Moab BASE jump disaster nearly costs pro-climber life, limb; full hospital interview

On a ledge after falling from a BASE jumping parachute mishap, Ammon McNeely. Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo by and courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

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.”

(report continues below)

The following YouTube video contains graphic images and some profanity; viewer discretion is advised.

Video by Ammon McNeely, Oct. 28, 2013 

What happened

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.”

On a ledge after falling from a BASE jumping parachute mishap, Ammon McNeely photographs his leg, broken below the shin. Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo by and courtesy of Ammon McNeely, blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers
On a ledge after falling from a BASE jumping parachute mishap, Ammon McNeely photographs his leg, broken below the shin. Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo by and courtesy of Ammon McNeely, blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers | Click to enlarge

“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.

Saving McNeely

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.

Ammon McNeely's leg after surgeries to save reattach it, after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at  Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News
Ammon McNeely’s leg after surgeries to save reattach it, after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News | Click to enlarge

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.

Doctors work to save Ammon McNeely's leg after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at  Moab, Utah on Oct. 28. Photo Oct. 30, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers
Doctors work to save Ammon McNeely’s leg after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at Moab, Utah on Oct. 28. Photo Oct. 30, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers | Click to enlarge

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.”

Doctors work to save Ammon McNeely's leg after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at  Moab, Utah on Oct. 28. Photo Oct. 30, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers
Doctors work to save Ammon McNeely’s leg after it was nearly severed in a BASE jumping accident at Moab, Utah on Oct. 28. Photo Oct. 30, 2013 | Photo courtesy of Ammon McNeely, exposed wound blurred by St. George News out of deference to sensitive viewers | Click to enlarge

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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On a ledge after falling from a BASE jumping parachute mishap, Ammon McNeely. Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo by and courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News
On a ledge after falling from a BASE jumping parachute mishap, Ammon McNeely. Moab, Utah, Oct. 28, 2013 | Photo by and courtesy of Ammon McNeely, St. George News

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29 Comments

  • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 10:10 am

    HEY IDIOT! I have no problem with you going out there and risking life and limb. I’m a firm believer in Darwin! But I sure do have a problem with my tax dollars going to rescue your stupid butt when you screw up. How many SAR people have risked their lives to save your worthless one? I hope you are really really proud of yourself.

    • rich October 31, 2013 at 1:06 pm

      Evil Twin, though I do not base jump, you are WAY out of line. Anyone who doesn’t drive a car, own a house, go hiking, travel by air, go boating, pretty much anything in life could say that if you find yourself in a bad way and need assistance, “my tax dollars” shouldn’t have to pay for it. If this had been a mountain biking accident in Moab, would you be making the same claims? I think not. Just because you can not wrap your mind around the concept of extreme sports does not mean he should be chastised. Do you feel the same way about people who choose to live in a mountain community and need assistance from a wild fire? What is justifiable to you? I do hope I have the opportunity to save you sorry butt some day, because I will, the only difference is I bet you are screaming your head off and I will find some sadistic pleasure in your suffering.

      • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm

        I won’t dispute that you think I’m way out of line. I’ve been told that man times, but it doesn’t change the truth. What I do dispute, is that idiots deliberately go out and put themselves at totally unnecessary risk, in remote locations. Then when they have the very foreseeable problems, expect somebody to come along and rescue them.
        And if they do this stuff, (and yes, that DOES include “mountain biking in Moab,” and need to be rescued, then let them pay for it, rather than tax dollars. When people lead such dull, boring lives, that they have to resort to “extreme sports,” (which is actually an euphemism for EXTREME STUPIDITY,) to feel like they are alive, then they have a major mental problem.

        • DoubleTap October 31, 2013 at 5:39 pm

          I’m with My Evil Twin on this one.

          You can’t fix stupid….but it can kill itself.

    • Beck October 31, 2013 at 4:18 pm

      It is arrogant of you to think you are the only tax payer!! He too is a tax payer, as is his mother, brothers, sisters and child! I my self am a tax payer and with my taxes I would rather save a his life in America than kill an evil dictator in a foreign country!!

