As excited as I am to write this, it hurts my pride to admit how it all went down. After all, how lost can you be in a slot canyon? With a GPS and a map? Maybe it would be more accurate to say: my hike did not go according to plan. Either way, there were things I was glad I did, and there were things I wish I did. I hope the lessons I learned will save you some frustration in the future, and that my experience will provide you with a mental exercise so you can be better prepared for your own misadventure.
By J. Bridger, contributing author to Overlanding Survival
I intended to spend several days in Escalante. I recently found myself with spare time on my hands and I could not bear the thought of spending all of it in my 740 square foot cell….er, I mean, apartment. I’ve been reading too many westerns and yearned to stretch my legs in the desert. If I slept in my truck, brought my own food, and paid for gas at the pump, I could enjoy myself without ever seeing another human being. Perfect.
I settled on 2 loops, which would total 50 miles by the end of my stay in Escalante. I planned my routes, read what I could online, and printed maps from Cal Topo. The weather called for highs in the 60s and lows at night in the lower 20s. Thursday had a 20% chance of rain. I packed my bag and my cooler and hit the road early Monday morning.
Pack: Mystery Ranch Scree, a technical dry pack.
Sleeping Gear: Sleeping bag (Wegner 20 F), Closed Cell Foam Pad (Nemo Switchback), Polycro Ground sheet (Gossamer Gear), Tarp (Borah Gear) (guy lines attached and 6 small MSR stakes).
Water: 3L Hydrapak Bladder, 1L Platypus bladder, MSR water tablets, Katadyn Befree Filter.
Navigation: Suunto Compass, GPS, map, UTM grid reader, Android Cell phone.
Clothes: Columbia pants and shirt, hat, Mtn Hardwear sweater, base layer, Arc’Teryx Jacket, beanie, gloves, neck buff, handkerchief, watch, sunglasses.
Toiletries: floss, toothpaste, toothbrush, sunblock, small first aid kit, trowel, soap, chapstick.
All weighs under 10 pounds. I carried no stove, and all my food fit inside a gallon ziplock bag.
The Journey of a Thousand Miles…
I started my first hike Monday at 3pm. I had a friendly chat with a deputy who happened to be passing by, signed the log at the trail head, and took off. I explored hurricane wash and coyote gulch, all the way to the Escalante river. I slept on the trail that night and made the 27-mile journey in a little less than that many hours. With my confidence boosted, I hoped to complete my next 20-mile loop in just one day, but would plan on two just to be safe. It was a good thing I did! I made the drive to the next trail head and settled in for the night.
The 20-mile loop started with a 1,000ft descent from the trailhead, a 2-mile trek east across the desert, and another 250ft descent down an old stock trail into the river canyon. The descent was steep, but manageable. The stock trail was easy to follow and well-marked. As I walked my mind wandered, and I thought of cowboys, Indians, and pondered who had taken this trail in the beginning and why? Who found it? I was having a great time. I followed the old trail into the canyon and was met with extraordinary views. At the bottom of the canyon the trail was well worn. I turned a corner and came face to face with the Escalante River. I had to wade downstream a short distance before I could cross to the opposite bank. No matter, I had planned on getting wet feet anyway. I know having wet feet is a cardinal sin in the survival world, but I’ve walked many days and many miles on wet feet and never had a single problem. As long as I can dry my feet over night, I don’t mind it. Even so, I wanted to keep my feet dry for as long as possible. I rolled my pant legs up, slipped off my shoes, and stepped into the river. It was ice cold. By the time I reached the other side, my feet and legs ached from the cold. I was glad to step back on dry land, and thankful it wasn’t any deeper. As I followed the canyon downstream, the trail became less and less traveled.
Eventually, I couldn’t find a trail to follow. I bushwhacked through thick trees and was forced to cross the river again. And again. And again. I stopped counting my crossings after the 24th time. After 6 miles of battling the thick brush, I left the river and began the next leg of my journey. I would (theoretically) follow a wash west for 6 miles and exit on the north side. Where exactly I would exit was unclear, but I was confident I could find it. Then it was an easy 6 miles over desert rock and sand to the trail again. I had hoped when I left the river canyon, the brush would improve. This was not the case. The trees and branches yanked at my pack, tugged at my clothes, and scraped my legs and feet and hands. As soon as my patience was about to end, I was forced to cross the water again. I gave up taking my shoes off a long time ago. At times, the wash had eroded so much dirt that I would have to cling to the bases of trees and lower myself as far as I could before dropping to the bottom of the riverbed. I would jump and claw and heave and pull myself up the other side. If I was lucky, I would avoid the quicksand. If not, I would yank my feet out as quick as I could and keep moving. The brush was so thick I could barely see the top of the canyon.
