MAULED BY A MOUN­TAIN LION

How do you move on af­ter a cougar tries to kill you? Fol­low­ing an at­tack in 2004, Anne Hjelle got back on the trail.

Backpacker - - The Survival Issue - As told to Kather­ine Blunt

BE­ING TACK­LED BY a moun­tain lion feels some­thing like get­ting hit by a bus.

The an­i­mal sprang out of the brush in Whit­ing Ranch Wilder­ness Park in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia with­out warn­ing, and the force tore me off my bike and off the trail I’d been rid­ing. I fought, thrash­ing and punch­ing as its jaws clamped down on the back of my neck, and then my face. I felt my left cheek tear away.

My rid­ing part­ner, Debi, hurled her bike at the lion, to no avail. She grabbed one of my legs, try­ing to pull me from its grip as it dragged me away. I felt its jaws close on my throat, and passed out.

I re­gained con­scious­ness mo­ments later, chok­ing on my own blood. Other rid­ers had thrown rocks at the lion, at last scar­ing it off.

My first surgery was that night. It lasted six and a half hours. When the ban­dages came off the next morn­ing, a nurse re­luc­tantly handed me a com­pact mir­ror. Noth­ing about my face looked fa­mil­iar.

Eight days later, I left the hospi­tal and re­turned home on my own two feet. Strangers stared at me when I ven­tured out to pick up pre­scrip­tions, trig­ger­ing the urge to look down, to hide my face. It was a taste of my new re­al­ity: Those stares have per­sisted ever since.

When I was cleared to ride my bike a few months later, I brought my hus­band and some friends back to the trail. The lion that had at­tacked me (and killed an­other rider that same day) had been caught and eu­th­a­nized, and moun­tain lion at­tacks are ex­ceed­ingly rare as it is, but I still felt the grip of fear. I told my­self not to give into it: I had to prove to my­self that my nerves would not con­trol me. I couldn’t do any­thing to speed up the healing of my face, but I could work on strength­en­ing my mind. I de­cided to fo­cus on that.

As soon as we started the ride, I felt that old feel­ing of eu­pho­ria creep back in. For the first time since the at­tack, I felt my life was fi­nally re­turn­ing to nor­mal.

I was hope­ful for the sec­ond re­con­struc­tive surgery. But once it was over, I knew I would never look like I once did. The dead nerves around my eyes would never heal, my smile would never re­gain its former sym­me­try. Now I had to ac­cept that, as a per­sonal trainer in Orange County, I would al­ways look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent in a place and a career where ap­pear­ance re­ally mat­ters.

But I couldn’t dwell in grief or self­pity. The dam­age was only cos­metic, I re­minded my­self: I was alive, I had my fam­ily, I could still ride.

I kept biking con­sis­tently, forc­ing my­self to fight my fears. I used to rel­ish solo rides be­fore the at­tack, but now, I feel more com­fort­able hav­ing some­one else in sight. It will prob­a­bly al­ways be that way, but that’s all right: Solo or not, I’m still out there.

In the years since the at­tack, I’ve thought a lot about fear. It can be use­ful for mak­ing safe de­ci­sions, but it can also be re­stric­tive. Over time, I’ve learned to bal­ance my fear with logic: There is al­most no chance that I will get at­tacked again. That’s what I tell my­self when I feel my heart rate start climb­ing. And I look around: Among moun­tains and trees, it’s easy to re­mem­ber that brav­ing a lit­tle un­easi­ness is worth it.

Once, at a lo­cal speak­ing event, a woman told me that she stopped hik­ing at Whit­ing Ranch af­ter hear­ing what hap­pened to me. That broke my heart. I tell my story be­cause I want peo­ple to know that if I can over­come my fear, any­one can.

I took her hik­ing there the next week. For her, it was the first step for­ward.

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