Never Getting Out
Authors note: This is part 3 of the continuing tale of my recent “vacation” in Coyote Gulch. It is not necessary to read the previous two entries to understand and enjoy (I hope) it though I do think they provide some good context and background. In any event the link to part 2 which contains a link to part 1 is below. Also from this point forward my partner in this adventure, the person referred to so far only as “my companion” will have a name, Kat. It is a pseudonym at her request but the “companion” thing felt icky. I’m no Dr. Who but worse it made it seem as if I was minimizing her role, or did not view her as an equal partner. That is most definitely not the case and in fact were it not for her survival skill set, quick thinking, and calm under extreme stress I might still be stuck in that canyon. Enjoy!
The decision was made. We would be backtracking to the original spot at which we had first entered Coyote Gulch from the desert above. I estimated the distance at about four miles and was beyond ticked that we would now have to return the same way we had come. Even if everything had gone according to plan we would have had to return the way we had come thru the gulch and had known this from the beginning. The end of the trail led to the Escalante river confluence to a place called Hole in the Crack, the trailhead at the far end of the canyon. It was not traversable without ropes and harnesses, so was never an option as a way out. That said I had staked my hopes on a finding another way near Coyote Natural Bridge and that had not happened. Backtracking is a personal pet peeve of mine and having to do it drives me crazy under the best of circumstances. Under our current conditions it struck a nerve that began a cascade of anger that would continue in one form or other until we reached the very end of our journey. That however was a long way hence, and for the moment I was simply really, really mad, as angry as I had been in a very long time. Once again I let fly with a string of cursing, general pissiness, and unfounded accusations directed at Kat. Mostly I was ticked about the distance we would have to retread, but underneath it was a current of anxiety and maybe even a little fear. On top of that I was exhausted and thirsty, dehydrated slightly, not to the point of sickness but just on the edge of it.
I will be the first to admit that I struggle with anger issues and have for most of my childhood and now in my adult life. Usually these days I am able to control it but I still have to fight and focus to control my rage in situations of high stress. Anxiety, exhaustion, fear, dehydration are each potent stressors alone but when combined they were like a force of nature and the battle to remain calm, which I often lost, was constant. After I had regained a little of my composure this time I asked Kat to have a look at the GPS and find out the exact distance we would need to trek back to reach our presumed exit point. It took her about five minutes of fiddling with the thing to return with an answer, “0.85 miles, according to this.” I was flabbergasted, shocked, utterly stupefied, I simply could not believe it had not even been even a mile. (Later we would learn that the actual distance walked was 2.87 miles. The 0.85 mile figure was for a straight line, as the crow flies). It is a quite common phenomenon when hiking in desert terrain to significantly overestimate distances traveled and underestimate the amount of time required to make it anywhere. The terrain can be so difficult, with loose sand, crumbling rocks, boulders, and rock formations to navigate through and around and dangerous wildlife (mostly snakes) to watch out for and avoid. At that moment, however, I was not thinking clearly and my miscalculation only served to increase my anger even more. Once again I lost it stomping about and wailing like a man possessed. To her great credit once again Kat handled the situation with what I now consider absolutely heroic aplomb and reserve. Essentially she left me to my own devices throughout it all, figuring I suppose that like the baby I was acting, I would eventually wear myself out. A short time later she was proven right and I collapsed from exhaustion and thirst.
