Amber Kohnhorst has been trapped overnight on a remote cliff face in Arizona, and her situation is extremely grave. The 25-year-old hiker has suffered a serious fall more than a thousand miles from everything and everyone she knows. Finally, at least, rescuers are beginning to close in – but what they find on her cellphone reveals a heartbreaking reality.
The previous day, May 20, 2016, Kohnhorst had arrived in Cane Beds, a small settlement in Mohave County, AZ, having traveled some 1,500 miles to reach the picturesque desert terrain. Her reason for being there? She was on a week-long break from her job as an intensive care nurse in the cardiovascular surgical unit at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.
A lifelong lover of animals and the great outdoors, Kohnhorst had planned to spend a week staying at an Airbnb rental in Cane Beds. From there, the plan went, she would travel to volunteer at the Best Friends Animal Society, a sanctuary just across the border in Utah. In her spare time, meanwhile, the young nurse hoped to explore the beautiful Arizona wilderness.
Kohnhorst is a Minnesotan used to northern climes and had never experienced a dramatic landscape of cliffs and canyons like the one she found in Arizona. So, as soon as she arrived in Cane Beds, the excited traveler was keen to get out into the desert proper. Merely an hour after rolling into town, then, she found herself heading out on a hike.
An experienced hiker, Kohnhorst knew that it wasn’t sensible to set off alone in an unfamiliar environment – and her mother always told her never to hike alone. That said, she simply could not resist the pull of nature and the chance to explore her new surroundings. Acting on a recommendation, the young nurse therefore set off on what she was told would be an easy introductory hike on the Rose Cliffs trail.
At first, all went well. After walking for about a mile, Kohnhorst had already ascended some 600 feet. Then, stopping to take a few photographs of the amazing scenery, she decided that she was satisfied with her adventure and turned around for home and an early night.
However, on her way back down, Kohnhorst came across an alluring sight that she found too tempting to resist. A dramatic escarpment of sandstone jutting up into the sky promised an even better view of the surrounding area. So, caught up in a new wave of enthusiasm, Kohnhorst began to climb.
Almost 800 feet later, the hiker reached the top. And, greeted by a sweeping vista which took in the Zion National Park nature preserve, Kohnhorst felt elated at first. That said, the joy soon turned to a rising sense of disquiet when she realized that she was now at the summit of a towering cliff – with absolutely no idea how she would get down.
“I could spot my end destination,” Kohnhorst told a journalist from Backpacker Magazine in February 2017. “A tree at the bottom of the 800-foot cliff – but the way was invisible from my perspective.” So, trying to reassure herself that she would find a way to get off the summit, and resisting the urge to panic, Kohnhorst began searching for an alternative route.
However, each route Kohnhorst tried ended in the same frustrating result: a dead end with a sheer drop beneath it. Aware that she was thoroughly stuck, then, she attempted to dial 911. The young woman found that there was no service for her cellphone at that altitude, though, and so realized that she was totally stranded.
Having run out of options, therefore, Kohnhorst began to tackle the dangerous descent, part-jumping and part-climbing down to get to a point where her cellphone would pick up a signal. Then, just as sunset approached at about 8:00 p.m., she slipped and fell. The next thing, she came to about an hour later in darkness, with her head lying in a pool of blood. She then saw that she was trapped in a pit on the side of the cliff face and soon realized that she had blacked out after falling a long way.
With excruciating pain in her head, face and back, Kohnhorst also recognized that she was badly injured. But she still had no signal on her cellphone and no way of getting help. In fact, her Airbnb hosts were the only people who knew that she had even gone for a hike.
With only meager supplies, the concussed Kohnhorst desperately blew on a whistle for help – even though she knew that the chances of anyone being close enough to hear were remote. Then, unable to sleep, the injured woman spent the freezing cold desert night hallucinating in the pit before morning finally dawned. Unfortunately, the light brought little relief.
With sunrise, Kohnhorst decided to get going again when a narrow opening was illuminated. The gap came out on a ledge which was hanging over a 30-foot drop, making a downward escape impossible. Totally trapped, then, the wounded and dispirited Kohnhorst was now in deep despair. Indeed, she began to consider the possibility that this was the end. It was at this point that, exhausted, she took a selfie of her damaged face and started tapping out a final text message on her phone to loved ones.
By this time, Kohnhorst had finished the little water she had with her and was facing the prospect of a day in the searing heat of the desert. Still, she made one last, desperate bid for survival, and pulling her broken body upwards, she managed to climb 50 feet. The relative safety of the summit still eluded her, however. So, feeling defeated, she rested on a two-foot-wide ledge and began to pray.
Meanwhile, back in Cane Beds, Kohnhorst’s Airbnb hosts had realized that her bed had not been slept in and that her hire car was still parked up outside. Concerned, they therefore alerted the local sheriff, and the community mobilized in an attempt to locate the missing hiker. For nine and a half hours, in fact, they combed the area around the Arizona town.
Finally, some 28 hours after she had first set out, Kohnhorst heard the buzzing of a helicopter in the distance. But while she returned to her whistle once more, she was now blowing much more weakly, and it would take several passes from the chopper before she was spotted. Then rescuers began the difficult task of reaching the hiker in her precarious and hard-to-reach position as darkness descended once more.
Eventually, though, a rescuer was able to rappel down a rope to the ledge. The search-and-rescue helicopter was then able to hoist Kohnhorst up and away from the sheer cliff face. Yet although the rescue team were relieved to have found the missing hiker in time, they were also shocked when they found what she had believed would be her last message.
On her cellphone, which she had set to airplane mode to conserve battery power, Kohnhorst had written a heartbreaking message to her mom and dad. “I’m sorry,” it read. “I’m trying to blow my whistle. I’ve fallen.” Accompanying the note was the selfie of her bruised face staring defeatedly into the camera lens.
After her rescue, Kohnhorst was airlifted to Dixie Regional Medical Center in St. George, Utah, where medical professionals found that she had cracked her back in several locations, busted her nose and suffered a smashed-in pelvis. She had also partially torn off her ear. Today, at least, following much surgery, things are almost back to normal, and Kohnhorst hopes one day to revisit the site of her accident. “I’ll return next year to explore the places I didn’t get to see,” she told Backpacker Magazine. “But I’ll make sure I know where I’m going.”