BYU student turns rock climbing accident into positive experience

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Harrison Riehle lay on his back in the middle of the Ghana bush and looked up at the 50-foot rock face from which he had fallen. The wind had been knocked out of him and his feet throbbed with the pain of shattered bones, but he knew he would survive.

Riehle, a BYU pre-marketing major, grew up climbing rocks wherever his family traveled. As they drove along mountain ranges, he would tell his mom, “I can climb that!” It was only when he started school at Utah Valley University and gained access to an indoor climbing wall that he developed a knowledge of and skill for climbing.

Riehle met friends he liked to rock climb with when he transferred to BYU, and they planned to try climbing outside of Utah — first in China and then in Ghana.

This was not Riehle’s first time in Ghana — he served an LDS mission and started a business selling solar lamps there, Yenso Solar. He determined to spend the summer developing his business with the help of interns and then explore Ghana for a week before flying home.

When the final week of their trip came, Riehle and his interns — Aldan Halterman, Ryan Liston and Seth Huber — hiked up Mount Krobo for an hour before finding a spot to rock climb. Riehle climbed first to set up a rope for the others to use. After each person climbed, Riehle returned up the rock face to unhook the rope.

He trusted the equipment holding him 50 feet above his friends. But as he looked at the anchor keeping him aloft, the rope came loose and he fell through the air.

“The fall happened so fast that I couldn’t comprehend what had happened,” Riehle said on his blog. “I have climbed hundreds of times and know a hundred people who have each climbed hundreds of times and never once heard of an anchor failing. I love climbing and I know that there are calculated risks. This was not one of those risks.”

After a moment of excruciating silence, the interns sprang into action, taking orders from Riehle, who had trained as an EMT and had all the supplies necessary to splint his feet. What took the group an hour to hike up took five hours to hike down, even with all the interns helping to carry Riehle down the mountain.

“I was not panicked,” said Halterman, a BYU junior studying public health. “Ghana has a really good healthcare infrastructure, so I knew he was going to be fine.”

When the struggling hikers made it down the mountain, they still had another hour before reaching the medical university where Riehle could have casts put on his feet to stabilize him for the plane ride home. At the time, the university had run out of pain medication. It was another two days of traveling home before Riehle had surgery on both feet.

Riehle made the decision to still enroll in Fall Semester 2017 at BYU. Despite being in a wheel chair with limited mobility, he said he learned from the experience rather than resenting it.

“They tell you if you want to understand someone you should walk a mile in their shoes. I say, roll a mile instead,” Riehle said.

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Riehle said he has come to realize the importance of accessibility on campus and how disabilities make even the most normal tasks — taking tests in the testing center, showering, going to church — much more difficult. He’s learned about services offered on campus to help those with disabilities, including academic accommodations, scholarships and housing.

According to the 2016 Disability Statistic Annual Report, Utah has the lowest percentage of people with disabilities, at 9.9 percent. However, Riehle has still found and bonded with many students on campus who are also confined to wheelchairs during his recovery.

Doctors recently told Riehle he could leave his wheelchair and begin walking again with supportive boots on his feet, so he organized a commemorative walk from his apartment to Chip Cookies, just over half a mile. He invited friends who supported him in his recovery to join him.

“When something happens to you, whether you are happy about it or sad about it, it’s not going to change, so you might as well be happy about it,” Riehle said. “Complaining about a hard thing will never change it, but smiling through it will.”

The doctors expect Riehle to eventually gain back his full strength and ability in his feet.

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