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Backpacker Magazine – September 2012

Out Alive: Hammered by Falling Rocks

After an off-trail slide tosses two hikers down a slope, they’re trapped by their injuries.

by: Bill Ferris

PAGE 1 2

The Victims
Bill Ferris, 50, and Dennis Foster, 58, were injured by a rockslide in the Grand Canyon on March 14, 2010.

I heard it before I saw it–the stone-on-stone crunching noise of a massive boulder breaking loose above me. Then I watched the shopping-cart-size rock tumble 50 feet down the steep ravine, relieved that it seemed to be sailing safely past my perch. But at the last second it bounced in my direction. I pivoted to avoid a direct hit, but the limestone mass clipped my pack and knocked me over. The blow sent me cartwheeling, out of control, down the 30-degree slope.

We were on day three of a nine-day trek through the Grand Canyon, and my friend Dennis Foster and I had covered six miles of trackless wilderness since morning. But with only an hour of daylight left, we were still 1,300 vertical feet above our destination and navigating slowly down cliff bands and rock-choked ravines. We hurried through the shifting terrain, anxious to finish the descent before nightfall. Dennis was directly above me when he took a quick step, leaned against the solid-looking rock–and accidentally dislodged it.

Human-triggered slides, like the one he set loose, are more common than natural ones, so we’d been more alert about safe-travel techniques around other hikers–watching our footing, testing steps before committing our weight, and avoiding busy slopes. We’d left behind the canyon’s most slide-prone layers near the rim, and the farther we got from the crowds, the safer we felt. Natural slides are rare and most typical during spring snowmelt or summer storms, when water accelerates crumbling in the canyon. Though rain wasn’t an issue for us, we’d underestimated the ravine’s steep grade. Slopes angled around 35 degrees, like the one we were bounding around on, are prone to shift under added pressure.

After six or seven flips and a blow to the head, I skidded to a stop. Luckily, I could move, but I was in extreme pain. I called for Dennis and he shouted back; he was also seriously battered in his fall. Neither of us was bleeding profusely, but he’d torn his ACL, and I had a gash above my eye and a headache, felt dizzy (telltale signs of a concussion), and had suffered a major blow to my knee, which was swollen and throbbing in pain. We were trapped by our injuries, unable to move through the rugged terrain in the oncoming dark. We slowly regrouped, then set up a bivy for the night.

The next morning, we weighed our options. A busted knee won’t kill you, but dehydration will, and we had less than a liter of water between us. Without more, we’d be dead within three days, and it would be almost a week before our wives would report us overdue. I could do little more than crawl, but we had to find water.

Over the course of several hours, we painfully picked our way across the rocky slope until we found a sliver of a creek. I started to cry, overcome with emotion. This little trickle of water meant that I would see my wife and son again–that we’d survive.

The next day, Dennis decided that he would try to hike out. It took him two days to reach Phantom Ranch, hiking 22 miles with his hobbled leg and a full pack. On Thursday afternoon, four days after the accident, the helicopter pulled me from the canyon–battered, bruised, and lucky to be alive.

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