The biggest mistake was by the Ranger who pointed at the map and said “You walk out here.” But I haven’t even started telling the story and I’m already getting ahead of myself, I’ll get to the mistakes that were made, but for the most part the only way we could have avoided the events of that night would have been to stay home. So, I’ll start at the beginning.
After leaving Utah’s Zion National Park in the fall of 2008, Derik, Tyler and I knew we had to return, and almost immediately began planning a return trip about the same time the next year. In sharing the amazing story of rappelling and canyoneering in this incredible environment, everybody wanted to be a part of the next trip. So it was open invitation, as November 2009 approached there were a total of 10 people that had expressed interest in joining us – these being mostly co-workers at the YMCA camp. Each of these people had different times that they would be able to join us on our month long journey through the west. In leaving Minnesota in early November, 5 of us piled in the extra minivan that my parents had acquired. Derik, Tyler and I had the experience the previous year. Carl was quite inexperienced but very willing to learn and rather off the wall. Mick, also very willing to learn, never lets his prosthetic leg slow him down much, though it is definitely debilitating in certain situations.
After driving straight through the night we found a campsite in Mosquito Cove (possibly aptly named at certain times of the year, very pleasant in the late fall). In canyoneering, you must take advantage of good weather and avoid the canyons if there is any chance of rain, so after a good night’s sleep – the first day in Zion proved to be a beautiful day, though I pried for people to hurry, everybody seemed to take their time and we got going a lot later than I had hoped to, I suppose I could have expressed our haste a little more clearly. I made the rounds, checking in with everybody as they were packing, double checking essential items: Warm layers (check), food (check), water (check), rappelling gear (check), headlamp (uhh, I need batteries, I don’t have one, mines broken… check), obvious mistake here – I packed my headlamp. Anyway, we made our way to the visitor center and I had a chat with the back country ranger explaining our situation. Basically I asked for an easily accessible, easy exit canyon for an able man with a prosthetic leg. He said there wasn’t really anything that fit the description that I was looking for, but suggested a few things that may work. The one that sounded the best was Russel Gulch, generally used as an entrance to the Subway. It has a few beautiful rappels, 3 in total, with the exit being the alternate approach to the Subway, this is where the ranger pointed at the map and told us to walk out here. We had the maps, had the Tom Jones canyoneering book, we got a permit and headed out.
The Lunch Spot
The drive took us to the far west end of the park, by the time we started hiking, it was nearly noon. We hiked the first stretch with an overly friendly (read annoying) guy that was just looking for a hike. He continually reminded us to follow the ‘hoodoos’ they mark the trail (misnaming the cairns), to Mick, this was imprinted in his mind as ‘follow the cooters.’ So, we followed the relatively well marked trail across the slickrock past the sign that said we needed a permit (our friend continued to follow us, constantly warning us that we needed a permit to be here – we had one, he didn’t). Eventually he went on his own way and we were soon in the bottom of Russel Gulch. We had a quick lunch in the sun before beginning our decent.
Mick on a Rappel
The decent itself was beautiful, so far, everything was as smooth as we could have hoped for. Each rappel had an anchor, each one was 75 feet or so, really a great introduction to canyoneering. The trip down went quick and smooth, everybody had the time of their lives, especially those that had never rappelled before. Upon reaching the bottom, it was approaching sunset, we maybe had two hours before it got totally dark, so we made our way to the “Walk Out” hoping to get back on the trail and most of the way back to the van before the sun set. This is where we were completely sandbagged, this route should hardly be recommended to anybody, much less somebody with a prosthetic leg, this is where everybody had at least one “near death” experience, this is where the mistakes piled up. All I could do is stay calm, methodically work through each problem, and attempt to keep everybody alive.
Carl on a Rappel
After scouting, studying the map, reading the description, I found what had to be the ascent, to continue scouting would have meant going for a swim up canyon, so we began climbing. After the first move – a relatively unexposed technical 5th class move – probably about a 5.8 move easily spotted, Derik and I found ourselves on a ledge. Derik continued scouting as I set up a belay rope to get the others to that point. With a little bit of effort I belayed Mick to that point, I taught Mick to belay so he could get Carl and Tyler up while I attended to a problem Derik had encountered. All I heard was “we have to turn around, there’s no way we can climb this.” Our only other option was to decend the subway which involved several long swims, wetsuit highly recommended and up to 12 hours for an able group. I was quite hesitant to even consider that option, people come down this route without ropes, it has to be possible to ascend it. Getting over to Derik should have been quite easy,
Tyler on a Rappel
a couple steps across a relatively protected ledge, I held onto the belay rope (which i had not tied off securely), my foot slipped, I put my weight on the rope, it pulled free, I stumbled, I caught myself at the edge of the 15 foot drop off, my heart began to race as I stood there. A sigh of relief, Mick had seen me, I played it off as nothing serious, no need to increase worries. Then I approached Derik, leaving Mick to belay the others, I looked up to see a very exposed, approximately 20 foot vertical section, I’d guess a series of 5.8 moves. I didn’t even hesitate, the adrenaline was pumping and I didn’t want to consider the other options, I needed to get everybody out of this canyon, I had to work with what daylight was left, it would soon be dark and cold.