    • vaughn November 1, 2013 at 7:38 am

      evil twin, the amount of your “tax dollars” that actually went this rescue was probably so small it might have cost you pennys. If you would have read the article. They say that ammons friends had all ready gotten down to him, set up all the ropes, and had a non SAR helicopter coming… no need for your “tax pennys” here.

      • smith November 1, 2013 at 8:04 pm

        Actually all of you are wrong, Grand County does charge for SAR so he will have a bill waiting when he gets home, and his friends did not rescue him, it was a 6 hour full high angle lower. He was fairly medicated throughout the whole incident so he does not remember what happened.

        • DP January 16, 2014 at 10:20 am

          Good chance he had helicopter rescue insurance though! …yeah that actually exists! Evil Twin, you can’t fix ignorant either.

  • Bree October 31, 2013 at 10:11 am

    Great story! The writing is excellent and the photos are grueling. Was this planned for Halloween?

  • Craig October 31, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    That top photo is unflattering. Was that especially for Halloween?

  • Obese October 31, 2013 at 12:48 pm

    Hey Evil Twin —

    I would much rather have tax money spent rescuing people living their life and pushing the boundaries. He had the right equipment and made a mistake, far better than the idiots that venture out without the right knowledge or equipment. We could all spend taxes on allowing people to get fatter and fatter and lazier and lazier. Off to go gulp some soda and chips. …burp!

    That is one dude that lives by the say yes more motto.

    PS – Adventure is out there, go live it.

    • My Evil Twin October 31, 2013 at 2:32 pm

      Perhaps you need to eat a few less Big Macs every week. You might lose some of your obesity.

  • DB October 31, 2013 at 3:17 pm

    Ammon’s a great candidate for Obamacare 🙂

    • DoubleTap October 31, 2013 at 5:35 pm

      Wonder if ObamaCare covers dental?

  • Mike October 31, 2013 at 3:45 pm

    rich and Obese,

    I couldn’t have said it better. Thank you.

    Ammon has inspired many, many people to do something extraordinary for themselves. A sight more than MET has done, I would wager.

    • My Evil Twin November 1, 2013 at 11:16 am

      Well, I certainly hope I have never inspired anyone to do such stupid things. And yeah, he sure did do something extraordinary, and I’m sure he will be hurting for a long time because of it.

  • Brian October 31, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    He better have health insurance

  • DoubleTap October 31, 2013 at 5:33 pm

    “Old enough to know better….and still too old (or to stupid) to care….”

  • Dan Lester October 31, 2013 at 10:07 pm

    Well, if he wants more fame, he’s getting it. It has been reported in London and Melbourne and other places around the world. Imagine it’ll be on the morning news shows tomorrow.

  • Bryan Bird November 1, 2013 at 12:59 am

    MY EVIL TWIN- Why so high and mighty? Define Stupid. Define worthless. What do you do for fun? Is it safe? Is it free from risk. What is your diet like? Have you ever sent a text while driving? Have you ever spilled your diet coke on your lap while driving and served your vehicle into another lane? Are you worth “more”? Do you post rants about fat people and ice cream on medical articles claiming that your tax dollars are poorly managed paying for their health care? EVERYONE takes, what could be argued as, unnecessary risk. Whether it’s with recreation, diet, lifestyle, habits, etc. You are no exception. Your tax dollars are irrelevant here. Don’t be so judgmental. You may be saved by my tax dollars tomorrow.

    • My Evil Twin November 1, 2013 at 11:13 am

      Not high and mighty, just fed up with the stupidity of people who deliberately put themselves into situations where someone else has to risk their life to save them. And if you don’t understand it, it doesn’t matter how I explain it, you would still be too stupid to understand it.
      Oh one more thing, no, I have never sent a text or received one while driving. Obviously however, you are one of the stupid ones who do this. And then you will cry and whine and snivel when you either get a ticket for it, or crash because of it.

  • Robert November 1, 2013 at 12:47 pm

    Glad to hear you are doing well. We’re praying for ya! Can’t wait to see you jumping again.