The Saga of Boots
All the while I followed a lone set of boot prints, which I nicknamed “Boots.” I would lose Boots and find him again, at the bottom of the wash, or at the lip of the dirt ledge up top. Occasionally I would go for what seemed like miles, but was probably actually hundreds of yards, trudging through the mud and water, with no sign of Boots. Then they would appear out of nowhere, coming out of the water, scaling the tall dirt wall to battle through the brush again. Damn you, Boots! Sometimes I followed, sometimes I tried my own luck. Boots seemed to know where he was going, but was no more immune to the will of the thick brush than I. I was tired. The vines and trees and sticks and occasional thorns were wearing on my patience. At one point, I followed Boots out of the wash and up the vertical dirt wall. I crawled out of the trench and picked myself up off the ground and saw the words “NO!” scratched in the dirt. I looked up at a large steep hill, wondering what Boots knew that I didn’t. I looked off to my right. The brush was so thick, I couldn’t stomach the thought of fighting it anymore. I climbed the hill. At the top I could see the way the wash and the brush curved to the north, and back south around my dirt hill. I pressed on westward. About 10 minutes later, I learned why Boots took the time to scrawl “NO!” in the dirt. I was faced with a 30-foot sheer cliff, and no way to get down. I followed the ledge back until I realized there was no other way. I had to go back the way I came. With a heavy heart, I descended my grassy hill, found Boots, and began battling the brush again. I lost time and expended energy climbing. That was when I decided to trust Boots.
The sun would set at 8:00pm, and I promised myself at 7:00pm, I would bed down for the night. My progress had been painfully slow. I knew I could do 20 miles in 12 hours, but that was on a trail. In the Spring Mountains, where there was no mud or brush to fight. My ego was bruised. No matter. I was prepared to stay the night. I checked my map and GPS. The canyon I would exit from was close. Two right turns and one left, then I would skirt the north side and look for my exit. My goal for the day was to find where I could get out of this God forsaken, overgrown, soul sucking trench of despair. I could only barely see the tops of the canyon through the brush. As the sun was getting low, I could not take the mud and cold water anymore, and I crawled out of the muddy ditch where Boots and I had been walking. To my right, the north, the canyon wall was short. The slope of the wall was low. I could crawl out! This must be my exit. Excitedly, I left Boots in the canyon. I climbed up the wall, heaving and pulling my way out. It would be a bear to get back down if I had to, but I was sure this was it. I walked up to the top of the rock and looked around. Freedom! Finally. I was surrounded by beautiful, open, non-brushy, dry desert. I could have cried. Adios! Whom, in their right mind, would follow that wash? I was out. By now it was past 7pm, and it was getting darker. I found a soft spot in some sand under a twisted old tree and pitched my tarp to keep the wind off. I took off my wet clothes and hung them to dry. I sat on my sleeping mat in my warm base layer, eating and studying the map. Now all I had to do was an easy six miles back to the trail. Thank goodness. I had completed over 40 miles in the last two and a half days. My back was fine, but the extensors of my feet were killing me. I could barely dorsiflex them. They were stuck at 90 degrees. No matter! It was smooth sailing from here. Until I checked my GPS.
I got the UTM grid from my Garmin and checked it against my map. Something didn’t add up. I checked it again. Yes, I had exited the wrong canyon. I intended to exit an east-west canyon that was north of where I was now. Somehow, I had taken a wrong turn in the wash. Which, considering the visibility, isn’t that surprising. This may be a problem, and it may not. I may be able to climb into and out of the canyon to the north, or I may be able to go around. I wasn’t sure. Either way, that was a problem for future-me. Present-me needed rest. I ate and drank, saving 2 liters for the trip tomorrow. I slept like a desert rock and was awakened by birds in the morning.
