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Arizona College Student Fighting to Survive a Week After Camelback Mountain Fall

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UPDATE (see below): Makayla Castro succumbed to her injuries over the weekend.

An 18-year-old Grand Canyon University student remains in a medically induced coma at a Phoenix hospital following a long fall from a Camelback Mountain cliff face last week.

"It's terrible," said Allison Castro, mother of victim Makayla "Kayla" Castro, in a TV interview from a hospital waiting room. "You just want to hold her and pick her up and you can't."

On April 20, the young woman, who hails from Escondido, California, was seen by numerous witnesses on the west side of the mountain park as she tried to ascend a vertical face near the established rock-climbing route, "Suicide Direct." Observers reported that she seemed stuck on one section, climbing up a few feet, then back down, then freezing in place, before she suddenly came off the rock and fell about 60 to 100 feet.

Castro already has proved she's a fighter: For starters, at least three people have died in the past few years after falling much shorter distances at the popular mountain park. Castro broke numerous bones, including her back and skull. Unconscious but still breathing, she clung to life as a rescue mission unfolded.

The fact that she's still alive also is owed to a lightning-fast response by Phoenix city officials.

Suicide Direct is on the very prominent cliff just south of Camelback's Echo Canyon parking lot. As Castro and a male friend gained height, they caught the eye of many hikers in in the park, and also of a park ranger who called the fire department nearly at the instant Castro fell. Minutes later, technical-rescue expert Captain Rocky Northcutt and other firefighters arrived at the scene.

"We were able to evaluate her and get her to the hospital in record time," says Phoenix fire Captain Darrell Wiseman.

She required immediate surgeries at the HonorHealth Scottsdale Osborn Medical Center, including having part of her skull removed to ease pressure from swelling in her brain, Allison Castro wrote on the CaringBridge web page her family created last week.

The teen broke her "ankle, leg, pelvis, ribs, elbow, jaw, cheek bones," skull and back, and her body contained "numerous puncture wounds and other minor fractures," her mother wrote. An ICU nurse deemed the girl a "miracle baby." In the latest online journal entry, Allison Castro wrote that Tuesday "was a good day for Makayla" because her brain pressure was holding steady.

The Castro family has also raised $26,000 so far for medical expenses on a GoFundMe site.

Rescue officials said Castro apparently was climbing beyond her ability before she fell. Officials couldn't say immediately whether Castro and her partner had any climbing gear at all — advanced climbers might forego a rope on occasion, but most would still wear rubber-soled rock-climbing shoes when tackling something as difficult as Suicide Direct. The man with whom she was climbing that day can be seen wearing tennis shoes in TV images of the rescue.

The route's name comes from another climb about 100 feet east called Suicide, which has a moderate rating but apparently had been the scene of dramatic falls in the '60s or '70s. The "Direct" route also has a spooky reputation: In 1987, Arizona State University student Andre Dauvergne died after falling from it. He had no equipment or training.

Intentionally or not, Castro departed from the standard route — putting her in even greater potential danger from Camelback's notoriously loose, crumbly rock.

Most of the 700,000 estimated annual visitors to iconic Camelback Mountain don't get hurt, but the park typically has an average of one rescue effort per week. Usually, it's the desert's fabled heat that gets to people, but Camelback's lofty cliffs can be another source of trouble. In 2011, the fatal fall of 25-year-old Clint McHale led officials — at the request of McHale's sister — to place his picture and story on Echo Canyon Trail , in the hope of warning others of the potential danger.

It's not always unprepared climbers like McHale who get hurt: Last month, an 18-year-old rock climber was air-lifted off the mountain after she was injured in a fall while rappelling on the Praying Monk formation.

The city has put renewed effort into its "Take a Hike - Do It Right" safety campaign, including putting out additional signage, says Phoenix Deputy Fire Chief Shelly Jamison.

A fundraiser for Kayla will be held at a gelato shop in Escondido tomorrow from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.

UPDATE: On May 1, Allison Castro wrote online:

"We want to thank you all for loving, supporting and praying over Makayla. She fought so hard, but her injuries were just too much for her to overcome. We know she is in a good place and God is taking such good care of her."

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