take care and thanks for reading my blog.

      Reply
  3. Mike, your story resonates with me. While I take it a little easier on the slopes and bike trails these days, my son Nicholas gets higher air with his tricks. Every time he comes home injury free, I’m thrilled. We all take different levels of risk doing activities we love, and we all deal with unfortunate events. You are very lucky. I’m happy for you!

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    • Hi Emily, thanks for your thoughts. I also try to convince my kids (20 and almost 18) to be careful with ski jumps. They’re pretty cautious, but getting airborne poses risks, including of concussions and lasting impacts. Some lessons only come with time, I guess. Not sure I’m setting a good example of learning lessons at a young age! Stay well. Hope to see you on the trails sometime.

      Reply
  4. Wow. So hard to read this. I was tooling around the internet today on a snowy afternoon when I thought, “let’s see what Mike’s been up to” and there was your post. As I read it, I immediately thought of that awful accident involving your friend many years ago. So, so glad you are OK–and that your trademark wit is clearly intact. Best to Penny and your kids.

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  5. Wow. Thank you for writing this. Thank you for your perseverance in expressing your love for the outdoors. I am very glad that you survived and healed well! I agree that after anything traumatic, it is a very personal choice for each person to decide whether to return to the activities that were part of the trauma.
    I hope that someday you feel like showing your grandchildren the special wonders of nature and then write about it! You relate those wonders so well!
    I thoroughly enjoy reading your writing about the big outside. Thank you, again.

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  6. Michael, thank you for sharing your story. Goes to show that any one of us, no matter how experienced, can be susceptible to a fall or other similar catastrophe. By opening up about your horrendous event, you remind us of the risks we take when we participate in outdoor endeavors. Grateful that you are healing, and most importantly, that you can continue to live a life outdoors, but maybe with a little less risk (hint-hint!).

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    • Thanks for those nice words, Lisa, I appreciate that. And yes, this experience will certainly shape my decision-making moving forward, too. As it should and as I hope this story helps shape the decision-making of other people. Stay well.

      Reply
  7. Michael, you are the perfect messenger for all of us who enjoy the outdoors. We can’t stop doing what we love as long as we are physically and mentally able to experience these adventures…but we can take extra caution. I enjoy fly fishing remote streams and that almost always requires a lot of rock climbing and wading rapid currents. I have slipped more than once and luckily have never been injured. But my next purchase is going to be a wading staff, and I will think twice before making any risky steps…much more so than when I was younger. And I will probably be more likely to heed my wife’s request to have a friend along on those excursions into remote country. Your story will make me safer the next time out.

    Glad you are recovering and look forward to seeing pictures of you and Nate finishing the next climb.

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  8. Hey Mike…
    Wow – what a story and glad you are OK my friend, for you, Penny and the kids. Keep getting better, and keep doing those things that make YOU happy. I’ve enjoyed following your exploits on IG – proud to see you getting after so many great adventures. Laura and I are in UT – actually will be in SLC in two weeks after a move from Park City. Always feel free to look me up – it would be great to connect again in person. Wishing you and the family all the best boyo.
    Sincerely, Matt

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    • Hey Matt, thanks and good to hear from you. Congrats on the move and I’d love to get together. Nate’s a soph at U of U in SLC so we get down there occasionally. If you hit the Front you may run into him. Stay well, hi to Laura, let’s keep in touch.

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  9. Hi Mike. Your story resonates so well with me. I fractured my C7 vertebrae when I fell from my surfboard and the top of my head slammed into a sandbar on the last wave of the day. It was such a freak accident, but one that I felt kind of responsible for. Did I take it for granted that I would fall backwards? Like you, I believe in a life of adventures (I rode racehorses as a teen and captained my own sailboat in my 40’s).
    Being told that you “should” be paralyzed/on a respirator may sound lucky, but it is also haunting. And so is replaying the accident scene over and over again – mine would come to me every night in slow motion dreams. I eventually went to a trusted therapist who specializes in PTSD and now…no more movie.
    Friends and casual acquaintances wanted the juicy details of that day. Every time I told the story, it seemed to traumatize me a bit more, so I wrote down every detail, saved it in a file, and didn’t tell it again. People also love to ask me if I will surf again. I tell them I am happy to hike and do yoga, but the truth is I plan to paddle out with my husband sometime soon. Whether or not I will turn around and catch a wave at 56 years old is totally up to me.
    Wishing you all the best of life, love, and good health as you continue to live it fully.

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    • Thanks for sharing your own powerful story, Kerri. Those traumas really do stay with us. Still, there are ways to find the joy we want to live and stay as safe as possible. This stuff is supposed to be fun. Stay well.

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  10. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for your honesty. I am so glad that you were one of the fortunate, lucky ones. Perhaps Mother Nature and the mountain gods felt benevolent that day. You may find some greater meaning and purpose in the accident.

