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Claire Fontaine

Don’t Go Chasing Rockslides

Posted by on 12/2/15 at 10:12am

And there we were… huddled behind a gigantic boulder, shivering, wet, and terrified. This was sure to be the end.  It was unbelievable how quickly the status of our trip had changed. One moment we were experiencing a blissful July 4th afternoon on the Rio Grande, the next we were sitting silently imagining the tragic headlines that might follow our demise: “8 Lake|Flato Employees Die a Catastrophic Death at Big Bend.” Or at least I was.

Why I am just now recounting our story is due to the fact that it has taken me this long to process everything that happened.  And also I’ve been really busy. So here it is.

It all started in the Chisos Basin. Twelve coworkers and friends and myself, including Steven, Pavan, Ben, Clay, Sarah, Josh N, Hayley and Corey, arrived the night prior to our fiasco to spend the evening in the most popular campground at Big Bend during the summertime. We hiked the Lost Mines Trail, ate deluxe burger meals at the dining hall, and spent the evening drinking beers gazing up at the constellations.

-Too good to be true, maybe?-

IMG_7417_650PHOTO BY PAVAN IYER

Processed with VSCOcam with f3 presetPHOTO BY BEN HARTIGAN

The next morning was followed by an equally smooth series of events. The plan was to canoe up the Rio Grande stream, camp on the bank, and then ride the current back to the drop point the next morning. This was all made possible by the fact that during the summer the river is generally lower, and the current is slow enough to paddle upstream. After signing a waiver and acknowledging the dangers of canoeing in the canyon, and the possibility of rain and what to do in the event (simply pitching camp 5’ above water level to be safe) we were ready to go. We dropped off at the mouth of the Santa Elena Canyon, and began our journey between the massive 1,500’ cliff sides, Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose…

-oh, the naivety!-

Processed with VSCOcam with 7 presetPHOTO BY BEN HARTIGAN

The day was spent leisurely hopping from Texas to Mexico, taking dips in the water, snacking, laughing… It was a perfect temperature – about 85 degrees. As we finished up an exploratory detour down Fern Canyon, we noticed an amazing slot canyon right in the face of one of Mexico’s cliffs. It was completely dried up.

The objective of our trip was to make it to a specific formation on the river called Rock Slide. If we wanted to arrive there before 5:00, we had to keep going unfortunately.

fern canyon_650

MAP PROVIDED BY TEXAS PARKS AND WILDLIFE WEBSITE AND MODIFIED BY ME

As we turned a bend and proceeded onward, we noticed some dark storm clouds brewing in the distance. We knew a rain was a possibility considering the forecast for the day, but we knew what to do in the event of rain, according to our crash course in river safety! To be on the safe side, we pitched camp immediately.

The site was perfect: 70′ of dry, cracked clay separated us and the stream, and it was high enough in case the water rose quickly.

CAMP_650PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE

DSCF6333PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE

Ben claimed a great spot to pitch his tent, right amongst a cluster of boulders. Everyone else did the same. Just as we finished pitching our tents, the rain began.

-perfect timing!-

DSCF6340 (1)PHOTO BY SARAH DEDE

We sat in the doorways of our tents, watching the storm, eating snacks and relaxing. The wind began to pick up speed, and the rain followed suit.

-Maybe we should bring the canoes in in case the water starts to rise-

We all agreed in unison and made our way towards the bank to bring the canoes close to the cliff side. We had some trouble on the way out there, however, because the 70’ of dry, cracked clay between us and the river very quickly became 70’ of slippery, suction-ey mud – many of us kept losing our shoes in this endeavor.

-Not to worry! Soon the storm will pass and we can continue our explorations.-

As a group of us pulled 4 out of the 5 canoes to safety and proceeded to retrieve the 5th, a gust of wind swept through the canyon and sent our 5th canoe flying through the air, about 10 feet, toppling over towards the river and eventually landing in it. Josh and Clay fumbled towards the river, and like lifeguards saving a child, jumped after the canoe without hesitation into the stream that was rapidly increasing current. It all happened so quickly we didn’t even get a chance to tell them that this maneuver wasn’t a good idea. Luckily the canoe had traveled just far enough that it was retrievable, and Clay and Josh returned unscathed.

-Phew!-

We hastily moved our runaway canoe to the cliff side and just as we brushed our shoulders off for handing that situation like professionals, we heard Josh yell. He was standing in the middle of the bank, facing us and looking up at the top of the Cliffside behind us.

“AWAY FROM THE CLIFF, NOW!”

His expression and tone were serious, grave, and ultimately extremely convincing because Josh never speaks like this. Without question, we hustled towards the center of the canyon as best we could considering the condition of the now slippery clay beneath us.

