Claire Nelson has fallen off a cliff. With a broken pelvis, she’s unable to move, all alone, and far from help.
Claire is filming what she’s going through on her camera. “I might die here and I’m really scared,” she records. “I don’t know what to do, I can’t get a signal out here, can’t call for help, and no one’s out here. This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.”
Bit by bit, day by day, as Claire’s condition deteriorates, her recordings are an incredible insight into how, when faced with the worst, she finds the strength to survive.
What brought Claire out here was her drive to have an adventurous life. To pay for her travels around the world, she’s building a career as a freelance travel writer.
On her trip to the famous Joshua Tree National Park, it’s the start of the northern hemisphere summer, and daytime temperatures in the desert park regularly hit 40 degrees.
There were other dangers too. “I was very aware of snakes,” Claire recalls. “This was something I was particularly preoccupied with, the idea of snakes. I knew it was rattle snake season. And of course there’s the heat as well. So I knew that the desert is a fairly hostile environment, and you have to be sensible.”
So on May 22 when Claire sets off on a half-day, ten-kilometre hike, she feels well prepared. “I was carrying a day pack with three litres of water,” says Claire. “I had a two litre camelback and a one litre bottle that I was holding, and I took a
first aid kit, [and] two tubes of sunscreen. It was a perfect day. It was very, very hot of course, and I then found it was a little bit more effort involved than I had expected.”
A few hours into the hike, Claire realises she is no longer on the trail but has mistakenly wandered along a dry riverbed.
“My foot immediately started to slip,” she remembers. “I had no idea how far down I was going to fall, I just knew something was about to be really bad.”
Claire plunges six metres, landing on her back, shattering her pelvis.
“I started making the videos as soon as I fell,” Claire explains. “I wanted to record a message to my family so that if they ever did find me dead, that they would know what’d happened.”
“It was pretty scary. I knew that I could die there, I knew that pretty quickly. It was something that, once I had accepted that, I then tried to put it out of my head. But I knew it was dire.”
Claire uses her hiking stick to apply sunscreen to her legs. To dull the pain, she takes headache tablets and washes them down with some of her precious water.
While the heat of the day is draining, Claire’s first night alone is terrifying. She begins to think she might not be alone, as she hears bats and, more worryingly, coyotes in the distance.
“If they realise that I’m easy prey, I can’t get away from them. And certainly if more than one shows up, then that would be a pretty grisly death.”
Claire eats her remaining food – a boiled egg. She has a few mouthfuls of water left, and knows it won’t last.
“That’s when I made a conscious decision that I’m going to have to start drinking urine,” Claire reveals. “It wasn’t even something I hesitated at, but I did think, ‘I don’t know if I can stomach it.’”
But another night and day would pass before anyone would even notice Claire is even missing.
Her friends, Natalie Saunders and Lou Lirenta, are on holiday in Scotland and start to wonder why Claire has hasn’t been posting anything on social media. They call Joshua Tree National Park to report Claire as a possible missing hiker. On the morning of the fourth day, Park Rangers find her car abandoned in a parking lot.
Manny Romero has the unenviable task of trying to find spot Claire from the search and rescue chopper. “We started where her vehicle was and worked outwards as we searched for her,” he explains.
Unaware of the search, Claire is at her absolute lowest, and she records a final message for her family, before her camera battery finally runs out.
“But then I hear these words, just come out of nowhere, really loud and
very clear,” Claire remembers. “’We’re looking for a missing hiker.’ This voice. And I realise it was a helicopter. But then I remember thinking, ‘They’re looking for a
missing hiker. Is it me? Could it be me?’”
“I hear them say, ‘We see you, we’re going to come and get you.’ I just covered my face and I was too dehydrated to cry, but I sobbed, like dry sobbing, and it was just the relief, was just incredible.”
The rescue chopper lands nearby and Claire is carried to safety on a stretcher. She’s flown to hospital and undergoes emergency surgery.
“I wasn’t ready to die,” Claire says. “There’s something to be said about a will to live. It’s a really strong motivator, it’s a very powerful force, and I underestimated that until that was all I had. I didn’t want that to be where my story ended. And that’s I think what got me out of there.”