    Many of us who love the outdoors may experience a truly frightening situation, and it can be hard for others to understand why we’d return when we don’t “have to” — but we know the outdoors is a place of refuge and meaning for us. Only you can know when and if you’re ready to return to a sport where you were harmed.

    I agree, people can be judgmental about accidents. There is benefit to education, and learning from even the most tragic accidents, but it must be done with humility and empathy. We are human and no one is perfect, and at the end of the day, I hope we can remember that we should look out for each other in wilderness.

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  11. Mike,

    Thanks for sharing and glad to know you are on the road to recovery. Penny’s Facebook posts gave me a hint that something big had happened to you but I appreciate you sharing the story. Be well. Till we cross paths on the river or in the mountains again.

    Matt

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  12. I am so sorry that this happened to you, Michael. I hope Nate is doing well too. Such a vastly traumatic event. Thrilled with your medical care, healing, stamina: encouraging progress. Most certainly this will not be your fate, but in the event that you or others like you who have experienced trauma to their cervical, please be advised that damage to the pituitary can occur and unfortunately go undiagnosed. Symptoms may not occur for months or years. If you should experience any of these symptoms (see link) then let them know about your accident. It was nearly 2 years after my car wreck when I passed out and woke up in the hospital after 250 mg LEVOTHYROXINE and another year before I was diagnosed as Hypopituitary and prescribed 175 mcg daily. Easy fix. Just don’t fall on your head again. TAKE CARE AND GOD BLESS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY.

    Pituitary Disorders.

    Reply
  13. Hey Mike,
    Very happy to read thru and see that you are reasonably well. I can identify, have been through several conversations with cancer.
    All I know is that somewhere along the way we need to come up with a storyline about what it all means, and a new narrative about who we are. The old narrative got roughed up in the cancer ward, or the ICU. I’m sure you’ll get it dialed in. Meanwhile, many happy trails still to come.
    Eric Hansen
    PS Bernie Siegel’s Book “Love, Medicine and Miracles” had an excellent section on”becoming an exceptional patient”. The 5 points below were the heart of the book, the essence of why some patients excel. Point #5 is the one that lingers in my mind.
    “Dr. Kenneth Pelletier has made a psychological study of many patients who recovered despite great odds. He found five characteristics common to all of them:

    Profound intrapsychic change through meditation, prayer or other spiritual practice.

    Profound interpersonal changes, as a result: Their relations with other people had been placed on a more solid footing.

    Alterations in diet: These people no longer took their food for granted. They chose their food carefully for optimum nutrition.

    A deep sense of the spiritual as well as material aspects of life.

    A feeling that their recovery was not a gift or spontaneous remission, but rather a long, hard struggle that they had won for themselves”

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    • Thanks, Eric, for the good words and sharing that book and those points, very insightful. I’m putting that on my reading list. Sorry to hear about your struggles with cancer and wishing you many more years. I hope we run into each other in the mountains sometime. Stay well.

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  14. Hi Michael,

    I saw a lot of myself in this. I relate very much to what you’ve said here, as I had a similar experience last fall and many similar thoughts during my recovery. Thanks for writing, not just about the facts of the accident, but the feelings, thoughts, and emotions that come from the experience and healing afterward. That’s not easy to do. As a community, there is so much we can learn. And also, I’m so glad you are OK and back to moving and enjoying outside.

    My own story.

    Reply
    • Hi Annie,

      That’s quite a story. I hope you’re recovering well. I’m sure we can relate to much of one another’s experience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and that difficult and painful story and I wish you all the best and a speedy recovery.

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  15. Oh my goodness, Michael, I am so glad you survived the fall and got out of it ok! It was harrowing to read and I am sure a lot more so for you and your family.

    We are a backpacking family and early on when the kids were very young, I started following your blog for ideas and inspiration. Now your recovery and your decision to simply go out and live life still is inspiring (though it may feed my imagination for bad things that can happen).

    Stay well. There is a Chinese saying that goes “Big Life Not Die, Surely Will have Good Fortune.” It is believed that if one survives a calamity/accident unharmed, it is because the heavens planned even better things for you.

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    • Thanks for those encouraging thoughts and your nice words about my blog, Jacqueline. Nice to hear from you. I hope that Chinese saying proves prophetic. Take care and make the most of every day.

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  16. Thanks for writing this! Dunno if we’ve met or not, but fellow climber here, and so you’re kinda extended family. Glad you lucked out, but, good job fighting the head game of this and doing the best you could. I started climbing with my son, he approaching 21, me nearing 58. Both new to it. One of the things I considered was if I wanted to risk this scenario, with my child. He was already an EMT and SAR, so that helped the decision, but still. So? Best wishes to your son, too. Fully grasping that yes, indeed, these things really do happen, is not a bad thing, in my opinion. By writing, you also help remind others to not forget. Thanks!

