Hanging Out at Horsetail Falls… Literally

© April Meads, 2015

Horsetail Falls has been a hike on my bucket list for almost a year now. My older sister, Stacy, and I were looking for a fun way to kick off summer. She suggested hiking and I automatically said yes because it’s an activity I love. I suggested Horsetail Falls, she agreed and the next morning (May 31) we headed out towards the Columbia River Gorge, stopping first for Dutch Bros., of course.

What I thought was going to be a fun and relaxing hike with my sister turned out to be the most terrifying day of our lives, and one that we will never forget.

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Right off the bat there’s a waterfall before you even start hiking which is where we stopped for our first of many pictures (above). Like usual, the hike was a little difficult considering it goes up hill 90% of the time. But it wasn’t too long before we reached the actual horsetail waterfall that you could stand in a small cave and enjoy.

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After spending some time there and climbing to the other side of the pool of water for different angles for pictures, we moved forward. We somehow got off the Horsetail trail and onto Oneonta Gorge and Triple Falls.

Not really knowing the difference between Horsetail Falls and Triple Falls, we kept going. When we came across a steep hill that led to what looked like climbing over a tree that had fallen, we stopped and ate our lunch so we could be fueled up for the rest of the way.

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We used this as our checkpoint as to where we were and how long it took us to get from Triple Falls to this point. Once we arrived at Triple Falls, we spent 20 minutes relaxing, cooling down in the water and preparing for the hike back down to the car.

With our mom’s homemade tacos she had planned for dinner on our minds, we headed back down the trail… This is where things got interesting. Since we were well rested the beginning of the hike down wasn’t too bad. But it started getting really hot and we were ready to be home.

At our next rest, I grabbed my phone to text my other sister back; she had asked if we were done hiking and I responded telling her we were just heading down. I secured my phone in the side pocket of my backpack and we continued to hike.

Going around every corner we were looking for our checkpoint to see how much longer we had. Remember that fallen tree we had to climb over? That’s what we were looking out for. Coming around the 4th corner, I finally saw it. I always keep my eyes down on the path since the rocks in the ground can be tricky. But I looked up.

As I did, I stepped to the right of the path to allow room for two other hikers to pass in the opposite direction. I was just thinking how hiking was my favorite activity when my foot slipped. I think I stepped on a rock in a loose patch of dirt that crumbled beneath my step, but since I looked up, I’m not sure what happened.

My life flashed before my eyes. As I slid down, there was one thought I had: “My life is about to end.”

I was sliding down the cliff for what felt like forever. Listening to my sister call out “April! April!” I didn’t need to see her to know she was terrified. I was on my left side, looking over my right shoulder, searching for what was going to stop me; there was absolutely nothing. Before rolling to my chest, I saw my water bottle fly out of my backpack and fall into the distance.

Once on my front, I started clawing at the earth for anything to grab onto. I finally caught hold of a tree branch sticking out of the cliff and was careful not to move, as a man (the one I had moved to the side of the path for) hollered down for me to keep flat to the earth.

I looked up and made eye contact with Stacy 20 feet up. I was speechless and so was she. She was looking around and I know it was to find a way for her to come save me. After about 5 seconds, the tree branch I had grabbed onto came out of the ground and I started to slide again, yelling “Stacy! Stacy!” and again clawing for anything to grab.

I eventually grabbed onto a root in the ground. I don’t know how I grabbed it or how I found it – I don’t even remember actually grabbing it – suddenly it was just in my hands. At that point, I looked around and exclaimed “Someone help me! Help!”

I was quite surprised and grateful at how quickly my adrenalin and survival instinct kicked in.

I found a comfortable spot; well, comfortable for the situation I was in. My left knee had found a small secure place in the side of the cliff. My right toe dug itself into the cliff but the earth crumbled beneath it every time I moved. But my arms, outstretched completely over my head, were doing most of the work.

I hung there for a few seconds before remembering that I never heard my water bottle hit the ground, meaning the ground was not close to where I was. I turned my head and looked down, searching for a platform I could possibly get myself to safely; there was nothing.

To paint the image in your head, the part of the cliff I slid down was at an angle. I was hanging at the end of the angled part of the cliff, and starting at my waist, the cliff dropped off and went straight down. If I would’ve let go, I would’ve gone into a 100ft free fall.

