Climber Recovers from Extreme 150-foot Fall

Benjamin Schulman sitting in an armchair. Photo by Sherlock Ortiz.

On Aug. 26 2018, I fell 150 feet off of a cliff when a ledge I was standing on at Smith Rock State Park collapsed. I broke both my arms and both my legs and very nearly amputated my left hand. I am extremely lucky to not have suffered any internal organ damage nor any neurological damage;  not even a concussion.

I was flown in a helicopter to St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, Oregon and then flown to Portland International Airport (PDX). I was then transported by ambulance to the Oregon Health & Science University emergency room where I was subsequently admitted to the trauma critical care unit.

Contrary to Oregon Live’s report, I was not free-solo rock climbing (not using a rope, harness and helmet) but rather engaging in an activity known as “scrambling.” Scrambling is the term used to describe the type of climbing that is not quite rock climbing but also not quite hiking. It carries more risk than hiking but less risk than climbing.

The month leading up to my fall I had been on a climbing-centered road trip across the country. I had driven with a couple friends from Virginia all the way to Portland, climbing at a different place each day.

This brush with death was especially jarring for me considering I had been responsibly engaging in such a high-risk behavior for weeks leading up to that point. Weeks of building strength, skill and intuition on the wall led me to feel complacent in my risk-taking and overconfident in my abilities to assess risk.

I was withdrawn from classes and facing a seemingly indefinite stay in the hospital. But, surrounded by family, friends and kind strangers, I never gave up hope and never stopped fighting to recover. Within a week, I was up and walking again. Within a month, I was back on campus. After returning, I spent much of my time doing a collaborative research project in math with Statistics Professor and Department Chair Yung-Pin Chen. This kept my mind sharp and my attention focused on the pursuit of knowledge.

I am often asked if there are any big life lessons or realizations to be had from this experience. My answer is a resounding yes. The biggest one is take nothing for granted, not even the ground you are standing on. Another is to never give up; it would have been exceedingly easy to fly back east and lie in bed for months waiting for my bones to heal and the next semester to start, but that would have let multiple months in the prime of my life go to waste.  

However, it often feels like most, if not all, of these lessons should not have cost a 150-foot fall and a three-week hospital stay stay were too much to pay for these lessons.

I encourage anyone who wants to hear more of my story to reach out to me.

Written by Austin Schmidberger.

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