Kaylene & Josh Baker
Winter Issue 2020 Written by Cyd Hoefle Photography contributed by Josh and Kaylene Baker
A Story of Miraculous Survival and Adoring Love
Kaylene and Josh Baker have an incredible love story, and they don’t mind sharing it. Married just one year, the Bozeman couple have endured more in their time together than most couples do in a lifetime. Their love, their faith and their story are powerful.
They met on staff four years ago at Chi Alpha, a Christian fellowship ministry at Montana State University. As mentors for MSU students, the two became good friends. A love of the outdoors inspired them to begin the sport of climbing.
“It’s great exercise,” Kaylene said. “Climbing provides a real upper-body workout. We’re not thrill seekers, but problem solvers. We like figuring out the best way to get to the top and then strategically doing it.”
The afternoon of June 30, 2018, became the date that life changed for them. On that day, the couple had chosen to climb south of Big Timber at the Natural Bridge area. Arriving mid-morning, they climbed multiple pitches before taking a break for a late lunch. By the time they decided to do their last climb, it was close to 5 p.m.
“We’d had a great day up to that time,” Josh said. “The climbs were great, we’d done well, so we decided to do one more. The reviews on it were good and it was a fairly easy climb.”
Josh was the lead climber and Kaylene was belaying for him, keeping tension on the rope so that in case of mishap, he would not fall far before being stopped by her.
“We only had one helmet that day,” Josh said. “Kaylene had it on. There’s no doubt it saved her life.”
Josh had worked his way up about 40 feet and was analyzing the route to determine what to do next. Some pebbles had fallen as he climbed, but there was no reason for him to believe for a minute that anything bigger than that could fall. But in a freak accident, the very rock that he was straddling dislodged and fell. Right below him, Kaylene was hit full force by the five-foot slab of rock, leaving her with multiple injuries, the most severe being her left leg severed at the knee.
She remembers nothing of the accident. For Josh it’s a nightmare he will never forget.
In an instant, the whole side came loose, and he found himself in a free fall.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “There was nothing I could do. The rock hit her and kept going. I saw my girlfriend laying there face down, bleeding, and all I could think was that she was dead. I couldn’t get to her fast enough.”
As she fell, Kaylene landed on the rope, keeping the slack taut, ultimately saving Josh from falling to his death.
“I started screaming for help as I tried to jerk the rope loose so I could get down to her,” he said, tears coming to his eyes as he recalled the story. “I got to about 10 feet up and that’s as far as I could get so I unlatched my harness, jumped down and ran to her. She was moaning so I knew she was still alive. But I also knew there wasn’t much time.”
Kaylene had landed face down, which not only kept Josh from falling, but also restricted the flow of blood from her injuries and contributed to her survival. When he reached her, he pulled his sweatshirt and T-shirt off and used them to try to stop the bleeding.
“I knew I needed to get help, but I didn’t want to leave her,” he continued.
Just before the climb, they had met eight climbers around the bend from where they were. Hoping they were still in the area, Josh ran toward them, crying out for help. The group was still there, and among them was a nursing student and another who had wilderness training. They quickly fashioned a tourniquet with their belts and worked to stabilize Kaylene as two others from their group ran to their car to head for cell service. At the same time, someone who heard Josh’s yells was already racing to the nearby ranger station to radio the Big Timber Search and Rescue.
“We don’t know who that was,” Josh said. “But whoever it was got us help about a half hour before the cellphones had service enough to call. That was a miracle.”
More miracles kept mounting up that day. From the eight climbers that were still in the canyon to the person that radioed for help to the Big Timber Search and Rescue, who often use the Natural Bridge area for training, they knew the fastest route to Kaylene and how to best get her out. As they administered oxygen to her and worked on her wounds, Josh said she came to long enough to speak.
“She just kept repeating ‘Jesus,’” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Wow, her faith is so real that that is her response!’”
The medical helicopters from Bozeman and Billings were both in use elsewhere, so a helicopter from Helena was dispatched.
