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Preparedness Pays: How Two Washington Hikers Helped a Canyonlands Search and Rescue Effort

Posted by Anna Roth at Apr 25, 2019 04:22 PM |

When trip reporter austineats and his partner came across a badly-injured hiker on vacation, they provided assistance, summoned search and rescue, and alerted the Park employees. He recounts the rescue, and offers a few tips for being as prepared as possible when you head out.

Last summer, trip reporter austineats and his partner were part of a rescue in Canyonlands National Park. Thanks to their preparation, familiarity with their gear and knowledge of the landscape, they were able to provide assistance, summon search and rescue, and alert the Park employees. He recounts the rescue, and offers a few tips for being as prepared as possible when you head out. 

The Needles District in Canyonlands National Park is a labyrinth of sandstone mesas, towers, deep gullies, and four-wheel drive roads which are frequently closed for safety reasons. Being the desert, water can be hard to come by and consequentially multi-night backpacking is difficult.

Canyonlands is a gorgeous landscape that hikers need to be prepared for. Photo courtesy Austin Smith. 

Taking all that into consideration, my wife and I had postponed an overnight backpacking trip in Canyonlands National Park to let a storm system pass through, but our substitute day hike was still fairly remote, featuring sheer cliffs topped by the area's notorious slickrock. About halfway into our 11-mile hike, the expected weather started to hit us. 

We'd established a turnaround point with a sheltered spot for our lunch, so we could enjoy it out of the rain. We had been disappointed that we hadn't been able to locate a pictograph panel, but were excited by the ancestral Pueblan granaries we'd seen.

We packed up lunch, and ten minutes later, as we ascended back up the to slickrock level which made up most of our trail, we encountered the only other hiker we were to see all day. He yelled through the wind and rain.

“My partner’s leg is broken and we need help!”

Sudden Changes

In Canyonlands, day trippers are recommended to carry one gallon of water per person, due to the aridity. When it rains however, water comes by the gallon from the sky, and the signature acres upon acres of sandstone, aptly nicknamed slickrock, become extremely difficult to climb. 

Scrambling on Canyonlands' signature slickrock is fun when it's dry, but can be pretty dangerous when wet. Photo courtesy Austin Smith. 

Whatever water doesn't coat the rock funnels rapidly into the watercourses of the park. Fun rock scrambles in the morning become treacherous in the rain, particularly since slickrock ramps frequently end in cliffs of 100 feet or more. Lichens, which colorfully adorn the rock add to the hazard. Frequently, slickrock ramps and downclimbs are your only route back to the trailhead.

Preparedness Pays Off

It was likely the hiker with a broken leg had taken a spill on that slickrock. We followed Dan* back to his partner’s location. Although lightly clothed, he was upbeat, probably due to elevated adrenaline. His partner, Sally* was pale and shivering, lying on the ground, fully exposed to the weather wearing what little clothing on that they had been carrying.

Sally perked up a bit as we engaged her with questions and did our best to provide her with some comfort and shelter. Garbage bags in my pack became a tarp, fleece hats and jackets were shared, and the remnants of our lunch were pushed on our new friends. Once she was as comfortable as possible, my partner and I quickly engaged our resources.

Carrying the 10 Essentials is very important on hikes, particularly one where you may have to handle an emergency situation. Photo by Emma Cassidy. 

With cell phones, we tried 911, but the connection was poor, a good reminder that your cell phone should not be your only emergency backup. When the phone didn't work, we decided to activate the SOS signal on our satellite phone.

Once we'd sent the SOS, there wasn’t much more we could do. We told Dan to snuggle close to Sally, in order to share body heat and keep her warm. Temperatures at this point were in the low forties and dropping.

Rescuing four people instead of two wouldn't do anyone any good, so we figured we'd be most useful by heading to Park headquarters to alert them to the situation. We told Dan and Sally help was on the way and that we'd check in with Park headquarters when we got back to the trailhead. I left them with our GPS device that had sent the SOS signal.

GPS units like this Garmin can be a huge help in keeping you and your hiking group safe. Photo by John Porter. 

As we left, I remembered I had my GPS unit. I’d been practicing with it all week and this seemed an opportune situation to use it. I quickly marked a waypoint and we headed off.

Staying Safe

Our walk out was uneventful but necessitated a watchful eye. The slickrock had become very slick in spots and our encounter had left us extra wary. The afternoon’s steady drizzle transformed the desert landscape into hundreds of cascades, ranging from small rivulets to something closer to waterfalls.

Once back at our car, we drove to the visitors center to make sure that our distress calls had been received. They were quite grateful, especially when they heard that we had GPS coordinates. Three hours later, as we settled into a movie in our van, we heard the whumpwhump of a helicopter working in the distance. We were relieved to hear that; it meant Dan and Sally would get out before dark.

The next day we heard everyone was okay. The GPS coordinates had saved the searchers a lot of time. Luck was on their side, and the cloud ceiling lifted just enough to allow the helicopter in. Thanks to the skills of a talented pilot, they were able to land on the slickrock and quickly evacuate Sally.

Dan was treated for hypothermia and released the following day. Sally likewise suffered from hypothermia. She underwent extensive lower leg reconstruction and pinning and was released from the hospital three days later.

Being prepared allowed austineats and his partner to help these hikers and saved the rangers time in rescuing them. Some things to remember from their experience: Do your best to keep calm in a situation like this, and as rescuers, don't put yourselves in danger. And, if you can, he suggests "getting contact information from anyone you lend your gear to."

*Names changed to protect privacy.