I started to panic. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. By this time Stacy had already dialed 9-1-1 and was talking to someone. She relayed the information to me that help was on the way and they would be here soon. Starting to lose trust in myself, I kept asking “When are they coming?” “Who is coming?” “How close are they?” “How are they going to get me?” all questions no one had the answer to. Stacy later said I asked these questions every five minutes.

The 9-1-1 dispatcher was giving her suggestions as to what say to me. I hear her in the distance telling the dispatcher that his suggestion wouldn’t work, but she’d try anyway.

“April, what do you want for dinner?”

“Don’t,” I said as I shook my head.

I wasn’t sure I would even live to eat dinner that night, so that wasn’t a question I wanted to even attempt to answer or think about.

At this time, my mind wandered elsewhere, to places it didn’t need to be. Thoughts like “What would happen if I let go?” “What if help is too late and I can’t hold on anymore?” came unwelcome into my head. Not knowing the outcome of this situation, I made eye contact with my sister, now 3o feet up, and yelled “Stacy I love you so much!”

“I love you too, April,” she replied as tears began to jet down her horrified face.

Seeing that look on my sister’s face made me sick to my stomach. “I can’t let her down. I need to be strong for both of us,” I thought, “I needed to dismiss the negative thoughts.”

I began thinking of the important people in my life: my family, my friends, my teammates, my coaches, and anyone else who would be telling me to stay strong in this moment. I know how much they all cared about me. There was absolutely no way I could let that many people down. My mentality was beginning to change as I thought of them, and as I heard my sister calling from above.

“April, you are so strong. You are doing great, I am so proud of you!”

Hearing her almost brought tears to my eyes, but they wouldn’t fall. I thought of something an ex-boyfriend of mine always told me: “Don’t cry. Crying does nothing. Crying makes you weak.” This is the first time I ever listened to him. I could NOT be weak. I took a deep breath, let go one hand at a time to wiggle my fingers so I didn’t get too weak, and waited.

For some reason, I found that making funny comments was making me feel better. Every so often I started throwing in some funny remarks: “Track and field didn’t prepare me for this,” “Well this is quite the adventure,” and “I think I just ate a spider.”

Knowing what would happen if my parents knew I was hanging off a cliff, I hollered to Stacy, “Do not call mom and dad!”

“I know, I’m not going to!”

Forty-five minutes later, I see a man climbing down about five feet over from me along some trees and bushes. At the same time, another man tossed down a rope made out of clothing that landed within reaching distance. I was relieved when they pulled it back up because I thought they were expecting me to let go and climb up the rope. I’m glad they did because the rope was making things go loose and come at my face. Holding on for my life was hard enough without having to dodge chunks of dirt and rocks.

I heard a helicopter above me, but when I looked up I couldn’t see it. Search and Rescue (SAR) was prepared to lower themselves to me, but there were trees everywhere so I was confused how they were going to get to me. The helicopter noise faded and they were gone, and that worried me since I was still hanging and beginning to feel weak. I was really starting to doubt myself; my arms were getting shaky, and the cliff beneath my right toe continued to crumble.

“I don’t think I can hold on much longer. I’m getting really tired. Hurry, I’m slipping!” I called out.

Before I knew it, the man I had seen climbing down to me, was standing on a platform four feet to the right of me.

“What is your name? You are the most amazing man, thank you so much,” I said.

The man, Wim, had the clothing rope hung over his shoulder. As a team, both of us got the rope around me, which was scary considering I had to let go with one hand to do so. But we got it around, and he managed to tie a secure knot one handed (his other was holding onto a root that was stronger than mine). I held onto the rope (that was being held by people above) with my right hand, not letting go of the root with my left, Wim grabbed my right arm, and on the count of three he pulled, I pulled, and I was on the platform with him.

My legs were shaking so badly that I could hardly hold myself up, but we had to move quickly and safely. From there, I needed to get up 15 feet to Sarah, who was waiting for me between trees. Wim helped push me from behind as Sarah pulled the clothing rope, and I climbed and clawed up the steep cliff and through bushes.

Since I was able to climb after hanging for 45 minutes, I was surprised that I found some upper body strength that I never knew I had. I can thank adrenalin for most of that. I finally made it to Sarah, who took my backpack and told me to sit down and catch my breath as she helped Wim up to us.

