Calling Search And Rescue In Southern Utah
This is a bit of a different story than my ordinary photography stories. Instead of a chronicle of my adventures in a cool place (which we’ll still go over, trust me), this is a story of listening to your body and trusting yourself to make hard decisions. As you’ve read in the title and heading, spoiler alert, I was helicoptered out of my hike by calling Search and Rescue in Southern Utah after severe dehydration started to set in.
But let’s start at the beginning.
A Land With No Water
Who knows how long ago I saw a photo of Reflection Canyon at Lake Powell in Southern Utah. Like most of my bad ideas, seeing that photo made me want to go there myself and see it in person. I quickly learned that it was taken at a place called Reflection Canyon, a little offshoot of Lake Powell in Glen Canyon.
Alltrails had the hike in their system, like always — a 15-mile out-and-back trail to an absolutely incredible view. I’ve done 15 milers and more before, so this was no problem. Alltrails had rated the hike as “hard,” but who knows what that means. I’ve been on “hard” hikes no more than paved walks and “easy” hikes that took everything out of me and then some. Suffice it to say, I assumed this would be something well within my capabilities.
The hike out to Reflection Canyon was difficult. We went at the end of May to avoid the worst of the heat, but it was still blisteringly hot. More than that, the trail has 0 shade or cover. For 8 miles all you have is red dirt and sagebrush that comes up to your knee. And the full kicker – there is no water anywhere. Ironic, considering this is a hike to a massive lake.
So that means we have to carry our own water. Now I’ve done a lot of hiking in my time, even longer than 15 miles, but I’ve never packed my own water before. Having never done it, I was completely unprepared for how heavy water actually is. Do you know how much water weighs?? A kilo per liter. Or, for my American friends, more than 8 pounds per gallon. I brought 9 liters of water with me (almost 2.5 gallons), thinking that would be plenty. It wasn’t.
Day One – Reflection Canyon
After a 50-mile drive across the worst road in the United States, we arrived at the Reflection Canyon Trailhead. Not one to waste any time, we set out on our journey. At this point, I had drunk around 72oz already on the 6-hour drive to the trailhead. So with 2 liters in my system and 9 liters on my back, we started the 8-mile hike to our goal, and boy was it rough.
I’ve been on some distance trips before, but these 8 miles, carrying 9 kilos/20 lbs of water, have to be some of the most brutal I’ve ever attempted. We took a lot of breaks, tried (unsuccessfully) to not get too sunburned, and all around pushed our bodies to their limits. Six hours later, we were greeted with one of the most incredible views I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. Reflection Canyon is, quite literally, breathtaking. We set up camp at the top of the hill overlooking the view we had been waiting for, and enjoyed a fine evening in an incredible place.
But behind the breathtaking view and relief of finally taking our packs off, was the knowledge that I drank 6.5 liters (almost two gallons) on the hike up to our view. That left me 2.5 liters for the trip back – less than half of what I had drunk on the trail. I was worried, but generally tried to put those problems in the back of my mind and enjoy the evening.
Horses Under the Stars
I’m having a bit of fun with these heading titles, I admit. Unfortunately, there were no regular horses this far into the hike. The horses I’m talking about are of the Charlie variety. Evidently, I hadn’t gotten the memo about muscle spasms, as I thought those spasms (called Charlie Horses where I’m from) were only caused by a lack of potassium or other vitamins – I had no idea Heat Cramps are the precursor to Heat Exhaustion. So even though I had drank almost 9 liters of water in the previous 12 hours, I had the worst Muscle Cramp of my life while staring at the gorgeous Milky Way Galaxy under an open, beautiful sky.
It was pure agony for a full 5 minutes, and nothing I did could stop it. No stretching, massaging, or anything. Just pure pain running the length of my calf. I could literally feel the ripples of the spasms like a creature crawling around my muscle. With no idea what was happening, I considered the possibility of dehydration but immediately rejected the idea. I had already drank 9 liters of water! How on Earth could I be dehydrated?
Day Two – A Promising Morning
Something I always take with me on my trips is my Zoleo Satellite Communicator. It’s a small, portable device that lets me share my location with my loved ones, text them, and most importantly, an SOS feature that contacts emergency services in the event that I need them.
You can probably see where this is going.
After a wonderful sunrise of taking photos and enjoying the morning, we reluctantly broke camp and got ready for the 8 miles back to the car. Mercifully, putting the backpack on was significantly easier than it had been the day before. I transferred what water I had left to my waist pack, and I was now 9 kilos lighter than when I started the day before. The relief was immediate, and carrying the pack was a breeze (relatively).
