Four days stranded in the desert, with nothing to go on but hope.
Claire Nelson was house-sitting for friends in Joshua Tree when she decided to take a trip out to the national park for a day hike. That six-hour hike turned into four days and three nights stranded in the desert after Claire slipped on a rock, fell fifteen feet, and shattered her pelvis. Before being rescued by a helicopter (sent by her quick-thinking friends who sensed something was wrong), she held on by applying sunscreen to her legs with a hiking stick and even drinking her own urine. After hearing of her incredible survival story and seeing her face on news websites from all over the world (like here, here, and here), we met with her for a coffee to learn what motivated her to keep going, what the recovery process has been like, and the small role a Knix bra played in it all.
You’re kind of famous now! After your fall, you have been featured on websites all over the world. What has that been like?
It’s been surreal. I’m not used to receiving that kind of attention. The event itself still doesn’t feel real … I haven’t processed it yet. I’ve had complete strangers following my progress [on Instagram], and opening up to me and telling me about their experiences, and being quite personal. So I think I will use [those connections] in the future, just keeping the dialogue open with people.
Mentally, how did you manage to hang on for so long? What motivated you to keep going? What did you tell yourself?
I [had been] in a very good place, mentally and emotionally. I had just made a major change in my life: I put my belongings in storage, left my 9-5 behind, and left London to travel and focus on my writing. I was getting freelance work while on the road, and just feeling really free and liberated. I had barely gotten started down this new road, so to suddenly be lying there and to be alone and immobile and in pain, I thought, “This sucks. If I die now, this’ll be a real bummer.” I’ve still got some things I want to do and experiences I want to have and there are still some people I want to see again. I was actually picturing all of the people in my life that I love, sitting around and having conversations with them. Those are the things that make me feel very much like I want to have that again with those people. I’m not just gonna give up. I’m not ready for this all to be over. I was actually angry.
I had a lot of moments of berating myself, like, “The dumbest thing you’ve ever done was stand on that rock.” And I was thinking of the people in my life who have succeeded and thinking that I’ve just failed, and this is the ultimate failure. But I tried not to let myself go too far down that road. Negative thoughts will make you lose hope and I knew that once you lose hope, you will die. It’s hope that keeps us all alive. That’s the thing that I was holding onto.
Tell us about your injuries and the recovery process. What has it been like and how long do you have to go?
I could barely speak when they brought me in. I was massively dehydrated. My whole mouth had swollen up, and my lips were so dry they were sticking to my teeth. They had to put me on a drip for two weeks to hydrate me and get my kidneys back to normal. I was drinking urine to stay alive and that does do a lot of damage to your kidneys. So they fixed me up in hospital and thankfully I’m doing fine, in terms of my internal health.
But I shattered my pelvis. And I had to have an operation on my left hip where the biggest break was. And then there were a bunch of other fractions in my sacrum, but those are healing on their own. I also had a lot of nerve damage in my foot which has been some of the worst of the recovery pain actually. I found out later when I had more X-rays done that I’d actually fractured my foot, which also contributed to the pain.
Since then, pain has been my biggest obstacle. It has stopped me from sleeping. The combination of the pain and the strong medications that I was on — I had no appetite. I lost a lot of weight and a lot of muscle. I had never heard of Percocets before and I didn’t realize how serious and addictive they were. Then, after two months on them, the doctors suddenly announced, “You need to come off that.” I tried to cut right back on it and I was so unwell. The feeling is horrible. So I spoke to the doctor again and now I’m on a much slower, gradual, weaning process. The mornings are hard, before I’ve had my first Percocet. My whole body starts to ache and shake, my head swimming, it’s very very unpleasant. It’s quite scary to suddenly realize you’re addicted to something just like that, and that there’s not really a lot of guidance out there. So that’s been a huge struggle for me as well. You think, “Well, I’m not going to get addicted to that,” and suddenly I’m itching for it.
Has your relationship with your body changed? If so, how?
I really appreciate it more—the things that it can do, rather than what it looks like. I feel more chilled out about it and definitely really grateful. At one point I thought, “Okay, what if they rescue me and I can never walk again?” So I’m grateful. I’ll make a full recovery. It’ll be slow going; it’s going be a year at least until I’m active again, but how lucky am I to be in that position? I’m definitely all about comfort now. I’m less worried about how I look and more worried about how I feel, especially when I’m in pain.
On that note, can you tell us how your Knix bra plays into all of this?
I had an Evolution Bra, which I loved. I’m a G cup (a Knix 7), so all my life I’ve had to buy bras from specialty shops, with lots of underwire. I really liked this one and I was amazed that it works and it gives me the support I need. So I was wearing it when I was hiking. By the time they wheeled me into the ICU, I was filthy. They removed my boots, they had to throw away my socks, they cut all my clothes off. When they came to cut my bra off, I found myself croaking, “This is my favourite bra—is there any way you can not cut it off?” The nurses had to delicately reach under my torso to unhook it, but then they announced, “We’ve saved it! We’ve saved the bra!" It does make me laugh that that’s what I was thinking after being wheeled into the intensive care unit. And you know, I’m wearing it now.
You’re a world traveler and quite the adventurer. Will you continue to travel and hike when you’re healed?
I will still hike again. I will still hike by myself. A lot of people have said to me, “Well that’s what happens when you hike by yourself.” And I think that’s a bit naive and condescending. And I get a lot of people saying because I’m female that I shouldn’t hike alone, as if somehow I should not do the thing that I love unless I have an escort, which is ridiculous. Walking by yourself is one of life’s joys and it’s about taking the necessary precautions, and that was something that I didn’t do.
But I will finish the hike that I started.
Anything you want to say to other solo female travellers in the wake of your experience?
I read some comments on articles from people who assume I’m some hapless tourist who didn’t know the dangers that come with being in the desert. And actually, I have hiked a lot and I know what I’m doing. But experience is not going to save you. Experience doesn’t give you any kind of guarantee that you won’t hurt yourself. So to any women who love being in the outdoors, of course use common sense, keep your wits about you, and go prepared, but don't let anyone else dictate what you are capable of and how far you can go. Let’s face it, there’s nothing more liberating than doing something that someone says you can’t do.