I sat and immediately hugged the small tree in front of me and let out a big sigh of relief. I needed to get back up about five feet, but I couldn’t pull myself alone. I had in my hand an actual rope that showed up with another hiker and was tied between the two trees.

Wim got on one knee and told me to step on it to boost myself up. As I did that, I grabbed the hand of Adam, Sarah’s husband, and another man who’s name I didn’t get. They pulled me up to safety and that’s when the tears finally fell.

I crawled along the path until Anna-Marie, Wim’s wife, helped pull me to my feet. My eyes locked to Stacy’s, I walked to her as fast as my shaking legs would let me and I threw myself in her arms as we both began to sob on each other’s shoulder. I had never been so happy to see her and to walk on flat ground. Once she let go, I crumbled to the ground and laid there crying for a few minutes before I was being told to drink water and eat.

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The two photos above were taken roughly 10 minutes after being back on the path.

A forest ranger didn’t appear on the scene until after these pictures were taken, meaning if I would’ve had to wait, I’m not sure I could’ve held on for that much longer.

Once I calmed down a little, I checked my phone, that surprisingly stayed in the side pocket of my backpack, and I had a text from my dad that read “Hi, how’s the hike?” It had been sent 58 minutes earlier, about the time I fell. Later my parents said they decided to text us because they hadn’t heard from us all day and something didn’t feel right. Little did they know that I was about to fall down a cliff or was already hanging off one.

My rescuers joined Stacy and I for the hike heading down to the car, during which we talked about the situation and got to know each other a little bit.

I’m both lucky and thankful that these hikers were in the right place at the right time and that they were who they were. They are a part of a group called The Mazama Climbing Club, and they are all trained to rescue and are taught survival skills, both of which came in handy when saving my life. On the hike back down, Sarah convinced me to join The Mazamas and get the same training they have.

I am also lucky and thankful that I came out of this without any major injuries. However, I do have cuts and bruises all over my legs, stomach, arms and hands. Below you will see a brief video of the scratches on my legs and stomach.

There are more down on my shins, and you can also see (below) on my left knee, where it was supporting me.

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Adding to the pretty gnarly bruises and scratches, my shoulders, upper back and arms are very sore from doing basically a week’s worth of a workout in 45 minutes, but it will all get better with time. I’m on the road to recovery and hoping to start feeling better soon.

I cannot explain how thankful I am for my sister, and for the amazing people that risked their lives in order to save mine. I will be forever grateful for them. I am also so thankful for all the support I have gotten the last few days, it really is an eye opener for how many people care about me.

Advice to hikers: BE CAREFUL. Don’t take your eyes off the path, bring walking sticks, EVERYONE in your group should have rope and ALWAYS be aware of your surroundings. That was the most terrifying experience of my life and I don’t wish for anyone to go through what I did.

No matter what trail I’m hiking, my biggest fear has always been falling. But that day I conquered my fear and can now say I survived falling and sliding down a cliff.

I will be taking a break from hiking for awhile, but I do hope that I will be brave enough to get back out there soon and have some fun!

There was also a blog post written by Sarah; I suggest reading it to get the Mazama’s point of view on the events.

Happy (and safe) hiking!

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11 thoughts on “Hanging Out at Horsetail Falls… Literally

  1. So thankful that you are OK! You certainly had a spicy introduction to hiking. Just let us know when you are ready to get some more hiking skills. I was thinking that if you do want to join the Mazamas, we should talk about getting you up South Sister. It would be a great objective to train for this summer. Something to think about …

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    1. Thank you so much, Sarah! I hope I’ll be ready soon to pick up on some skills. I have never hear of South Sister, but if you think it’ll be good for training then I’ll take your word for it! We’ll talk on Tuesday!

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    2. April, what an amazing story! You are a strong person!! I’m Sarah’s sister and I concur that you’d love South Sister and it would be a good training goal. She is a great leader – took my husband, my kids and me up it several years ago with Adam. I’m so glad that this turned out well for you – you were strong and courageous and they were prepared and ready to help! Amy

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  2. Wow! You are an amazing young women. Not many would be able to stay calm and endure what you did without falling apart. I am sure you now realize you can do anything you want in this life. And I have a feeling you will have an amazing life and do many great things. 🙂

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