MURRAY — A Utah high schooler who fell while rock climbing and fractured her skull over the weekend never hit the ground.
She was caught by a friend 20 feet below, sparing her further injury during what was meant to be a fun outing to Wasatch Mountain State Park just hours ahead of prom night.
Braden Patterson, 18, can’t remember much of what happened Saturday morning before Avery Tanner, a fellow senior at Wasatch High School, landed in his arms. But he believes she slammed into the wall more than once on the way down.
“I remember hearing her hit the rocks and suddenly she was in my arms,” Patterson recalled Monday. “I wasn’t thinking clearly enough to move myself to where I needed to catch her and have the ability to catch her — so there was definitely — I was guided by someone, by some angels, to move to where I needed to be. They were there helping me stay standing up.”
Divine intervention or not, he never lost his footing. A friend later told him he backed into a tree while holding his unconscious friend, but Patterson said there are no bruises on his 6-foot, 165-pound frame to indicate he crashed into any bark.
“I think by him being able to catch her, he definitely prevented more injuries," said Tanner’s mother, Caysie Riley. "She doesn't have any other injuries on her body, no breaks, no anything, just fractured the back of her skull. So she was really lucky. I think it was just instinct. He happened to be at the right place at the right time.”
On Monday, the 18-year-old Tanner remained in a coma, a result of her injuries. Doctors at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray have deemed her stable, her mother said, but she could not yet breathe on her own. The prognosis depends on whether she wakes up in coming days.
“It’s pretty much a nightmare,” Riley said. Several in the group of teenagers told her they believed her daughter may have gotten scared halfway down the wall and possibly let go of the rope before hitting her head twice on the way down. She finally landed in Patterson’s arms, where she began seizing. The group immediately called police and prayed for her in the roughly 10 minutes it took medical crews to arrive.
Moments earlier, Patterson descended just ahead of Tanner in order to belay. They were among more than a dozen teens who hiked to the towering rock on the southern end of the park in the Soldier Hollow Nordic Center venue on Saturday morning.
Tanner, a bubbly and bright student who loves yoga and is known to suddenly break into song and dance, was planning to wear a teal-colored dress to the prom and a flower crown of orchids made by her grandmother. She plans to attend Utah Valley University in the fall, serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and possibly pursue a career in advertising, her mother said.
A day earlier, Riley said, her daughter revealed she was somewhat anxious for the climb, but didn’t specify why. “She’s outdoorsy and adventurous, so she loves to do things, but she was nervous,” Riley said, even though the family has occasionally gone climbing together in the past.
Patterson and Tanner mostly have the same friends, but they were never very close and were not each other’s prom dates. In the hours after Tanner was admitted to the intensive care unit, several friends skipped prom and instead ate dinner at Patterson's house, where they talked, grieved and shed tears. They recalled how Tanner had recently had a bad day and decided to turn it around by delivering notes and roses to her friends.
The teens did not wear helmets on Saturday, Patterson acknowledged. “We may have gotten a little cocky. Where we usually go climbing is an indoor gym. We hadn't really thought about that until it was too late," he said.
Tanner’s mother told him she did not blame him for what happened.
“It was a big relief. As the belayer, I felt concerned that it was my fault she had fallen. When she told me that, it did it take a big burden off,” Patterson said. Several in his group promised Riley they would always wear protective head gear in the future.
Tanner's classmates who did attend the prom in a Kamas event center observed a moment of silence for her, and Wasatch High administrators have taken turns visiting the hospital. Other families put up her parents at a hotel near the hospital. What's more, her friends set up a fundraising page even though her family said it wasn’t necessary.
"When Avery wakes up, she'll get to decide which charity she wants to donate to,” her stepfather Jesse Riley said. "It could have been much, much worse. I very well realize the fact that she could not be here with us at all anymore.”
Tracy See, Wasatch Mountain manager, said the state allows rappelling and bouldering within the park's 22,000 acres, but she does not recommend climbing where the teens went and had not heard of anyone else doing so for several years.
"It's not a real good solid, granite face. It's just some boulders sticking out of a hill," See said. "It's really sad that it happened. We don't want to discourage people from getting out and enjoying the outdoors, but we just want them to do it in a safe manner so we don't have these incidents happen."