The date was August 20, 2009. That’s right: last Thursday. Denise and I were in Vermont for the week, and our first four days had been so unbearably humid that each one had registered higher than 10.2 on the swelterometer.1 When Thursday came and brought us our first taste of pleasant weather for the week, we decided to celebrate with a short hike followed by a stop at the Ben & Jerry’s factory. Our only requirements for the hike were that it be picturesque and not too strenuous. We settled on Bingham Falls, near Stowe, as our destination.
Partway along the trail to the main falls, there is a clearing of flat rock that overlooks an upper portion of the falls. While Denise busied herself taking pictures of the rock formations upstream, I was perhaps ten feet away, trying to get a good shot of a six-foot-high section of the falls cascading into the gorge below. Not satisfied with the angle of my previous attempt, I thought I’d inch even closer. About a foot to my right, maybe six inches from the edge of the overhang, was a spot that looked to me as though it had been stepped on before. I cautiously tested the spot without incident, but when I shifted a little more of my weight to that leg, what had appeared to be solid rock with a thin layer of moss turned out to be nothing but a thick layer of moss. The moss slipped swiftly downward, followed by my boot, followed by me. I thrust my hand out, searching for a handhold in the rock, but there were none to be found. And down I went.
People often say that in near-death experiences your life flashes before your eyes, but the visions that stuck in my head were of my impending death. After all, I had seen how close the opposite wall of the gorge sloped towards me. And I’d seen how horribly shallow the water was just upstream. Images flashed in my mind of me slamming into the rock and caroming into the shallow pool below. I saw my back broken, my skull cracked open, my legs shattered, my life ebbing away before anyone could reach me. As I fell, I was certain that those final fleeting moments would be my last ones on this earth... or, at the very least, they’d be my last moments without me being horribly mangled. I braced for impact, knowing my life would never be the same. There was no way I would come out of this unscathed.
Only, I did.
After approximately 1.4 seconds of freefall,2 my boots struck water. And as luck would have it, they kept going, down to a depth of about eight feet. By my estimation, I had fallen close to 30 feet (greater than the entire 25' height of the final falls), and had landed right about here:
As best I can figure, that gap between the walls of the gorge is no more than three feet wide at its narrowest point. And no, I have no idea how I survived, either.
For fun, here’s a recap of my thought process during my descent:
- (as my foot slides over the edge) Oh shit, I’m falling!
- (as the rock slips from my grasp) Oh shit, I’m dead!
- (during freefall) Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!
- (fully submerged underwater) Holy shit, I’m alive!
- (a split second later) Oh shit, my camera!
Of course, by now Denise was frantic. Later, I learned that she’d heard me say something (presumably "Oh shit!"), followed by a very loud splash, and when she’d turned around I was gone. She anxiously called out my name a few times, but it was ten long seconds before she heard me yell back that I was okay. It was another seven or eight seconds before she looked over the right ledge and her head came into view above me.
All of the walls of the gorge were either too steep or too slippery for me to be able to climb out, or, for that matter, to even hold onto. I put my camera back into its bag and did my best to keep it aloft as I paddled one-handed. I swam through two more pools of nearly identical size before I came to a spot that, although it was still quite steep, afforded me an exit thanks to a fallen tree that extended down to the water’s edge. I heaved myself up the slope by way of the dead tree’s meager branches, then climbed further up along a winding trail until Denise had me enveloped tightly in her arms.
My camera and lenses were probably toast, my cell phone was iffy, and my sunglasses were lost to the current, but physically, my only injuries were one scraped and bruised elbow, and one bruised and scraped wrist. I won’t call it a miracle, since I don’t want to get pope-slapped,4 but damn was I lucky.
"I thought I'd lost you," she said.
"So did I," I replied. We remained locked in our embrace for another twenty seconds.
Then we went and took a tour of the Ben & Jerry’s factory.
Okay, I know this is already a pretty long post – I’m new to blogging, that’s my excuse this time around – but I do have a couple more things to share.
- Not one person at the falls offered to help. No one there even asked if I was okay. As I was treading water there in that gorge, shortly after my initial plummet, two people up above the third pool just sat and watched me placidly from a distance, acting no differently than if they had been watching a movie. Similarly, some hikers heard Denise frantically calling for me; others saw us as we embraced after finally reaching each other; still others passed us on the trail without a second glance in my direction, even though both my camera and I were soaked from head to toe. In fact, only two people had any reaction at all, and that was because they were sitting nearby when we returned to photograph the spot where it happened with Denise's camera. I said to Denise, "See that spot where there's no moss? That's where I fell." At that point, even though they were sitting a good six feet from the edge, they shifted further away.
- The week since my almost death has been a very surreal one. I continue to be in awe of how close I came to not being here any more. (I've also had to resist saying, "I almost didn’t come back" when co-workers have asked, "How was your vacation?") Since that day, I have been more thankful for everything and everyone in my life. I've been filled with a renewed strength and vigor even in boring day-to-day activities. I guess it really is like that old saying: "What doesn’t kill you, may well destroy your camera."
And remember, stay off of mossy precipices.
1 Not an actual ometer.
2 It’s physics, byatch.
3 It didn’t work.
4 pope-slap, v. to bestow the traditional Catholic repercussion for exaggerated religious claims. For example, if you were to go around boasting that the Broncos' last-second touchdown was a miracle, Benedict XVI would come to your house and pope-slap you.