Ranger Kathryn's Arches

May 2, 2014

In this treacherous terrain

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 12:50 pm
Tags: , , , ,
Upheaval Dome area is full of cliffs, as seen from this overflight photo I took last week.

Upheaval Dome area is full of cliffs, as seen from this overflight photo I took last week.

Walking two by two in the pitch-black, by starlight and headlamp, we repeatedly called the name of someone we’d never met. An elderly man had wandered away from his RV two hours before sunset without jacket, water, or food. Temperatures are still getting down below freezing each night; he wouldn’t survive until morning if we failed to find him.

Our three “hasty teams” of park rangers got to the trailhead first and began searching in the most likely places — along the steep, cliff-edged Syncline trail — while awaiting search-and-rescue personnel from over an hour away. I’d walked this perilous stretch many times, always in daylight. The new moon afforded no luxury of shadows, and our thin arc of headlamp light gave barely a hint of the chasm a few yards away. Our radios worked only intermittently in these canyons. My imaginative hiking partner presumed a hungry mountain lion lurked nearby, while I was more concerned about our nocturnal rattlesnakes.

I had returned from a long run just before the knock on my door requesting searchers, and was tired, but someone’s life was on the line. As I sat down on a rock ledge to dig in my pack for a chocolate soy milk box, the thup-thup of the arriving helicopter brought encouragement: sixty thousand lumens of light! The K-9 unit, 34 searchers from two counties, and an ambulance crew were already on scene. It was now a race against the clock.

Finding a solo male boot track in a wet sandy wash, we radioed it in. They already had found excellent prints and were on the man’s trail, so we went to the highest exposed point of rock to relieve the very chilled radio relay team. Our job was now to monitor radio traffic and pass messages to and from those without coverage in lower canyons.

High on Upheaval Dome, Emma and I turned off our headlamps and watched the helicopter make pass after pass along the ridge line, shining its spotlight in an area of interest. The pilot’s impressive skills awed us as he hovered over one spot, searching, searching. The radio crackled with news that a person was hunkered down on all fours, not moving; ground rescuers plotted the pilot’s GPS coordinates and soon reached a very cold and disoriented subject. Six hours in, we all breathed a huge sigh of relief. It would be several more hours before all personnel were cleared from the scene.

Sleep was fitful. An hour after sunrise, I was opening the visitor center and welcoming our first guests. “Your park seems rather quiet,” one said. With a heart overflowing with gratitude, I could only murmur, “We prefer it that way.”






  1. Lucky guy! Dementia or ??

    Comment by leroque — May 2, 2014 @ 2:03 pm | Reply

  2. Super job finding the man in time ! And (in general) beautiful job you have !! I envy you ! No, also this year we were not lucky in getting a green card in the visa-lottery :-(( so again we have to visit ‘you’ as tourists in our holidays.
    BTW, I’m glad you’re back ‘on the air’ 🙂

    Comment by Klaas Wijchman — May 3, 2014 @ 3:53 pm | Reply

  3. Moving story, thank you so much for sharing it and reminding us how easy it can be to get lost in the darkness of the real wilderness. Glad you’re posting again!

    Comment by Pam Leonard — May 11, 2014 @ 1:47 pm | Reply

    • Although it’s a true story, your wording prompts me to think: what if it were a metaphor? “…how easy it can be to get lost in the darkness of _______” (fill blank with one’s own personal darkness). That night, LIGHT in all its forms was comforting. Our headlamps, the helicopter’s search beam, the twinkling stars — they were the only challenge to the darkness. And it was light that ultimately peeled back the darkness just enough for the man to be found. Thanks for making me look deeper, Pam.

      Comment by Kathryn Colestock-Burke — May 12, 2014 @ 6:07 am | Reply

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