To the reader: As we face fear during this extraordinary time of self-isolation, I share this piece as a gift of hope and consolation, whether you are a believer or not.
In Matthew 17: 1-9, three disciples – Peter, James, and John – accompany Jesus on the mountain and witness His transfiguration. At the scene, Moses and Elijah suddenly appear and begin to talk with the Lord. Overcome by the spectacle on the mountain, it’s Peter who wants to memorialize the moment and make tents for Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
Then, the voice of the Father interrupts Peter: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The disciples – human beings in this story– fall to the ground, cowering with fear.
What Peter, James, and John need in that moment is comfort and reassurance. And Jesus provides it. He “touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
A similar moment occurred on another special occasion in Luke 2: 1-20. Here, the angel of the Lord appears suddenly among the shepherds tending their flocks near Bethlehem: “. . . the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. . . .’” What the shepherds learn is that the angel brings the “good news” that a Savior is born in a manger, and they are the first to hear of it.
In each case, the three disciples and the shepherds experience an interaction with the divine: that moment in which heaven touches earth. And the human response is predictable: Fear.
Fear of the unknown. Fear of the future. Fear of questions that have no answers in the moment: What do I do now? How can I possibly understand what’s happening to me now? Who can help me now? It’s their story and it’s our story.
Nine years ago, the lives of two brothers were changed forever in a desolate place in southeastern Utah aptly named No Mans Canyon. The canyon is part of a complex of drainages in Robbers Roost, a red rock landscape of desert sage brush and the hideout of outlaws Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Hole in the Wall Gang of the early 20th century.
The Roost is crisscrossed with dirt roads and four-wheel tracks. It’s a place of free-range cattle, jack rabbits, and wild horses. It’s peaceful and remote. It’s the wilderness.
Louis was 70 and I was 57. My brother, an experienced mountain climber, and I had enjoyed many trips to the canyon country of Utah, often spending a week camping and hiking. He selected the canyons, planned the meals, and drove us to Utah from Colorado Springs.
Our hiking trips were always a special time for Louis and me. For more than ten years, the canyon country provided the space for our brotherly relationship to flourish, a relationship grounded in humor, love, and the capacity to enjoy each other’s company around a campfire without saying a word.
It was Sunday, March 6, 2011, our third day in Robbers Roost. Louis and I rose early that frosty morning to break camp and then ate our meal of breakfast burritos filled with eggs, potatoes, and chorizo. We broke camp and headed for the trailhead to the North Fork of No Mans Canyon, our hike for the day. No Mans is a slot canyon which means in places it narrows to a width of 20 inches or less. Navigating through the tight spaces and around obstacles is part of the challenge that hikers seek in such places.
After four hours of trekking through the canyon, we arrived at the exit rappel, a spectacular free drop of about 100 feet. All that was left to do at the end of our hike was to go down on the rope, have our lunch, hike out by way of the old horse trail, and route-find our way over the mesa back to our truck.
Louis looked at his watched and said, “It’s one o’clock. Let’s go down and then have our lunch.”
Louis went first, as he usually did, because commandment number one was that the most experienced climber went first on rappel. Once he was over the edge, he was out my sight and as he was going down, Louis called back to me that the rope was short on one side. I froze in fear. But he quickly reassured me with his favorite remark, “No biggie.”
In the next moment, my relief turned to horror as I watched the rope zip through the rappel ring and over the canyon’s edge. My brother had fallen, taking the rope with him.
“Louis, Louis, Louis!” I screamed.
I waited momentarily, but there was no reply.
“Louis, Louis, Louis!” I repeated.
Panic stricken, I attempted to leave the slot to aid my brother. But there was no way I could climb down to reach Louis without a rope and my repeated attempts to climb out the way we had hiked in ended with frustration and failure.
Within 90 minutes of my brother’s fall, I faced a reality that I could not change: I was stranded. And furthermore, I had to make a crucial decision to survive, knowing that the earliest possible rescue for me was five days away. My goal was to get to Friday. We were to call our loved ones Thursday evening on our way out of Utah. I had faith that when Louis and I were overdue and didn’t make the call, they would respond. I had also left a map of our hikes and campsites with my significant other in Tennessee which I expected to be useful in the search and rescue. It was.
I found the only usable place in that section of the slot canyon some 40 feet back from the edge: a three-by-twelve-foot sandstone ledge. And on that ledge, I passed most of my time as I sat and slept and ate and kept my vigil.
