Last week, I had a humbling encounter with the vast and uncaring majesty of nature.
I was in Salt Lake City for a three-day conference on the law, technology, and practice of redistricting — my main legislative project this year.
The program ended at 2PM on Friday. After a couple of phone calls, I still had seven hours to kill before heading to the airport – seemed like just enough time for a long run, a dinner with a colleague and, perhaps, a short nap.
The trails app on my phone said that the summit of Black Mountain offered spectacular vistas. The trail head was not far from the hotel.
At home in Boston, I am accustomed to taking long runs every week or two. With a T-pass, a credit card, and a cell phone, I consider myself ready for anything. The only things I fear are ticks, drivers, and the sudden urge to go to the bathroom.
When I left the air-conditioned darkness of the conference hotel at 2:30PM, the temperature was 91 but the humidity was low. I felt like I could exercise.
I bought some sunscreen and applied it liberally. I stopped at a supermarket and packed 4 large bottles of fluid and some energy bars into a couple of bags I could carry in each hand.
Following my trail navigation app, I walked to the trail head. I found that it was closed to pedestrians – reserved for use by mountain bikers headed downhill. My app suggested I could follow a park road in and then loop back on a trail to reach the Black Mountain summit and return downhill to the trail head.
An aging uniformed security officer supervises the gated entry to the park road. He waved me through. The well-maintained road runs up City Creek Canyon. Repeated reminders guide pedestrians and ascending cyclists to the creek side of the road, out of the path of descending cyclists on the other side. I saw no cyclists on the road, but there were a few hikers.
The creek is an element of the city’s water supply and the park balances recreation with protection of the watershed. There are camp sites spaced every quarter mile or so, each equipped with a clean restroom and a bear-proof trash disposal container.
I ran six miles up the modest grade. Golden brown grass gave way to forest. At the end of the road, I passed some families who were setting up a gathering in a large picnic area. I continued onto a well-worn trail.
My app seemed to tell me that I was on course and should soon be able to turn right and start the loop back. I was a little concerned about time and texted my colleague to push back dinner.
Sure enough, a trail signed for “Smugglers Gap” appeared soon on my right and I headed upwards. I slowed to a walking climb as the grade sharpened. A spider web across the trail told me that no one else had been through recently. As the trail continued to switch back and rise, I started to worry more about return time and texted my colleague again.
Perhaps due to sunscreen and sweat on a light sensor, my phone screen became too dim to read. From what I could remember, the segment to the summit from the road end looked short on the app. The unmarked trail remained easy to follow. But through the trees I caught alarming glimpses of continued ascent with no summit in sight.
I persisted against better judgment and eventually, I broke out of the trees onto a rocky ridge. The trail disappeared and reappeared among the rocks, but the direction of continued ascent was obvious.
Finally, at the summit, I could see Salt Lake City, 4000 feet below and all too distant. I realized that to return to the city as I intended would mean scrambling over rocks for miles along the ridge line.
Stretching in the other directions, all I could see was green mountains. After another quick 360 and an unsuccessful attempt to make my mostly-dead phone take a photo, I reversed direction to return the way I had come.
Clambering down the rocks, it occurred to me that if I broke an ankle or hit my head, no one would find me for a long time.
I lost the trail. The ridge line was clear enough, but it extended as far as I could see out into the wilderness. I began to feel I had gone too far back along the ridge. I reversed direction again. I lost confidence that I would find the trail off the ridge to the canyon floor. The light was starting to fade.
I decided to beeline down through the trees. The brush was soft enough, but the slope steepened, and I found myself surfing down the pine needles. I sat down for fear of falling forward and I kept sliding. I could see the forest giving way to rock scree ahead and navigated sideways to stay among trees. I dropped my phone on a bad bounce and heard it disappear down the slope.
I thought I might have to keep sliding forever, but finally, I saw the trail crossing below me. Grabbing brush, I swung onto it and started running again.
I hoped I might bum a ride when I got down to the road and be almost on time for dinner. Scratched up and covered in dust, I didn’t appeal to the few drivers I encountered. I couldn’t blame them. I ended up running another six miles back down to the road gate where the park guard persuaded a departing driver to give me a lift downtown. My colleague was kind enough to still be waiting for me.
City gives way to wilderness much faster in the west. The rules are different – credit card and cell phone aren’t much help. I could have been another one of those stupid, expensive, in-over-his-head summer statistics, but I was able to follow my father’s eternal advice: “Stay Lucky.”
Yikes- that was stressful reading. Glad you made it back safely though
Yikes. Glad you got back safely.
Bring back paper maps! And don’t hike alone.
Glad you’re OK, Will. Even a twisted ankle could have been big trouble.
Agree on the paper maps! We just spent a week in the Adirondacks, and even though we travelled by car except within well marked parks, we lost our cell signal many times, besides the issue of our phone batteries dying much faster when they are constantly searching for a difficult-to-reach signal. At a few points, the signals were so weak that even SMS didn’t go through (usually they work when phone and/or email and/or internet won’t connect). In fact several guide book, etc. suggested printing out directions before you start driving somewhere instead of planning to use real time navigation.
