Coyote Gulch 18-19 April 2022
The morning started out bright and clear. My brother Bill and I were headed out to hike the Coyote Gulch in southern Utah down below Escalante. Within a hundred yards of beginning the hike, I realized that I would need different shoes from the high-top tennis shoes I had chosen if I was going to enjoy the hike. Bill waited along the trail while I returned to the Jeep to change into hiking boots.
As we resumed the hike along the trail toward the entrance to the gulch, we met up with a young couple and their two children. They were planning to spend four days camping along the river that runs through the gulch. We invited them to come with us to see the overlook that Jim Plaster, my brother-in-law, had marked on my Avenza map. Avenza is a free mapping app that allows you to track your location on the map regardless of whether you have cell phone service. The couple and their children were making better time in the deep sand on the trail, so they went on ahead of us to view the Escalante River Gorge from the overlook.
While we enjoyed the view, Bill decided that he needed to learn how to drop pins (mark locations) on his Avenza map while we were at the overlook.
It was also an ideal time for him to empty the sand out of his shoes. The overlook let us view the beauty of the Escalante River that the Coyote Gulch drainage empties into.As we left the overlook, the young couple called to us and said that they had located the “Crack in the Wall” where we would be descending toward the floor of the gulch. They helped us lower our backpacks over the ledge because we would not be able to squeeze through the crack with the backpacks. Bill went first and I followed him so I could take video shots of the descent through the crack. The young man, whose name I do not remember, helped film the process with the GoPro. After we descended the crack in the wall, the couple with their children headed downstream toward Steven’s Arch while Bill and I began our trek upstream. It was a beautiful day with mild temperatures and amazing scenery.
As we approached the end of our proposed hike we slipped just around the next bend in the canyon and enjoyed the beauty of Jacob Hamblin Arch. Sunset was rapidly coming upon us, so we began the examination of the scramble up and out of the gulch. Luck was not in our favor because there was no rope left in place to assist us in the climb out of the canyon. In our study preparation for the hike, we read that park rangers routinely remove any ropes left unattended at the climb out from the canyon. We also read different opinions as to the difficulty or easiness of ascending the rock face (scramble) without a rope. Bill and I both tried to begin the climb out with our packs and concluded that it would be much safer without the added weight of our gear.
I removed my backpack, clipped a hundred-foot rope to my belt, and began the ascent. My goal was to climb to the top, attach the rope and hoist our packs up. Afterward, Bill could use the rope to assist him in the climb to the top of the canyon wall. From that point, we would return to the Jeep, spend the night, and head back to Saint George the next morning. During my effort to scramble up the rocks I lost my grip twice and slid back several feet as I picked my way toward the top. The climb was slow and tedious because a wrong move could possibly send me all the way back down to the canyon floor. Nightfall came and I was only halfway to what I thought would be the top of the climb. I did not have confidence that I would be able to locate the handholds to descend back down in the dark and I had not gone far enough up to reach the rope attachment point.
I called down to Bill and told him that I was going to stay put right where I was and wait for daylight. Once I had light I would finish the climb to the top, attach the rope and proceed with the plan of using the rope to help us hoist up our gear and then Bill could follow with the assistance of the rope. Bill said, “I can’t understand a word you are saying.” I called back down again and speaking very slowly in an attempt to reduce the echo effect of my voice, said, “I am going to position myself in a safe place and wait for daylight.” Once more Bill said that he could not understand a word that I was saying. As I positioned myself so that if I fell asleep, I wouldn’t tumble down the rock face, Bill called up and said, “I’m not spending the night in the canyon, I’m hiking out Hurricane Wash.” I called him again, but he didn’t answer. I could see his headlight beam dancing on the opposite canyon wall as he hiked away.
I waited there for twenty minutes thinking that Bill was playing a practical joke on me, and I would see his light coming back around the curve in the canyon. When he didn’t return, I began to assess my situation. All I had with me was a hundred-foot rope, a small pocketknife, Chapstick, GoPro, and cell phone. My headlamp, flashlight, satellite emergency communicator, battery backup, Jeep keys, wallet, snake bite kit, first aid kit, compass, sweatshirt, and water were all in my daypack with Bill. Best plan… Stay put and wait for daylight and NOT try to scramble up the rock face in the dark.
