It wasn’t supposed to be an overnight. That much was obvious by what I brought with me: a running vest, snacks, some water, and an insulated vest. At most, my longtime hiking buddy Gordon and I expected to be out for five hours.
There are more than 60 miles of trail in Palm Springs’s Indian Canyons, and we knew most of them by heart. But the heavily switchbacked, 13-mile route connecting the Cedar Springs and Jo Pond Trails was new to both of us.
On the morning we planned to tackle it, the thermostat read 39°F, and when we arrived at the trailhead, we stepped from the car into several inches of fresh snow. It didn’t seem deep enough to affect our navigation, so we set off, ascending amid yucca and desert scrub to views of the San Jacintos. After two hours of hiking, we lost the trail in the powder.
We climbed a ridge to get a better vantage and discussed our options. To my left, a slick rock face peeled away from the ridge at a 45-degree angle. I stood on the snow-covered stone at the edge, looking down 120 feet to the bottom. I was turning back to Gordon when my shoe slipped.
Gordon moved to catch me but there was nothing to grab but air. I picked up speed, clawing at the rock. I used everything I had—hands, knees, shoes—but nothing stuck.
In a last-ditch effort to self-arrest, I flattened my body against the rock, spanning as much surface area as I could. My foot caught hold of a small notch in the face and I slammed to a stop. All I could hear was my own thudding heart.
I didn’t seem to have any broken bones, but the skin on my elbows, knees, and hands was gone. I wouldn’t have passed a fingerprint scan.
Hugging the rock and shaking with adrenaline, I yelled to Gordon, now 60 feet above me: “I’m all right!”
A grove of thorny, twisted trees blocked my view of the ground, and I knew there was no way to climb back up. But 10 feet to my left, I saw a few potential handholds. If I could make it there, I could probably climb down a shorter route on mellower terrain.
I shouted my plan up to Gordon, who said he’d spotted a possible path to the bottom. We agreed to meet there, and I watched him disappear.
Now alone, I attempted the traverse, but each move resulted in a short downward skid that I thought would stop my heart. The air was cold, but my hands were slick with blood and sweat. I steadied my breathing. One step at a time.
My Nikes, which I’d trusted to carry me through marathons, ultraruns, and countless hikes, were useless on the polished sandstone. So I carefully removed my shoes and socks and tossed them, along with my heavy vest, to the canyon floor below. Gripping with my toes, I started making progress.
I moved slowly, crossing hand over hand, foot over foot. After a few minutes, I touched real holds. Relief melted into me; I was in control again. I crept downward, and after 30 feet, touched the canyon bottom at last.
I found my belongings and looked around for Gordon, but he wasn’t there. Panic crept back until I spotted him on a far-off ridge. I yelled but he didn’t hear me. That would be the last time I’d see him for three days.
Battered and alone, I did what any sane man would do: I called my wife. “I’m fine,” I told her. “Gordon and I were separated but I know where to go.” It was a stubborn summary of my past hour of mistakes. I was frustrated, but I still thought I could save myself. With just three hours of daylight, I figured I ought to keep moving.
I walked north and then east along a stream. When night replaced dusk, I followed the sound of flowing water.
Blind in the dark, I tripped. I heard my shoulder crack, the sound of my humerus fracturing against a rock. Shaken and overwhelmed by the throbbing in my arm, I decided to stop. I checked my phone. Dead. There was nothing to do but sleep. I snuggled into my insulated vest.
Temps dropped near freezing, but that night I couldn’t tell—my raw skin and bruised shoulder were hot with pain. Mice crawled over me as I dozed; I was the only heat source for miles, and they kept me from feeling alone. I’ll find my way out tomorrow, I told myself. As I drifted in and out of sleep, I noticed lights flickering to the east.
I woke up on day two feeling exhausted. I had a little water left but didn’t bother refilling—I was still in denial about how lost I really was.
I climbed east in the direction of the lights, hoping both to get a better view and to make myself more visible.
By noon, I was out of food and water. I pushed all thoughts of death aside and pressed on. This desert wouldn’t kill me; I wouldn’t allow it.
Eventually, my route intersected with what appeared to be a trail. For the rest of the day, I followed it, but when the sun set, I was still lost.
Day two’s resolve evaporated by the time the sun rose on day three. Dehydrated, hungry, and stiff with pain, I started hallucinating. I saw runners with their dogs, a man getting into his van on a ridge. I yelled at the mirages as I walked, my fractured shoulder a dead weight. I dug into the soil for water, but found none. This is it, I thought numbly. After 12 hours of wandering, I lay down under a bush.
It was 7:30 p.m. when I heard the drone of a helicopter. Gordon had found his way back to the trail, met up with my wife, and launched a search. They’d been looking for me, by ground and by air, for two days. I wobbled to my feet. The sun had set, and I could barely see, but I waved my one good arm and yelled. A searchlight—directed by thermal cameras—shone in my face, and all the emotions I’d kept buried welled to the surface: the guilt at having made my family worry. Thoughts of the wife and kids I almost never saw again. “Oh, my god,” I said aloud. “They found me.” I was 3 miles from where I thought I was, headed in the wrong direction, a speck in the desert that almost swallowed me up.
As told to Alex Gulsby
How to Traverse Slickrock
1. Wear the right shoes: Expecting some scrambling? Good traction can mean the difference between life and death. Opt for something with soft rubber soles, like approach shoes, which have better friction.
2. Use trekking poles: On low-angle rock, descend facing downhill whenever possible, and use walking sticks (preferably with rubber tips) to provide at least one extra point of contact for better stability.
3. Stay balanced: Steep terrain? When facing downhill feels uncomfortable, or you need to use your hands, face the rock and stick your butt out to keep your weight over your feet—it’ll improve your balance (and make it easier to catch yourself if you fall). Keep as much of your shoe pasted against the rock as you can to maximize contact.
5. Get low: In exposed spots, crab walk or crawl if you have to. Lowering your center of gravity makes catastrophic falls less likely.