My Near Death Adventure

I just recently returned from a two week road trip which included photo ops in Monument Valley, Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Grand Teton National Park, and Yellowstone National Park. I came very close to not returning, however. More about that in a minute.

My first stop was Monument Valley, a place I had visited once before, and one I was excited to see again. Since weather conditions and light conditions are always different, I was sure to get something new, especially since it snowed during my last trip to this epic wonder. My first shots here were during sunset:

Mitten Sunset

Rising early to get a sunrise yielded this:

Mitten Sunrise

Then it was back on the road to Moab to shoot the Canyonlands and Arches, certainly two of the most surreal and other worldly locations on the planet. One of my uncertain goals for this part of the trip was to explore the possibility of shooting a location known as “False Kiva”. It was discovered by Tom Till, a well known professional photographer who has a gallery in Moab.

Here is a photo from that location taken by Jason Corneveaux:

False Kiva

As you can see, this is quite a coveted vantage point, and so I was quite motivated to get it myself. I stopped at the visitor center in Island In The Sky, Canyonlands, and spoke with a ranger who showed me a few pictures of the trail (if you can call it that) leading to this venue. He told me it was quite strenuous a hike and not well marked. He also said that if I encounter water, I should head back. I told him how old I was, and asked him if I could do it. He said take it slow and come back if you see water. He also gave me precise directions on how to spot the beginning of the trail, which was not marked nor advertised by the park.

I drove about 40 minutes from the visitor center to a spot on a less traveled road which he had indicated. I gathered my equipment which included a 35 pound bag of photo equipment, and a pint of water. It was drizzling out and there was some thunder off in the distance, but I walked about 250 yards back along the road until I found what appeared to be the beginning of what the ranger called a “social trail”. I figured I could always turn around if the hike became too dangerous or unmanageable.

After about a 15 minute easy hike, the first pronounced descent into the gorge was upon me. It wasn’t too difficult, and there were some cairns along the way which assured me that I was on the right path, and that I figured I could use when I returned. It was still drizzling out but it wasn’t too bad although the red rocky clay was getting muddy and slippery so I stayed on slick rock to avoid falling. More cairns along the way guided my continual descent into what became a very steep gorge, and I began to worry if I would be able to navigate the return trip. About an hour or more into the descent, I came to what I estimated might be my final obstacle; a sharp rocky climb down into the gorge. Sweating, wet and tired, I stopped to think. How much risk was I willing to take for this photo? Close to my goal, and not one to give up or quit, I decided that the risk was too great. I even began to think of the 127 hour film that depicted a lone hiker who had to amputate his own arm to escape. I took out my camera and tripod and took a photo from my current location, knowing that it was nothing like the real thing that I was striving for:

Almost (False Kiva)

After taking a few shots in the rain and getting my equipment soaked, which I normally try to avoid, I packed up and began the very steep ascent. After maybe 10 grueling steps I was panting and my legs were exhausted. I stopped, leaned on a rock and rested for about 2 minutes (luckily I had some water). A few more steps up and I was panting again. It was now obvious to me that getting back to my car was going to be very difficult, and I became seriously concerned about my survival. I checked my cell phone which I knew would not have service, but I looked anyway; zero bars, no service. I continued my gradual climb like this for maybe 30-40 minutes when I realized that I could no longer see the next set of cairns which I relied upon to guide my way since there was no marked nor obvious trail. I WAS LOST!

Climbing higher in what I believed to be the approximate direction back, and zig zagging a bit to maybe find a cairn was my only hope. I never did see another cairn and so my only strategy was to stay focused, continue up hill and hope that eventually I would see something that resembled a way out. After about another hour of wandering lost, I dialed 911 on my phone, hoping that even though I didn’t have a signal, something miraculous might happen and someone would come to my rescue. I had purchased a SPOT GPS system for just this kind of emergency, but I had left it my suitcase (lol). Funny now, but not then.

After, what seemed like an eternity of wandering lost, I finally got high enough where I could see cars on the horizon, and I knew that if I just kept walking toward the cars, I eventually would find my way out, if a pack of wolves or a mountain lion didn’t get to me first. Trekking onward, the road and the cars became closer and I was beginning to feel almost safe when I realized that between me and the road, was a canyon that was almost the size of the Grand Canyon. I kid you not, it was huge. After all, this place is not called Canyonlands for no reason. So all I could do was walk parallel to the canyon hoping that eventually I would discover an exit point and make my way to the road. Another half hour or so I spotted the road again, and this time it looked like clear sailing, with the exception of dense ground cacti that covered the land between me and the road. Nevertheless, I managed my way back to the road, but I had no idea where I was nor where my car was. I hailed down a passing car and the driver helped orient me. I was little more than a half mile from where I had originally left the road. Back at my car, drenched, and covered with red dirt, I knew how stupid I had been, and how lucky. I also learned an important lesson:

1. Put the SPOT GPS in my camera bag;
2. Never take a hike like this alone; and
3. Always tell someone where I am going.

I did manage to take some safe hikes in Canyonlands one of which resulted in this shot from Dead Horse Point:

Dead Horse Point

Back on the road and on my way to Jackson Hole, WY where I would stay for several days while shooting the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks, was a nice way to recover from my Canyonland adventure. In fact, my thighs felt like they had been on a stair-master for hours; well they kind of were, actually.

My goal for these two national parks included several often photographed iconic shots, wildlife as it presented itself, and thermals from Yellowstone. Here are just a few of my favorites:

Mormon Row At Dawn

Fog In The Valley


Which Way, Mama

You can see more in my landscape galleries HERE

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8 Responses to My Near Death Adventure

  1. gail/thecuriouscamel says:

    I think Which way Momma is my favorite. Beautiful

  2. Bob Meade says:

    Dan, that was a really gripping account of your Near Death Adventure at Canyonlands. I’m familiar with the shot you were attempting to get. I was aware of it before my last visit to Canyonlands a few years ago, but I’d read it was kind of isolated and Tom Till wasn’t being forthcoming on its exact location. Anyway, glad you made it out okay.
    Bob Meade

  3. I was happy to learn a little more about the adventures of the photographer whose images are so compelling! I’m sure glad yu made it out of the canyon lands to “shoot another day”!

  4. azleader says:

    I identify with your False Kiva plight.

    In 2006, in the heat of Sonoran Desert summer between the Superstition Mountains and Four Peaks east of Phoenix, I spent over a week hiked aimlessly around without food, water or shelter. It was a true survivalist experience in temperatures up to 110 degrees. I was not prepared for desert survival, but survived anyway. I should write about how I did it.

    It is quite disconcerting when you see vultures circling overhead and suddenly realize they are circling YOU! That happened to me.

    One night I almost got struck by lightning during a major gully-washer thunderstorm. That, however, provide me with much-needed drinking water and enough stream flow to take a shower under a rock outcrop.

    Another night I was awoke when a pack of coyotes came through my location and began howling loudly. I was completely surrounded but never saw a single one of them. Some had to be within 50 feet of me.

    Unknown to me, there was a massive manhunt looking for me, but I walked out on my own to tiny Goldfield ghost town. Police and others came to see. No one thought anyone could survive under those conditions for that many days, but it really wasn’t that bad. I was lucky, used common sense and just happened to have the minimum needed to survive.

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