Pandora'S Box

Opening Pandora's Box
"I've Always Wanted to Ride In A Helicopter . . . "

Capitol Reef National Park
September 5 & 6, 2010

Written By: Brian Westenskow


Sunday morning, my buddy Matt and I ventured into a slot canyon near Capitol Reef National Park called Pandora's Box. A fitting name for the canyon from hell. Long story short, it was too narrow for me to fit through. We were able to escape the narrow slot canyon but became stranded on a mesa surrounded by cliffs with no foreseeable way to return to civilization. At 6:30 Sunday evening, with little water and only about an hour of daylight, Matt completed the rest of the canyon solo, a very dangerous thing to do. He then hiked eight miles back to a bicycle we had previously stashed to use as a shuttle, then pedaled an additional 3 miles back to our car. Matt called Search and Rescue and at 10:30 the next morning my dumb ass was air lifted to safety. Matt's courage and heroism cannot be overstated. I keep offering to kiss him on the lips but he won't let me.

Over the last two and half years I have taken up the sport of canyoneering. I have completed 27 different technical slot canyons throughout Utah and have done several of those 27 canyons multiple times. I have taken workshops in anchor construction, read several books on the subject and have consistently exercised what I consider to be good judgment and an abundance of caution in my various adventures. I know my strengths as a canyoneer and my weaknesses. My biggest strength and my biggest weakness is the same thing. My size. I'm a big dude. Being 6'5" and on the plus side of 250 can really come in handy when you are boosting people out of potholes and acting as a meat anchor. But it can really hold you back when you are navigating a tiny crack hundreds of feet into the earth. Being well aware of that limitation, I have been very selective of the canyons I choose to do. Pandora's Box has long been a destination that has both tempted and frightened me. It is a really tight canyon. But not the tightest. It'll be challenging, but I figured I should be able to squeeze my way down through it.

We drove down to Capitol Reef and camped near the trailhead. The next morning we got an early start to what would become the longest day of my life. We hiked up and around to the top of a mesa, ascending about a thousand vertical feet. We then bushwhacked over open dessert to the entrance of the Pandora Slot.

As we descended into the slot canyon, we reached a few rappels and a couple of tight stretches of slot. We were making good time and enjoying the glorious combination of claustrophobic trenches and endless vistas that only a good slot canyon provides.

About an hour into the slot, I realized that I had foolishly brought a pair of sunglasses with me. I never do this. The canyon is too dark to need them and anything taken into a canyon will get crushed. In a moment of misguided inspiration, I decided to unscrew a Nalgene bottle full of water and put the glasses inside of it. That way, they would be crush proof and they wouldn't rattle around. I am a problem solving genius! However, I didn't screw the cap back on all the way when I put the bottle back into my pack. I lost one of the three liters of water I had taken with me as it spilled out onto the sand. All in an effort to save an eight-dollar pair of gas station sunglasses that I didn't care about.


This was bad. If we hadn't already committed to the canyon with a couple of rappels, I would have turned around right there. But we were into the thick of it, with no going back. There was no water anywhere in this canyon and once we exited, we still had eight miles to hike before we returned to civilization. I could do it on two liters, no problem. But this meant that I would have to budget my water. It's now something that I'll have to think about. And I prefer basic survival requirements not to be an issue when I'm just trying to have a good time.

As we proceeded down the canyon it got tighter and tighter. We kept expecting the end to be near, only to turn a corner and be slapped in the face with yet another squeeze. There were moments where Matt would have to kneel on the ground and I would have to walk on his back to get up and over a tight obstacle. Matt would then lie on his side in the dirt and I would pull his dead weight below that same obstacle. Teamwork is essential for the type of problem solving that is required to safely navigate your way through these places.

Upon reaching what we thought had to be the final section before the rappel out of the canyon, the walls opened up. I remember noticing two washes on either side, intersecting the slot canyon. They looked like a way to scramble up and out of the canyon, if escaped proved necessary. Looking at that dark crevice, I swore under my breath, or possibly very loudly, sucked in my belly and began yet another birthing experience. This squeeze ended with a very tight crack that opened up into what appeared to be a ten-foot drop. This is an obstacle that I cannot climb up and over. I would have to squeeze my way through this tiny orifice and then prepare for a reasonably long drop into a pool of stagnant water like the rancid turd that I felt like.

I tried going feet first. No way. Feet first, sideways. No way. Head first. I have no idea how I was expecting to land safely that way. Nope. I had a quick flash of Winnie the Pooh getting his butt stuck in the rabbit hole. Yeah, that's going to happen to me.

