Being an outdoor fanatic doesn’t come without extreme risk. Bodies are pushed to their limits, and minds require the ability to react and improvise when the weather turns or something goes wrong. These stories, from locals who have had brushes (or, perhaps tickles) with death in Durango’s wild outdoors, are proof that no matter how able-bodied you may be, freak situations happen, and you have to do your best to survive. These situations were just one more factor away from being potentially fatal.
If you’re from Durango, chances are you’ve gotten into some dicey situations with Mother Nature or with your toys, but there are lifelong takeaways that can be learned from flirting with danger. Hopefully, hearing someone else’s experience means avoiding a lesson learned the hard way.
Hitting the brakesJens Nielsen has been racing bikes for over 20 years. He’s a former pro who’s continued to compete in his older years. Now 47, Nielsen’s training maintained its intensity until an accident this May persuaded him to reevaluate his relationship to his passion.
One week before the Iron Horse, Nielsen entered into the Grand Junction Off-Road mountain bike race. Not more than an hour through the course, Nielsen crashed on a flat portion of the technically challenging Butterknife Trail.
“I clipped the pedal or I did something that caused me to crash. It wasn’t anything very steep, but (there are) lot of rocks,” Nielsen said. “It was just an unlucky pedal strike or something like that, that caused me to get thrown off my bike in an unexpected way.”
After picking himself up from the fall, Nielsen saw he looked relatively fine, other than some scratches on his arms and legs, but he knew something was wrong.
“I was not quite right. I knew where I had to go (to find) the EMTs, (which) were a mile or two before. There were 100 or 200 people behind me on a very narrow trail, so I waited for a lot of people to pass so I could walk and ride back.”
The EMTs discovered Nielsen’s blood pressure was extremely low, but it looked like everything was fine. He took a ride to the main road on an ATV, where someone else gave him a ride into town instead of taking an ambulance, because he didn’t want to leave his bike behind. About two hours after the crash, Nielsen, feeling unwell, drove himself to Saint Mary’s Hospital, where he was asked to pee in a cup.
“It was just blood coming out. I said, ‘Oh, shit. This is not good,’” he said.
From there, Nielsen said things moved pretty quickly. He was put on a bed with an IV and had a CT scan. It was discovered his kidney had a severe laceration and he was bleeding internally. He also had several fractured transverse processes, the bones that stick out on the lower spine. The doctors put an arthroscopic scope up through an artery in his groin to see if there was massive internal bleeding. The doctor said the damage done to Nielsen’s kidney has ranked a stage four out of five, with five meaning the kidney was destroyed and would need to be removed.
“My theory is, I had a tool and some CO2 cartridges in my back pocket. I could have landed on something that concentrated the force in a small area,” Nielsen said.
Nielsen was in the hospital for four days as he continued to have internal bleeding. The doctor told him he could not exercise strenuously for 12 weeks.
“(Cycling) is such a big part of my life, but then I’m like, ‘Am I just pushing myself too hard, and am I just continuing to sacrifice other things for this pursuit of – I have nothing left to prove,” he said. “There was a lot of internal reflection as to what my future biking career should look like.”
Nielsen is still in the process of recovering, and is spending more time hiking with his supportive wife, but he recently got back on his road bike. He said he will never give up his bike, but is reevaluating his strict dedication to intensive training.
“A lot of us here in the area, we want to be outside, we want to explore, we want to push our bodies to the limit,” Nielsen said. “But with time, we may just need to step back and think about the potential sacrifices we are making.”
A hairy situationThere are many outdoor Janes of all trades. Michelle, who requested DGO to withhold her last name, is one of them. She canyoneers, kayaks, skis, snowboards, and does everything else under the sun, but most of her experience is with climbing. She has been scaling walls since she was a kid, and has always kept safety in mind. Michelle never climbs without a helmet, and is trained in self-rescue techniques. But sometimes, overlooking a small detail, like a hair tie, is all it takes to turn a normal day on a cliffside into a tangled mess.
Michelle and her boyfriend were doing an easy climb at South Six Shooter, a 250-foot solo tower in Indian Creek, Utah.
“Everything was fine, but when I got to the top, storm clouds rolled in, in minutes. My boyfriend Tim was like, ‘We’re out of here.’”
In a rush to get off the tallest structure in the barren desert, Tim sent her back down before even taking her off belay.
“He was just like, ‘OK, go down now because we’re gonna get electrocuted.’”
The jeopardized climbers found a ledge to keep cover and protect the rope – and themselves – from getting soaked. They started a fire, and Michelle took her waist-length hair down to help keep herself warm. The rain never stopped, but it eventually settled down.
“It was never an optimal situation,” Michelle said. “It was, ‘This is the best it’s going to get, so let’s go.’ So, of course, it felt very compromising.”
With the uncertainty of the storm looming overhead, Michelle began to repel down, forgetting to tie her Rapunzel-length hair back up.
“Everything was going great, and then all of a sudden, I looked down and my hair was totally wrapped in the ATC,” she said.
An ATC is designed to create friction and stopping power, so when there is tension, there is no way to release the rope – or hair – caught inside. When Michelle realized her hair was stuck, she was still 15 to 20 feet off the ground.
To release the tension, Michelle would have to ascend the rope.
“You have to start using self-rescue techniques because you have to take your weight off the rope,” Michelle said. “You have to use mountaineering techniques – wrap the rope around your back, wrap the rope around your leg – to remove the tension so you can use your hand and let go. Because otherwise, you can’t let go – you’d just slide down the rope.”
Michelle knew her worst-case scenario would be to have to rip her hair out, either using her hands or the edge of a carabiner as a last-ditch effort.
The self-rescue techniques allowed her to see knotted up ATC that was located near her lap. Luckily, she had a lowly Prusik, a simple nylon Prusik-style knot that allows climbers to ascend during a repel, which is difficult, especially if there is nothing for the climber to hang on to.
“So, you can imagine I am on the side of this 250-300 footer desert tower. You’re very exposed. You are on this wall with nothing to put your feet on,” she said. “Of course I’m freaking out and the weather is not good. Tim wants to go down, but he can’t because I’m stuck.”
The Prusik allowed Michelle to ascend slightly, giving herself a couple inches to a foot of leverage, and allowed her to get some of her hair out, although it was still stuck.
“I just decided I have to keep going because I’m not on the ground, and this is really unsafe since there is lightning around,” she said. “So I decide to get going.”
When she managed to get 5 to 8 feet off the ground, her hair was completely woven through the ATC to the point that it was to her scalp. She had to swing her body to find a rock to put her feet on and take her harness off, which she managed to do. With feet on solid ground and hair still on her head, Michelle knew things could have been so much worse if she became tangled in the ATC higher up the tower. She would have no choice but to rip it out.
“A lot of climbers do not know self-rescue and they don’t carry a Prusik on them, and they don’t know how to arrest the rope when they are repelling. Most people die repelling. That is the more dangerous part of climbing,” she said. “If I didn’t know how to do that and I wasn’t taught self-rescue by my climbing partner, I would have been at a total loss.”
Michelle said the experience taught her that staying safe is not about the big things.
“(Safety) is about communicating and having your own independence,” she said. “Autonomy in the outdoors is super important because sometimes there is no one there to save you and you have to be able to save yourself.”
And these days, Abrams never forgets to tie her hair back.