Unlike what we all see in the films, the dangers of quicksand doesn’t only exist in tropical jungles.
Rob was on a typical hike just a few years ago, not in a jungle, but in Utah of all places. But unlike the films, this was to be a nightmare of horrendous proportions.
The hike started pretty normally, with Rob and 3 other students beginning their walk along the Dirty Devil River in Utah, quite close to the Canyonlands National park. At around lunchtime, they reached a point where they couldn’t walk on the shore as the canyon wall was now very close to the river’s edge.
They spotted a point on the river bank that was muddy but also sandy, and it looked as if it would be a safe place to walk on without hitting any water…Rob volunteered to check it out first, and if it was ok, the rest would follow.
He got about 15 feet from the shore and realized that it had suddenly become difficult to walk easily….his feet were somehow sticking in the muddy spots. So he turned around thinking he’d go back the way he came, but in doing so, he sank to his knees in the mud.
By this time, one of his friends had joined him, sensing there could be trouble, and he too got his feet stuck, but managed to pull himself free from the mud, as he had one foot on solid ground. Even so, the only way to get out was to leave his shoe stuck in the mud. He suggested the same to Rob, but Rob’s shoes were a different design….they were boots laced up all the way up to his shins, so no way would they easily slip off.
Anyway, his friend managed to set up a rope haul system using a carabiner knocked into a rock crevice. They thought this system would give them enough leverage to pull Rob out but after an hour of hard work, they could do no more.
Rob was now very tired and his legs were beginning to get pins-and-needles, so he thrust his arm down towards one of his legs t massage it, and to his surprise, his arm also went numb after just 30 secs, caused by the pressure of the mud around him. He had now been stuck for 2 hours and the others had come as close as they could without getting caught themselves.
An hour later, the sun passed behind the canyon wall and the temperature plunged. One of his friends passed him extra clothing that he could throw around himself to keep warm….they all talked about hypothermia setting in.
At about 4 pm, they all discussed whether they should fire up the PLB (personal locator beacon), as they did not know how long it would take to get Rob out or even how long help would take in arriving….they erred on the side of caution and fired it up anyway.
It was getting dark now and Rob could not feel his legs by now. He was also afraid of passing out due to the cold and numbness that seemed to be creeping up slowly from his legs, so he asked his friends to make up some kind of support system for the top of his body which would hold him up and prevent him sinking further. They rigged up a semi-raft made out of Thermarests and pieces of wood, which allowed him to bend his torso and lay belly-down on the surface.
All of the time, his friends kept talking to him, asking him questions in order to keep his morale up and his brain functioning. When he felt very cold, they fired up their stove and made him a meal of sausages, couscous and cheese. The rest of the time, Rob kept quiet and tried to remain calm…he knew that panic was the worst enemy in any situation. The cold was really setting in now…his hands ached with the cold and his lower body must have been very cold too, but he couldn’t feel it now as it had become so numb….he didn’t think he’d make it through the night…his mind kept thinking about that the film he’d seen on tv about that young girl in south America whose foot got caught in a drainhole cover during floods, and who drowned slowly in the rising flood water, after over 11 hours delayed rescue attempts…..
At around 8pm. they heard a helicopter, which had been sent to them after their PLB signal had been spotted….this was the best sounds Rob had ever heard!
The chopper landed on the other side of the river where there was more room to manoeuvre, and a medic came across to where Rob was, asking him how deep he was stuck….Rob told him he was almost chest deep in water, mud and sand.
The medic suggested making up a harness out of webbing to pull Rob out….they would attach the webbing to the helicopter skid and pull him out easily enough.
The harness was fastened around Rob and the helicopter flew over him and hovered low enough to attach the harness. He then signalled to the pilot and the helicopter rose up slowly, pulling Rob’s harness up, but that was about it….the pilot tried positioning the helicopter at another angle to shift Rob’s position in the mud but nothing could budge him. At the end, the pilot radioed the medic telling him that pulling any more would rip Rob’s body in half, so they’d have to think of something else.
The helicopter came back an hour half later, with more people and equipemnt…they passed Rob some plywood and shovels, but he told them he couldn’t move.
Then another helicopter landed, with more people, who off-loaded rafts, one on either side of Rob. The guys in each raft held onto Rob while their colleagues dug at his feet to free him.
Finally, at around midnight, they managed to slide a raft into a gap behind him, which partly cleared the suction created by the mud and Rob was pulled clear. He had been stuck for over 12 hours and had lost the use of his legs.
Soon after, he was flown to hospital where they managed to stabilise him. His legs would return to normal in a few days…the numbness was caused by the immense suction pressures in the mud and also the cold.
Cut a long story short, danger lurks everywhere, so when we plan or are on a hike, we do need to make absolutely sure that we take the utmost care. Don’t make rash, hasty decisions….as Rob says, if he’d just camped the night that day, in the morning, they would have made a different decision and probably would have steered clear of the quicksand.
This is the PLB I have with me all the time, cost me $300….ok, it’s not cheap, but would you rather spend a bit of money and guarantee your safety if you get caught in the wilds, or disappear without trace….?
Available as always from MEC