Glad you made it out safely. We need you here!
Glad you made it back safely. Seems like you ran 12+ miles and also encountered rock ridges, trees, and brush. Next time explore unknown wilderness with friend, not just alone.
Yes, using the buddy system is essential, just like in swimming. Will, were you able to retrieve your phone?
Sorry, I see that you answered this below. I’m very glad that you got back safely and that you were able to cope with each step of the situation as it presented itself, including managing the rest of your trip without your phone.
Will – what a harrowing story! Thank you for sharing it as a cautionary tale for others tempted to overestimate their ability, or to underestimate nature’s challenges. Glad for your safe return!
Whoa. A harrowing story well told. Glad you lived to tell it. The nature of the universe requires a stoic philosophy which apparently you have.
Wow.. A Jack London survival epic. Gripping. Did you retrieve your phone?
No. It didn’t stop near me and I wasn’t going after it. It was no help on the immediate problem which was getting back to a trail.
Will, I’ve been there. Laurence Gonzales is a great writer about near misses and misses in the woods.
OMG, what an experience! Thank goodness you were lucky that day!
Holey Moley I am still breathing hard from this story….remembering times I have been equally lucky after decidedly poor decisions! Glad you could write about it!
Oh dear Will! So even our our
policy Superman is not invincible ! Thanks for the cautionary tale.
Be safe – there’s so much work ahead still.
As the saying goes: “Smart, smart, smart, stupid.”
WOW, Will, what an ordeal. And you are supposed to consult with constituents before taking such risks. We have a stake in your well-being. I am very happy that you are writing about it. And I love your father’s advice. My very best, Doug
Oh my gosh, I had to skip a few paragraphs — I really fear getting lost in the woods! It read just like Wild by Cheryl Strayed and my stomach clenched a few times reading that book. Glad you made it back!
Wow. Good story. Nicely written! A bit scary but you got out OK! I hope the conference you attended was all that you expected and your next wilderness adventure is completely safe, exhilarating, and gratifying in only the best of ways!
Thank you. The conference was very worthwhile.
Last night I advised my 25 year old RN granddaughter about taking off to the hills of NH: Call Mom or Dad, provide them with your estimated time of departure; route; who you will be with; time of return. Will, you were indeed fortunate to escape somewhat unscathed. Welcome Back Home!!
All good advice.
Very glad you returned!
Will, what a great adventure!
When you come that close to not totally knowing what the outcome will be,
you then fully appreciate life……………….
Entertaining read and glad you were lucky!
Glad you’re safe
Thanks for sharing will
Wow, that is a good precautionary tale! Glad you made it out OK.
Will, Glad you are safe! What a tale.
What and adventure. Glad you are ok.
Good thing you followed your Father’s advice! So glad you made it out OK.
Good lesson for us all. Nature really is in charge, and I also am for paper maps!
Glad you, in fact, had a good sense of where you were- and that the weather was good! Thanks for sharing the caution.
Wow! I’m so glad you’re safe. I had a similar experience once in the Pacific Northwest, on Lopez Island. The woods just didn’t end.
I’ve had that did-I-overshoot-the trail feeling — descending a trailless Adirondack peak (Macomb) with Elk Lake’s swampy wilderness visible in front of me and my pack on the summit of Dix (back when above-timberline camping was allowed and before cell phones, when solo backpackers expected, if disabled in such places, not to survive). But all went as planned until I got back to the bare rock summit at dusk, when a thunderstorm started, sending me scurrying down with my gear. I’d thought a thunderstorm was coming when you were up on that exposed ridge…. “The Rocky Mountains are notorious for afternoon thunderstorms during the summer months….” http://www.rockymountainhikingtrails.com/lightning-hiking-rocky-mountains.htm
Happy trails and keep safe!
I thought I saw some suspicious clouds, but the weather didn’t break.
First, thank god for your dad’s good advice.
Second, thank god you’re fit!
Third, can you kindly not do these kinds of things by yourself? We need you too much! Thank god you’re okay. Btw, you write really well!
Welcome back Will, a sobering saga indeed, that could have turned out much worse. I wonder at what point your friend would have alerted someone to start search and rescue operations. Your experience reminds me of two lessons I have learned relevant for both urban areas and wildernesses: (a) Never underestimate the value of local knowledge, and (b) Don’t rely exclusively on technology when commonsense should also be invoked (e.g., stories of drivers following Google maps who drive into bodies of water). I assume by the way that the guard who “waived” you through waved you through, and was not giving you a waiver from a rule not to enter dangerous terrain.
Thanks for the correction (implemented above) — yes, waved. The road was open to pedestrians.
You had me on the edge of my seat, Will! Glad you made it back safely…
What a wonderful reminder that as delightful as the canvas looks, we have to have remember that we could get lost in it’s beauty and need to have a planned escape. So glad you made it back safely to remind us to remain cautious when we steer toward adventure. Love you Will!
Thank you, Anne!
Glad you made it back safely! Next time, you might want to hike with a friend.