She implored me to drink and a measure of calm returned as the water I gulped down in great gasps brought me back to my senses. She began to walk back the way we came and after a few seconds of quiet contemplation I followed. Drinking water quickly became our next big concern. It was plentiful in the river we walked beside but not potable without treatment. The brand new water filter bought specifically for situations just such as these sat unused back at the car. Once again the haste at which we had prepared for this “half-day hike” had caused us to stupidly leave behind a critical asset and key survival tool. Luckily Kat had packed her very well thought out and stocked survival kit. In it she had enough water purification tablets to keep us well supplied with drinking water for at least another day and a half even under the most strenuous of environmental conditions. That said we had no desire to press our luck and began at least a modest effort at water rationing. Mostly this involved Kat forsaking her deserved ration so that I could have more. Her stamina was unbelievable and I was continually amazed at her fitness level and ability to remain functional under what would be considered severe privation conditions for many. Credit part of that to a genetic condition which blessed her with an overall higher fitness level but cursed her with an inability to sweat normally. While she could survive water deprivation that would fell most and had an aerobic capacity near that of an olympic athlete the decreased sweating caused her to overheat easily and we needed to be cognizant of this especially as the heat of the day continued to build. She had already nearly collapsed at least twice from heat exhaustion and was only saved by the cool river waters when we stopped to rest. Mostly I was at fault for these near disasters. I had been pushing us at a relentless pace due to my eagerness to get out of the canyon and the few times we paused to rest, while I stopped to drink or sit down she was busy with various organizational or navigational tasks. Consequently she rarely got a real break. My fitness level was also quite high so I was able to keep up a high pace even with all the energy I was wasting with my various temper tantrums and hissy fits. I had spent most of the summer training, climbing, hiking, camping anything to get ready for this trip and was probably in near the best shape of my adult life. There was one big exception to this, my right knee. I had tweaked it fairly badly about month before the trip and if bent just the wrong way would send tremendous spasms of pain up and down my leg and back. It happened very rarely and seemed to require an unlikely confluence of bending and twisting. It had held up great until then and to be honest I had almost totally forgotten about it. Slowly, this had started to change and the pain was near constant though still at a reasonable level. Luckily we had brought our hiking poles and leaning on it as I walked relieved some of the pressure but it was yet another nuisance to add to our ever growing list of worries. The climb out was going to be hard enough at 100% health, at anything less than that it could prove impossible.
The trek back went quickly and we made good time. Near the beginning of that walk Kat had remarked that she was getting a low battery signal on the GPS. It was still showing 3 out of 4 bars and our concern level was low however it had been left on up until that point at my earlier suggestion. Given the speed at which it had drained, it was clear I had been in serious error and from that point on Kat would use the GPS only sparingly. As we continued the short hike back she was only powering it up every so often to check our progress. We were becoming agitated again and both felt that we had traveled at least as far as we had come with no sign of our original entry point. We had been scanning the canyon walls closely and there had been no splits that could have caused us to lose our way. There was only the one river in and we now followed the same river back and yet the way out continued to elude us. Only at one point did we pass anything even resembling a possible way up and out. I made a comment about it as we passed, “what about trying this” I asked half jokingly. “Bad plan” Kat replied almost immediately and I readily agreed. It was a very steep and narrow crack, choked with fallen rock. There seemed very little chance we could make it that way so we continued on. Little did we know at the time but in fact that “bad plan” had been our entry point. We had walked right past it, remarked on it even, and still not recognized it as where we had come from.
The sun was clearly getting lower in the sky now. Out west, this time of year, the sun sets a bit earlier than back east where we both came from. Shadows began to build on the huge canyon walls but they provided little shade on the canyon floor and the heat was relentless. It was around 4 pm and approaching the hottest point of the day. Even in the canyon, which is much cooler than the desert above, temperatures could soar into the mid-90s in the late afternoon. In parts the temperature would drop very quickly, literally within a few feet we would be burning up one moment and then encounter a cool spot where it dropped into the low sixties and because of the rapid change, it felt almost chilly. The rapid temperature cycling added yet another layer of stress to our already massively stressed bodies and psyches and we still had not even made it up and out to the desert floor where another close to 2 hour hike through the burning sun awaited us. Foolishly, neither of us had eaten breakfast but hunger was not yet a real concern. We had snacked on a couple protein bars and Kat had packed some Qamar al-Din (a favorite Middle Eastern drink base that makes for a good traveling/hiking snack because of its relative stability and high sugar content— think fruit roll up but a foot wide, wrapped in wax paper not cellophane, and made of real fruit not pectin, five added sugars, and acetylated monoglycerides). It was actually quite tasty and provided a burst of energy reminiscent of a candy bar but did not result in the same annoying sugar crash as it wore off. Thirst however was ever present and we drank water at a furious clip, at least I did, Kat as always drank very little or so it seemed to me.
