Lucky to Be Alive

I do not know that there have been any times in my life that I could say, without embellishment, that I could have died.  Until yesterday.

I started the day camped at the edge of Lake Powell at the Lone Rock beach campground, just over the border into Utah from Page, Arizona.  Something woke me at 3 AM and my sleepy brain registered that the sound of the lake was closer than it should be.  I unzipped the tent door and looked out… to find the lake lapping peacefully at the sand some five feet from my tent, instead of the 20 feet it had been when I went to sleep.  According to the radio, Lake Powell is rising about a foot per day right now.  I dragged my tent another 20-30 feet up the beach and went back to sleep.

A few hours later, once the early-rising sun had roused me, I got out Laurent Martres’ book “Photographing the Southwest” (Utah & Colorado, 1st edition) to figure out the day’s itinerary.  I’d been everywhere that I’d planned and was headed home through southern Utah, and hadn’t decided yet whether or not to spend Friday photographing and, if so, where?  Reading the chapter “Around the Paria”, I was particularly struck by the hoodoos in Wahweap drainage, but the roads were described as serious four wheel drive only.  As most of the stuff that interested me required something other than a Honda Accord, I decided to just head NW up Highway 89 and wing it.

A short while later, in Big Water, Utah, I came upon a Bureau of Land Management Information Center, so turned in to ask about the roads to the Wahweap Hoodoos.  Maybe they had been improved since the first edition of Martres’ book was published?  There I met the most helpful ranger James Cates, who completely looked his part.  No, he said, not only had the roads not been improved, but the roads that Martres wrote about weren’t even public roads!  Instead, he pulled out a map of how to hike up Wahweap Wash to the two sets of hoodoos—about nine miles round trip, or about an hour and a half each way, he said.  Bring plenty of water.  He showed me photos that one of the other rangers had taken, and they were just beautiful.  It looked as if mid- to late-morning would be the time to photograph them.

Initially, I talked about perhaps just burning the day in the area, camping at the trailhead, and heading up the wash at first light the next day—so that at least one of the hikes wouldn’t be in the heat of the day.  But then I looked at my watch and noted that it was just after 8:00.  The day before I had done a “45 minute” hike in about 30 minutes, so maybe this would be more like an hour and I could get there before 10:00… including getting my gear together and the 10-15 minute drive to the trailhead.  This was when I got stupid.

Wahweap is high desert, at about 4,000 feet.  High cliffs and low scrub.  No shade.  The high temperature yesterday was in the low 90s.  I drank one water on the way to the trailhead and had room for four bottles of water in my hiking gear, two 24-oz and two 20-oz.  At the last moment, I grabbed a fifth water as I walked away from the car… just an ordinary half-liter bottle of water that I figured I could crumple when I finished and shove in my bags somewhere.  Off I headed up the wash… beginning at 9:00.  Except that it was 9:00 in California.  In Utah it was 10:00.  What is it that they say about a series of small mistakes…?

The hike was long.  And hot.  I kept feeling like I was seriously overheating, especially my head–and I figured that my head was the last part of me that I wanted overheated.  My big shade hat is wonderful for keeping the sun off, but retains too much heat.  I kept alternating taking the hat off and risking sunburn for a bit, then putting it back on and heating up.  Or do you heat up just as much or more with the hat off, but you can’t feel it?  These were the things going through my head.

I figured that I would drink three of the five waters on the way up, leaving two for the return.  Getting water in you early is better than late.  It was OK if I got back to the car a little thirsty, so long as my insides were hydrated and I was still peeing.  Every ten minutes or so I would pause and just breathe, trying to not overheat.  The wash seemed never-ending.  The heat oppressive.  Twice the wash took big, curving bends and I found paths cutting across the low scrub on the inside of the curves, saving myself a little time.  Interestingly, many parts of the wash were still muddy, and a few places had standing water.  But the ranger had assured me that there was no chance of a flash flood–the snow melt was further north in Utah and there was no rain in the forecast for the area.

I had to keep telling myself to slow down.  I have a certain hiking pace, and it was too fast for this heat.  I was overheating and tripping over too many small rocks.  Not picking my feet up enough wasn’t a good sign, I thought.

After an hour and 40 minutes, I was there!  The hoodoos were completely amazing.  They are in two areas right next to each other.  From where you first see them, there is a footpath that winds maybe two minutes near the cliff through an area of surprisingly dense vegetation, then you’re at the first group… and the footpath continues over a hill and through some boulders around the corner to the second—and more spectacular—group of hoodoos.  I went straight to the second, northern group, where I drank a little water and had a Clif bar.  Then I set myself a one-hour time limit for shooting.  Whatever I got in an hour, I got.  Then I needed to start back to get out of the heat.  It concerned me that when I would look up at the top of the cliff and then look down, I felt a little dizzy.

Mostly I stayed at the northern grouping and photographed, including five minutes in the shade of the cliff, then a short while at the southern grouping.  My time was up.  Head back now, bub.  I had made a deal with myself that I would not take any photos on the hike in or hike out, so that I wouldn’t spend any more time hiking in the heat than necessary.  It would be too easy to get caught up in taking photos here and photos there, and add a lot of time to the hike.  Time in the heat that I didn’t figure that I could afford.  I wish that I had photos of the hike and the wash, but with the exception of once when I was later standing in the shade of a cliff, I kept my deal.  So I packed up my camera, found the path through the surprisingly dense and green vegetation, and headed off.