On that very day, the team from Helena had been working on traumatic injury rescues and hypothetically and miraculously used Kaylene’s exact weight to determine the type and amount of medication someone would need in such a rescue. As soon as they landed and began administering meds, they knew what she needed without further calculations.
The helicopter landed just as she was being moved across the parking lot at Natural Bridge. As she was rushed away to Billings, Josh stayed surrounded by people who were reaching out to the young man, who was clearly in shock.
A chaplain from Big Timber was on site and gave Josh a ride to Big Timber while his wife drove Josh’s car. Once they decided he was capable of heading to Billings on his own, they let him go.
“He called Kaylene’s parents and brother for me,” Josh said. “It was a relief to have someone take over and make decisions for me. I really didn’t know what to do first.”
Once Kaylene got to SCL Healthcare in Billings, the trauma team quickly took over. In addition to her leg amputation, her left hand had been crushed beyond repair, and she also sustained a traumatic brain injury and a broken back. It was a fight to keep her alive in those first few days. Josh remained as close to her as he could, and her family, from Helena, raced down to be with her.
“I’ll never forget one of the first things Kaylene’s dad said to me,” Josh said, as he teared up. “Just after they got to Billings, he put his hands on both of my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘We forgive you and don’t hold you responsible.’ I didn’t even realize how much I needed to hear that.”
Taking turns, the family kept vigil over Kaylene, never leaving her alone. She was kept heavily sedated to allow her body to begin healing and to help her endure the pain. Because of the bombardment of phone calls and texts in the weeks that followed, Kaylene’s family set up a Facebook page called “Prayers for Kaylene” to help friends and family members keep up with news of her progress. What was meant to be just for friends and family quickly expanded. Thousands of people stepped up and began praying for Kaylene’s recovery and followed every day of her journey.
Just days after the accident, Kaylene gave her family hope as she responded to commands to wiggle her toes and open her eyes. Prayers for miracles were asked by the family as Kaylene continued to fight for her life. Her injuries were extensive and the road to recovery slow. The Facebook page became an encouraging support for the family, with posts and prayers arriving from all over the United States and beyond, including Turkey, Indonesia and the Philippines. Over 5,000 people followed her progress and prayed for her recovery.
Nearly a month after the accident, Kaylene was told of the extent of her injuries.
“I just remember having a peace about it,” she said. “I had a lot of questions, but my first response was one of peace.”
She spent weeks in ICU, some time in long-term care in Billings and then in Salt Lake City for rehabilitation. Josh was with her the entire time.
“I quit school and my job in Bozeman so I could be with her,” he said. “I was where I needed and wanted to be.” Sleeping on a friend’s couch and living out of a duffle bag, his commitment drew concern from Kaylene’s family.
“I didn’t know that until a while after,” he laughed, “but I guess it was a natural concern.”
It was for Kaylene, too. When she was preparing to leave for Salt Lake, she took Josh aside. “I told him, ‘Don’t come to Salt Lake if you feel sorry for me or responsible. I don’t need that.’ I was basically drawing a line in the sand and wanted to know what his commitment level was.”
That level was obviously high. Josh stayed by her side as she was fitted for prosthetics and learned to live her life in a new way. They married a year after her accident and today Kaylene works at her old job with Chi Alpha mentoring college-age students. She continues to strive to be independent and even drives. Josh completed school and has a master’s degree in counselling and is employed as a counselor.
“Josh is so good to me,” Kaylene said. “I’m thankful that he chose me. He knew what he was getting into and he still said ‘yes.’”
Of course, they would both say they wish the accident had never happened. Days of sorrow and discouragement do come.
“It’s a terrible thing that happened to me,” Kaylene said, “There are difficult days for sure. But God has used what we’ve gone through to set us up for success.”
In the corner of the living room, the rope that held Josh and Kaylene to each other in the climb has been framed, a reminder of what they have gone through.
"God can use our story," Kaylene added. "We don't want to just be an inspiration to others. We want to live our lives for Jesus and make him known."