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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Death March

Last night our power went out. When I went to bed it was 65 degrees by the vent in our room when I woke up this morning it was 87 degrees. My sister informed me that The National news said St. Louis had the worst weather in the country last week.... I would have to agree. The problem is, this week is supposed to be worse, over 100 degrees and with the rainstorm last night very high humidity. With this foreboding weather on the horizon seems like a good time to talk about "The Death March" as we affectionately remember it.

Before I talk about the march let me introduce your cast of characters. I will include first names and a short description of how I know them and their hiking experience.

Me: your lovable hero (decent amount of hiking and canyoneering experience)
Mindy: my lovely wife of about 6 months at the time. (very little hiking experience)
Richard:I consider him my goofy but lovable kid brother even though we aren't related (more energy than a squirrel on speed, and good hiker)
Aaron: friend for many years and the type of guy who would give you the shirt off his back. (I am pretty sure he grew up in the wilderness or was at least raised by wolves, very experienced hiker)
Gloria: Aaron's wife and friend of mine (some hiking experience)
Ben: Aaron's brother (see Aaron for experience).
Heather: Aaron's sister and saint (see below for details on Sainthood and above for hiking experience)
Carrie: Friend to the group (not sure on experience, I suspect little)
L: I will not use full names here for reasons obvious below. Friend of my wife (if you can have negative experience hiking she had it)
R: L's husband and a very patient man (seemed to be able to handle himself quite well)
Dan: Dan requires a little more explanation. I have been friends with him a long time and when it comes to hiking he is either a genius or completely insane, I still haven't figured it out yet. Every single time I go hiking with him something "bad" happens (watch for future posts on these topics) and even when I am not there he barely manages to survive. He once hiked out about 5 miles on a broken leg and then a few years later drags me halfway into the same hike before informing me of the previous experience. He knows some of the best places to hike and is pretty much fearless, he also has a way of convincing you to do things that in the back of your head you know may get you killed. But even though my wife has threatened to never let me play with Dan again I know going hiking with him will be fun.

OK, now that we know who was there, lets talk about where we went. Escalante located in Southern Utah, is a beautiful desert landscape, full of slot canyons and open desert. The red rock is amazing and last but not least it is Hot!! The image above is an oblique Google earth shot of the general vicinity. We all decided to go camping and hiking down there one long weekend and drove the 8 or so hours from Salt Lake City (6 hrs with me driving). We met up at our campsite and talked for a while and decided to go on a hike. Dan had spent a little time in the area and knew of a couple of hikes that weren't to long and shouldn't be too difficult.

Since we knew we were going to be off road for a good bit of the drive, all 11 of us piled into my Jeep and Dan's Jeep to begin our trek.
It didn't take too long on the dusty dirt trails to get to the head of the canyon and once we parked we loaded up our gear we headed out on foot. Before we got too far from the vehicles one of the questions I asked is if everyone brought water and since everyone answered in the affirmative I felt like it was safe to continue. I knew from previous experiences to carry as much as I possibly could so I had over 2 gallons on me. This hike was supposed to last about 4-5 hours. All we had to do was hike down about a half mile to the top of the canyon and then down until it spit us out on the open desert and then hike around the outside back up to the vehicles. I know it sounds simple in theory......

About 10 minutes (a quarter mile or so) into the hike we get to the first obstacle. A large 30-40ft bulging dome of sandstone to scoot down. For the less experienced hikers it was kind of freaky. No problem though, we helped them down and by scooting on their backsides they felt like they were pretty safe. At the bottom it was flat until we reached the cut in the rock at the opening of the canyon. (I should mention that somewhere in this time frame Heather lost a hair Scrunchy this is important later on).

Lowering ourselves into the slot took a little effort and "L" had a few freak outs at this point, but nothing compared to what was to come. The guys took turns being a human ladder to get everyone down and once inside the slot it cooled off dramatically so even the sun wasn't a problem. we scrambled down the canyon the whole time lifting and carrying those who couldn't climb very well. It was hard work but at this point it was a beautiful day and we were making fairly decent time. It was during this time though that I began to realize that things weren't quite as they seemed. The hike was much more difficult than Dan had indicated. I didn't mind, but some of the less experienced hikers were tiring quickly and even though my wife was a trooper I could tell she was a bit freaked out by some of the stuff we had to do to get down. I also noticed Carrie only had a 20 ounce bottle of water and "R" and "L" only had a 6 pack of 16 oz bottles between them. Richard's CamelPack started leaking at this point as well. I was a little concerned about the water situation. I knew I had a lot of water and the others were OK and since this was only going to be a 4-5 hour hike we should be set. Well that all changed once we exited the canyon onto the open desert.

The real trouble started when Dan couldn't decide which way we were supposed to go. We knew the general direction and
Ben had a GPS with him but it didn't show the specific obstacles between us and the Jeeps. Once we finally decided on a route morale had really taken a hit. It was really hot (high 90's) and we just spent 2.5 hours hiking down a fairly rigorous canyon. Understandably people were tired and wanted to stop and rest. The problem was those stops were happening more and more frequently and for longer each time and each of those breaks involved drink our rapidly diminishing water supply and soon almost all the water was gone.

