Can Adventure Sports and Travel Change You?
Tyson scrambles around for his air pressure gauge trying to deflate his tires by 20 pounds. We turn off Highway 24 and onto one of my favorite roads in Utah—The Maze Road—a road that takes the desert traveler to some of the “best” in Utah: The Maze, Horseshoe Canyon, and Robber’s Roost. We crest Texas Hill and head south. Tyson has no idea where he is, but he doesn’t care. He rallies through the desert in his newly outfitted Toyota Tacoma. Lift and tires do wonders for a man’s machismo. For me, it is time to reflect. Yes, I carry on a conversation with Tyson verbally; but mentally, I am somewhere else. A previous time….
We waded through chest-deep water. The sun’s rays hit our faces and bounced off the canyon walls. The red rock amphitheater glowed brilliantly. As I uncoiled the rope, I thought to myself, this is why I come to canyon country. The beauty and solitude always put a smile on my face. And, on this day, it was no different. We all rigged our harnesses and rappel devices. We stood atop a slickrock rim that dropped 50 feet. Far below, the desert held a secret—a desert oasis. The water and green reflected from Stu’s sunglasses as he peered over the edge. Our group of desert wanderers stood ready for the thrill of a free-hanging rappel. Stu disappeared over the edge. Impatiently, waiting our turns, we continued our conversation about pointless life happenings until we heard a noise. A loud echoing noise.
“What was that?” Dave questioned.
“It sounded like a rock fell.” Shane hypothesized.
“Stu, you ok down there?” I asked. Nothing. We were above Stu, back from the canyon rim, so there was no way for us to spot him visually. I called out again, but louder, “Stu, you ok?” Still no reply. Now, my nerves were on edge. I knew something wasn’t right.
“Stu, did you fall?”
We all waited impatiently and quietly for him to answer. The moment of silence did not feel like a few seconds but rather minutes.
“Yes” Stu groaned from below.
Just 20 hours prior, it was all good. Dave, Stu, and I were on our way to the Roost when our good friend Shane decided to join us. Since he was coming back from a photo shoot in Jackson Hole, we met at a random gas station in Spanish Fork Canyon. We headed south on Highway 6 and then turned off Highway 24. As we crested Texas Hill on the boundary of Robber’s Roost, we turned to the south and found a perfect place to camp for the night. Within 30 minutes, we had the camp set and the fire started. Dave passed around a fine bottle of whiskey. It was the start of a stellar night.
That following morning dawned clear and blue. We sipped coffee and ate oatmeal. Energy and excitement were high in camp. This wasn’t my first foray into the Roost, but these particular canyons were new to me and from what I had read—beautiful!
Tyson and I pull up and camp at the very spot that brings back positive and negative memories. We enjoy setting up camp on a star-filled night. I throw out my cot while Tyson pops open a beer. The conversation quickly turns into that September weekend six years prior.
Our feet finally hitting slickrock, we dropped into the canyon. The sun’s rays beamed from above as I layered up with more sunscreen. The canyon started wide and narrowed rapidly. Not a tall slot at first but the walls rose steeply. Approaching a dry fall, I looked for a route down. It probably could have been downclimbed, but I thought it would provide us a decent practice of rappelling. Dave and Stu had done a few canyoneering trips with me in the past, but this was Shane’s first real experience. “Shane, I can belay you from above. I have an extra rope, so if you’re nervous; don’t hesitate to ask.”
I guided Shane through the process, and he safely rapped 10 feet down. We coiled the ropes and meandered down the slot. Conversation flowed among friends. This was one of those days. Good company, phenomenal scenery, and a fun jaunt in the desert. Our feet eased into the chilly water. How deep? I couldn’t see the bottom, but my feet finally touched. The water was waist deep so we held our packs above our heads. I spotted the end of the slot about 20 feet ahead. Shane held high his uber-expensive, large-format camera with a tight grasp: “Oh my God, I better not drop this!” All of us made it through the slot, and the canyon opened into an enormous sandstone alcove/dryfall. The rays hit the alcove, casting a stunning, orange glow on the canyon walls. Our “out” was right in front of us. All that remained was a 50-foot free-hanging rappel. This was the challenge we wanted to face.
Camping in the same spot brings back a flood of memories. I had been to the Roost area a dozen or so times after Stu’s accident and rescue. But, still the memories flow. Tyson asks, “So, how did it change you? Or, did it change you?” Tyson’s questions are so simple. But, so difficult to answer. I struggle….
