A Lesson in Humanity

(2/1/05) From my experiences in previous "tame" solo backpacking trips I was nearly convinced that the wilderness hardly holds true adventure. Mother Nature decided to teach me a lesson in one action-packed weekend in Anza-Borrego Desert.

Three-day weekend and finally a sunny forecast. Can you say backpacking? It was Martin Luther's Day weekend and I was excited about trying out my lighter pack weight, a new Canon Powershot A95 camera, a new Garmin Geko 301 GPS, and my new 1995 Jeep Wrangler on the rough Coyote Canyon Jeep road in Anza-Borrego Desert. My plan was to off-road up Coyote Canyon, hike up Sheep Canyon south fork, traverse over to the north fork, and then finally hike down Salvador Canyon. I've hiked the neighboring Cougar Canyon before and thought, piece of cake. Little did I know I was going in over my head.

The hike to the mouth of the canyon was simple enough. I passed by a ranger who said Sheep Canyon was pretty torn up from the storms. I recognized her from my previous Cougar Canyon trip. Her name is Nancy, and she's a sweetheart.

Soon, I came across the first storm casualty, a road block in front of a 15 foot drop-off.

It was dark by the time I reached my favorite camp spot near the mouth of Cougar Canyon the first night. I had trouble finding it in the dark, but the distinct tall Ocotillos and huge boulders at the site were perfect beacons. I was not alone. Toward the mouth of Cougar Canyon there was a group of campers enjoying a camp fire. They seemed nice enough, but obviously no loud shower singing from me tonight.

I woke up early the next morning to start my hike up the south fork of Sheep Canyon. One of my guidebooks, Afoot and Afield in San Diego County, warned that this was technically the most difficult trail covered in its pages. Ropes and rappelling are not required, but careful route planning is a must for safe passage. Also, day packing it the first time was recommended instead of a backpacking. The guidebook warns of not jumping or sliding off rocks to avoid being stuck in a canyon bottom. Overly self-assured from my other tame backpack trips, I thought no problem.

Well, after only progressing perhaps a mile in about six hours, I realized that this was way more difficult than I anticipated. There was no clear trail. Steep and sheer canyon walls along the stream made it impossible to hike along the canyon bottom. Storm debris, including full trees, was strewn across the canyon. I constantly found myself going up one path to discover a dead end, heading up another direction to discover a sheer drop-off, and then settling for a path covered with thick brush. Working my way up the canyon was a slow, frustrating

Little did I know I was going in over my head

undertaking. My other guidebook, The Anza-Borrego Desert Region, suggested climbing to 2,600 feet on the north wall after the grotto because the terrain was "more stable". Fortunately, with my new GPS I was able to figure out where this altitude was. At one point I had to drop my pack to climb safely down a tall boulder, and when I dropped it, one of the fins broke off. When I climbed down, I was able to luckily just snap it back on. Nice engineering, Gregory Packs.

As I continued my precarious hike along the steep canyon wall, one of the rocks underneath my foot gave way. So did I. I slid and tumbled down the wall about twenty feet. It was one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had. My legs got scratched up pretty good, but luckily no injuries. I realized then that this could have been it. I also realized that this hike was way over my head. It will be a while before I attempt off-trail hiking again and also not taking the experts more seriously.

I was losing daylight. Rather than continuing up the South Fork to the saddle past Square Top, I decided to try to saddle it earlier so that I could hopefully make it over to the tamer North Fork as planned. So I climbed. And I climbed. My left leg started cramping. When I discovered that I was almost out of water, I started to sob. This was real. I could be stuck up here without water. Without water, a rescue operation would not reach me in time. At one point I came across enormous boulders. If I climbed them I knew there was no turning

I started to sob. This was real.

back. I began to near the top and to my relief the ground started to flatten. I looked toward the north and spotted a saddle between two peaks, with a relatively easy way down to the saddle. I made it down to the saddle and miraculously found a spring and a flat place to camp. I realized that at that point I had a guardian angel watching out for me. After filling up on food and water, I lay on a flat rock gazing up at the stars in a quiet state of disbelief. I decided to change my hiking plans. Instead of the unrealistic, aggressive plan of traversing over to Salvador Canyon via Sage Flat, I was going to attempt an easier exit by the north fork of Sheep Canyon. I checked my GPS unit and was able to determine exactly where I was and make appropriate plans. Unfortunately, the book indicated I had a steep and difficult climb down from the saddle to look forward to in the morning. I fell asleep by nine and slept like a rock that night.

The next morning I started hiking at sunrise and then came to the steep descent the book warned about. It looked difficult and slow, but possible. I started down and found it difficult working my way through boulders, so I cut over to the other side of the boulder path. It was difficult on that side as well. I stopped and studied the hillside for a while and was able to pick out a route on the other side of the boulder path that looked manageable. My studying paid off. I was able to whip down to the canyon bottom very quickly.

