Update: Sunday, October 16, 2016
Yesterday Kaylee’s best friend commented on this post with concern that I didn’t have the correct information about the events surrounding Kaylee’s fall from a ledge at a Linville Falls overlook last Sunday evening. I reached out to her and I am editing this post to include the details she gave. Her friend made me realize, too, that it is so important to see Kaylee not as “the girl who fell,” but as a young woman who was loved and who was important to others. That makes it personal. In the words of her best friend, “She was an extremely sweet and adventurous girl, who impacted so many lives…I don’t want her [to be known as] some girl who “fell”… She was so much more…”
So are each of you– so NEVER go over the railings, walls, barricades– they are there to keep you safe.
There’s a really great book called The Last Season, by Eric Blehm. It’s about Randy Morgenson, a veteran backcountry ranger in Kings Canyon National Park– about his life, his love for the mountains, his vast experience, and about the Search and Rescue mission that was launched to find him when he disappeared one day. This was a man with years and years of experience in the wilderness, a legendary park ranger, a modern-day John Muir. One day he went out on patrol, maybe his mind was wandering to the current stresses in his personal life, he made one bad decision, he took a single bad step, and fell through an ice bridge and died.
I’m writing this morning to make it clear: one mistake, one bad decision, a single wrong step can be the difference between life and death.
This past weekend my family and I were camping and hiking in the Linville Gorge/Linville Falls area of North Carolina and found ourselves in the middle of an unfolding tragedy. We had hiked to the base of the falls, spending enough time to really take in the beauty and ruggedness of the area. It was getting close to sunset so we decided to hike back up since we didn’t have flashlights. After about 10 minutes of making our way up the steepest part of the trail we were passed by a young man running at full speed down to the bottom. I thought he was trying to make it down and back before dark. Then there was shouting. Another young man ran past us with his cell phone out, like he was trying to get a signal. Weird. Then we came across a young woman standing in the middle of the trail on her phone. She said, “She went over but I didn’t see her fall… I don’t know where I am, I don’t know the trails… We were at the overlook.” My heart fell to my gut but my mind didn’t want to believe what I was hearing: she was talking to an emergency dispatch and a young woman had just fallen from an overlook. These were her friends. This horrific event was happening right now.
We shifted gears and did what little we could to help– we went briefly to the overlook, hoping to see if we could assist or call for help. There were desperate shouts of “Oh God, oh God” and “Help.” We returned to the trail junction to wait for help and directed the paramedics to go to the bottom of the falls. They had no radio signal AND the young woman on the phone didn’t know exactly where she was. We gave information to the first ranger who came, and back at the visitor center we waited and gave statements to Search and Rescue and the Park Service to help them know where to go. It was dark. It was cold. And we knew, we just knew, that there was basically no way the young woman was alive.
Lots of questioning myself. Lots of reassuring myself.
Lessons Learned: Always take a flashlight. You might not need it but a fellow hiker may. It might put you in a better position to help someone. Always take a first aid kit and an emergency blanket (Not that we could have provided any help in this particular case, but on the trail there have been kids with ripped toenails, scrapes, etc. that I could have helped if I hadn’t left my first aid kit in the car.)
Basic Lessons Reinforced: Stay on the trail. NEVER, EVER go over the railings, walls, barricades– they are there to keep you from dying. Many people are severely injured or die trying to help someone who has gone over a barricade. Know where you are hiking. Always tell someone who you are with and where you will be.
The young woman who fell was Kaylee. She was 18 years old.
She went over a railing to get a better view, took one wrong step According to Kaylee’s best friend “…she was on the ledge, with a lower ledge below. She saw how far it was.. Kaylee was 5’11” so she was no where near short.. And figured she could make it to that ledge for whatever reason.. She dangled herself from the top ledge and before anyone could really stop her… She let go.. That’s when they hadn’t heard anything and the chaos started… It was her own mistake… But she was such an adventurous girl and you could never tell her no…”
Kaylee fell approximately 70 feet to her death. The report from the Blueridge Parkway says that she was dead when the paramedics arrived.
That mistake cost Kaylee her life. That one bad decision, that single mistake, that wrong step.
Unfortunately, this and many other tragedies could have been avoided, so I repeat the very basic lessons and I BEG you, IMPLORE you, BESEECH you to heed my advice:
- Stay on the trail.
- NEVER, EVER go over the railings, walls, barricades– they are there to keep you from dying. Many people are severely injured or die trying to help someone who has gone over a barricade.
- Know where you are hiking.
- Always tell someone who you are with and where you will be.
Almost every time I go hiking I remember an excerpt from The Last Season about a fellow ranger who didn’t get called to help with the Search and Rescue for Randy. She had put in a 12 mile day on her patrol and was feeling helpless and angry that she couldn’t assist in the search. About a mile from her post she tripped on some rocks and ripped open her knee….
If a seasoned backcountry ranger can be injured or even die due to one bad decision, one mistake, one misstep, it can happen to me– to you– to anyone.
Be careful out there.