I Almost Meet My End (Again) In Coyote Gulch

Authors note: I really gotta stop doing this. Another very close call with with my life during my most recent “vacation” in Utah and Arizona. Unlike my previous near death/actual death experience(s) in the hospital I was fully awake and conscious throughout this entire ordeal. I present it in narrative format to hopefully make it a more enjoyable read. For myself it was the most afraid I have possibly ever been. Probably going to publish in parts since this is a long and winding tale.

“Where will you be heading into the gulch at?” asked the National Park Service Ranger stationed behind the counter at the Escalante visitor center asked upon hearing our request for a backcountry permit. When my companion replied “40 mile trailhead” the old woman’s head snapped up sharply and she fixed us both with a hard gaze. “You do realize the trail there is a 45 degree descent. Are you both capable of handling that, with packs?” We nodded as she gave us the once over, appearing satisfied with what she saw she handed over the permit and we turned to leave. A 45 degree descent sounded challenging but that was exactly the reason we had made the long trip out to the Utah desert, to test ourselves against some of the most difficult backpacking conditions to be found in the United States and prove our mettle. At the time I was grateful for the heads up and warning, later I would curse the old woman for what she neglected to tell us. The 45 degree descent into the gulch was a one way trip, it simply was not possible to return up out of the gulch the same way.

We had planned the excursion into and out Coyote Gulch to be a half day trip only. The plan was to hike down in, make our way the short three mile hike to Swiss Cheese Falls, possibly further to some Native American ruins than turn around and come back. The way we had figured it the entire journey from trailhead/car to the falls and back should take no more than 4 hours and in all likelihood much less than that. We would be back in the car and on our way to our next destination, the painted desert in Arizona, by lunchtime. We set off around 8:30am with only two daypacks lightly provisioned. In my pack I carried one full 3L bladder of ice cold water, the pantlegs to my convertible hiking pants (I thought), and my t-shirt. The only other thing I brought on my person was a small backpacking knife which I had clipped to the belt at my waist. I wore a hat and the shorts I mentioned to which I thought I had brought the zip off legs. My companion, an experienced hiker/backpacker and navigator with some military style training in the later also carried a small daypack. In her pack was a full bladder, our GPS, a pen flashlight, one bag of freeze dried chicken and rice backpackers meal, and one full 1L bottle of water. Crucially she also packed our emergency survival kit which was very well stocked for just about any survival situation. Little did we realize at the time just how important that kit would become.

We spent the first hour navigating through desert terrain reminiscent of the surface of Mars. Large, smooth rock outcroppings interrupted the desert scrub at regular intervals. The way was not difficult though it took quite a bit of time to make it over or around some of the larger rock formations. The only wildlife we encountered was one small rattlesnake, a not at all uncommon site for this part of the country and in this terrain. We were guided the entire way by rock piles, stacked at regular intervals to serve as guideposts for hikers looking for the trailhead and descent point into the gulch. At one point the rock piles seemed to branch in two directions and we choose the leftward path. I still have no idea if our fortunes would have been any different had we gone the other way. Eventually we made it to the top of the trailhead and our entryway down into Coyote Gulch. Image 1 below shows the view from the top. Yours truly can be seen looking over the edge in wonder and with more than a bit of trepidation.

Below me lay at least 200 feet of smooth rock face with some intervals of jagged rock outcroppings angled down at least 45 degrees, as the ranger had mentioned. In some places the angle steepened to close to 60 degrees and in others sections almost flat areas poked out. These would be our stopping/resting points during the long, frightening descent. Much of that downward trek was spent sliding down on our asses as slowly as we could muster using both the friction of our backsides on the rocks and our feet as makeshift brakes. About halfway down we stopped for a much deserved rest. “Should we turn around?” my companion asked, somewhat sheepishly, then continued “I am not sure I can make it back up.” I let that sink in for a few moments before replying, frankly I had been thinking along very similar lines, “I was thinking the exact same thing and probably, yeah we should, but we are almost at the bottom, and we came all this way, why turn back now.” She nodded and we gathered ourselves for the final push to the bottom.

At the next stopping point I was greeted by a wondrous site.

On the canyon wall immediately in front of us came into view a giant petroglyph. It had not been visible at all until we reached the very spot where we stood. Later I would learn that it was most likely a phantom petroglyph, visible only from certain vantage points, at certain times of day, and at specific times of the year. I have not been able to find out much more about it online and in fact have found no other posted images or even mentions of it. Given how massive, imposing, and downright awesome it was I find that extremely strange. In any event if you are interested in learning more or helping me figure out what this thing is I have written much more about it at the link below.

That is it for now. Stay tuned for part 2.

Written by

Research scientist (Ph.D. micro/mol biology), Thought middle manager, Everyday junglist, Selecta (Ret.), Boulderer, Cat lover, Fish hater

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