Survivor recalls screaming as she fell 65 feet off Camden cliff; fellow climbers thought she was dead
CAMDEN, Maine — Maria Millard scrambled up the cliff face of a challenging climb on Mount Megunticook in Camden Hills State Park on the afternoon of Tuesday, Oct. 2, with three of her friends waiting below.
It was a beautiful afternoon, and the 28-year-old Millard, a two-time former All-American track athlete, was taking advantage of the good weather to get in a climb to prepare for a guide course she had signed up for in California.
The group had intended to start on some easier routes, but they stopped to look at a harder one called Old Stud on a set of rock slabs known as the Barrett Cove Cliff, which overlooks Route 52 in Camden. They decided to go for it, with Millard as the first, or lead climber.
As she clambered up the granite rocks, she placed gear in cracks as she went the 65 feet to the top of the cliff. Up there, Millard, who was wearing a helmet, anchored herself with ropes and then started a shouted conversation with her friends far below. There was confusion — would she rappel down on her own or be lowered by the group? The answer was important, because the person in control of her descent would change accordingly. The plan changed several times as the calling voices reverberated around the cliffs, and Millard felt confused and a little frustrated.
Finally, she leaned back to start rappelling down the cliff.
She didn’t get far before the ropes slipped out of her belay device and her body started to pinwheel out-of-control down the 65 feet of steep rock face.
‘I thought she was dead.’
“I realized my team and I should have had a solid plan at the base,” Millard said this week in a Belfast coffee shop, recalling the day of the accident. “It was October, and there’s much less daylight. There’s almost kind of an urgency as the light lessens. You want to get as much climbing in as possible. I was so eager, I left the ground before making sure the plan was really clear.”
Her memories from the fall are vague, perhaps in part because she hit her head hard enough to crack her helmet.
“As soon as I leaned back, I remember screaming,” Millard said. “I remember waking up with my head on the ground on a rock. I was really stunned. For me, it all seemed to happen really quickly, but actually, a fall of 65 feet takes a while. It was enough time for my climbing partners to look at me and think, ‘She’s going to die.’”
One of those partners, Sigrid Coffin of Belfast, said this week that she’s thought about the moment of the day of the fall a million times. She was talking to another climber and saw his face change because he saw Millard falling off the top of the cliff.
“I had time to scream and you had time to scream before you hit,” she said to Millard this week during their first conversation about the accident since it happened. “I thought she was dead. She hit the ground and didn’t move.”
One climber ran to Millard, who had landed on her stomach not far from them. Coffin grabbed her cell phone and called for help.
“Then you moaned,” she said to Millard.
Another of the group, John Cronin of Belfast, told the injured climber several weeks after the accident that her agonized noises were beautiful to him.
“That’s when I knew you weren’t dead,” she recalled him telling her.
But Millard was badly injured. She had shattered the radial bone in her wrists, with pieces of bone broken into chips the size of cornflakes or eggshells. Her fingers were hurt and had nerve damage, and she had fractured an ankle. However, the injuries that hurt the most by far were a badly dislocated shoulder and a broken humerus bone. She had not suffered internal, spinal or head injuries, but her climbing partners or the people who came to help rescue her did not know that yet.
“You were talking, but you didn’t know where you were,” Coffin said of the moments after Millard regained consciousness. “You knew your shoulder really hurt — I kind of expected you to slip away in the first couple of minutes. It was really heart-wrenching.”
Although her wrist looked like “jelly,” Coffin said, Millard tried to bargain with first responders to just put her shoulder back in place. One of those was Bill Bentley, a veteran rock climber who leads the Camden First Aid Technical Rescue Team.
“I told Bill in my most convincing tone that if he just put my shoulder back in place, I would walk right out of there,” the upbeat Millard remembered.
But the rescuers packed her out in a litter, carrying her to the road and an ambulance. Millard said that she heard later that when personnel at PenBay Medical Center in Rockport learned of the magnitude of her fall, they didn’t expect her to survive.
“A lot of people were really amazed that I survived and made it out with relatively few injuries, considering the severity of the accident,” Millard said.
Once at the hospital, she was quickly transferred to Maine Medical Center in Portland, and began to do the long, hard work of recovery. Doctors operated on her, spending a lot of time on her wrist, which was most seriously injured. They put two metal pins in her shattered wrist and drove four posts into the bone, in what’s called an “external fixator.”
“The idea is to absolutely immobilize. They locked it into place for six weeks,” Millard said. “So that the little eggshell pieces could fuse back together.”
They put metal screws in her ankle, which will stay there, and inserted a plate and pins into her damaged shoulder.
She spent 10 days in the hospital altogether, before coming back to Waldo County to recover at home. Millard is originally from Orono, but her parents, Emily Wesson and Peter Millard, were out of the country doing medical mission work in Mozambique. Millard relied on extended family and a network of friends to help her get better.
“The recovery process was made easy by all the people who came together to support me,” she said. “My physical world shrunk while my world of community expanded.”
‘The challenge is how you choose to move forward’
Millard, who had injuries that made being mobile very difficult, needed help with what she called “activities of daily living,” including eating, drinking, showering and dressing.
“The number of people who contacted me and stepped forward to offer help was really remarkable,” she said. “Not just my close friends, but friends of friends, family friends and people that I didn’t even know offered to help. It was like a revolving door in the house.”
A few months earlier, she had moved into a third-floor apartment in the house of Belfast resident Dan Greeley. He became one of the linchpins in her network of friends and support, she said, cooking meals for her and even switching rooms so that she could sleep on the ground floor.
“Climbing to the third floor was like climbing a mountain,” Millard said.
Although friends worried that the active woman, who is known locally as a road racer and athlete, would go stir-crazy with being stuck inside and forced to slow down, that wasn’t the case.
“I couldn’t sit and feel sorry for myself,” she said of the long slog of recovery. “It took everything I had to be able to get up and go to the bathroom. Eat food. Get dressed. I had to get up and keep at it every day.”
She said that she learned and is continuing to learn lessons from the fall — and the recovery process.
“I’ve been a busy bee for a long time, and also a really independent person. Having to be completely dependent on other people was a pretty remarkable experience,” Millard said. “It’s kind of wonderful to be cared for so well. My job was to just open myself and allow people to take care of me. It was great. I got so much comfort from all the people who came and brought food, brought me books, fed me, dressed me so tenderly. It created a lot of closeness with people I didn’t know very well.”
Millard said she understands that the accident was frightening for those watching, for climbers who heard about it and for others. Some have wondered if she will return to climbing again or hang up her harness for good. While she’s not yet sure what she’ll want to do, she said that she will make the decision for herself when the time comes.
“I recognize how much [my fall] impacted other people,” she said. “But through the recovery process, I could see how people love to be of service. Me being vulnerable around them made it OK for them to be vulnerable in front of me.”
In fact, many people dropped their guard with her and shared deep, important things about their lives while they were helping Millard sip tea or wash her hair.
“Everybody wanted to share. It was wonderful and beautiful,” she said. “I don’t see the accident as a tragedy or a terrible thing at all. It is what it is. The challenge is how you choose to move forward. Because of the support I had, I was able to carry on with a lot of enthusiasm.”
BDN reporter Abigail Curtis is one of the people who brought Millard food and books during her recovery.