Horsetail Falls Round 2: First is the Worst, Second is the Best

© April Meads, 2015

Coming home on the 31st of May and telling my parents the story of how I came close to death, I didn’t see myself going hiking again, at least not for a long time. Then I made a goal to go hiking before I left for my junior year at Linfield. The goal was an ambitious one, as I had my days where I didn’t think I would be able to overcome my fear. I would be really confident one day, then the next I would be scared out of my mind to go near another trail.

But as the summer dragged on I realized how much I missed it and how bored I was staying at home and working all the time. So at the beginning of August is when the planning for my next hike began.

My original thought was to go back to Horsetail Falls/Triple Falls and retrieve the water bottle that had fallen out of my backpack when I fell. I mostly just wanted to see if it was still there after roughly three months but I also wanted to see where it landed. Why? Wherever that water bottle landed is where I would’ve landed had my situation turned out differently.

I got in contact with Sarah, one of my rescuers, and asked her if there was a route down to my water bottle or if she even thought it would still be there. After a few emails back and forth she brought to my attention that I didn’t just want to go find my water bottle, but I was looking for some closure. That’s when I realized I had a lot of questions. Questions that could only be answered by going back.

We set a date and a time, August 23rd at 8am, and from there all I had to do was wait and prepare for this journey. At this point I was excited and ready to go back and conquer a trail that scarred me with the most terrifying memory of my life.

For my birthday six days before the hike, I got my first pair of hiking poles, making me even more excited to head out the next week.

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After much anticipation, the day finally came. I was actually pretty excited but I tried not to show it and act like it was a normal hike. But acting like it was just any other hike was flat out impossible. What was once a quick “Bye, have fun” from my parents was now a “Be safe, stay away from the edge, I love you so much” followed by several hugs.

During the drive there with Sarah, I felt great. I was ready to take on the unfinished business that was waiting for me at Horsetail Falls/Triple Falls. I was surprisingly calm and composed until I saw the sign that read “Horsetail Falls” that had been shown on the news not too long ago. I got out of the car and that’s when I felt it. My whole body was overcome with chills and goosebumps, and I was shaking as if I was cold.

You see, it can be easy to hide nerves but not when you’re shaking like it’s 30 degrees. Thankfully the shaking calmed down once we were on the trail and I was distracted by a trail that I hardly remembered.

“I’m really curious if you’ll recognize the spot,” Sarah said at one point.

Sarah, along with my other rescuers, Wim, Anna-Marie and Adam, all went back a week after the incident and said they walked right past it because they all remembered it differently.

We walked passed an opening in the trees that had a nice view of the Columbia River and it made me giggle remembering a comment Stacy made in this area during our hike a few months ago:

“That would suck if someone fell down that,” she said, looking down a drop off.

If you read my last post, you might remember the fallen tree that me and my sister had used as our check point when we were here on May 31st. We eventually approached that tree, however it had been moved out of the way so it was mostly rocks.

Not remembering the distance from this spot to “my spot” (where I fell), we got up passed the tricky rocks and I continued hiking like I was before. Sarah turned to me and nonchalantly said “Okay, so I just want you to walk slowly and hug the inside of the path.” That’s when I knew we were close.

I looked up and saw it. Tears instantly fell from my eyes and I began to shake. As I tried taking another step my legs froze up, not allowing me to move another inch. Flashbacks from that day started playing vividly in my mind.

“Was this a good idea?” I thought, “I made it this far. I can’t go back now.”

After a few deep breaths I was able to get going again. I came to a halt when I thought we were there. I looked at Sarah with a questioning look on my face. Answering my unspoken question of “Is this it?” she shook her head and said “Not yet.”

Roughly 15 steps later she stopped walking causing me to do the same. I turned to my left and immediately knew where we were. I was standing about where Stacy had been standing as she watched me fight for my life.

It was weird. It was silent. I was speechless. It was so different from what I remembered.

“Woah,” I finally found my voice.

I stood there for a few minutes trying to take it all in while standing as far away from the edge as possible. It was like watching a train wreck; I wanted to look away but I just couldn’t, no matter how hard I tried.

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I had a play-by-play going in my head of the events from May 31st, but instead of trying to figure out how everything happened on my own, I asked Sarah to talk me through the events once they arrived. We took a seat safely away from the edge and she began to talk.

She talked and pointed while my eyes scanned the area and I asked questions. I probably could have sat there all day and stared down this cliff but eventually Sarah got up and I followed and we continued to scan the path. We were testing how crumbly the dirt was and how loose the rocks were, trying to make sense of how easy it was for me to fall.

We found that the dirt basically would’ve crumbled if you blew on it hard enough and the rocks weren’t actually stuck in the ground, but disguised under the loose dirt and moved easier than they should. To my surprise we also found a chunk missing out of the trail that looked like it might have been where I stepped. Sure enough, it was right at the top of where my path started.

In the video below, you’ll see me poking around in the dirt with my pole. That is about the spot of where I fell. If you turn the sound on you can hear Sarah narrating.

And here’s one more video…

One thing we discussed was how steep the cliff was. I remember it not being very steep considering I slid pretty slowly. I figured if it were really steep I would’ve slid quicker and probably wouldn’t have lived. However, the next two pictures may or may not shock you as much as they shocked me.

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If you think that looks bad…

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This is the exact area that I slid down.

The slope of that cliff with the crumbly dirt leaves nothing but pure luck to stop a person that’s sliding. I basically took out the very few bushes, sticks or rocks that were in my way and sent them falling into the distance where I would’ve gone if I hadn’t (miraculously) found that root.

After spending about 30 minutes here, Sarah asked if I wanted to keep going up to the top of Triple Falls, or just go back down. I chose just to go back down, since passing this spot in the opposite direction is when I fell.

On the way back we searched for any safe way down to where my water bottle had fallen. We found one safe (at least it looked safe) route down to where the bottle could be but Sarah made the decision that we needed more people to make that trip.

People have questioned my decision, told me I’m crazy and just stared at me in disbelief when I said I went back. My responses to those people:

  1. I had questions and needed answers. Did they get answered by going back? Yes.
  2. It was unfinished business. I hadn’t successfully completed that hike and that wasn’t okay with me.
  3. We have a basketball court in my backyard at home and with that, there’s a rule: “You can’t end on a miss.” So the “miss” in this case would be the whole situation of what happened on May 31st. I had to end on a good note.
  4. I just couldn’t live with the fact that the last time I was there I barely made it out alive.
  5. Leaving the trail with a smile on my face was 100 times better than leaving close to tears.

Am I glad I went back? Absolutely. Even though it was frightening at first, it was healing to see it from a different point of view and to be able to put together all the scattered pieces that were a blur in my mind.

It was an eye-opening experience that showed me how lucky I really was. The pictures really don’t do it justice; I believe in order to get the full effect a person has to go there and see it with their own two eyes and not through the lens of an iPhone 6. There’s no way I should have survived that, but I can’t put into words how thankful I am that I did.

Maybe this is strange, but sometimes I’m glad this happened to me. The way I look at things and how I live my life has changed. My outlook on life is way more positive than before. I met some truly incredible friends who I wouldn’t have met if they hadn’t saved my life. And my sister and I now have this unbreakable bond and a stronger relationship/friendship than before and for that I am grateful.

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One thought on “Horsetail Falls Round 2: First is the Worst, Second is the Best

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write-up your experience. It was definitely interesting for me to return to the spot with you [that’s how I think about it in my head, usually in all caps – THE SPOT]. We’ll go back for that water bottle, or at least to get down to the bottom of the cliff. I’ve already started the planning process. I just need to teach you to rappel.

    Like

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