Josh saw the whole thing. What had happened was a boulder, curiously not unlike the boulders we pitched our camp amongst just half an hour before, had tumbled off the700 foot cliff and, coincidentally, landed right next to Ben’s tent that he had just evacuated, seconds before. We literally had just run for our lives.

As we huddled in the center of the canyon, shivering, we discussed what to do from there.

  1. The water was rising and the current was increasing, so we couldn’t remain in the center of the canyon for long
  2. The cliff was falling, so we couldn’t be next to it or at the campsite

The most unsettling part of our situation was that there really was NO safe place to take refuge. It was pure chaos. Sure, we could try to rationalize these things and speculate what might be the safest option, but probability wasn’t in our favor at this point in time. Maybe a rock wouldn’t fall in the same place as before, but maybe it would. Perhaps the safest place would be right up against the cliff side, since most of the rocks had a trajectory to them, or maybe the entire cliff side was due for a fall. To further explain our reasoning, I’ve provided a graphic diagram of our predicament:

IMG_9478_650

As we were logically over-analyzing the situation in the center of the canyon, we heard another POP!

-RUN!-

-WHERE? WHERE ARE WE SUPPOSED TO RUN?!-

We ran around aimlessly without direction. Two more rocks were falling from the 700 foot cliff, these were bigger, and one landed and hit a grounded rock and smashed into thousands of pieces, creating about a 20’ radius of certain severe injury or death. We were about 20 feet from this 20 foot radius.

-Why don’t we huddle underneath this rock wedged right up against the cliff face. That way if another rock smashes the boulder will deflect the debris-

This was the best idea so far so we trekked to the rock, huddled behind it and waited. And there we were.

It was already getting darker and we knew we couldn’t stay in the canyon overnight. We were wet and cold and faced the possibility of hypothermia if we didn’t dry off soon. At some point we would have to pack up and leave.

-Should we wait until the storm stops?-

-What if it never stops?-

-How can you tell, you can only see a sliver of the sky-

-Well, what direction is the wind coming from?-

-That’s not accurate either, we’re in a canyon.-

We gave ourselves 30 minutes before we would shove through the rain and pack up. So we did, in unison we packed up camp in record time, very serious. This set the tone for our journey back – concentrated, concerned, and hyper-aware. The dry slot canyon we observed just an hour before had become a raging waterfall. Later we would learn that Josh and Sarah heard another POP and saw another couple of rocks fall on our way out, but they didn’t tell us at the time so as not to alarm us.

IMG_7449PHOTO BY PAVAN IYER

We managed to make our way out safely, just as we saw the mouth of the canyon and our drop off point, the sun came out. Our journey back was much quicker than we anticipated, the current had increased quite a bit in that flash storm. We pulled our canoes up onto the shore and called Desert Sports out in Terlingua. It would take them an hour to meet us so we opened a few beers, hung out in the back of Clay’s truck, and played some tunes and catch.

While we were waiting, a park ranger drove by and reported that a patch of the road in another part of the park had flooded and lightning struck an area during that flash storm.

All of the campsites in the park were booked for the night and so the next plan of action was to drive to Marathon – two hours east- to see if the Gage or Marathon Motel could host us. The drive to Marathon was eerie. We had a clear view of various firework shows across the horizon miles away, yet everything surrounding us was pitch dark.

Every place was booked in Marathon, and we had nothing to eat either besides soggy trail mix and peanut butter packed away from our escapade. None of us had eaten since lunch. We decided to move on and try the nearest town, Alpine, about twenty minutes away.

There we found a 24 hour diner. Probably the only eatery open in West Texas at the time. Like zombies we shoveled burgers and pancakes into our mouths as we sat in silence amongst the 24-hour bustle of the diner, it was surprisingly packed with people. We could still see distant fireworks on the broad horizon.

It was about midnight and nobody could host us in Alpine either. We called a Hampton Inn in Fort Stockton, two hours east of us, that miraculously had two rooms open. Desperate, we begged them to hold it for us as we booked it towards refuge.

The transition from facing imminent death to taking a shower at 3 AM at a Hampton Inn in Fort Stockton and crashing in a bed with 200 thread count sheets was a strange thing to process. As I untied my hair before hopping in a shower, a spider descended from a web it had been weaving in my ponytail for who knows how long.  Shocked at the spider’s presence, I then remembered why it was there and where I had been just a few hours previously.

In all I can say that this was the best opportunity for me to get to know some of my coworkers. I had only known most of these people for at most, a couple weeks, some I had just met at the start of the trip.  We can all agree that day was so surreal, and retelling it only scratches the surface of the true nature of our adventure. There’s just something about almost dying with someone that creates an unprecedented connection; and there’s nobody else I’d rather almost die with!

Processed with VSCOcam with 3 presetPHOTO BY BEN HARTIGAN

IMG_7416PHOTO BY PAVAN IYER