I began climbing, my first handhold gave way as a large rock went racing down the narrow gulley “ROCK!” I thought for sure it was going to hit someone, after checking in, I made sure everyone was in a safe place before I began climbing. I reached for another hand hold, it gave way, debris crashed down the gully, everybody was OK. Another step up, my footing gave way, rocks crashed down the gully. This was not going well (my heart is racing just typing this), I knew everybody had found a safe spot, but I could help but think somebody might be peeking around a corner as soon as I let a rock fly. I steadily continued up the loose scree, as soon as Derik could no longer spot me effectively he found a safe place, I made a move that may have been about a 5.6, but with a free fall of 15 feet and no assurance that I wouldn’t find myself tumbling to the bottom of the canyon (about 35 feet at that point), the cold, and climbing in hiking boots, the move felt like a 5.10. After pushing myself through each move, continually letting rocks fly, I found myself on a large exposed nose 50 feet above the floor of the canyon, I built the best anchor that I could, set up a belay line, made sure they were set to belay each other up the climb and I continued to scout. Tyler belayed Derik up, then Derik belayed from the top and Mick began to climb. At one point Tyler felt a very large rock brush his hair, very near disaster (I know Mick and Carl had helmets, but at that point I think we were short a couple of helmets as well).
I scouted, I climbed up about a 300 foot 4th class scramble as the sun was setting, eventually I found myself at the top, I should have brought gear to set up another anchor, I didn’t know what I would find. I decided I’d need some gear to set up a static line prussic ascent. It was dark, I had a little difficulty finding my way back down the gully, but I eventually made my way back down to Derik, told him my plan, grabbed the gear, and hiked back to the top, Mick was just beginning to climb. I set up the anchor, set a static line and returned back down to Derik to find that Mick was struggling with the climb, at that point he was already telling us to leave him there and save ourselves. I wasn’t about to leave anybody behind. I considered setting up a haul system, but decided to attempt pulling him up first. I roped myself in, set up a prussic so that he would not lose progress, and “one, two, three, PULL!” Derik and I pulled, Mick clawed at the rock, each time making a few inches of progress. My thought process was that if we got Mick past this difficult section (maybe a foot or two) he would then be able to use his own power to climb to the top. That didn’t happen, we continued to pull, he continued to claw at the rock, we continued to make inches of progress. This was all made more difficult by the fact that I had the only head lamp, it was pitch dark, Mick could not see the rock, all he could do was reach blindly and attempt to grab anything that might give him purchase. At that point, Tyler had the only other flashlight. (Come on, You’re a NOLS instructor Martin! I know, I’m also invincible, I can work through any problem that arises with whatever supplies I have, I realize the mistakes I made, and yes, it was up to me to make sure everything runs smoothly, I’m the expert here).
After a long struggle, we welcomed Mick to the “top,” they didn’t realize the extended climb that was ahead of us, I roped him into the prussic that I had set up. Then Tyler and Carl struggled through the dark to the top, I roped them in. After a short break, getting some food and drinking the last of the water (I was exhausted, just what I need, another mistake to add to the list, there was water at the bottom, we didn’t fill up). I gave a brief explanation of how to climb the prussic line – a prussic is knot attached to the rope that can be slid up along with us as we climb, but if we fall it will prevent us from falling to the bottom, quicker and easier than a belay, we can all climb at once, and the climb wasn’t terribly difficult (4th class scramble) but we were all very tired, it was pitch dark, and there was still lots of loose scree. We all roped in, and made the ascent through a narrow gully. The most difficult section was probably at the top through thick brush continuing uphill. Eventually, we reached the anchor, took another long break taking a sigh of relief. Everybody was alive, we were at the top, all we had to do now was “walk out.”
