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What Doesn't Kill You ...

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

Getting lost in Cedar Mesa taught me a valuable lesson and made my trips in the backcountry safer ever since.

Reeds and Pond, Escalante Canyons. Photo © Donald J. Rommes

The first handheld GPS devices became commercially available in 1989 but weren’t widely used until the mid 1990s. Before that, navigation in the backcountry was by tried and true methods—maps, compass, and dead reckoning. That worked well enough for me —as long as you're disciplined enough to carry a compass and the right map.

Before the handheld GPS, navigation in the backcountry was by tried and true methods—maps, compass, and dead reckoning. That works quite well—as long as you actually carry a compass and the right map.

Exploring the Escalante canyon backcountry.

Beginning in the mid 1980s, I spent a lot of time in the backcountry of what is now Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. My primary focus was on the well-watered red rock canyons of the Escalante River. Their color and forms, and occasional Fremont and Anasazi structures and rock art, made them photographically interesting to me.

Navigation wasn’t too difficult in the canyons. It was downhill to the river, uphill back. Simple. You just had to keep track of the exit canyon. On higher ground, or on bare slickrock, there was always a distant landmark to guide you. Things got more complicated when you dropped into the head of a canyon. That’s because there are often many branches that form the main canyon, and they all look the same. It’s essential to remember the branch you followed in, so you could retrace your steps on the way out. Topo maps helped—if you were good at picturing a 3D environment from a 2D map—and cairns were useful in marking the correct turn.

Experience in the wild can lead to competence in the wild.

Experience is a good teacher. Several years and many trips later, having learned from many of my own mistakes, I felt comfortable and fairly competent in the wild.

It goes without saying that the ability to find your way back to where you started is a necessary skill to master. But so is being prepared for the unexpected—avoiding injury; having enough water; staying warm and dry; carrying a headlamp, being prepared to spend the night outside if needed. Of course, I learned these skills from having gotten lost, twisted an ankle, run out of water, gotten rained on, and having to spend the night outside unexpectedly. It takes a lot of time and personal risk to learn from your own mistakes, so I recommend learning from the mistakes of others.

A quick detour to Cedar Mesa.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, I began exploring Cedar Mesa, in what eventually became Bears Ears National Monument. Cedar Mesa is a high desert plateau covered by old growth juniper and piñon forest. The periphery of the plateau is fragmented into many deep, rugged, and arid canyons that, amazingly, contain thousands of structures and rock art sites from ancient Native American cultures. The top of the plateau is littered with surface sites, but there are numerous gullies and washes that preclude walking in a straight line, and the juniper-piñon forest obscures the horizon. Even with a compass, it is very difficult to stay on course. Without a compass, it is virtually impossible.

In the autumn of 1994, a friend and I spent a pleasant week hiking and photographing in the Escalante canyons. On our return trip, we made a quick detour to Cedar Mesa to visit a photogenic site I discovered earlier.


Cedar Mesa Site—the Destination. Photo © Donald J. Rommes

Soon, we were driving on the only paved road on Cedar Mesa—a straight, two-lane road that undulates across a high sandstone plateau dotted with juniper and piñon. From high points on the road we could see twin buttes of red sandstone in the distance—the Bears Ears. From above them, dark gray clouds with rust-colored undersides were spreading south.

Finding a way into the canyon and traveling light.

Eventually, we turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. The site I was looking for was in the deep canyon to the left. The way into it isn’t easy since much of the canyon is bordered by vertical sandstone walls. The last and only time I was here, I found a steep, rock-strewn side drainage that led to the canyon floor. I was looking for that now.

Several miles down the dirt track, I found the place. I remembered the route down the gully being fairly short, and once we arrived at the main canyon, the site would be only half a mile further. It was mid-afternoon and still quite warm. A uniformly gray cloud cover had replaced the blue sky and hinted at the possibility of precipitation. I thought about bringing my usual backcountry gear—rain jacket, extra water or filter, matches, headlamp, etc.—but expecting a short trip, decided to travel light.

Underestimating.

Get in, photograph, get out. That was the plan.

I had on a black, long-sleeved cotton shirt, light nylon pants, and a hat. We took only one small water bottle each and stripped our packs down to the “essentials” of camera and film. Grabbing our tripods and, leaving all the other gear in the car, we scrambled down the gully. Many other side drainages joined ours, the gully quickly deepened, and before long we were in the main canyon.

Making better the enemy of good.