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  17. Michael
    Thank you for sharing this story. I’m so glad that you are still able to live life, be with family, adventure in the outdoors, write, and help others like me and my son plan adventures! Accidents can happen to any of us. I’m sure my son and I have been blessed not to have any serious injuries. I did go over my handlebars and land in a pile of rocks and logs/branches while mountain biking with my son last summer. It happens in an instant. Keep healing and doing what you love.

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  18. Hi Mike!
    You may not remember me. We met at a writer’s conference in Lander that I helped Buck Tilton put on. We also shared a few scotches at Bucks house, and one of the greatest evenings of storytelling I have ever encountered. My wife Chontelle and daughter Maille were also there.
    Maille is nineteen now. She has been climbing with Darren and Stacy Wells since she was little, and has summitted Gannett Peak twice. She started trad climbing this last September, and has progressed to leading some trad climbs. I am going to share this article with her, and strongly point out that you fell on an EASY climb, and that complacency is dangerous.
    Thanks so much for sharing this. I wish you all the best.

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    • Hi Dave,

      Yes, I do remember you and that fun evening of great conversation we had at Buck’s house. I hope Maille sees the lessons in this. My kids like to climb and I’m glad, but I always–even before this happened–remind them of the hazards and to always be redundant in your safety checks. Have fun and be safe out there.

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  19. Great story Mike! I’m so happy that you are healing up so well! We have a lot of adventuring to do yet :)….

    See you in March!
    David

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  20. Amazing story and wonderfully well-written. Nate the Great came through impressively on this one and you are following through with the hard work of recovery. I’m so glad to know the outcome was as positive as it was. I shudder every time I look at the pic of your helmet.

    Thank you for sharing and letting us live vicariously through your adventures and misadventures. I’m relieved that you will not allow fear to turn you into an old man before your time. Hope to see you on the Nordic trails, or the river, or the mountain trails this summer. Cheers!

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  21. Hey Michael, it’s been a long, long time and I’m just stoked to hear you’re doing OK after your accident. There will always be those who judge and who agree or disagree but all any of us can do is follow our own paths and if we’re happy with and understand the risks (or non-risks in some cases) associated with where that path leads, what more can you ask for from this life. Having dealt with now 9 significant orthopedic procedures I know that my time has come to take a serious look at what I can and cannot do anymore, but I’m at peace with those decisions knowing I gave it my all when I could. The adventure lives on, just not at the same level as this ain’t no dress rehearsal and I for one intend to keep living the dream. Continue to heal my friend, hug your kids and wife and stay well and safe in the future.

    Mike O’C

    Reply
    • Hi Mike,

      Really good to hear from you! Thanks for the well wishes. I’m doing well and working to get back to 100 percent. You may not remember this, but one of the worst crashes I’ve ever had on a mountain bike happened because I was trying to keep up with you and Matty going down some ski hill in NH. Bad idea! You take care, stay well, and keep on living well, my friend.

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  22. I’m so glad that you are OK! Thank you for sharing your story. Accidents are part of an adventurous life and while they are never something we want, they help us learn and grow and work on the lifelong process of managing the risk in the outdoors.

    I think the people who don’t love the outdoors sometimes have a hard time understanding that risk is essential to fully living an outdoor life. We get so much out of those moments that are dangerous and we learn with each adventure what our limits are and what the gaps in our knowledge are.

    I think people also need to understand that very experienced climbers can still have accidents. It’s not a sign that you are not experienced or that you didn’t belong there. Rather, the fact that you executed the steps that you did in order to get down safely after the accident shows how much skill you had developed and how you were able to handle the situation efficiently.

    Plus it’s an amazing gift to do these things with your family – a life at home on the couch on your smartphone could not have been fulfilling to an outdoor family and it STILL wouldn’t protect you from accidents.

    Thanks for writing up the story to serve as a learning experience for others and I hope you have some great adventures in 2021.

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  23. Mike, I’m thankful that you came out of this intact. We all make mistakes in the mountains and sometimes they can have serious consequences, often they don’t. God knows I’ve made them. I’m sure you can remember at least one of them! You may be an old timer now, but I think you’ve got a few years of climbing left in ya.

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  24. Wow, so glad you are having a good recovery. I wondered why your activity on Facebook had been decreased. Don’t listen to naysayers, you are a smart man, you will know when and if you have to change any of your activities. Best wishes, take care, and thanks for your stories, I have been reading articles that you have written for decades. I know you will have many more adventures to share.

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  25. Hi Michael. So glad you are ok. Lucky man! As an emergency medicine physician, I watch the young and old die everyday. Life is too short and uncontrollable to stop living your passion. To hell with the majority that live their lives daily scared to death of what “might or could” happen. Those people will never understand the true meaning of life and passionate pursuit of dreams. Let them die one day with their music still in them because they were scared to actually live. If I die young hiking or mountain biking, then that’s fine with me. Better that than inside looking out the window because there are bears or avalanches or whatever out there. The small minority of us that understand that truly know how to live. Keep climbing brother!

    Slade Smith

    Reply

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