When Manhattan Beach resident Rebecca Bird saw that her friend and former tenant Erik Johnson had been through a debilitating accident, she knew she had to help.
“He is a great guy with a good heart and an active soul,” said Bird. “He’s a true member of society and lives life to the fullest.”
Erik Johnson is a South Bay native who's been infatuated with extreme sports all his life. He loves to ski, surf, rappel off of mountains and snowboard. But his love of canyoneering led to a miracle and a tragedy earlier this year.
In May, Johnson and a friend were canyoneering in the Sequoias. They’d reached the final of five waterfalls and were rappelling down when the anchor he was tied to gave way. An avid mountaineer, he knew the sports he engaged in were risky, but he trained and followed best practices to do them safely. He had the right gear and hiked at the right time of year and mapped out a plan and paid attention to his surroundings.
But that day, he’d tied a rope around a tree in the side of the canyon. As he was hanging, the tree pulled straight out of the canyon wall, and he dropped 40 feet straight down to the riverbed. At that point, Johnson said, his mind went into shock, and he doesn’t remember what happened next beyond a few snippets and help with some photographs. His friend, Kyle DeVolder, climbed down to reach him and pulled him out of the water. He covered Johnson up with his own wetsuit and ran back out of the canyon onto a neighboring private property to ask for help.
It took hours for a helicopter to reach the canyon. By the time he made it to a hospital, Johnson’s body temperature had dropped to 90 degrees and he was in hypothermia. His kidneys were failing. He had a broken pelvis, a broken hand, a dislocated thumb, lacerations that covered his arms and legs, an open compound fracture in his right leg, and he’d completely shattered both heels and ankles.
The miracle is that he’s alive. He survived the fall, the hours it took to get him to the hospital and the days that followed, which were touch-and-go, including three days on life support. But he has a long road ahead to recovery.
Last month, Johnson made the difficult decision to say goodbye to one of his feet. It had been injured so badly in the accident that the skin around it had essentially died, and to save it, he would have had to fuse his ankle together at a right angle. He was constantly in pain, hardly able to put weight on it, and it was an ugly reminder of the fall. In order to move on, mentally and physically, he’d have to let it go.
“I spent a lot of time thinking about it,” said Johnson. “I talked with a lot of people and did a lot of research and ultimately came to the conclusion that a prosthetic would give me far more options and a far better lifestyle than keeping my ankle.”
Surprisingly, Johnson said, the idea of saying goodbye was much harder than actually having his foot and lower leg amputated below the knee.
“I didn’t realize until after the surgery had happened how much of a burden my other foot was,” Johnson said. “It wasn’t until it was gone that I actually felt relief.”
The emotional and mental recovery has been just as difficult as the physical one. He’s gone through dark periods of blaming himself for what happened, telling himself that if he hadn’t tied to that tree, if he’d chosen another path, even if he avoided extreme sports, it wouldn’t have happened. But he also wouldn’t have been true to himself.
“It’s innate,” said Johnson. “I walked at eight-and-a-half months. I guess I’ve always wanted to fly before I could walk.”
He was afraid that the mountaineering community would shame him or accuse him of being ill prepared, or that friends and family would be upset with his decisions. But it hasn’t happened, and he’s formed a bond with his parents that may never have been possible without the vulnerable position he found himself in.
“My concern was that there would be a lot of buzz speculating as to what went wrong, what I did wrong, what we did wrong, what we could have done,” said Johnson. “There really hasn’t been at all. There’s just been a total outreach. (Fellow adventure sports enthusiasts) have called me and said, ‘You know this could have happened to any of us. It just happened to you.’ It’s been really nice to be supported when I didn’t expect it.”
Johnson said one of the hardest things about the first six months since the accident, beyond the limited mobility and distress, is that he hasn’t been able to enjoy the great outdoors.
“It’s where I feel most alive,” said Johnson. “There’s a thrill about it … there’s this euphoric state of wow. When you’re out, by yourself, in the mountains somewhere and you’re seeing something that nobody else in the world is seeing, or you’re jumping over a cliff or going over a waterfall or you’re skiing – in the midst of all that power – it’s just euphoric, exhilarating. It’s a thrill. I miss it so much.”
He said with the right prosthetics, he’ll be able to run again, ski, surf and even rappel from mountains – getting back to the place he feels the most free. And, he might even be better than before.
“I think it’s very possible that I could be stronger and more capable afterward, even if only because I’m more motivated than I ever was in the past to get there,” said Johnson.
Earlier this week, he got out on a paddleboard for the first time since the accident, with his mom paddling by his side. He hopes to continue having those “first time since the accident” moments.
But before he’s able to fulfill all of his dreams, he needs the right prosthetics. The accident has been a temporary blow to his job as a lawyer, although he’s been able to work some from his parent’s Orange County home where he’s living while he heals, and friends have picked up some of his clients’ needs in the interim. Insurance covers one normal walking prosthetic, but he can’t see himself giving up sports. He’s too active and young to say goodbye for good.
So Johnson has a GoFundMe page where people can help out. He’s trying to raise $50,000, which will cover his insurance deductible for his medical treatments and two specialty prostheses—a ski leg and a running leg. Ultimately, he’s also got his eye on a surf and water leg, a bio-mechanical walking leg, a wakeboarding foot and a specialized hiking and canyoneering foot. But that will all have to come later.
Bird is telling all of her friends, and has become his voice and fundraising arm in Manhattan Beach, where Johnson hopes to live once he’s recovered. It’s thanks to friends like Bird who give him hope that he’ll be able to get there, and Johnson is touched by her support.
To donate, or to learn more about his story, visit gofundme.com/SaveEJ_Fund.