Local woman makes incredible recovery after fall in Death Canyon
Death came looking for Lauren McLean. She told it to take a hike.
The 26-year-old West Linn High School graduate is a walking miracle after literally falling while mountain climbing from the top of a steep cliff in Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming last August. In a place called Death Canyon, no less.
McLean plummeted 25 to 30 feet until she landed on a small ledge. She broke both of her legs, her pelvis and three places in her lower back. She lay on the ledge for four hours before a helicopter arrived to rescue her.
This causes a difficult question to be asked: Did you think you were going to die?
"No," McLean said. "My personality does not work that way. I meditated up there, I didn't cry. I focused on my breathing. I went to another spot. The pain wasn't that bad. I don't know if I'm really tough or what."
It appears that the same spirit that has propelled McLean through a life of adventure and discovery as a real wilderness woman was sufficient to help her survive a near-fatal ordeal.
McLean does have 10 screws holding her left ankle together, but she looks just great.
McLean sailed through her lively life in her West Linn days. She was a fun-loving kid, and her biggest joy was the outdoor life, the call of the wild. She really hit her stride as an outdoors woman when she attended the University of Montana, and she went on to a career as a wilderness guide, mainly for expeditions for children. She can lead them on adventure trips that last up to a month. It was people like McLean who settled the Old West.
She was not anticipating any trouble prior to her trip to Death Canyon. She had lots of mountain climbing experience on her resume, and she was using the adventure as sort of a tune-up for her planned service in the Peace Corps. McLean had never suffered an injury in all her years of hard hiking and climbing.
That changed on Aug. 11, 2011. McLean fell when her climbing partner lost control of their rope. In an instant, her broken body was lying on the ledge and her friend was rappelling down the side of the cliff to help her. McLean's one piece of luck was that her friend was carrying a cellphone to call for assistance. But it would take a long, long time for help to arrive, and, in the meantime, McLean had to focus on staying alive.
"I've had a lot of medical training because I work with kids, and that helped my mindset," McLean said.
She put in a few gallant hours before the helicopter arrived and took her to a hospital in Jackson, where she got some bad news.
"They did tell me they wanted to amputate my left foot," McLean said.
But, naturally, her personality does not work that way. After a four-hour operation, doctors were able to screw her ankle back together.
McLean was alive, but her recovery was incredibly strenuous and almost unimaginable for someone as active as she is. She was forced to spend three months in a wheelchair in the home of her father, Larry McLean, in Lake Oswego.
"It was a crazy time," she said. "It was a life-changing experience. I read a lot. I cleaned a tandem bike. My dad would lift me on the bike stand. My friends were good company. One time I was able to go to Gemini Pub in my wheelchair and listen to some live music."
There can never be a good time for falling off a mountain, but McLean's timing was especially bad. Her mother had died just a couple of months prior to her accident, and McLean's misfortune increased her family's already high stress level.
"I had to move back home for the first time in years," McLean said. "I was 100 percent dependent on my dad. He stepped up to the plate."
Today, McLean is basking in the glow of life and making lots of plans for a future of world travel and more outdoor adventures. She is just coming off a five-month tour of New Zealand that did a lot toward restoring her to her old dynamic self.
"My recovery has been insane," said McLean, whose next stop will be a job in the Fiji islands. "It's been so fast. When I told people in New Zealand what had happened to me, they didn't take it seriously because I was doing so well. I'd say I'm 85 percent back."
Maybe McLean had a difficult time convincing New Zealanders of her amazing story, but not the people who know her best.
"They tell me, 'You're a miracle!'" she said.