With his pelvis shattered, his body paralyzed, his pain nearly unbearable, Mike McEntire watched the helicopter make one final pass before flying off, leaving him alone in impending darkness.
He knew somehow he must survive the night.
But in his darkest hours, his fate rested on his will to live and the skill of rescuers, risking everything to reach him — for as he lay at the bottom of the canyon, he was not alone.
Rescuers and friends would put their lives at risk, climbing down waterfalls, rappelling over shear cliffs and hiking through pitch darkness to reach him and offer some comfort until morning came.
In the 18 hours McEntire waited for help, the comfort that someone was coming helped him hold on.
While McEntire, a retired Payson dentist, never wanted to come so close to death for a little adventure, he still believes that a life lived to the fullest means risk, whatever the consequence.
It was every adventurer’s worst nightmare, a split-second mistake and a world of consequences.
McEntire had faced death before, so when he fell into its shadow on Aug. 13, 2011, he was not afraid to stare it down.
But his story involves more than a miracle of survival, it is a chronicle of heroic efforts by friends and strangers. They risked their own lives to save his.
The trip to narrow, slotted Insomnia Canyon branching off West Fork Creek in Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, started like any other canyoneering trip.
A group of friends scoped out the location on a map, designed their route, gathered supplies and met just above the canyon.
This trip included six of McEntire’s friends — most seasoned climbers and hikers. Most had canyoneered before, which involves climbing down canyons, rappelling down cliffs, swimming through pools and descending waterfalls.
McEntire had rock climbed for nine years, but back problems made it increasingly hard for him to continue. Nonetheless, he turned to canyoneering six years ago.
He made various trips through slot canyons with friends, including Payson Fire Battalion Chief Dan Bramble, dentist Christian Alexander and physical therapist Jared Tenney.
“That is what makes this a unique group, we are all professionals,” he said.
“Usually when you think of rock climbers you think of a couple of hippie guys that are just out willy-nilly. But amongst the other seven group members, there are two chemical engineers and a police officer.”
For most canyoneers, the splendor of remote canyons draws them to the sport.
“Oh, it is beautiful,” McEntire said. “Pictures do it no justice, it is just some of the most beautiful places you could ever see and the most remote. You go to these beautiful waterfalls that are absolutely incredible and you are the only one there and you might be the only one who has ever been there.”
McEntire left his home, and his four children and wife, just after 4 a.m. Aug. 13. He told his wife Amber he would be home by 9 p.m.
Pictures taken as the men made their way through the canyon show a smiling group. Wearing a red helmet, McEntire posed near one of eight rappels the group made on their way to the biggest rappel of the day — a 375-foot drop into a canyon that opened up into an amphitheater with 1,200-foot walls.
McEntire was the second to go down. After watching the first climber descend slowly, he decided to set his rappel device, called a piranha, with the least amount of resistance.
A piranha has prongs around the outside, which a climber can wrap the rope around to add resistance.
McEntire figured he would get enough resistance to slow his descent due to the stiff new rope and the length of the rappel, and due to the weight of the rope.
As he stepped over the ledge, everything seemed fine. His friend below even snapped a picture of McEntire descending — a tiny spider on a slender thread.
However, McEntire quickly gained speed. Soon, he was sliding down the rope out of control. He knew he only had a few moments to wrap his rope around one of the prongs, but he couldn’t get the rope to stay.
“I looked down and I thought, ‘Wow, the ground is coming up fast, I really need to wrap this.’”
McEntire’s feet took the brunt of the first fall. He tumbled off that first ledge and fell another few feet onto a lower ledge, landing on his side in a small stream.
“I still to this day don’t know exactly what went wrong.”
When McEntire opened his eyes, he was paralyzed.
“I said out loud, ‘Something is wrong, this is a dream.’”
Rescuers later estimated he had fallen the last 150 feet of the descent.
His friend below who witnessed the fall figured McEntire was dead.
“He asked if I was OK and I said, ‘Yah,’” McEntire said. “He said, ‘What happened?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know, what happened?’”
His friend climbed up to him, while the rest of the group rappelled down.
Having the most medical experience, McEntire was soon giving his friends directions about how to help him. He had them divert the small stream he was lying in and place their wetsuits under him for insulation.
“Despite me messing up, they did everything perfectly. If they had not, I surely would have died.”
Although he could not move his lower body, McEntire still had mobility in his arms and neck. Dallin Durfee, a local pharmacist, immediately set off to get help.
That meant a sprint down the canyon, with three more rappels.
With only a small pull cord, Durfee fled down the canyon.
After later taking that same route, Jeff Jeffries and Jared Tenney said they did not know how Durfee had managed on his own.
“When they came through, they had no idea how he got down. He just made incredible time,” McEntire said.
