A Payson man who miraculously survived a 140-foot fall thanks to a grueling and dramatic rescue this week battled to recover after several operations, including one to reattach his pelvis to his spine on Friday.
Mike McEntire, 36, nearly died Aug. 13 in a Sedona canyon after losing control of a climbing rope and plummeting down a rocky ledge.
McEntire battled intense pain from internal bleeding and broken bones for more than 24 hours and later told his wife Amber that only the determination to return to his wife and four children kept him alive.
Even that would not have been enough without the heroic efforts of rescue personnel and six climbing friends — one who ran miles up and down the canyon looking for a cell signal and others who stayed with him throughout the night.
After breaking both heels, several vertebrae and shattering his pelvis in six places, McEntire has an agonizing recovery ahead. Doctors say he may be walking again in three months, but will likely never canyoneer again.
And all it took was one split-second bad decision. McEntire told his wife he was “showing off” as doctors wheeled him into the hospital. McEntire, a veteran of more than 100 canyoneering trips, said he went too fast down a rappel.
A phone interview with Amber shed new light on what happened in that dark, damp canyon.
McEntire, a retired Payson dentist, and six friends, including a pharmacist, physical therapist and several engineers, loaded up their gear and headed to Sedona’s Insomnia Canyon, an advanced technical canyon leading into the West Fork of Oak Creek.
The group planned a day trip through the canyon. They successfully rappelled down several sections and swam through various pools to reach the final, 300-foot rappel.
McEntire’s friend Christian Alexander went down first and captured several photographs of McEntire as he descended — a dot high above on the towering cliff.
As McEntire went down, he gained speed as he dropped through mid air, without the friction of his contact with the wall to slow him down. The most experienced climber in the group, McEntire liked to descend quickly and knew how to stop by throwing the rope over the rappel device.
However, McEntire missed when he threw the rope and didn’t have enough time to recover. He fell 100 feet before bouncing off a ledge and tumbling another 40 feet, landing in a pool of water.
When McEntire’s friends made it to him, they couldn’t find a pulse and all feared he had died, Amber said.
Luckily, he came to and had told them to move him out of the water, she said.
With his body crushed and bleeding, McEntire hovered on the verge of death, but he knew he had to stay awake.
“He has such a high tolerance for pain that probably no one else would have been able to take it,” Amber said. “But that is one thing that saved him. With his medical background, he knows in an emergency situation if you don’t keep your wits, you die.”
Although McEntire carried with him an emergency location device that could send a distress signal, only he knew how to use it.
So one friend ran seven miles up the canyon for a cell signal.
At 9:30 p.m., Amber got a call that McEntire had been hurt, but few other details.
Given his love of extreme sports from kayaking to power paragliding, Amber said she had long braced herself for such a call. Still, she was shocked and agonized.
For hours, McEntire waited for rescue. The first paramedics made it to him by midnight, but they could only sit with him until daylight made a rescue possible.
By morning, rescuers put McEntire into a basket and used a series of ropes to haul him back up the roughly 400-foot wall.
It took two hours to get him up the cliff. From there, a helicopter airlifted McEntire five miles and transferred him to a medical helicopter for the trip to the Valley.
“Search and rescue later said they didn’t think he would make it out alive,” Amber said.
At the hospital, McEntire’s doctors rushed him into surgery.
On Friday, he underwent surgery to put metal plates into his pelvis, which had been shattered and dislocated from his spine.
Through it all, Amber says she still believes canyoneering is a safe sport, as long as you exercise caution.