When senior Danae Sollie set out on a hiking expedition during one of Alaska’s rare sunny days, she had no idea how close it came to being her last.
This summer, Sollie, a biology major, spent four weeks on the Inian Islands with the Arete Project, an organization that seeks to educate young people about citizenship, environmental stewardship, and leadership. Sollie and 11 other participants took classes on a variety of subjects — philosophy, biology, ecology, and the relationship between man and nature.
Three weeks into the program, Sollie went kayaking to a nearby island with several other students where they planned to spend a few nights camping. On the first day of the four-night trip, the group decided to hike to the top of the ridgeline.
“I don’t really remember how it started,” Sollie said. “We were climbing back down the ridge to the creek. Everything is very steep up there and Alaska is a rain forest so the ground was mossy and wet. I know I was holding onto a tree and there was someone in front of me and someone behind me. We were trying to find the best way down to camp because it’s pretty rugged hiking and there are only deer trails there.”
That’s when Sollie says she lost her grip. The next thing she knew, she was rolling down the incline.
“I remember being very surprised it was happening,” Sollie recalled. “At first I was like, ‘I’m sliding down this hill, what is happening?’ And then I started wondering, ‘When am I going to stop?’”
She didn’t. Instead, Sollie found herself somersaulting off the edge of the cliff.
“That’s the moment that stands out the most — the moment I saw everything below me and how far away the ground was,” she said. “I knew in my head, ‘Danae, this is not something you’re going to walk away from. You’re probably not going to survive.’ I thought was going to die.”
After falling between 30 to 40 feet off the side of the cliff, Sollie hit the ground — alive.
“The first words out of my mouth were, ‘Dear Lord, please help me. Dear Lord, please help me,’” she remembers. “I actually kind of had a sense of peace. It was totally an act of God’s grace on me.”
Although conscious, Sollie said the shock of the impact made her body numb.
“The first place I felt pain was my head,” she said. “I put my hands on my head and when I pulled them away there was blood all over them. I knew my hair was bloody and I was like, ‘Do I look good as a redhead?’”
Sollie makes light of it now, but she has not forgotten the fear that ran through her mind in the moment. As the camp leader and his fiance, a wilderness first responder, rushed to her aid, Sollie’s worries turned toward her knee, which she’d previously injured multiple times in different accidents.
“I immediately thought, ‘Am I going to need to get another surgery? Did I just bust months of physical therapy?’” she recalls. “I was so happy when I found I could move it.”
With help, Sollie walked back to camp and there boarded a seaplane that rushed her to the emergency room in Juneau.
“I was immediately given CT scans because the doctors were worried about internal damage, fractures, and brain bleeds,” Sollie said. “My CT came back clean. There was a rock in my head wound, but no skull fractures. They stitched up my head with 14 stitches on my nose and right temple and stapled the back of my head.”
Junior Ben Weide accompanied Sollie on the trip and described the experience as terrifying. He was ahead of Sollie in the group as they began their descent, so he was the first to see her start sliding down and fall from the cliff.
“For a moment I was sure she was dead; I think we all did. All I could think was ‘God, don’t let her die,’” Weide said.
Weide said once she was off to Juneau, everyone was rattled the rest of the day.
“I have not been in a more somber atmosphere,” he said.
It was nothing short of miraculous, he said, that she survived with only stitches and a concussion.
“It was amazing in the fullest, deepest sense of the word,” Weide said.
After being under observation for three days, Sollie returned to camp to finish out the remainder of her program.
“I was really grateful that I was able to go back,” she said. “I knew I wasn’t the only one who went through something that day because there were five other students who witnessed it. Thinking that you’re watching someone die is really scary.”
Just a few weeks later, Sollie arrived on campus to start her final year of college. By mid-September, however, the constant headache she endured — which only worsened when she tried to study — forced her to recognize that she needed to finish healing. Now at home in Minnesota undergoing physical and vision therapy, Sollie said she is 90% recovered and plans to return to Hillsdale in the spring.
“I don’t know if I’ll be back as a full or part-time student,” she explained, “but I registered for classes and I’m going to Israel this winter.”
Despite all she has been through, Sollie said her faith as a Christian has been strengthened, not shaken.
“I’ve been learning two big things,” she said. “First, my reading of Scripture and the book of Job has taught me that God is good even when circumstances aren’t. And second, that eternity is a lot closer to us than we think. I am so thankful that through Christ there is hope and there doesn’t have to be fear in death. It’s only because of Him that my mind has not turned this into a negative experience but has challenged me to trust the Lord. Why am I doubting Him when He so clearly kept me alive?”
Sollie explained that her hope in sharing her story is that others would turn to Jesus as their savior.
“The more powerful story than the one about what Christ did that day on the hiking trip is the one about what he has done on my soul,” she said. “Even in my weakness, He has upheld my life.”