Best plan ignored… Two pressing thoughts occupied my mind. First, I wanted to get to the top of the canyon wall and try to contact Debby and Jim (my sister and brother-in-law) to let them know that we were okay, just running later than we originally planned. Second, I knew that Bill would run out of water before he reached the trailhead. Since he had the vehicle keys, I didn’t know how I would be able to get water to Bill all the way around to the Hurricane Wash trailhead, but I would try to work out that problem once I got back to the Jeep.
My iPhone was the only source of light I had. Poor decision… Holding the phone in one hand and climbing the rest of the way to the top of the canyon was a slow process. I turned the brightness of the iPhone light as low as possible in an attempt to make the battery last as long as possible. When the battery finally alerted “low” and the indicator turned red, I shut the light off in hopes of preserving enough battery life to be able to call Debby and Jim once I had cell phone coverage to let them know we were behind schedule but to not worry about us.
Once I turned the cell phone light off it was too dark to hike in the rough terrain and with the iPhone turned off, I lost the use of the All-Trails App that was providing me the directions back to the Jeep. A good decision… I sat down and waited for the moon to rise. Bill and I had watched the moon come up the night before and I knew that it would be almost full and provide me the light and direction I needed to find the Jeep. While I waited for the moon to show its face, I began to feel the chill in the desert air. I unraveled the hundred-foot rope, bunched it up, and shoved it inside my shirt to provide a little insulation against the cold since my sweatshirt was with Bill.
Eventually, the moon began to peek above the distant horizon. To my disappointment the night was cloudy, and the moon only gave off a limited amount of light for me to see my way; however, it did provide me knowledge of which way was East. I knew that if I continued hiking East, I would reach the Jeep. With that little bit of light provided by the moon, it was time to be on my way and hiking once more helped eliminate the chill of the night air.
I could now return my thoughts and attention to solving the problem of trying to contact Debby and Jim. I stopped long enough to turn the iPhone back on to determine if I had cell phone coverage. The iPhone was on a Verizon Plan, and I had coverage the day before until we dropped into the gulch. Interesting side note…My doctor, James Pearl, called me just a few minutes before we descended into the crack in the wall. “Just calling to check and see how you are doing,” he said. We chatted for a few minutes as I explained where I was and what I was doing. But back to my story…To my dismay, the phone would not turn back on and allow me to contact Debby and Jim. I had drained the battery low enough that it would not activate. I had a cell phone plan on my iWatch so I tried to make a call out on it but there was no cell coverage. “No Service” was the message on the screen. I resigned myself to the realization that I wouldn’t be letting Debby and Jim in on what was happening to my brother and me.
Just as I was putting my phone back in my shirt pocket and unsuccessfully trying to call using my watch, I tripped, and my left knee landed hard on a jagged rock. Side note…. Doctor Pearl had told me that as a person ages, the fluid in the ear that controls balance begins to thicken and become less responsive to balance and that is what causes older people to be less stable when walking and less likely to quickly respond and protect oneself in a fall. But back to the story… I fell so quickly I didn’t even know what had caused me to trip. I thought about that thickening fluid in my ear and how quickly I was just on the ground writhing in pain. It hurt so bad I thought I was going to throw up. I didn’t know if it was broken but it hurt too bad to try to get up. I just laid there in the rocks and sand for what seemed about thirty or forty minutes. Gradually I began to face my situation and started trying to get up. That was when I realized that my bootlace on my right foot was tangled in a small bush and that was what initiated my trip and fall. Unintended consequences… Here I had been concerned about disturbing a rattlesnake and something as small as a bootlace brought me down.
I eventually tried to get up, but my injured leg wouldn’t cooperate. I knew I needed to get to the Jeep, so I started scooting up the incline on my seat using my arms and pushing with one leg. My left leg was of no use to me other than to deliver stabbing pain. After an hour of trying to reach the ridgeline and dragging myself along, I finally gave up on that method of travel. Each time I thought I was near the top ridge; another higher ridge came into view. I had to do something different. I set myself a goal of being back to the Jeep before 10:00 the next morning so no one would call out a rescue party for me. I cut off a section of my rope, tied it around my foot, and made another loop so that I could lift my leg by pulling the foot up and forward with my left hand. This method of travel allowed me to take six-inch steps which was painful but much better than scooting along the ground on my seat. Side note… The movie “What About Bob” talks about taking emotional baby steps. I wasn’t whining or beating myself up about my situation, but I was definitely taking physical baby steps, one six-inch step at a time. I reminded myself that I couldn’t do anything about the past, just suck it up and move forward.