Within an hour of leaving the group, Durfee found a hiker with a cell phone.
The group did not carry a cell phone because McEntire had an emergency GPS locator device. The problem: no one in the group knew how to use it except McEntire. And in his state, he did not know where the device had gone.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, search and rescue volunteers and Sedona Fire personnel responded to the scene.
Mountain Rescue volunteer Mike Getchis was familiar with the location of the canyon, although he had never been in it, said Sgt. Aaron Dick, search and rescue coordinator with the Coconino County Sheriff’s Office, in a report.
Rescuers called in a Department of Public Safety helicopter from Kingman, which arrived at 4 p.m. However, the helicopter didn’t have enough cable to reach the canyon bottom and couldn’t descend into the slot canyon.
Somehow, they had to haul McEntire out of the canyon.
When McEntire realized he would not get out that night, he was very discouraged.
His body was in shock. He knew he had internal bleeding and incessant vomiting was contracting his shattered pelvis.
“The vomiting was the most pain I have ever felt, it was so horrible, it would yank these pieces, especially this pelvis piece (pointing to an X-ray of his pelvis), it would pull it up ... oh man it was so painful.”
Despite the pain, McEntire remained calm throughout the night.
“I figured I am either gong to die or live and either way it didn’t matter if I got upset,” he said.
McEntire told the three friends that had stayed with him what to tell his wife and children if he died.
“This wasn’t my first brush with death,” he said. “So I had had chances to be calm before.”
Near-death experiences included running a red light on his motorcycle as a teen and getting T-boned by a truck, falling 30 feet from a ledge in another Sedona canyon and getting trapped underwater in a kayak.
By 6 p.m., search and rescue members Getchis and Victor Walco made their way to McEntire, descending the cliff on ropes in pitch dark conditions.
“They came down the exact same way we did. It was pretty heroic that they did that at midnight. I wouldn’t do that for anyone but my own wife,” McEntire said.
At midnight, Getchis and Walco found the group. Although they had few medical supplies, they did have a radio. The men reported that McEntire had no radial pulse and a pain level of 20 on a 1 to 10 scale.
The men did what they could for McEntire, including keeping a fire going.
“The funny thing was they were whispering to each other throughout the night and we are in a slot canyon so I could hear everything they were saying,” McEntire said. “They would whisper stuff like, ‘This is really bad, I can’t believe this.’”
X-rays would later show McEntire’s pelvis was broken in several places and detached from his spine. It took six pins and several rods to put everything back together. A later surgery on his feet would require more pins.
However, as McEntire lay in the canyon, he knew little of the long recovery that awaited him — he just wanted to make it through the night.
“I did not sleep even the tiniest bit that night,” he said. As his friends worked to keep him warm, he said he was remarkably calm.
“There is no being scared or worried when you think you are going to die — you’re scared if there is something you can do about it, but if there is nothing you can do about it, then you’re just waiting,” he said.
In the morning, crews rappelled from the top of the canyon 1,200 feet to McEntire.
A 15-man crew above, then pulled McEntire and a Sedona firefighter up nearly 750 feet to a rocky ledge where a helicopter could pick him up. He was airlifted to Slide Rock State Park, where another helicopter flew him to the Valley.
It took rescuers 4.5 hours to pull McEntire up using a pulley system. For every five feet they pulled, McEntire rose one foot.
McEntire says he feels awful he interrupted the lives of so many to help him.
“I kept thinking that I ruined everyone’s Sunday,” he said.
The firefighter who rode up with McEntire told him it was the hardest and most technical rescue they had done.
McEntire underwent six surgeries, including one to patch up his intestines, which had split open from the fall. McEntire had several close calls in the hospital, including one from an infection that developed after a tourniquet was left on too long after a surgery.
But today he is walking. Or rather hobbling. He cannot feel the back of his legs, but he has regained control over the front of his legs.
“What is really amazing is that he is walking at all,” Amber said. “In the hospital, he couldn’t even wiggle his toes.”
Amber said the combined efforts of hospital staff, search and rescuers and friends saved his life.
“Thank you to those who helped save my husband’s life. There are a lot of heroes in this story,” she said. “I would like to give a special thanks to Dr. Brian Miller and Dr. Mark Levison for their expertise, which literally saved his life in the ICU (intensive care unit).”
Although McEntire will never regain enough mobility to canyoneer again, he says he would go back if he could.
Amber said extreme sports are over for her husband.
“This was the last time,” she said.
“Each and every time he goes out on these things I would pray, but after this, I can’t handle it, after the hell he put me through. Watching your spouse die in the hospital is horrible.”
The Roundup asked McEntire what, if any lesson could be taken from the accident.
“You know, I don’t regret it, I don’t regret it one bit,” he said. “I say the lesson is live life and have fun and if it happens take it.”