Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Sometimes, The Wheel is on Fire

Thursday, August 27, 2009

The Day I Almost Died

The water was clear, crisp, and invigorating. Submerged in that cold mountain stream, I felt an exhilaration far beyond anything I'd experienced before. However, had you asked me five seconds earlier, I’d have told you that stream was the last place on earth I wanted to be.

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:

Seriously. Right there.

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!
Once I returned to the surface, I lifted my Nikon D60 above my head in an attempt to minimize the damage,3 and kept myself afloat by paddling with my other hand. My camera bag, containing my zoom lens, batteries, cables, etc., remained draped over my shoulder. All were completely and utterly soaked. My sunglasses? Gone.

It's even deeper than it looks

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 escape route

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."
Thanks for taking the time to read this all the way through. Unless you didn't, in which case, here's the Cliff's Notes version: I fell 30' to my death but didn't die. True story.

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.


  1. Is it too tremendously cliche to say, "Holy Freaking crap!!"? Glad you're not dead, Nate. Hopefully you can get your camera dried out. I remember someone telling me if you put it in a dry bag with some dessicants, you can suck all the moisture out of the components!

  2. "I fell 30' to my death and survived. True story." Brilliant, mate, brilliant! Very gald you are still with us, dude. Our Good Ship Merriment with lost without it's Cap'n. Although, I'm tempted to change your full title to Cap'n Tumblepants.

    Oh, and great definition of the word pope-slapped!


  3. Um, forget the pope, that does indeed qualify as a miracle. Wow, thank you God, we actually like Nate.

    I can not fathom what those other hikers were thinking. Do you think they sat at dinner that night and said "I still can't believe that guy wading with his clothes on and camera in his hands. I mean, how did he get down there to begin with? He could have been killed, or at least damaged his camera." Dingbats.

    Nate, you definitely win the prize for best first blog entry! Yikes, watch your step!

  4. Scott, like I'd let myself get anywhere near a bunch of desiccants. I'd rather--what's that? Really? Wow, that's not at all what I thought they were. Yeah, I suppose that could have worked.

  5. Wow.....we're so glad you were OK! I know it's not a witty comment, but I can't think of anything else to say. We're so, so, so happy you're safe. Hugs to you and Denise.

    Jay & Aya

  6. Dan's Lessons in Rock Climbing

    1. Always put weight on rock, not vegetation.

    2. The international call for falling is not "oh shit!" it is "AAAAHHHH!!!!"

    3. Always use a rope when rapelling.

    I will be glad to give you one on on instruction the next time you visit.


    P.s. Nate, he might really do that, he rapelled off our roof last summer....Sara

  7. Congratulations on the whole "not dying" thing! As noted earlier, you need to stay away from the big floating red arrows - that's what they're there for!
    Regarding the camera, I've left my cell phone out in a rainstorm, and in college, accidentally spilt various beverages into the vents on my stereo. I've had good luck with submerged electronics by turning everything off, removing the battery and anything else removable, waiting until I'm sure everythings completely dry, waiting a lot more, then putting everything back together. Good luck!


  8. I hope you don't mind, but I laughed out loud at your list of thoughts that ran through your head as you fell. So amazing you survived! What a gorgeous place though.