Looks like you have gotten lots of good advice, so I will just say I am very happy you were able to come back to write that harrowing and cautionary tale.
Glad you made it out. A Green Mountains experience of nothing like yours, still gave me an edgy feeling.
Something like transparency in the legislature, committee votes and discussion to name some topics, near but still having the feeling of falling into a mystery of the unknown.
I was afraid you were going to tell us you ran into a mountain lion or a bear! Not that what you went through wasn’t daunting enough! So glad you got out safely! We need you.
Saw a deer in the valley and some big piles of scat pellets on the ridge, but otherwise only lizards.
Wow! I’m so glad you’re OK. I’m glad all you came out of it with was a story.
. . . thank you . . . and a new cell phone: I made myself go with a small one as penance for the irresponsible loss of my good phone.
Glad the only casualty was your phone in this harrowing ordeal. Luck may have played a part but your fast and clear thinking more so. I agree with a previous writer to not hike alone. I’ve read about a number of cautionary tales, some with tragic consequences. Just this past month, a native Alaskan woman hiked on a mountain she does regularly but lost her way when the sun went down ~ for 2 days, which included an encounter with a bear that she successfully used her bear spray on. Dozens of rescue people from different agencies searched for her when she did make her own way out. She was shaken and said her mistake was going on the trail too late.
Will, So glad this turned out well. Thank you for sharing this story. Hopefully we will all take heed!
Damn, Will. Glad you got back safely. I assume you got your phone after it fell…there was no mention, yet that’s the first thing most people worry about, after “will I die here?”!
BTW, you are an excellent storyteller. When’s the novel coming out? 😉
Thanks, Lauri . . . the phone was just gone . . ..
Yes lucky and I suspect wiser as well. Thank you for sharing. I’m glad you made it back safe and sound.
Hopefully a little wiser — but I had already made enough mistakes outdoors to know the dangers. Sometimes one loses perspective: That’s the lesson to try to hold on to.
Well Will, I had a similar, yet different, experience in New Hampshire, climbing Mt. Lafayette in October with 3 friends. About 3/4 of the way up the trail, 9 miles round trip, we hit snow and ice. We weren’t dressed for it but everybody wanted to keep going. I had reservations about it. Climbed another mile maybe and my feet were starting to get numb.
I told the guys I was with that I voted to turn back. They said we only had about a mile to go to the top. I shook my head and said, “My feet are already very cold. If you guys want to continue, that’s the way it goes, but I’m turning back right now.”
They looked at each other. This is not a majority vote here. I was going back down.
They decided to turn back too. I don’t know what would have happened if they had continued up; none of us had snow and ice shoes. But I think a possible tragedy was avoided by turning back.
I was relieved when we left the snow line. And it was only mid-October.
Tricky wicket’s those nature trails are. It was 1973 when this took place and I don’t know if I’d be here today if we had kept climbing.
Hi Will! Glad you made it back ok.
I always say if God is willing to make you smart or lucky,- choose lucky!
Also good advice. Because smart only goes so far.
Glad you made it back! Agreed it’s a different scale to the wilderness out west.
Nice skitching down that mountain!
What about the TV rights?
Oh my goodness, Will. Someone is surely watching over you. I am so happy to know that you are safely home. Yes, not just in Utah but here in VT many get lost in the mountains and are unaware that passages are poorly marked and cell phones do not work. This was a very good story to share.
On another note, I was so sorry to read about the passing of your amazing dad. Now he and your mom are once again together.
Thank you, Mary.
Horrible experience. Great writing! So glad you’re safe…
Very glad you’re fine now! I’m all urban-but isn’t an expedition like this safer when you buddy up with another person? I didn’t know it’s even allowed-solo!? Again-I’m totally city-person. It indeed sounded dangerous & you were so totally vulnerable.
Right you are.
Lucky is right! I guess the lesson here is to not hike alone, particularly in a totally unfamiliar area! Glad it all worked out.
“Two is one, one is none”
For software+battery adventure tech a higher margin is perhaps advised.
Still you made it home intact. Good stuff. Thanks for sharing.
What an incredible tale! Thank goodness you are more fit than the average human so that running up hill 6 miles was nothing. SO glad you are safely home again. Please don’t repeat this adventure! We still need you.
I appreciate your ballsy approach but am surprised you took this hike without a quad map, compass and perhaps a buddy.
Wise conclusion as to the proximity of city and wilderness out west.
I grew up hiking the high back country of the Sierra in California. Impossible not to savor the intoxicating beauty.
I did get separated and lost once, luckily I had what I needed and came out ok after spending the night.
I’ve been a bit wiser since then.
Glad you came out ok and thanks
for telling your story.
Your experience warned you not to travel alone in unknown places. There were many factors against you, the wilderness, the unfamiliarity of the “Wild West”, phone communication could cease without warning, your schedule and dinner commitment, and so on.. But you lucked out, let it be a good narrative to your readers who may not be as lucky in similar undertakings.
Will, what a story. Thanks so much for sending it, and, as many people have said, so glad you made it and we need you and care about you!
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