True Stories: Saved by the Belle (1/4)

When a college student smashed his head on a mountain rock in the middle of the wilderness, his chances of surviving were low. To save him, his girlfriend did the impossible.

True Stories: Saved by the Belle

Photo: Tamara Reynolds

Aaron Cole couldn’t pass up an adventure, and his girlfriend, Shelly Johnson, couldn’t say no to going along. Driving through New Hampshire on a vacation trip to Baxter State Park in Maine, the couple had already stopped to do somersaults off a lakeside cliff. When they saw Silver Cascade, a waterfall that tumbles down 600 feet in the White Mountain range, Cole had one thought: Let’s climb it.

It was a sunny August day. The college students had set off in bathing suits and flip-flops. Soon they were grappling up the rocks on either side of the falls.

Their ascent was no jaunt – some vertical faces loomed as high as 15 feet. One climbing website cautions that the falls require “a combination of sure feet and steady nerves,” before bluntly warning against the attempt. An experienced climber, Johnson, 22, still needed a hand from Cole, 24. And as with all rock climbing, going up – with the terrain ahead clearly visible – is the easier part.

Just how, Johnson wondered, are we going to get down?

About 45 minutes into the hike and not far from the peak, Cole decided to walk into the falls where they ran over moss-covered rocks. “Please don’t,” Johnson called to him. But she knew Cole: Her concern would only egg him on. Not wanting to give him the satisfaction, she turned away.

When she turned back a few seconds later, she saw that Cole had fallen on his backside and begun sliding down the slick slope. With every moment, he picked up speed and careened toward a sharp drop-off.

For a second, Johnson stared in disbelief. Then she snapped to. “Roll over!” she yelled to Cole. She hoped he could roll his way out of the fast current and get a grip on one of the drier rocks just a few feet on either side of him.

But Cole couldn’t get any traction. As Johnson looked on, he smashed his head on a rock, and his body went slack. Then he disappeared over the drop-off.


Cole and Johnson met in her senior year at Michigan’s Grass Lake High   School. His parents were her coaches – his dad in track, his mom in cheerleading. She and Cole connected the following spring, when he helped his dad at a track meet by refereeing the pole vault, one of Johnson’s events.

On their first date, they went horseback riding and four-wheeling under the light of a full moon. The romance continued in college, where Johnson studies nursing at the University of Michigan and Cole pursues speech therapy at nearby Eastern Michigan University. And they took frequent trips, to wakeboard, snowboard, ride horses, and camp.

It’s always been a happy relationship, Johnson says, with just one sticking point: Cole’s appetite for risk. “Let’s put it this way,” Johnson says. “We’ve been together four and a half years, and I can’t remember the number of times that I’ve taken him to the hospital. He’s never taken me once.”

Next: How Johnson revived Cole…and
then did the unthinkable.

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