A Dangerous Lesson

Every run we go on is influenced by the natural world around us. The weather, the terrain, the type of surface we are running on, flora and fauna, and the visuals of everything around us all have some level of influence on every mile we run. I think this is the number-one thing that makes running such an appealing activity. In a sense, because of these influences, every run we do, to varying degrees, is different than any run we’ve ever done before. This can play out in very subtle ways, and it can play out in very extreme ways. Geoff Roes – Ultrarunner

The sun was setting, we were stuck, and I was ready to call search and rescue — it was that extreme.

Nice start to the trail.

June is always hot in Mesquite, with most days being over 100 degrees. But this week, was unusually hot. Temperatures were expected at about 116 making Dirty Thursday on the fully-exposed mesa not very appealing. Fortunately, there is a nice area in Utah, about an hour and a half from here, called Pine Valley. It sits at about 6200 feet and is fully forested, so it’s much cooler. I have been there once before and decided to try another trail in the area. This one would be about a 14 mile loop, that tops out over 10,000 feet.

Lush forest of aspens and pines.
Lush forest of aspens and pines.

Gary, my friend and running partner, met me at 6:00am and we hit the trail at 7:30. It was beautiful. The air was cool and, there were wildflowers and lush grasses. It was so close, but so very different from the desert. We hiked up the trail, which climbed over 4000 ft, and began seeing views through the trees that you would expect to see from an airplane window.

At one point, we came to a fork in the trail. There was some signage, but the names and arrows meant nothing to us based on the trail name we were on and where we were going. I knew we needed to keep left, and it was the right choice. I really wished the map I printed from the forest service website would have shown the little side trails for reference.

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We could see for miles at over 10K feet high.

We topped out near Mt. Burger, but the trail forked again–the left fork continuing to climb and the right fork dropping. No signage this time. After a few minutes spent questioning and analyzing our options, we heard some voices down the right trail fork. We started down the right fork, but lost the voices as we came into a clearing where the trail seemed to disappear. We sat on a log, had some food and drink, and tried to pull up a more detailed map on my phone–which, oddly enough, got great reception at that point. I noticed some people out on a point, so Gary went to ask them if they knew which way.

“Keep going on this trail and follow the cairns,” they said. We set out again, looking for cairns. We would find one and have to stop and look around for the next. Was that a cairn or just a pile of rocks? There was no real trail, but we were able to carry on, finding what we believed to be cairns. We even came across a few leftover patches of snow.

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Beautiful meadow!

At about mile 7, the trail opened up onto a beautiful meadow! The trail was cut neatly through the grasses and seemed so obvious. We joyfully trotted down the trail, which followed a nice little creek. It was gorgeous. But that all came to a screeching halt as the trail faded away.

We wandered around looking for signs of a trail but found nothing. Gary suggested going back the way we came, but I was not keen on climbing back up and I really wanted to make the full loop. Having been on the other end of the ridge, on a similar meadow, I was sure this creek and meadow would lead us in the right direction. I convinced Gary I was 90% sure this would work.

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Navigation the boulders and treefall.

And then, the creek went underground. There was no more grassy meadow, just a forest floor littered with hundreds of fallen trees that we began to pick our way around. At this point, we knew we were off trail but didn’t think we would have time to turn around and return the way we came. We continued down the creek line, scrambling down boulders and climbing over fallen trees.

In the back of my mind, I worried at some point we might come to a cliff we could not manage. Every time this appeared likely, we somehow managed to get down. Thankfully, he is tall and can get himself down and then help me down. When it wasn’t boulder-scrambling, it was log-hopping and making our way through the densest underbrush, complete with stinging nettles, stickers, and biting ants. The underbrush was 4-5ft high and fallen logs crossed our path by the thousands. It was extremely slow going as we continually climbed over and under logs, pushed brush out of our way, and crawled over boulders. We were moving at about a mile every two hours. Barkley ain’t got nothing on us. Gary must have hit his head 5 times crawling under logs. I took a nasty fall when a log I was on broke, and a couple other falls when branches I was holding onto on the hill broke.

And this was the easy section.
And this was the easy section.

At 14 miles, my watch died. My cell phone had a low battery warning, so I turned it off. My hydration pack was empty, and I had about a half-bottle of water left. Gary was completely out. Things were about to get worse – way worse. We finally hit the wall. The one we could not get down from. The sidewalls of the canyon narrowed and the creek dropped at least 20 feet. I sat and cried, though the tears were dry. Gary yelled cuss words into the wilderness which seemed to echo off the walls. Feeling defeated, he sat next to me. I apologized for my poor, selfish decision.

I thought to myself, “This is how people die. I am one of those people.” I was not prepared to be there any longer, let alone after dark when temps would be in the 40’s. With all seriousness, I suggested we call search and rescue using the only ounce of battery left on my phone, but Gary was not ready to give up.

It was about 7pm local time and the sun was low in the sky as he scrambled up a steep side hill behind us. He didn’t know if we could cut across and back down the hill, below the cliff, or if we would again meet the cliff with no way down. It was worth a try and he told me to follow him. The hill was steep and we were holding on to any plant or rock we could so we wouldn’t slide down. I was so dehydrated at this point, my mouth felt like paper. I was nauseous and dizzy, and couldn’t think straight. We were in the last hours of the direct sun and just wanted to lay down. But, I knew I had to keep going while we had daylight and pushed ahead, taking one or two steps and then resting a moment.

Route before watch died.
Route before watch died.

We got to the ridge line of the steep hill and tried to go down below the cliff, but weren’t confident we could get below it yet. So we continued higher on the ridge and looked over the edge. I was so afraid it would be another cliff but it was just a very steep, forested hill. We could see town about a mile and a half away. If we could go over this hill and down, we would at least be on flat ground. We weren’t sure if there would be more dense underbrush to navigate though. We went over the ridge and diagonal across the other side, slipping down and getting lower.

As if it were sent from heaven, we reached an open, grassy flat area and our spirits were lifted. Although we weren’t ready to celebrate yet as we still had a ways to go, the cow pies told us we were probably going to be ok. We followed the path the cows had left and found a more defined trail. Soon we came upon a house and it was then we felt finally that we were “out of the woods.” We got back to the car after 11.5 hours on the mountain that should have been more like 6. Our bodies are beaten and scratched but we were ok. Best part was that we didn’t end up on the news.

Lesson learned is that no matter whose trail it is and how confident you feel about it, always bring items for emergencies. At the very least, I should have brought a flashlight, a cell phone we didn’t use, more water, a light jacket, maybe even a knife and twine. Second lesson is, if you reach a point where you can’t find the trail, do NOT keep going.

Totals:  11.5 hours, 17 miles, over 6000 feet gain.

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Terri Rylander

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