This "short" hike was in about 6 or 7 hours when "L" completely lost it. She was dehydrated, tired and freaking out. She wouldn't listen to reason and we had to go back and carry her several times. At one point she completely stopped moving and refused to go another step she had resigned herself to die there in the desert.
An experience like this can really bring out the true personalities of people. When we were hit by that blast of oven like air coming onto the desert floor I got to know my friends in ways I never expected. Everyone took on different roles and attitudes. Ben and Dan were the trailblazers and were going up ahead to scout out paths that would be easier for the less experienced hikers. Aaron, Richard and myself were doing the heavy lifting and helping the girls through the rough spots, and Saint Heather, Gloria (they were the only ones patient enough to put up with her) and "R" had a full time job just keeping "L" moving.

Since the water had nearly all disappeared earlier we all had to share to make sure everyone made it back. This was really hard on the guys because we had to hike forward and then back several times to make sure everyone made, it was like hiking it twice. We reached a shaded spot and were resting when Aaron started getting sick from dehydration we gave him all the water we could spare and decided Dan and Ben should go ahead and bring drinks back to the group. They hiked out ahead of us and we staid there and rested.

I was not to keen on spending the night in the desert and was relieved when after about 30 minutes Aaron said he was feeling better and wanted to move on. As we came around the edge of this cliff we were shading ourselves under I saw something brown on the ground about 20 yards away. It looked unnatural so I walked up to see what it was and like a pillar of fire leading the Israelites to the promised land I found a hair scrunchy. I held it above my head and with all my strength (which by this point was next to zero) I yelled "I found the scrunchy" shouts of joy from the rest of the group echoed back to me as morale was instantly bolstered.

We knew we were close to the Jeeps but didn't know exactly where they were so we kept moving albeit much more cheerfully (except "L" she gave up any desire to live long before this point). When we got back to the rock dome that we climbed down the everyone went up but Gloria, Aaron,
"L", "R", Me, and Mindy. "L"and "R" were still several hundred yards away and the rest of us were just sitting at the bottom of the dome. To get down we had to hold the girls hands and ease them down, but they could tell Aaron and I were to weak to do it this time. Gloria went first and hiked up on her own. Then Mindy went up on her own and to highlight the difference between the will to survive and the lack of that will, Mindy told me later she knew sitting down at the bottom of that dome (which at this point looked more like a mile high cliff instead of a gently sloping dome) that if she didn't make it up that that no one else was going to be able to help her so she just did it (I was very proud).

I went next and stopped to rest at the top by this point "L" and "R" had reached the base of the dome and "L" broke down again and refused to even try. Aaron and myself had to lay down on the dome and let her crawl up us like a ladder while the long suffering "R" pushed her. by the time I got to the top of the dome again I was beginning to doubt I would make it the last quarter mile or so. But the will to survive kicked in and I started towards my Jeep. As I got closer I saw Richard come over a rise and he was carrying a bottle of water it kind of reminds me of the scene in Ben Hur when Jesus stops to give Ben water. I took a couple of sips and told him I never tasted anything so good. He continued on behind me to help Aaron and the other two. When I got to my Jeep everyone was sitting around resting and drinking from the case of water I always kept in the back of the vehicle for just such occasions I guzzled some day old 100 degree lemonade first and soon the sugar and water began to work their magic.

When Aaron got up he asked where Gloria was and to be honest in my dehydrated state I didn't think to take a head count. She wasn't anywhere around and no one had seen her since the dome. Aaron and I jumped in my jeep and told everyone to stay put, were were going after Gloria. We started driving down the dirt road honking the horn. We knew she had headed this way so she couldn't be too far but maybe she had fallen into a hole or something. We drove and drove looking for her. I could feel Aaron's panic (heck I was panicked a bit also) but off in the distance we saw a flash of orange running towards us. It was Gloria in her orange fleece. When she reached the top of the hill she took a wrong turn and when she hit the road she followed it the wrong direction but when she reached an empty ranger checkpoint she realized she went the wrong way and headed back.

Now 9 of us were present and accounted for but Ben and Dan were nowhere to be seen. Dan's Jeep was gone so they made it out why didn't they just bring some water back to us? In my imagination I kept seeing a helicopter flying with them hanging off the sides. It was getting dark and If we wanted to see the roads to get out we decided to get going we all piled into my Jeep and started back to camp. As were bouncing along we saw headlights in the distance so we raced up to them and in the process found Dan and Ben they had gone to the nearest town and bought bags full of Gatorade Dan didn't realize I had a Jeep full of water. Tired, but alive we made our way back to camp it was weird but everyone except "L" and "R" were happy to sit and talk even though we were exhausted this experience made us much better friends and taught us a thing or two about each other. "L" and "R" dropped off the face of the planet after that they never got back in contact with us despite repeated attempts by my wife but the rest of us never forget the 4 hour hike that turned into a 9 hour Death March.

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