The hike down the north fork of Sheep Canyon was much easier. It was difficult in a few places as I came across dead end drop-offs. Working my way around the drop-offs, I sometimes had to climb up to make it down, but I was able to make my way down slowly. And it was slow. It could not have been a mile yet, and the day was starting into early afternoon. I reached one beautiful sunny spot of the canyon with waterfalls carving their paths in various directions and enjoyed a much needed respite from all the toils. After taking some pictures, and soaking in the sun, beauty, and sound of the falls, I regained some energy for the rest of the voyage.

I continued my hike and came across a real dead end. I had no idea how to make it down over a huge waterfall. I tried various approaches, but nothing worked. I finally decided to attempt to slide down a granite rock to make it down. It was risky, but it was the least of all evils. After successfully sliding

I realized that at that point I had a guardian angel watching out for me

down the rock a huge smile stretched across my face. As I walked over to the north side of the bottom of the falls, my smile quickly disappeared as I found myself stepping into quick sand. I'd seen quick sand in the movies, but never thought it really existed. In a panic, I tried to step out of it. That made things worse. I sunk in deeper. When the quick sand sucked me in to chest level, it occurred to me that I should try to float. I tried pulling my legs up to the surface in back of me. It worked! I was able to float to the surface. I'm really not sure how I finally made it out of there. I was close enough to the bank that I'm guessing I probably was able to grab onto something. After standing on the bank covered with mud, I thought this was definitely a Kodak moment. Otherwise, who would believe it happened. So out came the camera. I then continued my hike thinking all right, what else could possibly happen?

I reached a thicket of brush so high that it soared well over my head. This was a maze. I had difficulty exiting the brush. When I finally got to a clearing after being scratched left and right by brush, I then wondered if my camera bag was still in my backpack side pocket. I reached behind me and discovered it was gone. The camera bag containing my brand new Canon Power A95 camera and brand new Garmin Geko 301 GPS unit, both Christmas presents from Mike, was gone. All I could do was utter a long, loud, helpless, Tarzan-like "NOOOOOOO!!!"

I attempted to try to back track to find it, but it was impossible. There was too much variation in routes. I was also concerned about remaining daylight hours. There was no way I was going to hike out this canyon with just a headlamp. For the safety of my passengers, I decided to accept the loss of the camera and GPS and focus on getting out safely. As I continued my way out of the canyon, I spotted a sleeping bag washed up on the bank. God, please tell me someone simply left it there. The remainder of the hike, I was shell-shocked and nauseous.

After I made it back to the jeep I drove to downtown Borrego Springs to make the call back home. The phone call Mike and I shared was a painful mixture of anger, sadness, shock, and love. After pulling myself together, I made the long trip back home.

I woke up the next morning extremely upset about the camera and GPS and explained to Mike that I needed to at least try to go back and search for it. Otherwise, I knew that not trying would eat at me forever. I called the ranger office to report the camera bag missing and also mentioned the lone sleeping bag, and then called work to take time off to head back to Sheep Canyon.

Unfortunately, time was not on my side. I had to move quickly to make it safely in and out of there before night fell. So my plan was to drive all the way to the mouth of Sheep Canyon this time on the extreme off-road jeep road.It was time to test the Jeep. The Jeep successfully made it through a stream crossing, that ate another Jeep in my previous Cougar Canyon trip, and rode like a bronco up a steep rocky ravine. After getting unstuck a few times in the ravine by wedging rocks underneath the wheels, I was finally able to make it to the 15 foot drop off and road block. I slipped into my running shoes and day pack and ran the rest of the way to the mouth of sheep canyon. It was a lot easier getting

it also became a sign of hope that there was a clear path from here

through the canyon the second time -- now that I knew what to expect and carried a lighter load. I reached the point where I last had the camera, the deadly quick sand area, being careful not to repeat that performance. I then pleaded with Mother Nature to help me find my camera bag and I promised that I would be more careful in her home. I tried a couple different routes to the place I discovered it missing, but was unsuccessful. Then my mind started playing tricks with me. Did I check the rest of my backpack? Maybe, it was in another pocket. The mind-tricks eased dealing with my failed mission. Discouraged, I headed back home.

One week later, as I was washing the jeep, I got a call from Nancy, the friendly ranger. She told me that she ran into a hiker who mentioned he had found the camera bag in Sheep Canyon. I was overwhelmed. I could barely contain myself between chokes and repeating "Oh, my Gawd!"

I later called the guy who turned in the camera bag to thank him profusely. We spoke in length. His name is Daro. I relayed my wearying ordeal to him. Not only did he graciously turn down a reward or gift, he offered to go hiking with me in the future. He is a true angel.

Everyone tells me that the camera bag was minor and that I am just lucky to be alive. That's true. But losing the camera bag to me also became a painful symbol of my stupidity and reminder of my failure. Receiving the camera bag back from my hero not only restored my faith in humanity, but it also became a sign of hope that there is a clear path from here. It is now a symbol telling me I should learn from my mistakes, become more aware, be smarter, and realize my limitations as a human being.

The following day I picked up the camera bag at the ranger station. Before I left, with a glimmer of fresh resolve in my eyes, I volunteered my services in trail maintenance for Anza Borrego State Park to help out in the storm cleanup effort.