Surviving Six Days on a Ledge

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

David Cicotello, 57, was stuck in Utah’s No Mans Canyon in March, 2011, after his brother Louis, 70, fell to his death. Illustration by Andrew Wright

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.

As Wednesday became Thursday, I started to fear that rescue wouldn’t come. The lemon had gone rancid in my tea and I couldn’t get it out. My lips were parched because I only allowed myself tiny rations of water. My clothing sagged off my frame. I needed a contingency plan. I tied webbing pieces and my static rope together and tossed the line down over the edge—hoping it would hit some rock structure I couldn’t see, a possible way out. Twice I did this, and twice, nothing. It was like being trapped all over again.

Friday brought the fifth hash mark next to my name. I could hardly make spit in my mouth. When I sat still the only sound I heard was my stomach’s growl. I was down to my last sip of water, but refused to drink it. I knew I should have, but I couldn’t bear the thought of being without something to drink.

The sun had already set when I heard the chopper. Without time to build a fire, I stood waving my “HELP” sign and shouting, but my efforts couldn’t escape the canyon’s dark and din. Hearing that sound fade into nothingness sank me lower than any previous point. I slept. Late Saturday morning the helicopter returned. They’d seen my brother’s body below, and this time they saw me, too. I downed my last sip of water in celebration and readied myself for a somber trip out. I was joyous to be rescued, but it was a joy unfulfilled. I left a lot in that canyon.

Never forget to double-check your rope: David and Louis taped the center of their rope, but the marker had moved after repeatedly sliding through equipment while they descended the canyon—giving them a faulty distance reading for the last rappel. Check your equipment religiously.