A fresh layer of snow settled on my shoulders and hat. The contrast of white atop the rust sandstone and pines looked lovely—I tried to focus on that instead of the numbness in my trapped leg. Only a chilly wind broke the silence of the ravine. I listened for footsteps or voices, but heard nothing except the gusts rippling the water around me.
Six hours prior, I’d embarked on a dayhike in Zion with my girlfriend, Jessika. Our route would take us 10 miles round-trip to the Subway, a tunnel-like canyon accessed via boulder scrambles and creek crossings. Snow dusted the ground when we set out at 8 a.m. I helped Jessika over large rocks and found a sturdy walking stick for balance.
Four miles in, a pond-size puddle blocked the trail. There was no way around the pool, but it looked shallow so, testing the footing with the walking stick, we began to make our way across. Suddenly, Jessika yelped. She had sunk to her knees and couldn’t get free. I lunged forward and pulled her out by her torso, but in doing so, my own right leg sank to the knee. Jessika was safe—the nearby mud was solid—but now I was stuck.
I tugged with all my strength, trying to brace with my free left leg. When that didn’t work, I dug frantically with my bare hands, but it was useless—the water filled in instantly, preventing any progress and freezing my fingers.
We wedged a large stick next to my leg, but it wasn’t strong enough to release the cement-like mud. It didn’t seem possible, but after 15 minutes struggling and soaking our clothes, we had to confront reality: We couldn’t get my leg free. I told Jessika to go for help. I watched the dread cross her face—she’d only ever hiked with me. We’d seen no one else on the way in, and the only cell reception was back by the car, five hours away over boulder-strewn terrain. She wasn’t sure she could make it by herself. But we were out of options. I watched her retreat up the canyon. I’d never felt so alone.
Thirty minutes later, snow began to fall. Water on top of the quicksand came up to my waist, and I shivered in my jacket and beanie. I thought about Jessika. I was overcome with guilt—she was alone and in danger trying to rescue me. What if we both didn’t make it?
The sky darkened and snow began to dump harder. I pulled my arms and head inside my jacket, covering my face, and leaned on the stick that was planted in front of me. Everything ached—I was positioned awkwardly, fighting to keep my upper body out of the water. My sleeves were frozen solid and my legs numb. I thought about my 7-year-old son, who likes to hike with me. Thank God he hadn’t joined on this trip.
After a few hours, a light penetrated my jacket. Could it be a helicopter? I perked up, my heart racing. But it was just the moonlight shining over the canyon walls. I was freezing and beginning to lose hope. If Jessika had made it out, help should be here by now. I pictured her fallen and alone somewhere on the trail.
An hour later, another light shone my way. I didn’t want to take my head out of my jacket for another false alarm, so I waited. The light returned and I yelled—and someone responded. I wiggled my head out to see a ranger approaching. Jessika, he said, had made it out and called 911. She was hypothermic, but OK. I’d never felt such relief.
The ranger, Tim, tied a rope around my torso and rigged a pulley system to a rock. But as soon as he cranked the ratchet, I called out in pain. It felt as if my hips were being torn apart, and my leg didn’t so much as budge. He tried digging with his hands, but each time he touched my leg it felt like piercing knives. We had to wait for backup.
When more help arrived, they tried digging and lifting me, but the quicksand gripped my leg like a vise. The ratchet was our only hope. While one ranger armed the crank, one dug, and the two others lifted me by the shoulders. At the first pull, it felt like my joints would erupt—but then, I felt a shift. “It’s working!” I yelled. The pain was terrible, but I could feel myself inching out of the mud. Minutes later, I was free.
It felt glorious to be unstuck, but I wasn’t sure I would make it out of the canyon. I was so cold and couldn’t walk on my frozen leg. It was too dark and snowy for a helicopter to fly in—we’d have to sleep here with the overnight gear they’d brought. I was anxious to get out of the canyon and see Jessika, but under the care of the rangers, I dozed off.
I woke to 2 inches of fresh snow on my sleeping bag. Tim was speaking over the radio. More snow was forecasted, I gathered, and the weather didn’t look promising for a helicopter. But my leg was still numb and painful—I couldn’t hike, so we sat tight. Around noon, the clouds cleared. Our window was short, but minutes later the chopper appeared. It had been almost 24 hours since Jessika had left me in the canyon. I couldn’t wait to thank her for saving my life.
Skill School: Escape Quicksand
Shane Hobel is the founder of Mountain Scout Survival School and teaches BACKPACKER’s Outdoor Survival 101 online course. Heed his advice to avoid quicksand and escape if you get stuck.
Study the topography
Quicksand occurs at low points on the landscape where water settles, says Hobel, creating a supersaturated, cement-like sediment. It can look like regular mud, so test suspicious ground carefully before committing your weight.
Stick it out
Hike with a trekking pole and use it to test the ground in front of you. If you get stuck, try inserting the pole or a stick into the quicksand beside the trapped leg and push away to open an air channel.
“The more you move, the deeper you will settle,” Hobel says. Relax, lay your trekking pole in front of or behind you, and use it as a fulcrum. “Then get prone and swim your way out,” says Hobel.