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What Doesn't Kill You ... Getting Waaay Lost in Cedar Mesa and the Lessons Learned

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

An impromptu hike to a remote site teaches the perils of overconfidence. We learn from our mistakes—if we survive them. But there is so much to learn, and so little time, we simply can't make all our own mistakes. We must learn from the mistakes of others. Here's an opportunity.


The site: 3 structures, a few handprints, and a fabulous ceiling. Cedar Mesa.

Photo: © Donald J. Rommes


Tried and true navigation. The first handheld GPS devices became commercially available in 1989 but they were very expensive and 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.

Since I stuck mainly to the canyons, I’d sometimes get overconfident or complacent and leave behind my map and compass. It was that much less to carry.


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."

A quick detour to Cedar Mesa.


In the early 1990s, having by then hiked many of the canyons of the Escalante, I tried an area that was new to me—the high desert plateau of Cedar Mesa in what would become Bears Ears National Monument. The periphery of the plateau is fragmented into many deep, rugged, and arid canyons that contain thousands of structures and rock art sites from ancient Native American cultures.

The top of Cedar Mesa is littered with sites as well. However, being surface sites, they are not protected from erosion and are now barely visible to the untrained eye. Besides, cross country hiking on the plateau is very challenging. An old growth juniper-piñon forest obscures the horizon and numerous gullies and washes preclude walking in a straight line. Even with a compass, it is very difficult to stay on course. Without a compass, it is virtually impossible.

In the autumn of 1994, after a pleasant week hiking and photographing in the Escalante canyons, a friend and I decided to make a quick detour to Cedar Mesa on the trip home. He was interested in seeing a structure I photographed the year before.

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. Above them, dark gray clouds with rust-colored undersides were spreading south.

We turned off the main road and onto a dirt track. The site we were looking for was in the deep canyon to the left. Finding the route in was challenging as 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.

Into the canyon, traveling light.


Several miles down the dirt track, I found the faint trail to the site. 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, and being familiar with the route, decided to forego all that and carry just our camera backpacks.

The destination, but perhaps there was something better further downcanyon?

Photo: © Donald J. Rommes


Better—the enemy of good.


We found the site after a short search and photographed the alcove and structure within for more than an hour. The light was soft—perfect for the film we were using. Conditions were so good that we pushed further downcanyon, looking for more structures to photograph.

As the light faded, so did our enthusiasm. 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. The water was gone, and I couldn’t remember when I last urinated. 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 was beginning to think 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 held 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, I figured the drainage we were in had to 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 to the road. 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. Even though vapor from our breath hung auspiciously in the air, our anxiety melted as quickly as the swirling flakes of snow that landed 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 out of it about ten seconds of pale, yellow light. 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 camera packs and put them in the back—along 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 a liter and a half of water. Then 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 headlamp (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.

The very next thing I did was to buy a handheld GPS device.


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