Eventually, the moon went behind the ridge, and I was once more left in total darkness. I had lost track of the number of times I had fallen, rested, then struggled to get back up on my feet. Right Decision… Once again, I decided to wait for daylight. A person in my situation only needs three things: rest, water, and food. The only one of the three I had any control over was “rest” so that is what I did as I waited for the sun to show its face on the horizon.
Meandering thoughts of a bored man… As I sat and pondered my situation the thought came to me that it certainly would be nice to experience a “Blue Moon” night. Or in other words, a second moon to light my way to allow me to continue my trek toward the Jeep. Side note…. a Blue Moon only happens when there are “two” full moons in the same month. It is a rare occasion and never occurs on the same night, just during the same month. Without a moon, I would have no way of determining which way was east because my compass was in my pack with Bill. Good decision… I wasn’t about to waste energy stumbling around in the dark wandering in circles. I tried to sleep as I waited for sunrise but the pain in my knee said, “That’s not happening.” I lost track of how long I lay there in the sand. I couldn’t sit up because that made the pain in my leg worse. Soon it began to get light. I thought it was the sunrise and that I must have eventually fallen asleep for hours. It wasn’t the sun but a brilliant, large moon. I was confused and unsure if it was a rising moon or a setting moon. If I misinterpreted it, I could end up hiking west instead of east getting farther from the Jeep, not closer. I sat for a while watching the moon to make sure that it was a rising moon. I can’t explain the moon and I haven’t tried to put a definition on the experience. Others have suggested that the moon was a hallucination. Hallucination, wishful thinking, or special experience, I’m not sure, nor will I probably ever know. What I do know is that I tied my foot up once more, struggled to my feet, and began taking those baby steps eastward toward the Jeep. I hiked using the light of that moon until the sun began to peek over the distant horizon.
I was unable to climb up to the top of the ridge because of my injured leg so I hiked along what is called the overlook to the Coyote Gulch. The hours ticked by, and I soon knew that I would never make it back to the Jeep before ten o’clock. I still hoped and prayed that no one would call out the Calvary to rescue me when I knew that I would eventually get to my vehicle. The prayer on my lips, which were too dry to move, was that my family wouldn’t be worried about me and that somehow, someway, Bill would be able to get back to the Jeep with my keys. We could then head for Saint George as soon as I got there.
Side note…. Throughout the night and all that next day of hiking, the song “Jesus Savior Pilot Me” continued to play in my mind. I tried humming other songs, old family songs, country-western songs, but eventually, my mind was back on that same tune. I tried humming songs from Shania Twain and Crystal Gayle, two of my favorite female vocalists. I even rehearsed in my mind “Me and My Wife and a Bobtail Dog,” our goofy, family fun song sung at family reunions. Try as I might, my mind wouldn’t stay locked on any other song except “Jesus Savior Pilot Me.”
As the day wore on, I realized that I was breathing heavily through my mouth because of the pain. That mouth breathing was causing me to become dehydrated more rapidly. My lips stuck to my gums, and I repeatedly had to take my finger and run it between my lips and gums to free them up. My tongue was so dry I couldn’t even talk out loud to myself. My tongue was routinely stuck to the roof of my mouth. I felt like I had a ball of cotton in my mouth soaking up every bit of moisture possible.
With time marching on it was hard to believe that it was taking so long to get back to the Jeep. I was finding nothing that I recognized. I never saw another person, identified a cairn marking a trail, or anything else that would indicate a way to get up on top of the ridge. All I knew was that I was moving east, one baby step at a time and that I would eventually get to my destination. I came to a barbwire fence. Trying with all the energy I could summon to lift my injured leg, I couldn’t get over it. I finally laid down on my back and inched my way under the fence. The effort to stand back up each time I fell was so painful that I would just rest for a while before making the effort to stand. I did the same thing this time. I just laid there on the sandstone and rested for a while before rolling over, struggling to get up on my good knee and pushing myself up all the while trying to keep my left leg straight. The pain would become unbearable if I allowed the damaged knee to bend.
Crying wasn’t going to help but I am guilty of moaning about the pain. I knew that I needed to keep moving if I was going to get back to the Jeep. By now I had abandoned the idea of making it to the Jeep by 10:00 since it was now 9:15 and I hadn’t seen any evidence of where to climb up to the upper plateau to get a bearing of where I was. I just knew that the gulch was off to my left to the north and the Jeep was somewhere east of where I came out of the canyon.
