MINDEN, Nev. - Young, bright and strong as an ox, 2012 Douglas High grad Blake Paiement learned the hard way that he is not invincible.
The 17-year-old had his whole life ahead of him when he reached for a rock-hold on the mountainside above Angora Lake on June 8. In the seconds that followed he felt the granite ledge he was standing on give way, and then he was falling.
"I'm probably not going to hike for a while," Blake said Wednesday from his mother's home in Carson City. "I realize no one is invincible. But, God was watching out for me."
Blake fell 30 feet, breaking his left hand and right ankle. But the tale of his fall, and the amazing rescue that ensued, has meaning vastly deeper than his injuries. In fact, it's not so much what happened, but what didn't happen that has Blake and his family crediting that inexplicable phenomenon commonly called a miracle.
The story begins exactly a week after Douglas High graduation.
Blake had set out with his good friends, fellow graduate Justin Sims, and 2009 grad Danyelle Heidt. The trio scrambled up the stony ridge above Upper Angora Lake on the west side of the Tahoe Basin.
Nestled at approximately 7,450 feet above sea level, Upper Angora is a popular hideout for denizens of Camp Richardson during the summer months. It's also famous among local youth for cliff-jumping. A band of cliffs on the northwestern side of the tarn, as high as 65 feet, is frequently used to launch off into the snowmelt waters.
On this particular day, the three young hikers had made their way to the summit above the lake. The afternoon was waning as they made their way back down through the many granite outcrops studding the slope. An icy waterfall cut through the middle of the cliffs and poured into the lake below.
"I was trying to find the easiest way down," Blake recalled. "I hopped down onto a little ledge and looked over the edge."
Ironically, at that very moment, Blake thought to himself there was no way he could proceed from the ledge.
"I knew if I fell, I would be dead," he said.
So he turned around, hoping to discover a safer route.
"I went back up the ledge and tried to palm the rock," he said. "Then the rock I was on gave way and took me down with it."
Blake was falling. He said there was no time for panic to set in, but, in a split second, he prepared for impact.
From a bird's-eye-view, the drop would have been roughly 100 feet near the course of a thundering waterfall. What happened next was an act of God, Blake and his family believe.
The young man landed on a small mossy slab, approximately 30 feet below where he'd been standing. His right ankle snapped upwards upon impact, and his left hand was crushed against the rock, but he was able to drive his left foot against the surface and pin himself on the tiny platform.
On either side of the slab, the mountain fell away about 70 feet.
When Blake's mother, Sherry Paiement, along with 21-year-old daughter Tara, arrived at Barton Memorial Hospital hours later, a paramedic who'd been on scene put the whole situation in perspective.
"The slab was about the size of a truck hood," Sherry said. "If he had fallen two feet to the side either way, the paramedic's exact words were, 'It would have been a horrific death.'"
Sherry said the same paramedic pointed to the sky and said, "God saved your son's life."
When the accident occurred, Justin and Danyelle couldn't see Blake but were alarmed by the rock crashing down. They quickly discovered their friend stranded in the crags, made verbal contact, and then found help at the peopled lake below.
Blake said he was cold as he lay. The nearby waterfall was producing a fine, frigid mist.
"I was freezing," he said. "All I had on was a tanktop, and the surface was wet from the waterfall."
At first, Blake said, he didn't feel any pain from his injuries. About 10 minutes later, though, he started to feel his ankle, which he said he'd popped back into place. Then he waited for help.
It took roughly three hours for El Dorado County Search and Rescue members and South Lake Tahoe firefighters to navigate Blake down the mountain. First, crews had to reach the accident site, which proved to be a technical climb in itself. Strapping Blake into a sled-like stretcher, rescuers used a nearby tree to anchor rappelling rope and lower the patient down the side of the cliff and through a narrow chute.
"I pretty much had to sled around the rocks," Blake said.
At the lake, he was transported to a helicopter and flown to Barton in South Lake Tahoe, where his family and friends had gathered. He actually was released later that night after his injuries were treated.
"I got lucky," he said.
Both Blake and family members called the rescue effort incredible, and they thanked the agencies involved. Although Blake will be getting two casts on Monday, he still has his whole life ahead of him.
And he's still drawn to the high country. In fact, he's thinking about attending Lake Tahoe Community College this fall. But that's not to say he hasn't learned some hard lessons, literally hard.
"When it comes to hiking, I'm going to be more cautious," he said. "I'm going to take things much easier."
Sherry thanked her daughter for being a rock (another kind of rock) during the traumatic experience. And she thanked God for sparing her son. From a mother's perspective, she's learned some invaluable lessons as well.
"Just tell your children that you love them every day," she said. "Don't take their lives for granted. You never know when they're going to be gone."