After hearing Stu’s faint voice from below. We acted quickly to get to him. Stu was able to free himself from the rope. I asked Dave and Shane to go next. I wanted to make sure they both got down safely. Dave’s voice calmly asked, “We good, Mike?” I responded with a firm, “Yes!” Dave was nervous, so I added another carabiner to his rappel rig to increase the friction on the rope. Shane was up next, and he told me that he would do okay. I offered to belay him from the top for backup, but he felt safe and comfortable. Down he went. I quickly geared up and walked to the canyon rim. My feet balanced on the precipice. I slowly inched my way backward. Within seconds, my feet cleared the wall, and I was free-hanging on the rope.
My eyes caught a glimpse of him. He was lying in the dirt on his side. He didn’t appear to be in good shape.
“Stu, how are you, man?”
“Not, good…” When I heard those words, I knew he was in trouble. Stu never complains. In high school, he once played a football game with a broken leg. We huddled around Stu to make him more comfortable by giving him a few layers of clothing for padding and warmth. I conveyed to Stu the situation. We had a six to seven mile hike out of the canyon. It was 2:45 pm. I informed Stu that he had 15 minutes to decide if he wanted to hike out with us or wanted us to get help. In my heart, I knew that we needed to leave Stu and go for help. We decided that Dave would stay with Stu while Shane and I would hike out. We divvied our supplies. We made sure that Dave had some matches, an extra jacket, and food.
Shane and I made good time to the Main Fork of Robber’s Roost Canyon. Even under the stress, we paused to notice the beauty of this canyon with its towering sandstone walls of desert varnish, flowing water with fish swimming, and green bullrushes. I tried to take it in, but we had to keep moving. In fact, we picked up the speed. Both of us settled into a pace between jogging and hiking. Unfortunately, neither one us had been in this canyon before so we diligently kept our eyes open for the exit—There it is-It must have served as an old horse trail used by the cowboys and outlaws back in the day.
Tyson’s questions make me ponder answers. Let me think I state while setting up my cot and laying out my zero degree down bag. It’s cold. Both of us notice our breaths as we converse. I struggle to answer his questions.
“Yes, it changed me. For the good I hope….”
This horse trail provided the exit, but we still had to get to the top. Shane and I began to climb out of the depths of Robber’s Roost. The trail was really a slickrock path with cairns here and there. Our heart rates increased as we gained elevation from 100 to 200 feet. We just kept hiking. Finally, my eyes fixated on my truck 300 yards in front of us in a realization that we had made it. I also a realized that I needed to make two phone calls. One to 911 and one to Stu’s wife. Both would be difficult. However, I was doing the easy part of dialing a few numbers and talking to a few people. Stu, along with Dave, were doing the hard part.
I placed the call to 911 around 5 p.m. I didn’t want to call Meredith, Stu’s wife. Yes, I was scared and also wasn’t sure how she would take it. So I called my wife Louise, Stu’s sister.
“Stay calm, Louise. There’s been an accident. I’m ok, but Stu took a fall. He’s alive but hurt and stuck in a canyon. Dave is with him.”
Then, like any good husband, I deflected my responsibility to her. “Would you call Meredith?” Coincidently, Louise was visiting with their mother.
She said she would make the call, and I gave her a brief synopsis of what happened. I told her that I would call her later and that emergency search and rescue were on the way. Louise stayed calm. I hung up.
Now, what the hell to do? Shane and I felt a bit refreshed in the early evening sunlight and delighted in a 360-degree panoramic view. Asking ourselves again what we should do, we decided to return to camp, washed up and prepared dinner. We guessed the night would be a long one as we waited for help to arrive.
My phone rang. “The GPS coordinates you gave us are not making sense, the coordinates you gave us are in Wyoming.”
Actually, they were in Little White Roost Canyon— not in the Cowboy State.
“Sir, with the daylight waning and our helicopter running low on fuel, we are going to refuel and call you back.” I felt helpless.
Hours passed before we noticed lights in the distance. Finally, help was arriving. By this time, helicopter rescue was out. It was dark and a storm front was approaching. The S & R people asked us where they were stranded and if we could show them how to get to them.
Shane and I started to lead them to the exit of the canyon. There was no way they were going to do a few rappels in the night. However, during our wandering around the high desert by headlamp, the clouds moved in and the wind picked up. When I felt the raindrops, I knew that Stu and Dave were in trouble. Flustered, I looked for rock cairns that marked our exit route. I walked to the canyon rim and peered down 400-500 feet into the blackness hoping to see a fire signal. By this time, the rain was pelting my face and the temperatures were cooling fast. The lead S&R guy decided to call off the search for the night. Defeated, deflated, and at a loss for words, Shane and I walked quickly back to camp followed by the 15 or so S&R crew.
“How did it change you?”
