Doctors told Ammon McNeely that he should make a full recovery.
“It looks like I’m going to be able to keep my foot. I thought for sure they would chop it off,” he said.
The 43-year-old BASE jumper’s chute didn’t fully deploy when he jumped from a location known as the Electric Chair near the Moab Portal on Friday, Oct. 25. He hit the rock wall several times before coming to rest on a cliff ledge about 600 feet above Kane Creek Blvd. As he waited for rescuers he took a graphic video of his injured leg, complete with protruding bones.
The video has gone viral and has had more than 800,000 views since Sunday, Nov. 3.
“I’ll be able to walk on it. I’ll be able to jump again,” McNeely said.
McNeely credits his friends and the efforts of local rescuers for expediting the rescue and saving his foot.
“Maybe even my life,” he said.
McNeely was jumping with David Steiner, Hunter Shotwell and Andy Lewis.
The Electric Chair is a BASE jumping exit that was founded by Mario Richard, a professional BASE jumper who lost his life in wingsuit accident in Italy on Aug. 18. The name derives from the having to navigate the chute between two electrical lines that cross above the Colorado River.
Lewis jumped first. Steiner and Shotwell followed.
“They had perfect exits, great openings with no wind,” McNeely said.
McNeely was the last to jump and had trouble with new brakelines.
“I struck the cliff with my left foot and continued rag dolling down the cliff where I finally came to rest on a sloping ledge,” he wrote on his Facebook wall. “I knew I was banged up, but to my utter surprise my foot was flipped on its side looking very similar to a Nalgene bottle with just a sliver of skin keeping it on.”
When his companions saw that McNeely was injured, they called in friends Brent Cain, Daniel Moore and Scotty Rogers.
“Between Andy, Brent, Daniel, Scotty and Dave – I had the A-team right there,” McNeely said. “They all had good medical background and good rigging background. They were able to get to me and fix the ropes before search and rescue could get there.”
His friends were able to stabilize the injury, as well as drill a three-bolt anchor for fixed lines before Grand County Search and Rescue arrived with a litter.
“Access was difficult,” said Grand County Search and Rescue commander Jim Webster. “We had to find a route to get to that level. One of our guys did a free climb with a trailing rope, then set up a hand line to allow others to get up to the cliff band.”
Together they were able to lower McNeely approximately 300 feet from the cliff ledge to a support team below.
Webster was with the support team that met McNeely.
“He was very vocal and feeling the pain. That was good,” he said. “He was engaged in life.”
Anchors were set on large rocks at this point to create a second lowering station. McNeely was then lowered an additional 300 feet down a scree slope to a Grand County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) ambulance. Due to the extent of the injury, the ambulance transported him to where a medical helicopter could land. He was picked up by Classic Lifeguard and flown to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction.
Webster said McNeely’s friends took actions that enhanced the ability, efficiency and safety of the rescue.
“From the time we first got there until he was on the road was three hours,” Webster said. “I was impressed that it was that quick.”
Webster said it was a complex rescue that involved several people and agencies.
“We had at least 30 people working on the operation all together,” he said.
Sixteen search and rescue staff members were on site, as were several EMS staff members. Utah Highway Patrol and Moab City Police managed traffic on Kane Creek Blvd. during the rescue.
Webster recognized search and rescue staff members Bego Gerhart and Frank Mendoca.
“Bego was a key player on it. He knows his stuff. He’s a good leader when it comes to put together a technical rescue,” Webster said.
Mendoca was the officer in charge of the rescue.
“He put together the whole rescue operation along with the deputy,” Webster said. “Both those guys did a great job. Everybody did a great job.”
McNeely said “everything ran like a machine.”
“The combination between the guys I was jumping with and the guys who first arrived on the scene and with the local search and rescue – I was pretty impressed,” he said. “I might have been an amputee if everything didn’t go the way it did that night.”
The second thing that may have saved McNeely’s foot — and life — was McNeely’s composure.
“I knew that if I freaked out my heart rate would go faster and pump more blood. The more excited and freaked out and got excited the more blood I would lose,” McNeely said.
McNeely said that his rock climbing experience helped him remain calm.
“I do a lot of super scary climbing pitches over big walls,” he said.
McNeely is a professional climber and is known by the nickname “El Cap Pirate.”
“When I first started climbing I didn’t have a whole lot of gear. If someone left gear, I would go booty the gear,” he said. As he was contemplating losing his foot, he thought how he’d have a peg leg, much like a pirate. “My alter ego was manifesting itself.”
McNeely holds the most speed climbing world records on El Capitan in Yosemite National Park. He also is recognized for having climbed El Capitan by the most number of routes – 75 times via 61 routes.
“As you’re climbing, you’re terrified the entire time for hours and hours at a time,” McNeely said. “I’ve become one of the masters of figuring out how to suppress that fear and focus. You almost get in a meditative type of trance. I’ve been doing that for years and years. That had a lot to contribute to how calm I remained.”
He said he just did what he needed to do to save his life.
“I thought for sure I would lose my foot,” he said. “I put a tourniquet on my leg and elevated it above my heart.”
McNeely is still at St. Mary’s Hospital.
When he arrived they plated and screwed his fibula, then repaired the arteries.
“The vascular surgeon came in and made sure I was getting proper blood to my foot,” he said. “That’s when they realized they could save it.”
He had a “big surgery” Monday where surgeons repaired the fibula, as well as patched “where my tibia came roaring out of my body.”
McNeely said that there will be metal in the ankle, “which will match the other leg.”
McNeely injured his tibia while BASE jumping at the Perrine Bridge outside Twin Falls, Idaho fifteen months ago.
“It was a freak accident. I landed in some trees,” he said. His legs separated and he landed funny. “My fibula slammed into the tibia and the tibia lost.”
After the last accident, doctors gave him nine months before he’d fully recover. He was jumping within three months.
McNeely’s rescue was No. 83 for Grand County Search and Rescue for the year.
In 2012, search and rescue responded to six BASE jumping accidents. This year, including McNeely’s, there have only been two. None were fatal.
McNeely plans to play the guitar, paint with watercolors and write while he recovers.
He said that professional adventure athletes are not “adrenaline junkies” as often portrayed.
“I love the unknown. When you do it, you learn something about yourself and your character and who you are,” he said. “You can apply it to everyday life. It makes a stronger person and a more spiritual person.”