We found the site after a short search and were excited by what we saw. We explored the site and photographed for more than an hour. The light was perfect and we both knew we had something special on film. Buoyed by our success and not being content with one wonderful site, we pushed further downcanyon looking for more structures. But as the light faded, so did our energy. The conditions turned chilly and damp, and tiny flakes of snow were crystallizing out of the humid air. A storm was coming. We turned back.

My cotton shirt was still wet from the earlier exertion, and I was getting cold. My water was gone, and I couldn’t remember when I urinated last. Filling my bottle from a nearby pothole, I drank it all, and refilled it again—reasoning that even if the water contained giardia, I wouldn’t be sick for a couple of weeks. I needed water now.

Approaching storm, fading light.

We were probably several miles from the car, the light was fading, and I worried that I might not be able to find the exit drainage. A sense of urgency possessed us. We had to find our way back to the car before it was too dark, before the storm came. We quickly took stock of our situation: no matches, no compass, no emergency blanket, no headlamp, and no one knew where we were. My friend had a fleece, one third of a bottle of water, and a tiny flashlight with old batteries. I had half a liter of water and a very uneasy feeling. Neither of us wanted to spend the night out there, so we hustled back upcanyon in search of the way up and out.

It took us fifteen minutes to get back to the site we photographed earlier, and another ten to find the gully. Clambering up the drainage in the fading light, we lost sight of our footprints and couldn’t tell which of the many forks we came down. The horizon was nothing but juniper and piñon, and the drainage we were following snaked in every direction. We were completely disoriented, so we made a random choice and stayed in larger right fork.

Lost!

It was now nearly dark. I knew the car and road were to the south, but what direction was that? Perhaps if I could find the brightest portion the sky, where the sun set, that would tell me which way was west. South would be 90º to the left of that. However, in the somber twilight, under heavy clouds, there was no difference in the sky’s brightness—even to our light meters. It was a uniformly dark gray.

Think! When we first entered the exit gully, I knew we were heading in the correct direction. We took a right fork. Since we had come so far without having crossed the road, the drainage we were in must be running parallel to the dirt road, which must be to our left. We needed to get out of this drainage and head through the forest in that direction. Aided by the tiny flashlight, we stumbled from tree to tree, in and out of gullies. After twenty minutes, sagebrush began to replace the trees telling us we were getting close. In the feeble light of the dying flashlight, we could just make out a linear clearing in the sagebrush—the dirt road!

We actually cheered out loud when we reached the road. We slapped each other on the back and laughed nervously, knowing we had just dodged a bullet. Vapor from our breath hung in the air comically and our anxiety melted as quickly as the swirling flakes of snow landing on my black shirt. It was a great relief to know we wouldn’t be spending a frigid night in the canyon—no dehydration, no hypothermia, or worse. But now that we were at the road, we needed to make another decision. Which way to the car, left or right? We went right.

Feeling our way.

Wrong direction. After a half hour of walking and seeing no sign of the car, we turned around. By then, the little flashlight was no longer useful—the batteries were nearly exhausted‚—even though we had used it very sparingly. We discovered that by turning the flashlight off, putting it into a warm pocket for several minutes, and turning it on again, we could coax about ten seconds of pale, yellow light out of it. Eventually though, the batteries died and could not be resuscitated. We followed the course of the rutted road by feel, and eventually arrived at the car.

Safe!

We took off our packs and put them in the back—with the compasses, jackets, headlamps, tents, sleeping bags, water filters, and extra batteries we hadn’t taken with us. I started up the car to get some heat, changed my wet shirt for a dry fleece, and downed three cold soft drinks—one after the other. A little later, we retraced our route, found the paved road, and headed to the motel in Blanding. The next morning, we woke to six inches of fresh snow.

Reflecting on what might have happened, I realized I hadn’t learned the lessons I thought I had learned in the Escalante canyons. I had been lazy and over-confident this trip. It was irresponsible of me and it almost cost us. It wouldn’t happen again.

Laziness, hubris, and lessons learned,

As soon as I got home, I assembled a small “emergency kit” and vowed to take it with me on long hikes from then on. It contained waterproof matches, two lighters, a flashlight (with extra batteries), space blanket, whistle, compass, chlorine tablets for purifying water, and a multi-purpose tool with knife, saw, and corkscrew (you never know!). It’s been in my backpack ever since.

My first GPS device.

I also ordered my first GPS device, taught myself how to use it, and tested it out in the field in the weeks and months ahead. There were a few early misadventures, but those stories are for another post.


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