5-17-12 The prompt: It might have happened like this…
The three showed up late at the Ranger’s office, wanting permission to camp overnight in one of the rim canyons of Zion National Park. The young man’s name was Jon, without an ‘H’, and his girlfriend Lou had brought along her best friend Beth. They knew they were pushing it, but they flew through check-in, and headed up the trail around the rim of a smallish box canyon. Halfway to their destination campsite, it was already getting dark, and the setting sun painted the walls of the canyon a deep striated red. At the point of deep dusk, Jon called it quits, and he and the girls set up the tent in near darkness.
The next day, I had planned a trip to Zion with my new co-worker Steve. We were mud loggers on a geothermal well being drilled just north of Beaver, Utah, and I had gotten my first paycheck after graduating from college. Thrilled and flush with hard cash, I went out and bought a new camera, and wanted a chance to try it out on the scenery. Steve had suggested Zion. He had been in the area for two months already, and was there for the beginning of drilling.
This Saturday, we had some time off and headed for the park early, wanting to spend a long day of hiking and photography. We checked in, and headed up the trail to a small box canyon. It started out chilly, but the sun rose over the rim, and it suddenly got glorious. We were taking our time, strolling up the trail, planning on spending lunchtime just sitting and looking over the rocks.
As we moseyed up, ahead of us appeared two girls, heading down the trail. They looked panicked, but didn’t stop to talk or ask for help. They just plowed on down the trail, making time. Steve and I looked at each other, decided they were nuts, and laughed at the absurdity of the situation. On we went.
Twenty minutes later, a commotion on the trail stopped us in our tracks. We moved off of the trail to let a party of Rangers go by. There were three official looking ones in uniforms and hats, and four others dressed casually. All had backpacks. Two of the casual types carried ropes, and two carried a basket stretcher between them. Again, Steve looked at me, I looked at him, and we shrugged. We had come looking for adventure, and it looked like we were about to find it.
Half an hour on, we came upon the Rangers setting up to climb down the face of the canyon. Ten feet from the edge of the cliff was a largish pop-up tent. Equipment was on the ground all around the rangers, and they were describing the rope work techniques to what were now obviously trainees. Steve and I didn’t loiter, as we had guessed what was going on. We continued on around the rim to the opposite side of the canyon, and sat to eat our lunch, feed the chipmunks, and watch as the rescue commenced. Except it wasn’t a rescue.
From the looks of it, the campers had set up in the dark, and couldn’t see that the tent was pitched so close to the edge. Jon, answering the call of nature in the middle of the night, walked out of the tent and ten feet away from the sleeping girls. When they woke up in the morning, Jon was gone, and when they looked outside the tent and saw that they were ten feet from a three hundred foot drop, they sensed the catastrophe, and ran for the Rangers. Why Lou and Beth didn’t stop to ask us for help, we’ll never know. Maybe they knew we couldn’t do anything.
Steve and I watched as two rescuers rappelled down the cliff to extract Jon from the rock splinter that he had smeared himself into. We watched at the basket stretcher was lowered by the topside crew, and fed the chipmunks as the body was secured. The lift up again took a while, but there was no hurry. Jon wasn’t feeling any pain.
I got some good pictures from that day. Red rocks and blue sky, the water-eroded cliffs of Zion, and a single basket stretcher being pulled up two hundred feet of sheer stone. I stayed on that rig for seven weeks before being sent to Houston for more training. Then eight more years of drilling holes on the ground. That wasn’t the first dead body I had seen, and it wouldn’t be the last. It may have been the most memorable. It was certainly one of the saddest.