Posted by: Matt | July 5, 2007

Near Death in the Desert

Left you with a bit of a cliffhanger a couple of days ago when I wrote I was grateful to still be alive. You’ll see in a moment how appropriate the word “cliffhanger” is. I may have exaggerated just a tad, but probably not as much as I’d like to hope.


This past weekend I took the opportunity to go on my first backpacking trip. Three of my brothers-in-law and I went down to a place called Coyote Gulch in Grand Staircase – Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Friday morning we hiked into the Escalante River canyon (pictured above). It’s a fairly popular location but still one that requires a map if you aren’t familiar with the area. Unfortunately one of us, not me, left the map in the car thinking we wouldn’t need it. Once we reached the river we began walking up the canyon, two hours later we had not seen a single identifiable feature, in other words we were lost. We finally realized we were in the wrong canyon and after dinner walked back to the beginning of the correct path. But not before I flipped backwards off of a rock while trying to avoid the flaming camp stove my brother-in-law was waving around in an attempt to extinguish. We probably should have read the directions first…

Next morning we started down the correct path and soon identified our first landmark, we were definitely going the right way. Unfortunately our water pump filter was failing and our water supply running low. Luckily there are a few natural springs in the area where we were able to fill up (apparently giardia free as there are no stomach problems to report at the time of my writing this). A few hours later we reached the landmark which should have indicated the area of our exit.

Two hours later we were still looking. Eventually we were off the one map we did bring and decided to turn back. Water supply getting ever lower as it had been awhile since the last spring. About this time we were all pretty desperate to find our way out and cursing our bad luck and wondering how we could possibly be stupid enough to get lost.

We headed back to the landmark that was to identify our exit and just past it finally found the exit, the map was a bit ambiguous. Then we discovered that our exit was a steeply sloped surface of slick rock. I’m not much of a rock climber, I’ve never really done it and lack confidence in my shoes to grip a smooth surface suspended 75 feet off the ground. Fortunately two of us were quite comfortable on the rocky face. The two of us not so confident (myself included) had to tie a rope, supported by my 19 year old brother-in-law further of the slop, around our midsections and scale the rock wall with 30 pound packs on our backs. I’m not too embarrassed to admit that I was scared out of my mind. Each foot hold seemed much too precarious and my thoughts turned to the wife and daughter back home. I wanted to see my daughter’s first birthday and her high school graduation and her wedding and my first grandchild. Not the floor of the canyon hurtling toward me at 9.8 m/s sq. With some encouragement from the rope, I found the confidence to scale the rock, only to find we had to cross a rocky desert landscape with no sign of our vehicle and without any source of water (picture below is after exiting the canyon, I’m second from the right).


Needless to say we made it, but not before hearing the sharp rattle of a tensing rattle snake 10 feet away and directly in my path…



  1. All I have to say is I am glad:

    we go to southern Utah only in the fall.

    with an experienced crew

    and we travel by horseback.

    We’re going to Escalante in September, Matt. Want to join us?

  2. Whew! Glad you’re okay!

    Since this is a reading blog, how about a book recommendation about a backpacking trip that didn’t go well? Journal of the Dead: A Story of Friendship and Murder in the New Mexico Desert by Jason Kersten.

  3. Susan – I’d say late June isn’t the most comfortable time to go, good idea only going in the fall. I’m afraid I’m busy in September… all month. 😉

    marydell – Thanks for the help relating this back to books! I’ve never heard of that book, but I’m glad that wouldn’t be the title to our trip, especially the “Dead” and “Murder” parts.

  4. Sure getting lost and getting hurt sucks at the time, but in the end, you have a far better story to tell!

  5. ooohh that brought back memories of our all too brief time in Utah. See our pics HERE if you want.

  6. That’s funny Matt, especially sine you’re OK. It seems as if you were the victim of the old “Everything that can go wrong, will go wrong” law of physics. But look on the bright side, as John says, at least you got a good story out of it (and it is a good story) and that looks like some beautiful scenery up there. I’ve never been hiking before – ever, anywhere – and the closest I’ve ever gotten to a canyon is when we flew directly over the Grand Canyon on my last trip out to L.A. I’d like to go one day. When I do, I’ll be sure to bring the map, lots of water, and people who know how to rock climb. 🙂

  7. That’s way too much of an adventure for me. Seriously, glad to hear you’re fine.

  8. Very scary! And John’s right, it does make a good story. Glad you made it out alive, with a minimum of injury and no giardia 🙂

  9. That’s close enough to a “near death” experience for me, Matt. Actually it’s closer than I’d like to get these days. Glad you made it OK and that no one was hurt or had stomach problems as a result of your “leisure” activity. 🙂

    Remind me sometime and I’ll tell you about the hiking experience I had in the U.K. where I thought I would freeze to death in sight of George Harrison’s mansion gate.

  10. John Mutford – Yes, we definitely came away with a good story, and I’m sure we’ll talk about it for years.

    Arukiyomi – I took a look at some of your pictures and I’ve actually been to some of those places (and had a much better experience than this one!). I actually haven’t seen much of Utah even though I live here.

    J.S. Peyton – This was my first backpacking trip and probably my last, even had we not had the problems. But, yes, it was some pretty impressive scenery.

    tara – It was a bit much for me at times too.

    gentle reader – I’m very grateful for the no giardia thing as well!

    Sam Houston – I’ve definitely lost the sense of immortality the youth have. 🙂 Sounds like you have an interesting tale to tell about your UK adventure!

  11. Oh those pics are wonderful! I think I’ll stick to the city though 😉

  12. Holy cow! What a precarious situation to be in. Good that you all kept your heads and made it out ok.

  13. Great story. Glad you all made it out okay with such fantastics pics. I appreciate seeing them as I am obviously never going to make that trek.

  14. iliana – Glad you like the pictures. And I prefer the city too…

    Stefanie – We kept our heads for the most part, although there was definitely some frustration.

    Framed – It makes a good story afterward… 🙂

  15. Matt – I noticed that you are from Salt Lake. I was born in Provo (groan), but most of my family lives in the Salt Lake Valley. I’ve yet to go to Southern Utah, but my mom and brother went last summer (my grandmother grew up in Monticello). I’ve heard its beautiful (in that deserty sort of way)…one day we’ll go. I enjoyed reading about your “adventure.” But those types of mishaps do make for good memories!!

    Best wishes.

  16. Trish – I moved to the Salt Lake area about 4 years ago. I also spent some time in Provo, I much prefer Salt Lake. Before that I lived in Seattle. Southern Utah certainly has an impressive landscape. I like a bit more of the green stuff than you can find in Utah though. Next time you are in Utah you should check out the National Parks in the south.

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