‘I went from hiking on a beautiful day… to making a goodbye video to my family’

Trapped alone in the wilderness with a shattered body, this was the moment Claire Nelson thought she was about to die. What followed was an astonishing feat of physical and emotional endurance.

Claire Nelson Joshua Tree
Claire in the Joshua Tree National Park just days before her accident

From the top of a stack of boulders, 12 feet above the southern Californian desert, the valley through Joshua Tree National Park fell away, rolling for miles. It was idyllic walking that morning. I sat in the cool shade of an overhang as the temperature hovered around 40C in the May sunshine, catching my breath. Then I began making my way across the boulders to get back down to the trail.

Often, the most dangerous moves are the ones that don’t feel like it: there are no red flags, no alarm bells. Everything during those next few seconds happened so fast, yet each movement left a clear and perceptible etch in my memory. My right foot slipping. The desperate flutter as the fingers of my left hand scrabbled for something to hold on to.

It seemed to happen so slowly, yet in real time it was no more than a few seconds. A slide and a brief scuffle of dust. With that, I slipped off the edge.

I wasn’t even meant to go to California. What I was seeking was change. Life in London had left me burned-out. I felt hollow, anxious, lost. My job as a magazine sub editor was high pressured. I had moved to London 13 years previously from New Zealand, but now the very place that had drawn me in with its alluring perpetual motion had left me running on empty.

Claire Nelson
When Claire realised she was unlikely to be rescued, she recorded this final video message for her loved ones

Initially I flew to Toronto, with a plan to travel and do some freelance writing. But two of my old friends from London – Natalie and Lou, who were now living in Joshua Tree, California – asked if I wanted to house-sit for three weeks. I didn’t hesitate to say yes and planned lots of solo hiking. Being outdoors and away from civilisation helps me metabolise my emotions. In particular, I wanted to tackle a day-long hike that led to a huge congregation of palms hidden deep in a valley.

I deliberately chose a Tuesday, when I knew the trail would be quiet, got out my calendar and wrote underneath 22 May: Lost Palms Oasis. The night before, I gathered a few bits and pieces: suncream, an oversized T-shirt, stout boots, a camera and painkillers. A bagel slathered with avocado, a hard-boiled egg and a chocolate-chip bar. Finally, water – five litres, enough to last the day. I also sent Lou a text: ‘Hey, do you have a daypack I could borrow? Gonna do Lost Palms Oasis tomorrow.’ He sent me instructions to find a small blue rucksack.

The following morning, as I began to reverse out of the driveway in Lou’s Mini Cooper, I had a sudden nagging feeling, a strange sensation I couldn’t quite place. I switched off the ignition and hurried back inside, grabbing Lou’s wooden hiking stick.

Once I reached the park, I picked up a map from the visitors’ centre and asked for directions to the start of the trail. ‘Enjoy the hike,’ the ranger called out as the door swung closed behind me. There is no way I could have known this man almost became the last person I ever spoke to.

I remember the sound my body made as it hit the ground. A sharp crack. One that cut through the thump of my weight against the desert floor. Then the white heat of pain that stabbed my body. I tried to scramble to my feet but couldn’t get up. My pelvis was broken. Every time I tried to sit up it felt like someone had replaced my hip bones with a bag of broken dinner plates. I yanked my rucksack towards me, scrabbling for my iPhone, my hands shaking as I dialled 911. Words flashed up: call failed. No. No no no.

I dialled again: call failed. I held the phone high in every direction I could. My heart banged in my chest. I was miles from a signal. Miles from the road. With each press of the button my hope melted into fear. I screamed into the sky – HELP ME! PLEASE! – but the echoes dissolved into the rocks.

All I could hope for now was that another hiker would find me. I found I could still access GPS in my phone’s maps application. There was the trail, a tiny dotted line in a vast expanse of nothing. And there was me, the little blue dot – but it wasn’t on the trail. It was somewhere below it, out by at least a mile.

The desert where Claire fell, as seen from the rescue helicopter, was vast – and a mile from the marked trail

The cold prickles of horror ran down my neck. I’d taken a wrong turn. It hit me then: no one was coming. This was how I was going to die. I screamed as loudly as I could, sending it cannoning from the centre of my gut. I did it again and again.

Then I set about pulling my scattered belongings around me, grateful for the hiking stick. Having it in my grip made me feel a little more empowered, a little bigger. Above me a hawk had begun to circle, a dark arrow hovering way up high. What if no one found me until my bones had been picked clean?

I would leave a video message, just in case. I grabbed my digital camera. ‘This the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,’ I said. ‘I’m so scared, I need to get out of here. And in case I don’t, I just want to say I love you all.’ Speaking into the camera gave me something to do, as if sharing what I was going through meant that, for one brief moment, I wasn’t alone.

The heat pressed down hard. I used the stick to apply suncream on my legs, and covered my body with my T-shirt and the paper map. The stick and a plastic bag became a makeshift sunshade, along with my hat.

I imagined coyotes picking up my scent and trotting in my direction. More than a mere boost to the morale, keeping clean suddenly seemed like self-defence. My bladder had been thrown into shock and I had experienced a few small accidents, which seemed likely to attract animals, so I began collecting my urine in an empty water bottle. It looked very dark. I hoped like hell there wasn’t any internal bleeding.