As the day progressed, I continued to take tiny steps, lifting my left foot a few inches forward with the rope tied to it and negotiating each step with my left hand as I pulled up on a loop in the rope. If my left arm grew too tired, I would use both hands to move the foot forward. Moving so slowly along combined with falling, resting, and getting back up, it was difficult to judge the distance that I had traveled. I knew that I had been hiking for most of the day. I glanced down at my watch and saw that I was almost out of battery. Side note…. I decided that it would have been a good idea to bring along a trusty old-style Timex that didn’t require charging each night. But then I realized it would have been in my daypack along with all the other gear that was with Bill. I set the watch to “conserve battery” and noticed that it was almost 2:00 in the afternoon. Looking up across the horizon I was surprised to notice a familiar feature. It was Steven’s Arch. I couldn’t believe it at first. Steven’s Arch, off in the distance, was visible where we originally entered the canyon the day before. That meant that I had hiked past the Jeep. It was somewhere up on the plateau and behind me. I became animated and tried my best to find a way up the ridge but that wasn’t happening. Once more, my left leg said, “You can forget that BUB.” I turned around and began hiking along the path that I had just hiked. I continually looked for a shallower way to climb up because I knew that I would have to do it on my rear end, lifting my seat up with my arms and pushing up with my good leg.
I made several aborted attempts to climb up and eventually came to a shallow draw that made it possible to scoot my way up. I had a small emotional celebration as I reached the top but that was short-lived once I discovered that up on top the deep sand was more difficult to negotiate than the hard sandstone down below. As I sat in the sand and gathered my strength to get back up on my feet, I spotted a grey Jeep and a black van off to my right way up on a ridge. I had parked my Jeep down from the upper parking lot, away from all the other vehicles so the noise of my portable generator wouldn’t be so bothersome to anyone camping up there. I made the incorrect assumption that the Jeep I saw was mine, but I couldn’t understand why that black van was parked so close to my Jeep. About halfway up the sandy hill toward the vehicles, they drove off farther down the road. That is when I realized that the grey Jeep wasn’t mine when it turned around because it didn’t have a tent on top. I lost my balance and fell once more. As I struggled to get back up, I looked back behind me, and off in the distance, I recognized the carpark where my Jeep was parked. I couldn’t see the actual Jeep because it was parked off down the hill, but I knew it was the right place and I had gone the wrong direction when I got up on top of the plateau. From my previous study of the area, I now knew that I was next to the Water Tank Road which was west of my destination. I was so thirsty I decided to first go up to the water tank before hiking what looked like about three-quarters of a mile to the carpark. After several attempts to get over or under the barbwire fence, I gave up and turned toward the parking lot. I knew that it was going to be a long walk through deep sand and sagebrush but I was happy to be approaching the end of this journey.
Suddenly my watch began to ring with an incoming call. I had been checking my watch for cell service with no success. I guess that gaining some elevation from my climb up the hill brought me into coverage on the Verizon network. It was Jim and Debby on the call. They asked me if I was on the “Hole in the Rock Road,” and thinking that they were asking if that was the direction that we were located, I said, “Yes.” It didn’t occur to me that they would think that I was walking somewhere along that road. I was having difficulty speaking to them because my mouth was so dry. I was trying to separate my lips from my gums with my finger so I could speak more plainly when the watch battery died. I didn’t know if Jim and Debby were on that road or calling me from Saint George.
I traveled about a hundred yards, aiming directly for the carpark, when I stumbled and fell in a small ditch that I was trying to cross. I lay there physically exhausted and dehydrated. I put my hat over my face, and I think I fell asleep for some time. I gradually summoned the willpower to try to get up on my feet again. I knew that dehydration was taking its toll on me. Side note… I read that a person can benefit from drinking their own urine to rehydrate and that was becoming a more pleasant thought; however, I had two problems, i.e., I wasn’t producing any urine and if I were, I had nothing to catch it in. So, my thoughts returned to drinking from a watering tank for cattle should I come across one. I no longer cared about all those little creepy, crawly dangerous water bugs we are taught to avoid. I decided that the doctor would just have to deal with that problem once I got home.