I was mostly through the vegetation when there was suddenly a very loud ZzzzzZzzzzZzzzzZzzzz sound.  It persisted and sounded like it was on my person.  It sounded electric or electronic, almost like an old kitchen timer—not the kind that goes “beep beep”, but the kind that winds down and goes “bzzzzz” when it winds out.  I stopped and did a quick inventory.  I had a GPS in my front fanny pack, could the GPS be making a noise like that?  No.  My camera?  My camera was in the pack on my back.  Could it be making a noise like that?  No.  Plus the sound wasn’t coming from my back.  It sounded like it was coming from the water bottle on my right hip.  Earlier the water bottle on my left hip had leaked some, and this sound was like a bottle of carbonated water just cracked so that it was fizzing out.  Looked at the water on my right hip in confusion—it wasn’t carbonated water and it wasn’t leaking.  This process took me perhaps 20–30 seconds.

Then I saw the rattlesnake.  At best it was two feet away on my right side.  It was at most a couple feet long—not as small as the baby I saw last year at Torrey Pines State Park, but not huge.  Struck me as mid-sized.  Juvenile?  Juveniles are bad; more dangerous than adults.  Less control.  I honestly have no other idea what it looked like.  It could have been neon orange for all I know.  Nor do I know if it was coiled with head up to strike.  All I know is that it was a rattlesnake, it had been continuously rattling the entire time I’d been standing there, and it was close enough to me that I’d thought the sound had been coming from my own hip.  I took a huge sideways step to the left and dashed the remaining yards out of the vegetation.

Once out, heart racing, I checked my leg and pants for any sign of a bite.  Had I been bitten and I was so amped that I hadn’t realized it yet?  I hadn’t.  I thanked the sky profusely.  Who was I thanking?  God?  Old Indian spirits?  I was an hour and 40 minutes of strenuous hiking in 90s heat and mid-day sun, with no shade, from my car.   Then another 15 minutes drive to any human beings.  Two hours from help, most of it strenuous.  Blood pumping through my body.  Pumping venom fast.  Can you survive an hour and 40 minute hike in the sun after being bitten by a rattlesnake… all the more a perhaps-juvenile snake, which tend to inject more venom?

The first half hour of the hike back out was hard.  So very hot.  I kept stumbling.  Not quite classic Western movie with the comical stumbling heat stroke victim, but my gait was, shall we say, inelegant.  It seemed like every time when I was really getting too hot, a little breeze would appear up the wash.  I would outstretch my arms, letting the breeze flow over me, and say “thank you, thank you” to the sky.  I avoided all vegetation and shaded areas.  No more snakes for me.  If I stayed in the heat of the center of the wash, I’d be on my own.  But that meant not using either of the shortcuts that I’d used on the way in.  The walk would be longer this time.  And hotter.  But I’d take that risk over a snake bite so far from help.  Twice I managed to find a couple feet of shade right up against cliffs… but only those with sandy bottoms where I could clearly see that there were no snakes.  I brought five waters with me on this hike.  Several more would have been better.

The second half of the walk out my body found its groove.  It was still unbearably hot, but I wasn’t getting dizzy.  I plodded along, center wash, forcing myself not to look at my watch or the GPS too often.  At my car were an ice-cold Gatorade and and ice-cold apple.   All I wanted was to stand by my car and drink the Gatorade and say “this was stupid, but I’m alive.”  And get there I did.  Another hour and 40 minutes.

Right when I arrived back at my car, a large raven appeared from nowhere and cawed excitedly at me from the cliff for a minute.  Perhaps it was he who’d watched over me?

What would have happened if the rattlesnake had bitten me?  I do not know.  Can you hike out that far in the heat after being bitten?  I had nine hours in the car driving home to think about that.  And to keep feeling my right leg to make sure that I really hadn’t been bitten.  Would I be dead in the wash with photos of the stunning Wahweap Hoodoos on my memory card in my bag, with Kate back in San Diego on the phone starting a search for me?  Would I be in the hospital somewhere in Arizona or Utah, perhaps in bad shape but alive?

In the end, the rattlesnake did his job.  He warned me.  I stood there like an idiot for 20–30 seconds and patiently he warned me and waited for me to get it.

Click the first thumbnail to view photos

9 Responses

  1. Kim Haley

    WOW! Excellent read. There’s something mystical about this place. But next time bring a buddy along.

    June 11, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    • John H. Moore

      I think a buddy would have only helped if he happened to have a helicopter in his back pocket! (or a satellite phone)

      June 12, 2011 at 9:44 am

  2. What a gorgeous place…and what a scary story. But I guess you learned a couple of things, huh?

    June 16, 2011 at 3:40 pm

  3. George

    Now that you know what a rattlesnake rattle sounds like, you will never mistake it for anything else again.

    June 25, 2011 at 11:17 am

  4. What a story. It’s good to get away by yourself once in awhile, as long as you make it back!
    Great shots, the wide angle shows just how rugged & remote it is.

    June 25, 2011 at 3:08 pm

  5. Annette

    Amazing story. Spectacular photographs.

    August 8, 2012 at 7:51 am

  6. Szeto Wah Koon

    Good Good photo!

    2013-6-27 in Hong Kong

    June 26, 2013 at 9:12 am

  7. Jerry Griffith

    I hit your subscribe button and it doesn’t seem to be working. Could you check it out. Also, great photos and story

    May 18, 2016 at 9:30 am

  8. Scary story. I’m glad you survived to share your incredible talent with the world. Your photos are beautiful and inspiring!

    October 24, 2018 at 8:02 pm

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