“Accidents happen. Naturally, questions formed almost immediately after the accident. What could I have done to prevent it? What would have happened if another person had gone first? What did happen? How did he fall? Questions are good, but answers are better. Unfortunately, I found out that answers are hard to come by, and I drove myself anxious trying to find them.”
I awoke at first light but not before the S&R personnel, they had left camp. Looking down the road, I could see their trucks in the distance. Shane and I gathered our things and drove down the road to join them. My mind was in full-worry mode as I thought of the cold night Stu and Dave spent outside in the elements. But, I had given Dave a set of matches and an extra jacket. Was that enough? Peering over the rim, I saw a bright, orange, 12 mm rope attached to two trucks. The rope careened hundreds of feet down the side of the canyon wall, and out of sight. I was trying to spot any signs of Stu or Dave. Sure enough, I spotted Dave walking down canyon. But no sign of Stu…The helicopter sneaked up on me. I’m not sure why I didn’t hear it, my mind might have been singularly focused. The helicopter landed on the canyon rim, and the crew began to devise a plan, the pilots were stoked.
“Hey, would you mind taking a picture of us when we get down in the canyon?”
I was a little stunned when the pilot handed me the camera. Both pilots were truly excited to make this rescue. I guess that’s a good thing. The helicopter flew high above and then dove into the canyon. However, the canyon was too narrow to make any major maneuvers, so it eased its way close—nose first— and hovered. A nurse rappelled from the helicopter to the canyon floor. We overheard the S&R crew talking with the pilot over the radio. Stu was ok. He was cold and would be flown up to the canyon rim within minutes.
15 minutes later…it was great to see him. Stu’s expression showed us he was relieved. The nurse gave him a shot, and informed us that he’d be taking a long nap. Dave was ferried back from the canyon bottom to the rim by the helicopter. We all said our goodbyes. I gave the pilot back his camera; and he informed me that they would fly to Moab, get fuel, and head north to the IHC Hospital in Murray. Within minutes, the chopper was gone, and the S&R people cleaned up. It was over. There we were, packing our camp, saying thanks to the S&R people as they left. Within 45 minutes it was just three of us, the vastness of canyon country, and mental images of Stu in pain.
We drove out and said goodbye to Shane; he intended to travel further into the Roost to photograph. Later, we learned that he didn’t feel like shooting and spent one night by himself before returning to his gallery in Flagstaff. Dave and I reversed course from 48 hours earlier, but it was much different. I gave Dave some quiet time because I knew last night was long. He began to fill me in on the happenings of the night in Little White Roost. He described how Stu had to climb on his hands and knees up a scree slope to get shelter from the rain…How he had a great, warm fire going before a waterfall came cascading down the slickrock and extinguished it…How he talked with Stu about everything that night to keep him from focusing on the reality of the situation…
“So, how did it change you?”
It was a learning experience. I’m not sure it changed me, but it taught me a few things. As the saying goes: Learn from your mistakes. Learning the hard way isn’t easy, but the thing is to be prepared. One never knows what might happen. Make sure you respect the environment you’re adventuring in because that same environment can challenge you in a moment’s notice.
Control what you can control. Bring some extra layers? Fire starter? Emergency blanket? Extra food? Water?
“That’s why your bag was so heavy today when I picked it up.” I smile back. “Yep.”
I’m in the desert once again, driving down Highway 24. I see the sign and the turn off for The Maze Road. On this day, it’s not my destination; but my mind always wanders back to that eventful day in September 2009. In today’s world of adventure sports and activities, everyone seems to have a personal definition of adventure- maybe that’s a good thing.
More importantly, that day back in 2009 convinced me that I want to visit and recreate in remote, backcountry areas. Places like Robber’s Roost are jewels of the West. But, there are others, and want to find them. Also, I never take for granted time spent with friends. Things happen.
So, if you head down to the desert this Spring or to the mountains this Summer, be prepared and enjoy your company. Adventure, whatever your definition, awaits.
Stu suffered multiple fractures on his spinal cord and sacrum and multiple rope burns on his hands. He had surgery later the afternoon he was rescued. He was millimeters away from being paralyzed. Stu was bedridden for six weeks or so, eventually making a full recovery. He has not gone canyoneering since. After speaking with Stu a few times about the accident, I determined that he jumped off the canyon rim on rappel to begin free-hanging the 40 or so feet down. However, he was carrying too much speed. He panicked and grabbed the rope with his hands. I believe that Stu, using an 8mm rope, built up too much speed for his rappel device to stop him. It’s all about friction and the 8mm rope does provide enough friction to safely rap with controlled speed on the descent.