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Backpacker Magazine – March 2014

Out Alive: Six Days on a Ledge

Alone and distraught, a canyoneer fights to survive until help arrives.

by: Joshua Prestin

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I watched my big brother, Louis, smear out of sight and over the edge of a 100-foot exit rappel from No Mans Canyon and listened for his confirmation of a safe landing. Instead, I heard, “Oops. The rope is too short.” Then he said, “No biggie.” He’s my older brother, I thought. He always has things under control. Just then the rope whizzed through the sling that was securing it and was gone.

I screamed Louis’s name into the afternoon calm. I held my breath, hoping for something, anything to let me know he was OK. Silence. My voice grew hoarse and thin in that canyon as I paced a ledge in the snaking, trough-like exit slot looking for a way down. But there was no escape: Louis was dead or dying and I could not get to him.

Breathe. I ran my fingers along the sandstone, looking for handholds leading back the way we’d come. All of them crumbled or ran out. For two hours I tried to get flesh to stick to rock. On my final try, I fell. It wasn’t far, but it was a wake-up call. I could die trying to get out of here.

I regrouped. I knew I had to survive at least five days—until Friday, when our families back in Tennessee would miss our check-in call and send help. I inventoried my daypack (we were basecamping): turkey sandwich, energy bar, orange, and a bag of cashews; a liter of tea with half a lemon, 15 ounces of water; a knife, some matches, climbing webbing, 25 feet of static rope, a harness, several carabiners, and a rudimentary med kit. 

As sun washed the canyon’s bulbous walls in muted pinks and warm reds, I found a small, flat perch where I could sleep. It was 4 feet above the slot canyon’s true floor and set back from the course of potential floods. 

I cut the padding from my pack and used it as a mat to insulate my core against the chill. That night, I watched the stars pass between towering canyon walls. I thought about my brother. 

The next morning, I woke into the same nightmare. I did little things—gathered flood-deposited twigs for comfort fires, cut away my pack’s frame sheet and arranged webbing on it to spell “HELP”—because if my mind wasn’t engaged in some task, my thoughts would creep to my brother below and the possibility that I might end up like him. I carved my name and a single hash mark—for day one—into the gritty sandstone.

Rain came the second night. I was awake when it started, shivering in the near-freezing night. I curled deeper into the fetal position and forced myself to sing “America the Beautiful” and “Amazing Grace” to ward off despair. The cold nipped harder at my fingers and toes with each passing hour. 

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