Nearly two years ago, Amber Kohnhorst fell 100 feet during a
solo hike in northern Arizona. The fall broke her nose, her pelvis,
her back. But, it turns out, not her spirit.
"I DON'T REMEMBER THE FALL"
It was abnormally windy the day Amber Kohnhorst nearly died.
It’s one of those details that sticks out to the now-26-year-old Mayo Clinic hyperbaric nurse who departed on what she thought would be an uneventful, solo sunset hike to see some petroglyphs near her Airbnb—she’d just checked in an hour or so before—in Cane Beds, Ariz., 30 miles northwest of the Grand Canyon.
At one point, late in her hike, she found herself on unmarked terrain. Darkness was approaching. This, she realized, wasn’t good.
But Amber had little food and no water left in her daypack on that windy evening of May 20, 2016. Stopping for the night, she figured, wasn’t an option.
The last thing she remembered, she was hiking down a cliff.
It was just before 8 p.m.
Not long after, she fell.
Amber Kohnhorst regained consciousness an hour later. She was in excruciating pain. She found herself in a slot canyon—a narrow, rock-walled dungeon, maybe 10 feet by 10 feet—in an area known for its vermillion cliffs and wide-open spaces. She was 100 feet from where she fell. One hundred feet straight down.
It was getting dark. She tried calling 911, but had no service. She took inventory of her backpack: two carabiners, one paracord survival bracelet, some trail mix, a whistle, a mini first-aid kit, wipes, and an empty water bottle. She cleaned off as much blood as she could, blew on the whistle, propped her head on her backpack. Put her phone on airplane mode to save the battery.
Amber relied on her nursing expertise to help assess her injuries. She had a broken nose, a torn ear, a broken pelvis, a fractured back, and, she’d later learn, a mild traumatic brain injury.
"I lost my footing, hit my head and basically fell like a wet noodle ... I didn’t even try to stop myself, which is probably why I survived the 100-foot fall. Based on my injuries, it looked like I landed on my feet and rolled from there. It was pitch dark and my face was bloody," Kohnhorst says. "I don’t remember the fall. I just don’t remember it. I checked my phone at 7:45 p.m., sometime before I fell. When I regained consciousness, I checked it again. It was 9:15 p.m."
She was miles from anywhere in an area where she knew no one.
All Amber could do was lie there in anguish. She wondered how anyone would find her.
The canyon Kohnhorst was trapped in resembled a dungeon, but it did have one positive attribute—its walls shielded her from the wind. The temps in Cane Beds dropped from 78 degrees to the low 50s within just a few hours on that Friday night. She spent the night still, hoping animals—the area is home to mountain lions and rattlesnakes, wolves and black bears—wouldn’t detect the smell of her blood and find her. She spent the long, long night awake. Alone. Scared.
She was on the northern border of Arizona, not far from Utah, and wasn’t due anywhere, really, until she was slated to volunteer the next morning at an animal sanctuary. The only people who knew where she’d gone were the hosts at her Airbnb.
Starting the next morning, once it was light, her phone—which had no service but was otherwise functioning—became her solace.
"When I was laying in that canyon thinking I was going to die, one of the ways I comforted myself was looking through pictures on my phone," she says. "I realized all the goals I’d accomplished in my life already. It really opened my eyes. Sometimes we’re so focused on the future we never look back or at the present to see what we’ve done. I’ve done a lot that I never gave myself credit for, until I had to step back and look at it all in that canyon."
That’s when Amber resolved that, if she had any hope of being spotted by other hikers, she had to move. Her only hope, she realized, was to start crawling.
So she crawled, screaming through the pain. Bit by bit, inch by inch, up a natural stone staircase, until she ascertained she might be visible to searchers or fellow hikers.
She’d made it 50 feet.
"When I started crawling, I thought I was going to crawl my way out of there," she says. "But when I got halfway and realized I was trapped, reality sunk in. Either someone would rescue me or I would die there. That’s when I got really depressed and felt defeated."
When she finally stopped, when she couldn’t crawl any farther, she wrote goodbye letters to her family on her phone. Apologies, mostly. "I’ve fallen. I’m sorry."
She was full of despair that she might never be found, and her parents and brothers would be left wondering about her fate. For three hours, she lay there, knowing this was life or death. The wind—gusts reached 35 mph that night, according to National Weather Service—hit her now and her body started going into shock.
Was she awaiting rescue or death? She wasn’t sure.
"WE COULDN'T DO ANYTHING"
Back in Amber’s hometown of Wausau, Wis., her mother Nanette had grown concerned when her oldest child didn’t check in the morning after her hike. She’d promised to text before her 8 a.m. volunteer shift at Best Friends Animal Society. Nanette was now texting or calling Amber every hour—but didn’t get a response.
All through that Saturday, Nanette wouldn’t stop checking her phone. She and husband Dennis attended a graduation party, and Nanette couldn’t stop worrying. Something wasn’t right, she thought, but the mother of three also reasoned that perhaps Amber was having too good a time to text.
At Amber’s Airbnb, meanwhile, the housekeeper had discovered Kohnhorst’s belongings on her still-made bed and alerted the hosts that she hadn’t checked out that morning as planned. The hosts consulted their neighboring son, who said he’d seen her depart but not return.
