A Near-Death Experience in Nepal

An outdoors(wo)man at heart who loves to save lives and adventure with her dog Pinto Bean, Morgan Matthews splits her time as a Certified Emergency Nurse (CEN, RN) in New Mexico, a Wilderness First Responder (WFR), and Program Director for Desert Mountain Medicine, a Wilderness Medicine company based out of Leadville, Colorado. While she has over ten years of experience in emergency medicine, it was a 7-fatality accident in a remote Utah canyon that called her to wilderness medicine. In 2018, 3 years after receiving her WFR certification, she experienced a traumatic-yet-serendipitous event in the mountains of Nepal that she’ll never forget. Here is her account.

In October of 2018, my boyfriend, Mikey, and I decided to go bike-packing in Nepal. I love to spend time outside and explore new places, and the Himalayas are a place I had fallen in love with after spending time there doing medical relief work after the devastating 2015 earthquake.  

The plan was to bike two different circuits through the mountains: Manāslu and Annapurna. We would take our bikes apart, fly them in and reassemble them in a little shop in Kathmandu before setting out for these two circuits, which were connected. We guessed it would take about three weeks to complete. We would have to bike over two 17,000-foot passes and through some beautifully remote areas. As we traveled through the Himalayas, we would carry all our own items on our bike frames, and we would eat and stay the night in tea houses. The Manaslu circuit is a protected area, which means that you are required to have a “guide” with you. Ours would be a 20-some-year-old Nepalese man, who happened to be from a small village on the Manaslu circuit. We would pay him as our guide, and he would join us on foot. We loved the idea of having someone who knew the culture so well, and we were excited to learn about the area from him. 

Mikey and I took an eight-hour Jeep ride out to the start of the Manaslu circuit with our guide and a driver. We quickly learned that our new friend had a very different perspective from our own, and that our experience with him would be different than we had anticipated. Unlike many of the Nepalese people we had interacted with, he had quite an ego. He wasn’t very engaged with us or our goals; he would start off on his own time each day, and we would agree to stop at a certain town or tea house that evening to ensure he was with us again for permitting-reasons. We didn’t see much of him, but we would occasionally spot him stopped along the trail with his jacket open in the sun, drying the wild marajuana leaves he would collect along the trails.

We soon found out that bike-packing in Nepal was pretty challenging. We would be going from 4,600 feet, all the way up to 17,000 feet over a seven-day period. We were cruising along, including lots of walking—or hike-a-biking—and people we’d pass on the trails would say things like, “You can’t do that! You can’t bike all the way up to Larkya La pass.” But, we were determined to try. We went through hopeful phases of saying, “We’ve got this!” to downward spirals of wondering what in the world we were doing and whether we should turn around.

We went through hopeful phases of saying, “We’ve got this!” to downward spirals of wondering what in the world we were doing and whether we should turn around.

The higher the elevation, the more challenging things became. We certainly felt the change of atmospheric pressure. About three or four days out from the pass, we came across a gentleman—a teacher walking between villages to the school. He asked if we were going up to the pass, and when we told him yes, he said to promise him one thing—that we would try our hardest. We thought, okay, we finally have one person who says we can do this if we just try really hard! That was the type of energy we needed to continue on.

Two or three days out, we encountered an incredibly beautiful river canyon. The Himalayas were peering through the top, and we started to catch the first glimpse of Manaslu, the eighth highest peak in the world, topping out at 26,781 feet. There was a narrow trail snaking through the canyon. We learned early on that these trails could end at any moment due to erosion and weather, which makes navigation more challenging, especially with a bike.

As we continue up the canyon on bike, we’re simply in awe—taking lots of photos and just soaking it in. We actually pass our guide who, sure enough, is drying his marajuana leaves on his down jacket in the sunshine. We continue along this narrow, single-track trail. At different points there are incredible waterfalls just pouring out of the canyon walls. Mikey is maybe a couple hundred yards ahead and out of sight. 

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Suddenly the trail starts to erode underneath me. As it continues to slough off into the canyon, I fall off to the left side; below me, about 800 feet of sheer drop to the bottom of a river canyon. I start to slide, and I’m trying to grab onto anything; any real-estate I can get a purchase on, just clawing my way at the earth. The entire weight of my bike, plus the packs strapped to it, was on top of me. As I continued to grab at the earth, a root became exposed, and with my left hand I was able to grab ahold of it. My right hand was grasping the entire weight of my bike, trying to hold it like a fine balancing act. If I moved even an inch, I would fall to my death. I came to a stop, my feet dangling.

As I’m hanging there in shock, I feel as if there is nothing in my power to do except find my breath again. My parasympathetic nervous system was fully engaged; my fight or flight stress hormones were surging, but I knew I had to try and control them. I close my eyes and breath slowly, trying to calm myself, trying not to think about what could happen, and I remember that I had just passed our guide a few moments ago. I hung there for what seemed like a lifetime, trying to stay calm and trust that he would come along. In reality, it was probably only a few short minutes before he came around the corner and yelled my name. I was so incredibly grateful.

