I licked my lips in a vain attempt to put a little bit of moisture back in them, the sticky saliva immediately crusting to the edge of my mouth. I opened my mouth to make an “O” shape and ran my fingers down the edge of my lips to clean the crust. Squinting up at the sun, I cursed myself for not filling up my CamelBak at the last spring – my only source of water for the next four miles. Four miles that might as well have been 50 in this heat.
“Sun beats down,” I worded to myself, too tired to expend the energy to vocalize it. It was a reference to the board game Forbidden Desert that I play with my friend, Zach, and nephew, Noah. In the game, we are a team attempting to put our aircraft back together and fly back to safety. Sun Beats Down is a card you do not want to draw, especially if your canteen is running low. If it’s out, you die and the game is over.
But this wasn’t a game. This was real life, a real forbidden desert. And my canteen was out.
I licked my lips again. “My lips are getting sunburnt,” I thought, not realizing at the time that my body was siphoning off the moisture from my lips. Not only was the sun beating down on me, but its heat was also radiating back up on me from the white Navajo sandstone below my feet.
I told myself the trail was about to drop down into the valley and there would be shade. But, then I caught a glimpse of the switchbacks as they snaked down and saw that there was no shade.
I was hiking along the West Rim Trail at Zion National Park during the hottest time of the year. Zion National Park is in southwest Utah and can get extremely hot in the summer. On this particular day, the temperature had topped 100 degrees.
But I knew to plan for the heat. I planned to begin my hike at sunrise so I would be off the trail by the heat of the day.
Mistake No. 1 – things didn’t go to plan.
In the early morning light, before the sun broke over the ridge, I awoke to a chilly morning and didn’t want to get out of my toasty warm sleeping bag.
Ironic, now that I look back on it. So I slept in. I slept until the sun rose and began to warm the crisp desert air.
I hit the trail at 8:30 a.m., about an hour later than I planned. But I was still confident I would make it off the trail before the heat of the day. I was only hiking nine miles – nine miles that were all downhill.
This was my second day of backpacking along the West Rim Trail. The day before, I hiked six miles at 6,000 feet of elevation. For my second day of hiking, I had about four miles on top of the rim and then the trail dropped down into Zion Valley to about 3,000 feet.
Mistake No. 2 – Assuming the terrain and temperature would be the same in the valley as the top of the rim.
I knew this. I knew it would become much hotter in the valley at a lower elevation, but it seemed to have slipped my mind. I made my way around the rim at a comfortable pace hiking in and out of the shade of the pines.
I started my descent through a stand of wonderful trees and shade. I then came to the trail intersection with the Telephone Canyon Trail, where the Cabin Spring is. Cabin Spring is the last source of water before the trail ends at The Grotto picnic area at the bottom.
Mistake No. 3 – Not filling up my water.
This was my worst mistake. I sat in the shade of the trees and looked over the valley. I had pushed myself hard to get to that spot and was looking forward to a long break and lunch, which consisted of a Clif Bar.
There I enjoyed a nice conversation with a couple from Arizona. When I was finished resting, I pulled everything out of my pack to check my water supply. I was halfway through my three-liter CamelBak, and about halfway finished with the trail.
So I decided not to refill my water. From Cabin Spring the trail drops 2,500 feet into the canyon. I was focused on the “easy” downhill hike, not the fact that I was hiking into the heat of the day on white rock with no shade.
From Cabin Spring the West Rim Trail is carved into the cliff face and drops very steeply. As soon as I began the descent, I knew I was going to be in trouble. I weighed the option of hiking back up the steep, hot rock to the spring, but still thought I’d be OK on water.
The more I hiked in the sun, the more tired I got. And the more tired and hot I got, the slower I hiked, which pushed me more into the heat of the day. I began to ration my water.
Mistake No. 4 – Underestimating the desert.
The exertion of the hike also caused me to breath heavier, which dried out my mouth. While my shuttle driver was transporting me to the trailhead, she warned me, “Just when you think you’ve got all the uphill out of the way, there’s one more push.”
I began to dread that last push, and when I spotted it in the distance, I took a long break in the what little bit of shade there was. There was only enough room for one person in the shade. And when a couple came up behind me, I got up so they could rest.
As I began the uphill push, I saw there were three switchbacks and no shade. On one of the first switchbacks, I saw a jug of water.
Is that trail magic or a cache? I thought. I wanted it so badly, but I decided if it was a cache, I couldn’t take it from someone else who was expecting it to be there.
This was my mistake. I had put myself in this position.
As I climbed up the switchback, I told myself I could take one sip of water per switchback, but I didn’t follow that rule. The first sip turned into a gulp. Then I took 10 steps and had to rest and drink again.
On this part of the trail, the sun was right in my face. Sun Beats Down. This was the first time in my travels that I truly felt I had put myself in danger.
I knew in a short while I would come to the trail intersection with Angels Landing, and at that point, there would be tons of people – people who might be able to spare some water.
I had debated hiking Angels Landing my whole time in Zion, but as tired as I was and without water, I knew it wouldn’t be possible.
I never asked anyone for water, because I found many others were in my situation. There was one woman I thought about asking, but I later heard her tell her daughter that they were almost out. At that point, I was glad I didn’t ask for water.
Where the trail ends, it crosses the Virgin River. I wanted nothing more than to run and jump in the water. But I knew I needed to drink water first.
When I got to the trailhead and the water spigot, I filled my CamelBak up and guzzled about a liter and a half of water.
Mistake No. 5 – Drinking water too fast.
As soon as I drank all that water, I said to myself, “I wasn’t supposed to do that.” My stomach began to rumble and ache, but I fortunately never got sick.
There were several factors and poor choices that lead me into trouble. But sometimes, we make mistakes. We are human after all. But little mistakes can be dangerous, and I had put myself in danger. Next time I will fill up at the spring, even if I don’t think I need the water.
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