And so the search began.
A Mayo Clinic representative then phoned Nanette and Dennis. "Call this number immediately," they were told. "It’s about your daughter." Nanette called to find Cindy Wallace on the other end. Cindy, one of Amber’s Airbnb hosts, told the couple their daughter was missing in the mountains.
"She said, ‘100 people and a helicopter are looking for her,’" Nanette recalls. "I held the phone and all I did was walk. All we did was pace. We couldn’t do anything but wait for Cindy or the police to call us back."
"THAT'S WHEN I KNEW I'D BE SAVED"
By now, again, sunset was looming. Amber had spent 24 hours in the canyon, broken.
She didn’t know if she could last another night.
Then she heard something. The faint sound of voices. People yelling below her.
Kohnhorst had one lifeline in her daypack, which is what ultimately saved her life. She relentlessly blew a whistle so the people below could hear her. The helicopter pilot had to help spot her because those walking couldn’t see her on the rocks above.
"I was on my knees now, left arm to support my body, right arm in the air, phone in my hand with the light on and the whistle in my mouth because I was so desperate to get rescued,’ Amber says. "There was this moment—and I’ll never forget it—this guy in the helicopter pointed directly at me. That’s when I knew I’d be saved."
"I WAS JUST HAPPY TO BE ALIVE"
Back in Wausau, Nanette finally got the phone call she’d been hoping for. "When we finally got the call that they located her and she was alive but hurt, that’s when my heart went, thank God she is alive," she says.
"When she blew her whistle, everybody was relieved," says Cindy Wallace, Kohnhorst’s Airbnb host. "I can’t even imagine (losing a child). We were just really, really, really relieved that she blew that whistle. And we heard it, and she was alive. It is a miracle."
The search and rescue team decided to camp out that night and bring Amber to safety in the morning, but at 1 a.m. the fierce wind died down. All was still. Assessing her as a Level 2 trauma case—meaning they knew she needed comprehensive care immediately—the team decided to depart to get Kohnhorst the full-fledged medical treatment she required.
In the back of the ambulance, Amber the patient became Amber the nurse. She instructed the ambulance crew where to start her IV and got everyone in the rig laughing as they drove to a hospital.
"They said, ‘We can’t believe how happy and chatty you were. You were cracking jokes.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I was just happy to be alive and be around people again,’" Amber says.
Kohnhorst spent 10 days at the Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, and was transferred to Mayo Clinic Rochester for seven additional days. She then returned to her family’s ranch in Wausau to begin the long process of recovery and rehabilitation. It wasn’t as hard as that canyon crawl, but it wasn’t easy.
In August of 2016, Kohnhorst started physical therapy and worked hard to regain her gait. She went from lying in a bed to sitting in a wheelchair. Then from relying on a walker to walking with sticks. And then to walking independently. Amber, an animal lover, world traveler, and outdoors enthusiast, has mostly resumed regular life. Though she still fights the pain.
"Recovery has been long. But I’m pretty fortunate," she says now, sitting at Forager Brewery on a mild December day with a chai latte in her hands. "Every day is a gift. I go hiking still. I camp. I horseback ride, I swim, I work. Some people question my decision to hike, but in my mind I am going to do what makes me happy. My mistake wasn’t that I decided to hike; it was that I was unprepared and unaware of my surroundings."
Her parents say watching her recover was part horrific and part rewarding. "It was lots of tears behind closed doors," says Nanette. "I felt so terrible for her. I couldn’t stop all this pain. It was hard to see her, but every time she made an accomplishment, it was amazing."
"My take on her recovery is I am amazed but not surprised," chimes in father Dennis. "She’s always had the eye of the tiger. She sets a goal, sets a plan, and meticulously figures out how to achieve it."
In addition to resuming her regular work life at Mayo and her hobby of riding her horse, Bolt, near Whitewater State Park, Kohnhorst has also added motivational speaker to her life’s resume. She has given more than 20 speeches to students, volunteers, and health care professionals.
"After speaking, I love when people come up to share their stories with me," she says. "It reminds me that I’m not alone. We’ve all overcome a tragedy of some sort and we’re stronger together."
Like her 50-foot crawl out of that canyon, Amber says she’s still taking life step by step.
"I don’t want my accident to define me," she says. "But it was a big hurdle to get over and it is something that really shaped me into the person I am today. I can use that in two ways—I can be sad about the fact that it happened, and that I can’t run and am in pain today. That would be a terrible way to think about it.
"Or I can be grateful for the person I am today. I am strong and have a fulfilling life. You have to change your mindset. The mind is very powerful and what you tell yourself is what you’ll believe. I tell myself I am a success, and it’s true. I’ve done a lot. I think we all need to look at what we’ve done in life."
In August of 2017, Amber returned to Cane Beds, Ariz., this time for a two-week vacation. She brought her family—her mom and dad and two brothers—and reunited with her rescuers. She got the chance to thank people in person. She rented a helicopter and flew her family over the fall site.
"It was a big step in my recovery," she says. "It gave me some closure."
Then, 15 months after she’d first set out to find them, she climbed up that trail to see those petroglyphs she had missed before.