Lying there, hopeless, it was hard not to dwell on my life: what might have been and what never was. I thought about the amount of time I’d spent – wasted – flicking through the internet. Hours on social media, scrolling through Instagram. Life thrown in the bin. I did not regret the person I was, but I regretted not accepting who I was, not embracing her fully. But my greatest regret was my fear. I’d wasted all that precious time distracting myself from putting myself out there and finding my voice. But it didn’t compare to the fear I felt out here.

Claire Nelson
Claire after her rescue: she would spend 11 days in hospital and four months in a wheelchair

As the dark set in, so did the cold. Wearing only my vest and shorts, my limbs were exposed to the cool of the evening. I was facing what I knew would be the longest night of my life.

I’m not afraid of the dark, but I was terrified of what might be around me. Fear does crazy things to a person because I became convinced that I could see snakes. They were everywhere. As I squinted into the darkness, I saw one was very slowly moving across a rock. I moved my trembling hands to my phone and switched on the torch but there was nothing there. This went on for much of the night. I didn’t get much sleep.

But I must have drifted off eventually because the next morning the chattering of my teeth roused me before dawn. My phone ran out of battery, another lifeline falling by the wayside. I screamed again for help, for ten minutes at a time, until the creeping heat made my lungs hurt.

The idea that I could crawl to safety felt impossible. But I had to try. Despite using the stick for leverage, my pelvis made a crunching sound as it collapsed on itself. It was hopeless. At least I wasn’t hungry. Hunger felt like an entirely fictional concept. I hadn’t touched the lunch in my rucksack.

Water was a different matter. I took tiny sips from my dwindling supply, longing to gulp mouthfuls. As dehydration set in, my mind abused me with a vivid fantasy slideshow of refreshments. Chilled water. The crack and hiss of a Diet Coke, the bubbles fizzing against my tongue. But right there beside me was a substantial source of liquid. My bottle of urine. I remembered once reading about people who drank their own urine and it wasn’t going to be long before it was the only liquid I’d have. It wasn’t a difficult decision but it was disgusting. The vile aftertaste made be gag. But I wasn’t sick, so I knew I could physically keep it down. It gave me the tiniest sense of relief that I might be able to keep myself going a little longer. As evening crept in, the cold and lonely hours loomed large ahead, a gaping yawn of blackness. I would need to brace myself for another night.

Somehow the hours ticked by and as dawn broke the next morning my discomfort had reached a vicious peak: my kidneys groaned, my broken bones felt hot under my skin and blistering sores had formed on the backs of my heels where they continued to press against my boots.

One thread of hope I was holding on to was it was now Thursday. Nearly the weekend, when surely there would be more visitors in the park. But the heat that day was the worst it had been so far. I began to drift in and out of consciousness. I was woozy with lack of water, with the heat, with fatigue, with the constant adrenalin that surged through my bloodstream, necessary to keep the pain at a manageable level.

Dusk came and so did another night. My third. I prayed that I would sleep through most of it. Unconsciousness would shorten the time frozen by cold and fear. Dawn could never come quickly enough.

On Friday morning I woke up. Still alive. I had survived three nights in the desert. I had finally accepted that nobody was going to find me here. But then the sound came… a helicopter… and with it, a voice… they were looking for a missing hiker.

Oh my God. I screamed at the top of my lungs: I’M HERE! But they could not see or hear me. And it would fly over twice more before I would finally hear them say the words I had wanted to hear all this time – that they had seen me.

I sobbed under the weight of the relief that rained down on me, flooding me with a single realisation: I was going to live. I had known, in my heart of hearts, that the only way I was getting out of that canyon alive was if someone noticed I was incommunicado and checked in with Natalie and Lou. And in the end, that’s precisely how it happened. A few people had noticed I was silent on Instagram. A shameful marker of my existence, but Natalie couldn’t let it go. They began texting me, then sent friends to their house to check on me. There they found my calendar note – Lost Palms Oasis. Confirmation of the text I’d sent Lou. Then police found the car at the trail head. All this time, I had never really been alone.

Perhaps it was the sudden appreciation for every single tiny thing, or perhaps it was the morphine but, frankly, I had never felt better. ‘I can’t believe how good you seem,’ remarked my mother, who had tearfully flown in from New Zealand to be by my hospital bedside. Physically, though, I was a mess. I had sustained multiple traumatic fractures in my pelvis (reading my hospital report I learned the word ‘comminuted’: reduced to splinters). I’d severely sprained my left ankle, which was now a deep swirl of black and blue, and had a fracture that ran from my big toe into the centre of my foot. Blood tests confirmed inflammation in the kidneys and muscle tissue. Severe dehydration. None of this was surprising – I had felt it. I was in hospital for 11 days and in a wheelchair for four months.

As my body was being rebuilt, so was my life. It was, rather wonderfully, full of people and kindness. But I couldn’t get over how lucky I was. If I’d landed an inch or so further, I could have hit my head or spine on rock. Inches from paralysis or death.

I wish I could say I left the desert a new and improved version of myself. I’m still flawed. I still feel irritated by terribly trivial things.

But now, when I feel like I’m slipping, I have something to kick my boots against. Gratitude. A mountain of it, so large that at any moment I can stretch out a hand and touch the rock. The life we live is an unmarked trail, one of ascents and descents. Mistakes will be made. We will get lost. We will fall, and it will hurt like hell. Through falling we find out not only how strong we are, but how glorious it is to be on the trail at all.

This is an edited extract from Things I Learned From Falling by Claire Nelson, to be published on 5 March by Aster, £12.99