The trail was intermittent, well worn through the dirt, scattered cairns across the slick rock. We found ourselves pausing several times, searching for cairns, trying to keep ourselves on the trail, figuring the trail was most likely the best option, rather than hiking aimlessly across the desert in the direction of the van. This continued for hours into the night. My first priority should have been water, in my mind, it wasn’t, I just wanted to get back to the van. An hour or so after midnight we crossed a low canyon area, a likely place for water. We continued on for another half hour or so past that point when Mick collapsed in a heap. He was conscious, but incoherent, though it should have been obvious, I didn’t realize until that point how desperate we were for water. Tyler and Derik stayed with Mick, Carl and I went on a water mission. We returned to the low canyon area we had passed and immediately found water, we had walked within 20 feet of a large pothole full of murky water. We filled up all of our vessels, added Aqua Mira treatment and hiked back to The guys who were signaling us with a flashlight. Everybody drank their fill of water. Mick begged us to leave him there and we would come back for him in the morning. There was no way I’d leave anybody behind, at least not by themselves. Mick was completely convinced I was trying to kill him – he continued to plod along, I kept pushing him, and everyone else to their limits. In reality I was not trying to kill anybody, rather I was trying as hard as I could to keep everyone alive. Though a few lapses in judgment and a compounding of mistakes was making that increasingly difficult.
The unplanned Bivy
We walked a few hundred more feet past that point before we lost the cairns completely, I knew ‘exactly’ where I was, but I could not figure it out. We decided to bivy. We gathered firewood, got a nice fire going in the bottom of a canyon, sheltered from the wind and it held a little bit of heat. One person was to stay awake to tend the fire and watch for wildlife while the rest tried to sleep. Personally, I was still going on adrenaline, I knew ‘exactly’ where I was, and I just wanted to get back to the van. I knew that the parking lot would be checked and our permit reflected on, if we weren’t back in the morning SAR would be activated, we were fine, I didn’t need a few hundred people to unnecessarily be deployed to our position. So Carl and I walked back to the van (possibly another lapse in judgment) in reality I didn’t know where I was, we wandered for another couple hours before I realized I was completely lost, I’ve never felt so frustrated, I slowly came to realize that I wasn’t where I thought I was and that I needed sleep, I couldn’t wander around all night. At that point, the moon had cast a beautiful light over the entire landscape. Carl and I backtracked to the fire, I admitted I was completely lost, we found everyone else huddled around the fire attempting to sleep. By now it was nearly 4am. I curled up in my down coat and pulled my backpack over my legs to attempt to keep warm, it was a very chilly night, especially sleeping cowboy style on the cold ground. I slept, I tossed and turned, I slept some more.
Before long the twilight of morning began to show, everybody was slightly rested and we packed up, and began trying to figure out where we were. A moment later, we knew where we were, Carl and I had indeed been looking in the wrong direction. Had we walked 50 feet up canyon I would have known exactly where we were (which was obviously not where I thought we were). We had slept in nearly the exact location that we had eaten lunch the day before. From there, Carl and I headed out ahead of the others just in case SAR may be activated (from what I’ve read, national parks are on top of their stuff, if a party doesn’t return to the trail head in the time that the permit says, they don’t hesitate to send out hasty teams). We easily found our way to the van, and at that point, I realized how completely exhausted I was. We also realized that we hadn’t left the others with any food, and probably not enough water. I can’t imagine how Mick felt at that point, apparently he had considered curling up and staying to die many times throughout the ordeal. I waited at the van and loaded up Carl with food from the van – fruit and nuts for quick energy, water, candy, cinnamon rolls, and even some Mountain Dew. He hiked back to the group, I took a nap in the van.
Shortly Derik arrived back at the van also extremely exhausted, saying that Mick hadn’t made it very far, they had to rest every few minutes, but Carl had made it to them. Apparently the fruit, candy and fresh water was a lifesaver, it fired everyone up and they made the hike back. Before long everybody stumbled into the parking lot, I felt like I should have some victory music playing. Nearly a 24 hour ordeal, everybody survived, nearly everybody thought they were going to die. I definitely learned a lot about myself and my friends that night, I am not invincible, the laws of nature still apply to NOLS instructors, little mistakes that can be avoided should be taken care of (headlamps, water), other mistakes that can’t be avoided, can be worked through (having been recommended this route and completely sandbagged, we could have never known, only could work through it). We then made our way back to the campsite and had a full day of rest, we spent the day sleeping, relaxing and completely recuperating, preparing ourselves for another canyoneering adventure, the next day was to be Spry Canyon.
To view all of the pictures from this trip check out my webshots account.