  • Tom November 1, 2013 at 12:56 pm

    One of my favourite extract from My Evil Twin’s absolute bollocks…

    “When people lead such dull, boring lives, that they have to resort to “extreme sports,” (which is actually an euphemism for EXTREME STUPIDITY,) to feel like they are alive, then they have a major mental problem.”

    Well, sounds to me like your the one with the mental problem and a boring life.. Go hate the world somewhere else… possibly Moab? You could stand there on mountain bike trails and base jumping exit points with a big banner protesting about how one day they might need an airlift and how you might have to put a few penny’s towards it. Might make you feel better… Nutter!

  • Gene November 2, 2013 at 2:20 am

    I’m not going to bother feeding the troll much, as I’m sure he already eats too much to walk comfortably let alone be in the wilderness.

    As a friend of Ammon’s, I’d like to extend my sincere thanks to the SAR team and the people that helped save his life. As many hundreds of people that know him can attest, Ammon is an inspiration and a great friend. He’s done a lot of good for a lot of people, and you’re ranting about someone and something you know nothing about.

    As a SAR team member, I will say to take your complaining about your tax dollars and stuff it. Our team is 100% non profit, we charge no one, and we pay for everything out of our own pockets. We do this job because we want to, without judgement and with a full understanding of the risks that the job entails. Our reward is the satisfaction that others may live and that families have closure.

    I hope that for your sake that someday you can see the benefit of a life full of adventure. I wouldn’t have it any other way, myself.

    • smith November 2, 2013 at 9:22 am

      Gene you must not work in the area where he was rescued, their SAR team in paid and they do charge for their services as well as use tax payer dollars. Infact every SAR team in utah uses tax dollars, most are volunteer but the equipment, vehicles, radios, ect… are all tax dollars. I’m ok with that, I would much rather see my tax dollars going to a cause like SAR then to any politicians wallet. Just wanted to set the record straight.

      • Joyce Kuzmanic Joyce Kuzmanic November 2, 2013 at 10:36 am

        If I may, allowing that funding and expenses vary from region to region, the following report St. George News published in January offers some illumination on the questions raised concerning the economics of Search and Rescue – albeit ours pertains to Washington County, Utah. Entitled: Washington County Search and Rescue: Who are they? Who pays? Here is the link: http://www.stgeorgeutah.com/news/archive/2013/01/15/morgan-county-search-and-rescue-who-pays-for-that-who-are-they/
        ST. GEORGE NEWS | STGnews.com
        Joyce Kuzmanic
        Editor in Chief

        • smith November 2, 2013 at 11:34 am

          Joyce very good article, the 20,000 dollars talked about in the article funded from the sheriffs office budget is tax payer dollars. So although I get the volunteer aspect of it (I’ve been a SAR volunteer for a long time) tax payers are still paying for SAR operations, once again I’m ok with that I think its a necessary service. In Grand County (Moab) their SAR members are part time employees who are paid for the time they put in. So it is different from Washington county. They also bill for service where as Washington county does not. So Ammon will get a bill for the operations, it will be somewhere in the 2,000 dollar range. He will also receive a bill for the ambulance service, and the helicopter that flew him over. I’m sure just his rescue bills will total 20 grand or more, then all the medical bills from the hospital.

  • Gene November 2, 2013 at 10:36 pm

    Hey Smith, sorry I didn’t clarify that. I know the SAR team here is paid (I’m in visiting Ammon at the moment.)
    It was more a response to the idea of “putting rescuers at risk” – yes, any rescue has the potential to put a rescuer in harms way – Vegas recently lost an amazing SAR tech and man on a rescue. But I think that many people don’t or won’t realize that we are well aware of the risks and CHOOSE to do it, be it for a BASE jumper or someone who goes for a walk and gets lost.
    I’ve never had a problem with paying taxes for emergency services – I’ve been on the receiving side of SAR once myself. And I don’t discriminate against a reason that a person needs rescued, especially in a case where the person doing the attacking knows nothing about the person or the situation.

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