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LDS woman returns to conquer cliff that left her paralyzed

It was dark the first time Brittany Fisher and a friend decided to rappel from St. George’s Cougar Cliffs. It was so dark that she had no idea just how high the cliff’s edge was from the ground beneath. That night in March 2012, while on a spring break trip with friends, Fisher, then a cross-country runner at Utah State University, fell what she later learned was about 100 feet while rappelling in southern Utah. She was left paralyzed from the waist down.

Last month, Fisher and eight to 10 volunteers returned to the same cliff, but this time she could see everything clearly. She could see just how tall the cliff was. She remembered where she sat as her friend hooked everything up the night of the accident. While these memories may seem traumatic and harrowing, Fisher said she felt peace.

“Everyone was really nervous about how they were going to feel that day,” Fisher said. “Like if it was going to bring up anger or frustration, and it really was just a peaceful day for everyone, which really was confirmation that God is in the details of our lives and that he can turn trial into triumph.”

Fisher returned to the cliff to finish what she started four years earlier.

Finishing the rappel was something Fisher, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has wanted to do since her fall, but it began to materialize in 2014, when she first returned to Cougar Cliffs. She and a couple of friends were on their way to California and Mike Thomas of the Washington Country Search and Rescue, who was part of the team that rescued Fisher the night of her accident, arranged to drive her out to the scene of her accident.

It was then during that visit that she mentioned she would like to complete the descent she once attempted. Thomas and his fellow volunteers began planning, and it ended up coming together just in time for the fourth anniversary of her accident.

Fisher said that if she could go back in time, she wouldn’t have done things the way she did them that night in 2012. She would have worn the gloves that would have prevented her hands from burning as the rope slid through her palms, causing her to let go of it entirely.

“I definitely would’ve taken those precautions,” Fisher said. “But I definitely have seen in these four years, more with that eternal perspective, the things I have learned, the lessons I’ve had to learn in a very painful, long and slow process. I’m grateful for what I’ve learned, not necessarily grateful for how I’ve learned it, but I don’t know how else I could’ve learned it this intensely or fully without going through what I’ve gone through.”

This time, the volunteers who saved Fisher’s life had prepared for months, and everything was ready when she arrived at the cliff. They gave her a new pair of gloves. They also had ropes set up and men waiting for her at the bottom. Fisher did a few interviews with KSL and stgeorgeutah.com and then began to put on the harness. It was harder than it was last time because her “legs don’t work as well," (Fisher has regained enough mobility to walk with braces and splits time between her braces and a wheelchair) but she soon found herself scooting her body to the edge where, for a moment, fear began to set in.

She pulled her legs over the edge and began to gradually descend. This time she was in complete control all the way down. “I wanted to go back and show people that with the right equipment, it can be done,” Fisher said. “… Every year around the time of my accident is just a little sentimental. And this is part of my life. It’s part of me getting around every day. … I’m always going to live with this injury and all that has come with it and those memories but to not let it rule my life and take over.”

This time the team from the Washington County Search and Rescue team who came to her rescue on the night of her accident was there with her from start to finish, making sure that she was safe all the way to the bottom of the cliff. Fisher has kept in touch with the rescue crew and said that they share “a special relationship.” She never doubted their genuine care and concern for her well-being.

“They all were just so appreciative for letting them be a part of the journey,” Fisher said. “And I’m like, ‘No, thank you a hundred times.’ It was really cool to them, though, I think, to see it come full circle. Most of the time I think they put them (patients) in the helicopter, and they never know how it turns out. So it’s really cool to have the follow-up and full circle to see how well we’re all doing.”

Fisher's family members, who have been by her side throughout this entire experience, and her now-fiancé, Trevor Frank, were also waiting at the bottom for her.

“We were able to have a prayer before we went out to the cliff, just on the side of the road there as a family, and it’s really cool because it’s been a journey for everyone,” Fisher said. “Even though a lot of it seems like it’s been weighing on me, your parents love you so much and want to take away any heartache and trial, so it’s really been a humbling experience to learn the Lord’s will together.”

Following her accident, many people told Fisher that she was the same person; she just needs a wheelchair to get around. However, Fisher said she is not the same person she was four years ago. She calls this experience a “refiner’s fire” and said it has taught her how to “mourn with those that mourn.”

“I truly have been through that fire the last four years,” Fisher said. “Sometimes the heat has been more intense than other times, and sometimes it seemed unbearable, … and yet, somehow I got through it and it only enlarged my soul and enlarged my ability to empathize and love and feel gratitude.

“My ability to mourn on my own and with others has exponentially grown,” Fisher added. “I have really learned what grief is. I’ve learned what sadness and depression are.”

There was a time when Fisher lay in a hospital bed pondering what was left of the person she had once been.

“Who’s left?” she remembers asking herself. “Brittany Fisher before was a runner, a rock climber, always going and always running. And after that, it was like, ‘OK, what is there left to Brittany?’ … There’s more to me, but I had to dig deep to really find it and develop those characteristics that are already there in all of us. We just need to deepen them.”

In the last four years, she has learned to define herself as so much more.

A church leader once told her, “No one is going to remember how fast you ran a mile. No one is going to remember how many touchdowns you scored in high school.” She has learned this is true.

“Those things are exciting and feel important in the moment, but there’s so much more,” Fisher said. “We have so much more to offer, and I think we’re almost selling ourselves short when we identify ourselves as a student-athlete or by the instruments we play. There’s so much more to us.”

Doctors believe that Fisher's progress has plateaued. She may have surgeries in the future, but for now, she is closing the door on this chapter of her life, confident that this experience will help her handle whatever lies ahead.

“It was so relieving to shut that door,” Fisher said. “This is always going to be part of my life, the way I walk. It’s going to affect everything I do, but the injury and the cliff itself doesn’t have to be this daunting fear or question anymore. I’ve gone back. I’ve done it. I’ve conquered it and overcome it, and there are going to be more figurative cliffs in the future. … This has really helped me finish claiming that experience, own it and make it mine, rather than it determining my fate.”

Email: mjones@deseretdigital.com