Competitor Classics: Surviving A Battle With A Grizzly Bear

Photo: John Segesta

Doctors took skin and muscle from other parts of Johan Otter's body to rebuild his scalp. Photo: John Segesta

This piece first appeared in Competitor Magazine in 2007.

Written by: Bob Babbitt

It was August 25, 2005, and 43-year-old Johan Otter of San Diego and his 18-year-old daughter, Jenna, were out for a hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park. The two were 90 minutes into a six-hour hike when they came around a corner and ran smack dab into hell.

A 350-pound grizzly bear was five feet away with two of her cubs. The bear and Johan Otter were kindred spirits — both taken by surprise, both wanting nothing else but to protect their own.

Otter put himself between the bear and Jenna and it was on.

“The bear bit down on my left thigh and wasn’t about to let go,” Otter remembers. “It wasn’t very pleasant.”

He recalls being shaken around like a rag doll.

“If you are attacked by a bear, you’re supposed to get into the fetal position to protect your front side and play dead,” says Otter.

Fat chance.  The bear already had him by the front side and he was at the worst spot on the trail to be attacked. The only escape from the dental-floss-thin trail was a cliff with a sheer drop off.

Options? He didn’t have many. The bear was inflicting major damage, breaking seven vertebrae in Otter’s neck and back, one in five places. His right eye socket was crushed and he had numerous puncture wounds and three broken ribs. His scalp was torn nearly completely off, and he was on his way to losing 50 percent of the blood in his body.

“If I stayed there, I was going to die,” he says.

To stay alive and to keep the bear away from Jenna, he dove 25 feet off the cliff while grabbing the bear by the throat. The two landed amidst the hard scrabble and continued their battle. Otter seized a rock and repeatedly beat the bear in the head. He knew he was in bad shape when he could actually feel the bear’s teeth going into his skull. The two tumbled another 50 feet, 75 feet total, down the side of the mountain.

Time was crawling. Johan Otter’s life had been altered forever in the span of what turned out to be five minutes.

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