Eventually we both decided that we should turn around again and head back in the direction of the Coyote Natural Bridge and Swiss Cheese Falls. The distance we had traveled was much further than the 0.85 miles indicated by the GPS and we surmised that we must have missed the exit we had been desperately searching for. Shortly after this second turn around I noticed a tree that looked familiar. I had mentioned it during our initial hike into the canyon, shortly after reaching the canyon floor that morning. An image of it is below. This very picture would be the clue that confirmed we had missed the entry point and that the “bad plan” crack had actually been it.
When I first saw it I remember thinking it looked like a man frozen into a tree. For some reason I imagined an ancient Native American cursing a man who had done some horrible misdeed, forcing him to live for the rest of his days in the shape of that angry looking tree. The man’s arms stretched out to the left and right had curled in agony as he froze in place. It had given me a bad feeling that morning and I had moved past it quickly. As I recognized it for the second time I mentioned my morning musings to Kat. She replied that she remembered it as well and in fact had taken a picture of it. It slowly dawned on both of us that we could confirm this by simply looking through the digital files on the camera/phone where that picture was captured. If indeed this was that tree then we had missed the exit point and would need to turn around again to find it. It also meant that we were quite close as the time stamp on the picture suggested it had been taken very shortly after entering the canyon. It took only moments to confirm all of this and she had several other images taken prior to this one before it. We were able to use those pictures to slowly make our way back to the exact spot we had landed in that morning and from where she had taken the first picture from the floor of the canyon that day. It was the “bad plan” crack. Neither of us could believe it. How could we have been so stupid? The huge phantom petroglyph visible on the canyon wall that morning (see part I for much more on this) was no longer visible at all. This was part of the reason for the miss as I had been desperately scanning for signs of it the entire time. Mainly though I think we missed it simply because it looked so different from this direction. It is hard to explain how something so vivid in your memory from a time not that long ago could look so entirely different from how you remembered it, and yet it did. The crack from below looked absolutely nothing like it had looked when descending through it from above, nor how we remembered it once we had finally reached the canyon floor.
A small measure of relief washed over us both as finally we sensed at least the possibility of a way out. Kat wisely suggested we fill up all of our existing water bladders and containers with tablet treated water so as to have the maximum available for the long hot trek back through the desert to the car, assuming we made it to the top of course. After about 30 minutes of preparation we were ready for an attempted ascent up and out of Coyote Gulch. I was very hungry at this point and munched a huge portion of the Quamar al-din figuring I would need the energy to make it up. My knee was aching badly now and Kat knew how much it hurt as I had been relying on my hiking pole for stability, and of course complaining about it loudly, for the last section of our hike. We had no illusions about the difficulty of it and had both commented many times during our descent about the perceived impossibility of using this way to get back out later, yet we still held out hope. We had spent much of the summer in the climbing gym and at various rock climbing sites bouldering (climbing without ropes) and had each progressed to well beyond beginner if not yet expert level climbers. Holding on to this hope we began to climb and at first made good progress. The traverse up bad plan crack, as we now called it, was relatively straightforward and none too difficult. From there things quickly began to fall apart as the way became ever more difficult. There were simply too few handholds and footholds to get any sort of leverage or balance from. The few that were available were worn so smooth as to be almost unusable or extremely tenuous at best. I pushed as hard as I was able and took some risks that I probably should not have, would not have, if the situation were not as desperate as I thought it was. Still, however, neither I nor Kat, could get past even the mid-way point back up. Eventually, reluctantly, we admitted defeat and made our way back down mostly be sliding on our backsides until we reached bad plan crack and ended up on the canyon floor from above for the second time that day. This time however it was just past 5 pm and the sun was even lower in the sky. Our one way out of the canyon and only real plan of escape had been foiled. It felt just then like we would never get out.
To be continued…….