At first light, I packed up. I ate a Clif bar as I walked. My feet had stiffened overnight. When I moved them, they creaked, like an old rope. I was sure the tendons were inflamed. Putting my socks and shoes on that morning had been excruciating. Going uphill and downhill was painful. The cold water in the wash had probably helped the swelling and pain yesterday. About an hour later, my fears were confirmed: I had exited the wrong canyon. There was now a wide canyon in front of me, between me and the route home. It stretched as far as I could see east, and as far as I could see west. I could see the north side of it, and it was obvious I could walk out. But the south side, where I stood, was at least a hundred feet straight down. No dice. I wasn’t getting down there. I had to descend back into the wash, and make my way into the correct canyon, below where I stood now. My heart shattered into pieces. If only I had a rope and a solid anchor! I hated that canyon! The mud, the quick sand, the icy water, the steep dirt ledges, the brush! I turned and headed south, back the way I had come. I found an easier place to descend, and I dropped back into the canyon. I found Boots, and we bushwhacked until I found the location where I had made a wrong turn. Damn you, Boots, I thought. You lead me into the wrong canyon. The brush was too thick to fight anymore, so I followed the muddy water into the side canyon I had missed. I doubled checked my GPS and map. Satisfied, I slogged along. I don’t even know how to describe the brush because I’ve never seen anything like it. It wasn’t thick, it was constant. There was no space between plants. They were butted up against each other like people at a concert. I wish I had taken more pictures.
When the water was too deep, I was forced out. I used my hands to part the brush and took a step. I would untangle myself and do it again. Part. Step. Untangle. Part. Step. Untangle. My pack was caught every step of the way. The plants pulled off my hat and slapped my face and tugged my clothes. I couldn’t take it anymore. I held my hiking pole horizontally and used my body and pack weight to push them down. I picked myself up, took a step, and did it again. This was exhausting. For hours I slogged on like this, a foot at a time. My progress was geologic, and it was draining my energy. Finally, I turned the corner where the mouth of the canyon was. I couldn’t bare the brush any longer, and I decided to walk in the water, as I had done many times before. I took one step toward the water and suddenly plunged into it. The thick brush was pointing inward, toward the water, obscuring the edge. I assumed the water was knee deep, but I was wrong. My momentum carried me completely under, and I was totally submerged in the cold muddy water. My body panicked. Thankfully, my pack was buoyant, and I bobbed back up, gasping for air. At the moment I didn’t even think about everything in my pack being soaked, I just wanted OUT. I clawed at the bank but the brush prevented me from gaining a hand hold. I kicked my feet and treaded water. I decided to try the other side. I turned and took a couple strokes toward the other bank. I looked at it. There was no use. It was as bad as this one. I turned again and swam back to the bank I had just come from. I treaded water and parted the brush and kicked myself forward. I wasn’t sure how long my pack would float. I worried that soon, water would find its way into the cervices in the seams and zippers and weigh me down. I didn’t want to drown, and I didn’t want to lose my kit. I parted, I kicked, I moved forward. Finally, I grabbed the bank. I was freezing cold. I dug my fingers into the dirt. With one hand I parted brush, and then the other. I kicked my feet and pulled myself up by the roots. My feet still in the water, I took a couple breaths. Then I heaved and got a knee under me, and I crawled out. I laid there, sucking in air, grateful to be out of the water. I suppose I won’t follow the wash into the canyon. I pulled myself up and checked to make sure my GPS was still attached to my pack strap. I still had my Crow Scout, my sunglasses, hat, and watch. That was good news. I knew all my shit would be wet. I had a dry bag but had lazily crammed my jacket, sweater, and base layer inside my pack without securing it in the dry bag. I cursed myself. I knew better than to take shortcuts like that.
I wrestled my way to a small high spot and looked toward the entrance to the canyon. It was a dried up, tall, smooth rock waterfall. There was zero chance I was climbing up and out of that. My heart fell. That couldn’t be right. I checked my GPS and map. This was the canyon entrance. And there was no waterfall on the map. The water pooled at the bottom. I wasn’t getting out here. I sat down. I was totally spent, soaking wet, and cold. I couldn’t get into the canyon to exit, and I couldn’t get around it. I considered my options. I would have to go back the way I came. I would have to follow Boots back down the wash and up the Escalante river. I was too tired and frustrated to accept it. The idea of fighting the brush and climbing into and out of the water another fifty times wasn’t something I wanted to think about. I was in trouble, and I knew it. I had left a map of my route with my loved one. I would run out of food, but that didn’t bother me. I had all the water I would need, and I could make a fire If I needed to. I know it wasn’t allowed in the wash, but I was cold and wet and I didn’t care. The brush should burn anyway. I couldn’t make it back as fast as I had come here, and I wondered how long it would take. Probably two days. I wondered if SAR came, if I would be billed for the cost. I felt helpless and stupid.