I start to slide, and I’m trying to grab onto anything; any real-estate I can get a purchase on, just clawing my way at the earth.

He was able to climb down to where I was—risking his own life in the process. He grabbed onto the bike and lifted it off of me, then grabbed onto my free hand and pulled me back up over the erosion onto what was still a pretty steep section of trail. I quickly look over my body and can’t feel anything. My body was numb, but I could see a large hematoma (blood accumulation under the skin) growing on the inside of my left knee, probably from a pedal strike. I couldn’t actually feel it. It didn’t matter, I was alive and we were, at this moment, safe. The most challenging aspect, up to this point, was navigating our guide’s ego, but that very person just saved my life.  

When we got to walking again and finally reached Mikey, he was standing on a swinging suspension bridge over the river, taking photos. As soon as he saw my face, I think he understood the gravity of the situation—that something serious had happened. I am sure that the blood had not returned to my face yet. I was still in shock. He could see the hematoma on my leg as I limped toward him. We sat at the bottom of the trail for a few hours while I collected myself, and just tried to reckon with the fact that I had nearly lost my life.

I was so grateful to our guide for risking his own life to save mine, but it was a strange aftermath, dealing with him as a heroic figure. The first thing he said as we were walking toward Mikey (and before I could even speak) was, “She almost died, but I saved her life.” He was laughing. The way he spoke of it was almost like life had a different meaning to him. Losing life was something that was common in these remote areas. People and animals fall off these trails often. As Mikey and I were huddled together dealing with my injuries and emotions, our guide simply walked away and began sunning his marajuana leaves again. Maybe it was his way of giving us space. As time passed, there was no choice other than to continue on, so we did.

I was sure my leg wasn’t broken, though it was bruised pretty badly, so we continued to slowly walk up the trail. However, as the days went on, and as we made our way up and over the 17,000-foot Larkya La pass, the bruising started to become really significant, and I was developing an awareness of painful movements. At this point, we were thinking about whether we wanted to continue with the second circuit.

The last two days leading up to the pass were especially challenging. The high elevation, the cold, the wind; all of it made for a rough journey. At the last village before the pass, we came across a Swiss man. He stopped me and said, “Your guide told me he saved your life. Do you think you’re okay? Are you injured? I’m a doctor.” He offered to look at my leg, see if anything was broken, and asked whether I needed any pain medication. I told him I had everything I needed and was certain there was no fracture. I asked what kind of doctor he was. “A psychiatrist,” he said. I giggled, but found myself thinking about how I might have to check up on my mental health after this whole experience, and maybe now would be a good time to start. 

We did make it over Larkya La Pass, and we were rewarded with a view of the Annapurna range for the last 4 days. However, Mikey and I decided not to continue on to the next circuit to give my leg a rest and to recuperate. We rode our bikes to Pokhara and took a few days of rest before continuing back to Kathmandu, where we dropped our bikes off and set out for a mellow backpacking trip. It was just what we needed.

Would I go back to Nepal? Absolutely, it’s such a special place, and I don’t think I will ever be able to comprehend how big those mountains really are. It’s a place where the imagination can run wild. Next time, I will leave my bike. 

Leading up to this journey, if you had asked me about my favorite outdoor activity, I would have said mountain biking, hands down. I’m still working on rekindling that love. I had never experienced panic or anxiety attacks before this accident, but now, especially when I’m on a steep section of trail with exposure, I have these moments where fear takes over. I walk way more than I used to, and the fact is, I just won’t even dance with that risk anymore.

In the weeks and months after the accident, I found myself feeling an enormous amount of guilt. Guilt at the potential devastation I would have put my family through if I didn’t make it. It took me a long time to tell my parents; I didn’t want them to worry, didn’t want them to think about the “what ifs,” like what if I did die? How would they retrieve my body? What if I just disappeared off that drop, and no one ever knew what happened to me? What if our guide wasn’t there? I do not keep in touch with our guide, but I am forever grateful for his presence on that day, and I hope he feels it. 

I talk with my therapist about fear and managing risk. I focus on visualizing getting through sections of trail smoothly. I’m not sure I could have done anything to change the outcome of this accident, but it’s made me really think about how I navigate these wild spaces. I’m much more conscientious about preparedness before I go out, even if it’s just a trail run in the woods with my dog. I always have a med kit, a cell phone or a GPS communicator. Above all, I’m glad for what I’m able to bring to wilderness medicine now. I’m able to help others learn from these experiences and how to navigate the aftermath.

It has taken me a long time to tell this story in any depth, and talking about it with others, including my own therapist, has allowed me to navigate my emotions and continue to grow from the experience

It brings up the important question of how we can support and care for each other as well as ourselves.

We now teach psychological first aid as part of our Wilderness Medicine curriculum, and it’s a story I have no problem speaking about, but it brings up the important question of how we can support and care for each other, as well as ourselves. I believe that being vulnerable and open—having those tough conversations—is important. Let’s keep talking, keep telling our stories, and continue supporting one another so we can keep enjoying and appreciating these beautiful wild spaces.

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