I knew that continuing to lay there in the sand wasn’t helping my dehydration. Gritting my teeth and gathering my resolve against the pain I finally struggled up on my right knee and was able to stand once more. I realized that I was growing weaker and needed to get moving on my original track to the Jeep. Side note… I discovered just how real a hallucination can seem to the human mind. Off to my right came an old man dressed in coveralls, wearing a broad-brimmed straw hat. He was driving an old wagon with wooden wheels being pulled by two mules. He was carrying bales of hay in the wagon which I supposed he was taking to feed cattle. I wanted to call out to him to get his attention and ask if he had any water; however, I knew that it was a figment of my imagination because of the antique wagon. As soon as I processed that thought in my mind, the hallucination went away.
Shortly after that hallucinating event, I heard my name called. I turned and looked to my left in the direction of the sound. A man was running toward me. My first thought was that it was my son Todd, but I knew he would not have called me Jerry and as the man got closer, I recognized that he was wearing a uniform. He asked me my full name and told me that I needed to lie down. I said, “I can’t lie down, it’s too painful to get back up.” He said that I had to lie down, and he helped me get down on the ground. He propped me up against his backpack. The first thing he did was give me a one-liter bottle of water and cautioned me to just sip it slowly. Not Happening… I gulped it down, then he gave me a sixteen-ounce bottle of water. I had been almost twenty-four hours without water. Side note… Within just a few seconds of drinking all that water, my mouth was as dry as cotton once more. The dry mouth experience lasted for the next two days no matter how much water I consumed.
The ranger assessed my injuries and said that a helicopter was only two minutes out. I told him I didn’t want a helicopter because I didn’t know whether it was covered by my insurance. He said, “You are either going on a stretcher or in a helicopter.” He radioed for the helicopter to turn back but it came anyway. It flew by me lying there on the ground and came back for a second look. I didn’t want the pilot to think I was dead or unconscious, so I took off my hat that was covering my face to shield my eyes from the sun and waved it in the air. The helicopter landed about fifty feet from me, and the occupants came and visited with me, assessing my overall condition.
I must have looked a sight to them. The hundred-foot rope that I had bunched up inside my shirt for warmth the night before made me look pregnant. The sleeves of my shirt were torn at the elbow, and I had dried blood staining my left shirt sleeve and hand. I explained to them that I was on blood thinners and the cuts and scrapes were superficial. Other dialogue took place, but I won’t bore you with the chatter, but just to say the men who responded to my situation could not have been nicer. Royce, the Ranger who first found me, asked, “Do you know where you are?” I said, “Yes I know exactly where I am and exactly where I have been.” I don’t think I could have been placed in better hands. Reflecting on the situation, I still get teary-eyed just thinking of how kind and gentle all the rescue personnel were to me. After some discussion, the decision was made by them to load me into the helicopter and transport me up to my Jeep about a half-mile away. The pilot said, “This is a sheriff’s helicopter, not a search and rescue unit, and there will be no charge for the ride.” After a short ride, I was back at the Jeep sitting on the front bumper drinking more water offered by the rangers. The only negative part of my experience with officers on the scene was a lecture Bill and I received from the Kane County sheriff’s deputy about not being properly prepared and all the resources and manpower that were consumed in the “Where’s Mack” saga. I had nothing to offer or defend so I just listened and remained silent.
The wind began to pick up and grew stronger and stronger. Sand was blowing everywhere as the helicopter lifted off and returned to their base. We said our goodbyes to Royce and Steve as they prepared to leave. I will be forever grateful to them for the dedication and effort they exerted in searching for me. They had been on the ground hiking and searching from that morning until I was found at 5:00 in the afternoon. Royce found me using a spotting scope from up at the carpark and came to my rescue. Bill, Debby, and Jim were witnesses to the arrival of the helicopter and the rest of the rescue proceedings. I asked if I could use my GoPro to film what was taking place, but I was told there would be no pictures.
Jim and Debby were adamant that they were going to take us back to Saint George that night, but I was too exhausted to go anywhere. I just wanted to crawl into the tent and go to sleep. Debby said that they could not leave us and were planning to spend the night in their truck. I begged them to go home and get a good night’s rest. They finally relented, at least letting me think that they had left. Unbeknownst to me they had just driven down the road a little ways and parked. An hour later they came back to check on us. They finally left with assurances that we were tucked in and ready for sleep. It had been a long day for them, the rangers, the sheriff’s department, and for me and Bill. The wind howled and flapped the tent all night, but it didn’t disturb my sleep. The adventure was over.
Epilogue… My left knee injury had three fractures in the tibia plateau and two meniscus tears. I must admit that hydrocodone became my new best friend.