As I sat there shivering, I noticed a tree poking up out of the brush. It was tall and sturdy, right up against the canyon wall. The wall was vertical and smooth, for about 20 feet, then lazily curved back at a shallow angle. I could shimmy up that angle. If I could climb that tree, maybe I could hop from it onto the gentle slope and be out of here. There was no way I could climb the smooth rock face. I made my way over to the tree, which was no easy task. I didn’t want to get my hopes up, and I’m glad I didn’t. It was too far away from the wall and I couldn’t make it. That’s when I saw it. Behind the tree a flake had broken away from the wall and left a joint large enough for me to get my fist into. And it went the entire height of the vertical wall. My heart thumped in my chest and I forgot about how cold I was. I might be able to climb this. I’m not even a hobbyist climber, but I’ve climbed a little bit, indoors and out. And I was desperate enough to try it. I looked up at it. If I fell, I could get hurt. But the idea of fighting back the way I came seemed worse than a broken leg or ankle. At least then I wouldn’t feel dumb if SAR had to come get me. I could get both of my hands around the rock, and leaning back, I could gain enough friction to keep my feet on the wall. Every foot I climbed, I would have to take a hand off and reach around and unhook the branches from the tree trying to pull me down. I didn’t look down. I hate heights. I climbed and prayed. Near the top, there wasn’t enough of a lip for my fingers, and I jammed my only hiking pole into the joint. I prayed it would be strong enough for just a little leverage. It was. I climbed out of the canyon and clung to the gentle slope. I prayed there wasn’t a false summit or something above me. There was no way I could make it back down. I wished I was a gecko; I thought sticky thoughts. I reached the top and looked up. Blue sky! I got up and hurriedly walked about fifty meters northwest of where I had come up. I looked at my map. I looked around. I checked my GPS. I plotted my exact location with my UTM grid tool. I was out, and there was nothing between me and the trail except desert. I cried, I prayed. I celebrated by drinking half of my water. I was out in the open now, with the wind, and I was freezing. I opened my pack to put on what I presumed was a wet jacket but was pleased to find everything had stayed dry! I couldn’t believe it. I ate and rested and limped north. I had no idea how I made it up that wall, I could barely move my feet. Any plantar or dorsiflexion of my feet caused awful pain. When I intersected my trail from the previous day, I cried again. And there, in the sand! Boots! So, he had made it. It had been at least 6 miles since I had seen Boots. I scrambled up the trailhead and chugged the Mango Peach v8 juice I had been saving for this occasion. I made it.
1) It can happen to you.
I’m not an expert outdoorsman, but I’m not wet behind the ears either. I did research, I read reviews, I planned it all out. I’ve got many 14ers under my belt. I’ve done several 20-mile day hikes. I assumed after Buckskin Gulch, no canyon or wash could best me. I was wrong. I had to swallow my pride on this one. Don’t think it can’t happen to you.
2) Tell someone where you are going.
If I had not left a map and plan with my loved ones, I could’ve been up a creek. Especially if I had been hurt. Please, always leave this information with someone. Don’t forget to discuss when they should contact local authorities. I understand part of the reason people do things like this is to escape the modern world and deadlines, but it could end up saving your life. You may consider investing in a Garmin InReach. It is a handheld GPS with preloaded maps. The battery life is great, and it allows you to send texts over satellite to loved ones. The texting feature can be cumbersome, but you can connect via Bluetooth to your cell phone to type easily. It also has preloaded messages you can send by selecting them. It has a subscription charge but is absolutely worth it. It can also put you in contact with SAR via the SOS feature.
3) Do the work ahead of time.