As we started hiking, I started to realize how much of a problem the water situation was. I was already thirsty and now trying to ration what little I had. The miles started to tick by, and I was feeling alright up to mile 4.
Halfway through our trip back, with around 10oz of water left, I started getting extremely tired. We took an extended break where I was able to use the bathroom for the first time in 24 hours. Not to overshare, but let’s say the color was somewhere between penny copper and fresh-snow-runoff river brown. It wasn’t a good color.
Immediately, all hopes of “maybe I drank too much water!” had been destroyed. Having drank basically 9 liters in 24 hours, I was still severely dehydrated. Knowing the effects of dehydration would only get worse, we pressed on. I made it another mile before feeling like I was about to vomit and pass out. Not wanting to faint on the trail and cause even more problems for myself, I stopped at a rock at mile 5, and called it.
My buddy that I was with (always hike with a buddy, people!) took my car keys and pressed on, the idea that he would get some of the water I had in my car and bring it back to me after dropping his pack off. But 10 minutes after he left, I knew I wouldn’t be able to last the 3 or 4 hours it would take him to return. Consulting with my family through the Satellite Communicator, at almost exactly noon, I pressed the SOS button.
Search and Rescue In Southern Utah
I was immediately connected with an Emergency Response Agent who made sure I wasn’t in any imminent danger, and we got to work with what my options were. They contacted Glen Canyon Park Rangers for me who were dispatched (shoutout Valerie, sorry you had to drive like 2 hours just to turn around), but they were at least 5 hours away.
Feeling all sorts of chagrined and embarrassed, at 1:30, I asked for a helicopter to be sent. How could this happen to me? I’m the one always reading about the people who need Search and Rescue and solemnly shaking my head at how foolish one could be. “Don’t they know how dangerous Southern Utah is?” “How could you go somewhere like that so unprepared?” Well, now I know.
Cooking in the sun for another hour, I was really starting to fade. At about 2:30, my mouth suddenly became very, very dry. At one point I yawned, causing another Heat Cramp in my jaw, which I didn’t know was possible. It was incredibly painful, if you’re wondering.
10 minutes after that, my Emergency Response Agent reassuring me, I heard the beating of helicopter blades out of the East.
Can I just say, helicopter pilots are cool. As I was sitting there amongst the hills and sagebrush, I thought briefly about moving to somewhere flatter. Half a mile away there was a flat patch of bare rock I assumed a helo could put down, but my attempt to stand up and put my bag back on threatened to send me into the ground. Lightheaded and dizzy, I sat back down and waited for the helicopter, figuring they’ll know best and will come to get me if they put down farther away.
As it turns out, directly on the other side of the hill I was on was a fairly open spot on a small slope. With ease and precision, the pilot put the helo down on the side of a sloped hill, open area be damned. It was hands down one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen. As they put down, one of the EMTs hopped out the back and made his way over to me.
His name is Karl, and he’s a beast. I also got to meet the other EMT, Mike, and the incredible pilot, Esther. They loaded me up with Gatorade and water, which I greedily sucked up. They made me sit on the bench step of the heli in the wonderful, wonderful shade created by the helicopter. I learned they had come all the way from Cortez, Colorado. An hour’s flight away, just to come to make sure my dumb self was ok. Doing the math I realized that when I called for a helicopter at 1:30, they had to have been in the air within 5 minutes. Now that’s some customer service.
A 180-second Conclusion
After twenty or so minutes in the wonderful shade with some incredible people, they loaded me and my gear up into the helicopter and started preflight checks. After that, spinning up the rotors. Between those two events, we sat for probably another 10 minutes getting ready. All this to say, we spent 180 seconds in the air. 180 seconds to go the three miles that I couldn’t go myself.
We touched down to a dozen or so cars and a bunch of curious onlookers. Miraculously, my buddy had just barely arrived back at the car himself, so my biggest worry about him going back for me was thankfully not a problem. I said my goodbyes to my new friends and we headed back home, a few lessons learned.
This hasn’t been a paid advertisement or anything, but a recommendation to absolutely and always bring a GPS Communicator with you – whatever the brand. I’m obviously a big Zoleo fan, but just make sure you have something out in the wilderness. I’ll never go anywhere in the backcountry without it again.
And that’s the unceremonious end to the story of the time I called search and rescue in Southern Utah. I’ll leave you with the reiteration of always bring a GPS Communicator with you into the backcountry. It quite literally saved my life, and it could save yours. I’ll also put some resources below to help you prepare for your next trip into the hot, unforgiving desert of Southern Utah.
As always, thanks for reading.