Editor’s Note: This story contains content that is graphic in nature. It may not be suitable for sensitive viewers, reader discretion is advised.
MOAB – With the lower third of his leg snapped off at the shin, barely dangling by a few pieces of flesh, 43-year-old Ammon McNeely appeared in shock but unnaturally calm in a video he recorded on his handheld camera, right after he nearly fell to his death BASE jumping.
BASE jumping is an activity in which participants jump off tall objects, often buildings or natural structures, and use a parachute to break their fall. On Monday, McNeely’s parachute opened the wrong way.
There on a ledge where he came to rest, McNeely pointed the video camera to his stump of a leg, and amidst painful expletives said: “I think I lost my leg on that one;” then he apologized to his mom, and said “not cool.”
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The following YouTube video contains graphic images and some profanity; viewer discretion is advised.
Video by Ammon McNeely, Oct. 28, 2013
McNeely had just free fallen around 250 feet before his parachute opened the wrong way dashing him into the cliff where he “rag dolled” another 150 feet, he said in an interview with St. George News from his hospital bed yesterday.
He’s pretty sure why it happened: “I basically just stacked the odds against me.”
“My foot was flipped on its side looking very similar to a nalgene bottle with just a sliver of skin keeping it on,” McNeely wrote in a forum post on supertopo.com, a rock climbing website. Blood was squirting everywhere, he said.
He grabbed a stick and used it to twist and cinch down a piece of webbing around his leg stump until it was tight enough to stop the blood from spurting.
In BASE jumping, typically the jumper only has a few seconds to pull the parachute chord to prevent impact.
On this occasion McNeely said he used parachute settings he wasn’t used to, jumped off a landing site that was brand new to him, and went a tiny bit lower than he should have. “If you take one of those equations out of it, I would have been fine, but with all … of those it gave me a problem,” he said.
Not his first accident
McNeely has had several major accidents while both climbing and BASE jumping. One of them occurred on a big wall-climbing route in Zion National Park – one of his favorite places in the world, he said; that injury took months to recover from. He also took an 80-foot fall climbing El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He shattered his tibia last year in a BASE jumping accident; and he was injured after BASE jumping off a building in Pittsburgh.
Aware of the risks of his activities, McNeely said that the benefits greatly outweigh them. “In those moments everything in life just makes sense,” he said.
Most people on this earth are looking for those moments, McNeely said. His activities bring him serenity. They do not bring him much of an adrenaline rush, he said, as most people wrongly assume. Instead of adrenaline, he said he finds a focused meditation. “It’s something that is very very hard to explain, it’s a very personal thing, it’s hard to put into words why I do it.“
McNeely, a veteran BASE jumper and famous professional rock climber was doing what he loved, bringing up the rear of a four-man BASE jump team on Monday. After his 350 foot fall, his battered body abruptly stopped. His leg was severed and his body came to rest on an intermediate ledge, according to the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.
At this point, he was resolved to the fact that his foot was lost for good.
“My first thought was, I want to wiggle my toes,” McNeely said of those moments on the ledge, “because this is the last time I will ever feel that sensation.”
McNeely has experienced a career of long endurance rock climbs – which are known for being painful and agonizing. He has also had multiple experiences with misadventure in the wilderness. He said he’s all too aware that things don’t always go right. “All of the sudden there’s drama, there’s pain, negative stuff, but that’s not what you’re setting out to do initially.”
On Monday, McNeely was planning on just another BASE jump to add to his inventory of over 1,000 successful jumps. Unfortunately, this one landed him on a ledge with a severed leg. Even though his leg, just above the break, had a makeshift tourniquet on it, McNeely continued to lose loads of blood.
“I was absolutely prepared to wake up the next morning minus a foot,” he said.
Bleeding out was a very real possibility that he feared. His friends had just completed their jumps and were far below. McNeely yelled down to them that his leg was lost and they needed to call search and rescue. His friends quickly called in a helicopter and began a rescue mission of their own.
