One year after the fall

Brian Bleakney of Nanaimo shares the story of his 100-foot fall at Christie Falls and his Ladysmith Search and Rescue heroes.

Ladysmith Search and Rescue volunteers strap Brian Bleakney to their ATV after he fell 100 feet down Christie Falls.

Ladysmith Search and Rescue volunteers strap Brian Bleakney to their ATV after he fell 100 feet down Christie Falls.

On April 9, 2011, I found out the hard way why Christie Falls is called a waterfall.

Of the 130 feet of cliff face where the water from Bush Creek tumbles down in a torrent to the stream and fish hatchery below, I fell 100 feet, leaving a mere 30 feet before I hit the bottom.

I was on a motorcycle ride with my buddy Lance. We spotted the falls through a game trail and decided to get a closer look.  While Lance turned upstream to take pictures, I decided to turn downstream to investigate the rocks along the edge of this cliff.

I spotted a large rock with a shallow depression — a perfect place to put my right foot upon stepping down.

I still don’t know quite how, but I mis-stepped, stumbled or merely tripped. In any case, the result was the same. I overbalanced, and, as I fell forward, I reached out to try catching my fingers in some of the large horizontal cracks. I failed to get a handhold and had an immediate grasp of the gravity of my situation.

I knew without doubt I was falling down the cliff!

I don’t recall much, or anything, really, of the next 100 feet of my journey downward.

My buddy helped me with his version of the 20 or 30 minutes missing from my memory.

He says he was looking all over for me. One moment I was downstream from him and the next, I had disappeared! He was frustrated and a bit angry to think I’d returned to the motorcycles without him, but he discovered I was not there, nor any place he could see from the trail.

He says he heard my very loud whistle. Lance looked down a rocky jumble and saw me, apparently having a casual rest below him. He says we talked (or yelled) to each other for about 10 minutes, but he wasn’t able to come down the rock fall, as the motorcycle boots I’d lent him were made for bikes, not rock climbing.

I suppose I blacked out again after I talked to Lance. When I came to, I looked for a way off the ledge where I had stopped falling.

I couldn’t see well, as my prescription glasses had flown off sometime as I fell. But I could see my left knee fairly clearly. I wasn’t sure, but I knew I’d shattered the kneecap and probably the smaller fibula bone that supports and allows the lower leg to twist at the knee and ankle.

My right shin hurt like the dickens, but I’d felt that before, like someone kicked me hard in rugby. I didn’t know I had shattered the tibia shelf that supports the knee and big thigh bone (known as the femur).

I also didn’t know I had broken and cracked ribs, cracks and bone fragments in my left shoulder, a head injury and huge abrasions up my left thigh and shoulder blade.

Much later, my doctor told me I had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Other than that, though, I felt fine! Really!

I wondered how “shocky” I was, because I felt clear-headed and aware that I had to protect and evaluate myself for shock. I zipped up my jacket and looked for a way off the rock shelf where I’d landed. I “scrunched” along on my butt and used my shattered right leg to pull myself about 15 feet toward a large, peeled fir log that had fallen from the ledge to the bottom of the waterfall. It seemed like a natural slide for me to make a scary but reasonably safe descent.

The rescue

I worried about going too fast or sliding off into the shallow pool at the bottom of the cliff.

Lance had called 9-1-1 and given them GPS co-ordinates, but he had to ride back down the mountain to guide Search and Rescue volunteer personnel to my location.

I think I passed out again for a bit, but within 30 minutes of Lance’s 9-1-1 call, my rescuers were starting to arrive on the scene.

Most of them came the hard way — slogging up the mountain from below the falls. More arrived from the top end where Lance and I had parked our motorcycles. I recall one rescuer’s name was Bruce, and he stayed with me all the way, stabilizing my legs and ensuring we wouldn’t slide over the ledge.

The rescue team worked quickly and efficiently with a confidence that buoyed my spirits, co-operating in soft but firm voices as they weighed the options for extracting me.

They stabilized my neck first, sliding a spine board under me. Then, they got a stretcher basket under the spine board and quickly but gently strapped me in. It wasn’t a painless experience, but I really had to hand it to the team — they were as gentle as possible, especially considering the narrow shelf they were working on.

Safety ropes were all about so the rescuers wouldn’t tumble down the remaining 30 feet of cliff. At least one line was used to pull me up the rock fall that Lance had been unable to use earlier.

Even from my laying position in the basket, I could see how these brave souls strained to lift and carry me over spots where the basket couldn’t slide.

They were ‘professional heroes’

I went back to the site in the last year to try and understand how the fall could have happened, and I saw the slippery moss and unstable footing might have hampered less experienced people, but the rescuers there were professional heroes in my opinion.

At the time, even the last bit of carrying through deadfall logs, stumps and brush seemed as daunting as the cliffside, and even the fittest rescuers handling the basket were huffing and puffing with the exertion of carrying me as gently as possible.

Having conquered the last, brutally rough 50 metres, they strapped the basket to a Grizzly ATV and ever so slowly drove down the boulder-strewn logging road, across the new bridge by the fish hatchery and into a waiting ambulance.

It has been a year since that fall and subsequent heroic rescue.

I’m fortunate to be alive and walking, and this story is my thanks to the courageous, able volunteers of Ladysmith Search and Rescue.

I don’t know their names and couldn’t recognize any one of them on the street (maybe because of the knock on the head) but I know Lance and those rescuers saved my legs and quite possibly my life, and I will be forever grateful.

Thanks to all of you who risk life and limb in all sorts of weather, on land and at sea, for your selfless sacrifice, your time and dedication. I’m indebted to you. I pray for all of you and your families, for your safety and long lives.