Before we left on our trip, my uncle wisely suggested that if something bad happens, we should wait a while before telling anyone about it.
This is one of those stories.
Two weeks young into our adventure we found ourselves in Pai, a little hippy town in northern Thailand surrounded by nothing but miles and miles of mountains and dense jungle. At breakfast our first morning in the guesthouse we met Stephen, a jovial Irishman, looking very much Irish – short, stubby, freckled, and clearly having had one (or 12) too many pints the night before. We struck up a friendly conversation about Guinness and other less important things and the next thing we knew we were headed into the jungle with our new friend, at his suggestion, for the 14 mile hike to and from the Mae Yen waterfall.
Although Pai is a very small town, there are actually a lot of backpackers there. And doing the long hike to Mae Yen waterfall is a popular topic of conversation from all the talking dreads (you see what I did there?). However, since no one actually does anything in Pai, we had the entire jungle hike to ourselves.
It all started innocently enough. Some ooh-ing ahh-ing about the beauty of the surroundings and being alone in the jungle. This was our first real trekking experience whilst traveling so we thought we were really cool at this point. The hike weaved in and out of a river valley, requiring a lot of wading over and through rocks, which added to the element of adventure, and an annoyance of constantly having to take our shoes on and off. But it was fun. And we were in the jungle by ourselves!
Then things started getting more difficult. The valley got steeper (and a bit muddier) on both sides. Our upbeat conversation slowed a bit and we found ourselves concentrating more on our breathing and watching our footing on the side of the valley slopes.
This was when Alison and I noticed that our friendly Irishman wasn’t the most dexterous character. Maybe it was the beer belly…or the hangover…probably a bit of both, but Stephen was walking a bit more slowly and cautiously than you’d expect for a guy casually suggesting 14 mile jungle hikes the morning after a bender.
We had been going at it for 2.5 hours at this point, it was 1pm and despite being at least two thirds of the way to the waterfall, hadn’t seen a soul all day. We took a turn up one of the valley slopes for the last climb to the top and the spectacular views that would hopefully await. We could even hear the waterfall!
Then it happened.
I saw him fall first, swirling around to find Stephen somersault straight down a cliff, head over heels, flipping twice, falling a good 25-30 feet, finally stopped by some branches near the bottom of the river valley.
Then, a split second later, a slight whimper.
Peering down the cliff through the brush I caught a glimpse of Stephen touching the back of his head with his right hand. His hand looked like it had been dipped in dark red paint.
Oh crap. This is bad.
I almost jumped down the cliff to get to him. Thankfully Alison was calm enough to offer that the last thing we needed at this point were two casualties. So we swiftly but cautiously maneuvered our way down to Stephen. It only took five minutes but felt like an hour.
“We’re coming down, Stephen. Are you okay, buddy?”
No response. I was scared.
Our first impression of the situation was grim when we first got to the scene. There was blood everywhere. I mean everywhere. It was on the ground, trees, branches. Not to mention Stephen’s head and torso, which was a mess of bloody sweat and tattered clothes.
“Alison, do we have cell reception?” A dumb question, of course we didn’t.
It was just after 1pm and we were five miles and several hours into the jungle. Helicopters could not land here. We couldn’t carry him. I was thinking one of us would have to sprint back to Pai and back to get help before sunset at 6pm, if we had that much time.
Not thinking clearly and with an immediate sense of urgency I blurted the first thing that came to mind, “Okay. Why don’t I run back and get help while you stay here with Stephen.”
The Irishman, already in a state of panic and having no idea how bad his injuries were except to know he had just somersaulted off a cliff and was covered in blood, immediately went into shock.
Luckily, there was one level-headed hiker and medic in the bunch, and Alison calmly suggested we take a look at the injuries before making any rash decisions.
We examined the wounds more carefully and realized he had a deep gash on the back of his head. The pocket knife my brother had given me came in handy (before being confiscated a few months later because I’m an idiot and tried to walk on the plane with it), and we fashioned a makeshift head bandage with my Give’r tank to try and stop the bleeding.
“Can you move your legs?” Alison asked, fearing a spinal injury based on the look of the fall.
“Yes, my legs are fine,” Stephen managed to mutter, which was welcomed with two huge sighs of relief.
He also complained of his wrist, which appeared to be broken or strained. But otherwise he had escaped with just cuts and bruises. A minor miracle.
Perhaps just as bad as his physical condition was Stephen’s mental state. Understandably, he was completely distraught, remaining in shock while we tried to calm him down for a good 45 minutes on the side of the ridge. Eventually we somehow dragged/ carried him back up to the trail to start the long journey back to Pai, where we could hopefully get the gash in his head stitched up.
The first step was getting Stephen across the slope he had just fallen down. This was a grand production, with us basically shielding the cliff side and holding his hand to get to the next section of trail inches at a time.
This routine continued for another 4.5-5 grueling hours (twice the time it took on the same trail on the way out). Every small cliff or drop off was met with Stephen’s trepidation and our corresponding encouragement and physical support. It was exhausting.
Finally, as the sun was setting, we escaped the last bit of trail leading to Pai and stumbled back to our guesthouse on the edge of town in search for a way to get Stephen to the nearest hospital. Of course there are no ambulances in Pai, Thailand so the owner of our guesthouse (who is awesome by the way), offered to give him a ride on the back of his motorbike. So with one hand on the back of his bandaged head and the other hanging on for dear life, Stephen rode his makeshift ambulance through winding bumpy roads to the finest hospital in Pai.
Completely worn out, shirtless, and covered in blood, I retired to our bungalow for a shower and a quick nap before we made our way to the hospital to check on Stephen. We walked swiftly down the main street in Pai, fully expecting to find him in the waiting room or hospital bed. We were a bit anxious given the circumstances and quality of care in these parts.
On the edge of town we heard someone with an Irish accent yelling across the street from the closest pub to the hospital. You can probably imagine our surprise when we saw Stephen there with a large bandage on his head, a huge smile on his face, and three beers in front of him (two empties).
So we passed the evening drinking together trying to get our heads around how close we came to disaster while Stephen numbed the pain in his head and wrist. He never did say “Thank You” but did buy us beers all night, which must be the Irish way of saying it.