This wasn’t the first time I hiked all day or put up my tarp or tore it down. It wasn’t the first time I used my GPS or UTM grid reader either. If I had to learn on the fly how to put up my shelter or how to find my location on a map, I would’ve been at a big disadvantage. Put in the time with your kit before your big hike to make sure everything runs smoothly. Look at your route on Google maps. Try to think of Primary, Alternate, Contingency, and Emergency (PACE) plans ahead of time. Looking back now, I can see a couple options I didn’t know I had at the time. Hindsight is 20/20.
4) Physical fitness.
I can do 20 pullups and run a 6:30 mile, but after doing 50 miles in 3 days, I was not able to pick up my feet. My feet swelled up like a heart failure patient. Even days later, after a steroid and NSAID injection, I can barely move my feet. I was in good shape by some metrics, but I was not prepared for the toll this would take on my foot extensor muscles and tendons. I wish I had trained more, so I could have been faster and healed quicker. That said, this was the only reason I attempted and succeeded to climb out of the canyon. If my upper body strength wasn’t up to the task, that wouldn’t have even been an option.
5) What ACTUALLY matters in my survival kit.
I only cared about three things: Knowing where I was, staying warm, and staying hydrated. I hear lots of podcasts and read lots of articles talking about carrying 100 feet of paracord, a life straw, extra socks, a hatchet, folding saw, etc. I call bullshit. I didn’t care about any of that stuff. All I cared about was staying warm. That means a good sleeping bag and pad, a warm jacket, and hat. All I cared about was staying hydrated. If all I had was a life straw, I would have spent all my time laying in the mud, blowing out my cheek muscles. These are best left as a last resort, if at all. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never tried one. With my MSR tablets and Katadyn filter, all I had to do was fill my bladder and go. I can drink on the fly through the filter or drop in the tablets. I cared about was knowing where I was. My location dictated my action. Even though I screwed up, my map, GPS, and compass were key to successfully getting home. I didn’t carry extra socks or underwear. What’s the point? To put dry socks on, then my wet shoes? No way. This taught me what really matters in an oh-shit scenario.
6) Stay light.
I couldn’t have put in all the miles I did or climbed up that flake with my pack if I was carting around half of Cabela’s. My shoulders, back, and hips didn’t bother me at all. That could be because my Mystery Ranch Scree has a wonderful suspension system, but it’s also due to the light weight of my kit.
7) Having good gear.
This is important. If I had a cheap GPS it could have been ruined when I went for a swim. Even though half of my kit wasn’t in the dry bag, the Mystery Ranch Scree still kept it dry. I slept warm and I didn’t have any blisters. Don’t cheap out on your gear. Your life may depend on it.
8) Sometimes a compass or map won’t help. GPS isn’t perfect.
You need to know how to use a map and compass. That said, sometimes it won’t get you out of a jam. If you can’t see out of a valley or gulch to shoot an azimuth on some land mark, your compass won’t help you. The sun rises over there and sets over there, I don’t need a compass to tell me what direction is north. Likewise, without my GPS, my map wouldn’t have been worth much. There’s no way to tell which bend is what when all you can see is trees and canyon walls. It was like a maze. A GPS should be a supplement, not wholly relied on. The day before my misadventure, my Garmin Foretrex 401 logged 32 miles on a 27-mile hike, so I knew I couldn’t count on its odometer feature. The coordinates seemed to work fine. I had to call Garmin and enable the WAAS feature, which they said should fix the problem but will use more battery. A cell phone will still give you GPS coordinates but won’t be able to render maps without service unless you have previously downloaded them.
9) Make your pack float.
This is the 2nd time I’ve been in water over my head and thanked my ancestors my pack has floated. Buy a dry bag. Put all your stuff in it. It will float. You may think it will never happen to you, but I used to think that too. Even though I was lazy, my Mystery Ranch zippers were watertight long enough to keep my stuff dry. I’m glad I spent the money on good gear.
10) Mental resilience is key.
Sure, I was wet and cold and tired, but my situation wasn’t really that bad. I had all the water I could drink, and enough food for the day. I wasn’t injured, and even though I wasn’t where I wanted to be, I knew where I was. That said, the thought of slogging back through all that crap I just went through was almost too much for me. I needed to sit down, rest, and regroup. If I hadn’t got out of that canyon when I did, I think I would have cleared out a spot to camp and then started again in the morning. The biggest hurdle was in my head, no doubt about it.
Featured image by By Cacophony – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0