But it would be dishonest of me to say that I was not afraid during my ordeal. I was afraid of the shivering, sub-freezing temperature each night. I was afraid that my time in the slot would last longer than I could live without food or water. I was afraid that the rescuers would be delayed and not reach me in time. I was on my mountain. While my fears were great and my resources limited, my faith was greater and unlimited.
Faith, that I would be my best Boy Scout under extreme circumstances and survive. Irationed my food and drink until it ran out; I built small comfort fires to warm my hands until the detritus I gathered in the slot ran out; and I slept on top of my pack, curled in a fetal position to keep my core warm while I chanted my mantra, “Get to Friday, get to Friday.”
Faith, that while I was the only one in that slot, I would never be alone, for the One who comforted the disciples on the mountain was with me. I was not alone. I found consolation through silent and spoken prayer. I asked for courage during each long, cold night and comfort for my brother who I couldn’t help. I recited parts of Psalm 23 and sang “Were You There” and “Here I Am, Lord” – favorites of mine (I just wish I had been a better singer).
Faith that our loved ones would act promptly and contact the authorities when we failed to check in on Thursday. When Friday arrived – the day of my hopeful deliverance – I passed the hours anxiously. There had been no signs of any rescue activity until late that night when I saw a helicopter hover near the slot opening and then fly away. My fear had turned to joy. I knew the search was on. The next day, the helicopter returned with search and rescue teams. By 1:00 p.m. that afternoon, my 144 hours on the ledge had ended.
I’ve been asked many times about the role of my faith during my extreme wilderness survival experience in No Mans Canyon. My answer is this: My survival didn’t result only because of my faith; but it would have been impossible without it.
My story of suffering and loss in a desolate slot canyon for six days may be unique; that’s to say, it’s one of a kind. But it’s not special; that’s to say, it’s not better than anyone else’s. On any day, at any time, anyone could face a sudden, unexpected life-changing event that places a person on a ledge: a diagnosis of a terminal disease; the loss of a job; a divorce. Whatever it is that places us in doubt, in worry, in fear, we must remember to “Get up and do not be afraid.”
My rescue from No Mans Canyon after six days was not the end of the story but only the beginning. Grieving the loss of my brother and recovering from the trauma of my ordeal became the second half of my “survival work” and lasted much longer that six days. Along with my loved ones, I had a team of healers: my pastor, my therapist, and my doctor.
And in this part of my story, I had my fears as well: When would those haunting images of the ledge stop appearing in my mind? How long would I feel guilty that I lived? When would my sorrow and grief end? While I now was out of the canyon, there was no doubt the canyon was still very much inside of me.
During my first visit to counsel with my pastor, Father Mark Sappenfield gave me a book which was to help me answer some of those questions along the way to a new normal. I didn’t just read that short book, Interior Freedom by Fr. Jacques Philippe, I re-read it several times. In brief, the premise of the book is that freedom is not obtained in the world that is passing away before us. But rather it resides deep inside us – in our interior life – where our growth and development in love, hope, and faith lead us to true freedom.
Philippe writes that “. . . in order to become truly free, we are often called to choose to accept what we did not want, and even what we would not have wanted at any price.” My struggle with guilt and grieving the loss of my brother placed an emotional burden on me that disrupted my daily life at work and at home. The journey to acceptance – an essential part of my recovery and healing – was aided by talk therapy. It became a safe place to confront insidious guilt; to weep; and to be comforted. And in that period when I was “stuck in grief” my doctor ordered the medicine that would eventually relieve my depression.
Philippe reminds us also of the benefit of cultivating interior freedom: “[it] has the marvelous power to make what is taken from us – by life, events, or other people into something offered.” In that shocking, unexpected moment eight years ago, my brother’s life was lost and my life was spared. Surviving 144 hours confined on desolate sandstone ledge was not the end but the beginning of a longer journey out of the canyon of my fears.
Along the way to recovery and renewal, I have transfigured the events in No Mans Canyon through an interior attitude, trusting in faith that good can come out of bad and understanding out of confusion. Writing and speaking about my survival, rescue, and recovery experience are gifts of hope and inspiration offered to those who find themselves on a ledge. These gifts transmute tragedy and trauma into an eternal memorial to my beloved brother. My story now serves a higher purpose once unimaginable to me eight years ago, for I am a witness to those comforting and reassuring words: Do not be afraid.