Hiking fall from cliff leads to dramatic rescue

Paula Kaplan-Reiss took a moment to pose for a photo while hiking Aug. 10 on Monument Mountain in Great Barrington, Mass. Moments after this photo was taken, she lost her footing and fell nearly 75 feet down the Squaw Peak ridge.

Don't miss the big stories. Like us on Facebook.  

GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass. — The last thing Paula Kaplan-Reiss remembers is standing on the boulder field atop Monument Mountain.

"It was a gorgeous day," she said.

It was a hike taken on a weekend trip in August to her Canaan, Conn., home, as she recovered from the death of her mother exactly one week earlier. But it turned into something else — a fall off a cliff.

And Kaplan-Reiss remembers none of it. Not the dramatic six-hour rescue. Not screaming in pain. Not the young man who left the hike with his mother to search for her — and found her after she simply disappeared from her husband's side on Squaw Peak and was unresponsive to his frantic calls to her.

Nor did she remember the men who rappelled down the cliff to stabilize her and lift her to safety, nor the rescuers who airlifted her to Albany Medical Center in New York.

Kaplan-Reiss, 60, is back home in New Jersey, having mostly healed from multiple fractures and a concussion. Ten ribs were broken. So was her clavicle, tibia and fibia. She's now back to work at her psychology practice.

She said she was stunned to return to full consciousness to find that she had been at the center of such a drama.

"I love to perform, but that was really not my interest," she told The Eagle via phone recently.

Connections emerged from the chaos. The Life Flight chopper had landed at the same hospital where she was born, for instance. Her family, on both sides, is from Albany.

"Everyone is literally buried in Albany," she said. "It's crazy. The joke at the hospital was that both times I left Albany Medical Center, I couldn't walk."

Kaplan-Reiss' fall Aug. 10 gripped the Berkshires. No one knew whether she had, or would, survive the fall, or what lasting damage she might have suffered. It was a rescue that funneled nearly every firefighter and EMT in South County to the mountain.

Firefighters estimated that she fell about 75 feet to a ledge, where the young man found her in a kneeling position, her legs pinned beneath her, and in a state of shock.

Henry Grant, 18, of Egremont, had climbed up it on his hands and knees to stay with her and keep her from falling farther. A British man from Boston, known only as "Simon," had joined Grant to stay with Kaplan-Reiss, and to keep her distracted and still. They asked her questions, and she was able to answer. She still hopes to find Simon and thank him.

"It blows me away," she said of their efforts.

Responders came and stabilized her, during which time she screamed in pain, Grant said.

"I'm so glad I don't remember that," she said.

Then she, Grant and Simon all were lifted back up to the top of the mountain and helped down by rescuers.

"All these people really need to be recognized," she said of the rescuers. "I lived, and I'm fine, and they have no idea. And they are volunteers. This is a big thank-you."

Support our journalism. Subscribe today. →

They might take heart, for Kaplan-Reiss still has a sense of humor.

"I laugh that, for my 60th birthday, I got a cane," she said. "I'm not using it anymore."

She said her ankle still hurts, but otherwise she is managing fine, though she's not entirely back to normal. She said one friend, trying to be helpful, asked her if she wanted to "hit a few balls" on the tennis court, since she loves tennis.

"'Are you kidding me?' I said."

She was hospitalized for 10 days. A psychiatrist colleague had to post a sign on her door saying she had had an accident.

"People were showing up," she said.

A flood of worry ensued. But she was able to return to work three weeks ago, when she could walk the flight of stairs. She is relieved.

"It really has been wonderful to not focus on my issues," she said.

She has been in touch with Grant, a freshman at Ithaca College, whom she credits with saving her life by finding her. She sent him a $500 gift card for Amazon.

Now, she worries about others falling off the mountain. She knows that she isn't the first to be rescued, or meet with a worse fate there. She called the Trustees of Reservations, which owns the park, to recommend a railing of some sort. She hasn't heard back yet. But the person who answered knew who she was.

"Like I was a ghost," she said.

She says that hiking is something she and her husband, Rick, found they loved to do together, since she doesn't want to bicycle on country roads the way he does. She said she's not a thrill-seeker.

"If I'm somebody who is fairly careful and fairly experienced at hiking, this could happen to anybody," she said.

When asked if she would climb Monument again, she said she would, if it could be made safer at the top. Her husband thinks she should.

"He said, `You have to get back on the horse.' We love the Berkshires. And I don't want to be afraid of hiking."

But she also said that her fall could have been more serious, had it happened on a different hiking trip with friends earlier in the summer.

"At the end of June, I went hiking at Yellowstone."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshrieeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.