Within 45 minutes, McNeely’s BASE jumping crew along with Andy Lewis and a few other Moab locals set up ropes from the base of the cliff to McNeely’s ledge. They had reached him before the search and rescue team got there and this probably saved his life. Without those ropes set by his friends who were trained, veteran, outdoor adventurers, the rescue team would have had to take the time to set the ropes up themselves. That delay would most likely have caused him to lose too much blood to survive the rescue.
“I lost nearly three pints of blood and was very close to leaving this world by the time the helicopter got me to the hospital,” McNeely said.
Doctors told McNeely that he probably wouldn’t have a leg if it weren’t for his friends’ efforts and his makeshift tourniquet.
At the hospital, over a period of two days, doctors performed four reconstructive surgeries and got his leg re-attached. “The doctors said that it was a miracle that they saved the leg,” McNeely said. During one of the surgeries, one of his arteries gathered such a big blood clot in it, doctors feared he might lose too much tissue to salvage his leg. Blood thinner miraculously cleared the clot and his system barely got blood flowing through his leg before he lost it again.
Doctors will continue to leave the flesh wound open while they complete at least three more cleansing surgeries to “suck out all the swelling, fluid … and infection.” During which time, they’ll keep cutting out the dead tissue and dead muscles. Even after they sew him back up, there’s still a 30 percent chance that it could get infected, McNeely said. If that happens they’ll have to open it back up and start over.
McNeely’s expecting another two weeks in the hospital if all goes well, and then six to nine months before he can walk again. He’s hoping within a year’s time, he can get back at it, he said, although, “it’ll never be the same again.”
World renown climber, adventurer, risk taker
McNeely is extremely happy to be alive. Absolutely, he will keep BASE jumping, he said: “I’m going to keep doing what i’m doing, going out in nature and experiencing all of the amazing stuff that the world has to offer.”
Apparently 20 years of climbing, 8 years of BASE jumping and a lifetime of adventuring doesn’t die easily in his soul. A self-proclaimed roamer, he has spent the last 15 years, based in Yosemite National Park. He has also spent substantial amounts of time in Utah, Colorado, California and Nevada climbing and adventuring.
He often finds himself in Moab because of the freestanding towers. These towers, unique to Moab’s corner of Utah, allow him to combine both of his passions into onea: climbing and BASE jumping. Southern Utah allows him to do what very few people get to do, he said: climb a narrow tower and jump off.
Before the accident, McNeely made a name for himself in the adventure community. He has had positive press plus his fair share of negative press.
He is best known as a world renowned professional rock climber. He has more speed climbing world records on Yosemite’s famous big wall, El Capitan, than any other climber in the world. One of his more recent climbing accomplishments was annihilating the current world speed record for the hardest route on El Capitan. Along with professional climbers Dean Potter and Ivo Ninov, McNeely climbed this route in just under two days. The original speed record for this route was approximately 7 days.
McNeely’s negative press was mainly a result of BASE jumping off of illegal things. Some national parks and cities have strict laws against BASE jumping off of certain structures. McNeely openly talks about these run-ins with the law.
“My first time getting busted was in Yosemite,” McNeely said, ”I figured I was just unlucky and continued jumping in the park.”
After getting arrested a second time, having his gear seized and spending 38 days in prison, McNeely said he learned his lesson. “I was done jumping in national parks ,” he said, “and continued following my climbing and jumping passions elsewhere.”
Since then, he has become an even more recognized climber and BASE jumper. He’s been involved in multiple climbing documentaries including a new film called “Assault on El Cap” documenting some of the impressive climbing he’s done in Yosemite. He is also currently working on an autobiography but hasn’t released when it will be finished.
“It’s a very hard concept to explain to the general public if they’re not experiencing those types of things,” he said. “It’s not for everybody. Some people are content doing what they’re doing, but, there is such a variety of people who think differently.” Ammon said he has dedicated his life to experiencing it to the fullest, despite the risks. A question he asks at the close of his forum post following the accident sums up McNeely’s life-attitude:
“Do we hide in the shadows, being afraid of what might happen if we are so bold to follow our dreams? Or, do we stand up and take the risks and have a blast enjoying your passion?”
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