At this point we were both beat. We were sick of this canyon. It had scraped the ever-loving hell out of our knees, hands and backs and we were just done. That 8-mile hike out loomed over my head and I cried mercy. I suggested we backtrack to the wash that was just behind us, hike up it to the top of the mesa and navigate our way back to the car, thinking that this would be a safer and easier way home.

Pandora had beaten me. And I didn't care. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

Pandora's box Pandora's box

The east wash looked pretty easy to scramble up. But the west wash was pretty hairy. East was more in the direction of our car (the Pandora slot angled in from the West), so we slowly scrambled up the rockslide and out of the canyon. I was very relieved to see flat ground on top of the wash. Thinking we were on the home stretch, we found a shady rock, relaxed, ate some food and looked at the map. We'd have to walk about a mile and half due south and then turn west for about another mile and connect back to our original trail. From there we would have about an hour and half of easy downhill walking on a well defined trail the get back to our car. We'll make it back before sundown and have time to grab a shower and eat a pizza. Not a bad day.

After about a half hour break, we decide to get going. Let's find our vector and get some distance behind us. However we were presented with a serious problem. There was a ravine directly south of us obstructing our way. We walked up and down it looking for a way through or around but we couldn't see and clear solution. More unnerving was the possibility that there were five more crevasses just like it waiting behind this one. These were intersecting slot canyons that were too skinny to appear on our map. We didn't have the water or the energy to be able to risk crossing one of these ravines, only to become stuck in a worse predicament. We were on an island in the sky with no clear way of getting off.

Earlier that day, I had texted my brother Alan that we were going to be in this canyon. I estimated that the latest we would exit would be about ten o'clock, assuming we had no serious problems. Alan was actually in Capitol Reef as well, camping with his family. We calculated that if this turned into a long-term situation, rescue should be coming, but it would only be coming through the Pandora slot. If we were to separate ourselves from our only known location, any rescue team could pass us right by. So after considering our options, Matt suggested that he record my location via GPS, solo the rest of the canyon, hike back to the bike, ride to the car and call in search and rescue. He is a triathlon running beanpole and should have very little trouble squeezing out of our trap. I got the impression that he really didn't want to do this. But after considering our options, I flat out asked him to be the hero. Matt complied.

He lightened his load, keeping only the gear needed. He gave me a long sleeved shirt he had, a flint for starting a fire and a little of his water. Considering the amount of physically demanding work he had ahead of him, it was beyond generous.

Matt left at six thirty. I figured he would be back to the car by midnight to one in the morning. So I nestled in and tried my best to kill time.

It was a moonless night in the desert. The air was cool but comfortable. I was in an isolated location so I felt safe from any nocturnal wildlife. No polar bears or tigers were going to come chasing me down so I could relax. I tied my bandanna around my face, train robber style to conserve the moisture from my breath and to prevent my inclination to spit. I hate that phloemy, sticky tongue you get when you're thirsty and instinctively try to scrape it clean and spit it out. But a gross feeling mouth was the least of my worries. Keep what moisture you have.

There was an abundance of sun-baked, deadwood around that was just aching to be burned. But in my infinite wisdom, I had taken the flint with the assumption that I knew how to start a fire with it. Matt even asked me if I knew how to use it. "Oh, yeah. That's not a problem." I had started a fire with one of those back in Scouts. But I forgot that I had used steel wool to catch the spark. So I found myself alone in the darkened wilderness sparking the hell out of that flint wondering exactly how Bear Grylls lights up a fire so easily on the Discovery Channel. The answer is, you shave off the magnesium on the other side of the flint and the spark catches immediately. Sparks falling on dry pine needles result in nothing.

The lack of fire certainly didn't keep me warm, but the effort in trying to start one did. I would strike the flint for about fifteen minutes at a time and take an hour break. Again, the air was just chilly enough to keep me from sleeping. A fire would have made me comfortable enough to doze off. But it wasn't necessary. Instead I did the six-year-old kid in a night shirt trick and tucked my knees up into my shirt, pulled in my arms and dipped my head into my cocoon and warm myself with my breath. This was a very comfortable position and I was able to get some limited sleep until my butt just got too sore from sitting on the rock.

All the while I kept trying to occupy my mind with time killing distractions. Name every team in the NFL, NBA, MLB. Okay; too easy. What about the NHL? Now, name every state going from west to east. Now, east to west. Every country in Europe. Don't forget Lichtenstein. Count backwards from a thousand by 7. Now do it by 13. All the while I was running from the reality that I was significantly dehydrated with only a quarter of a liter of water remaining.

I was certain that I would only need to last through the night. "In fact, if Matt gets back by midnight, the rescue chopper just might show up by one or two." No. I can't hope for that. That'll make the night even longer. Besides, there is no way they're going to try and land a helicopter here at night. The sun comes up at seven o'clock. So that's my goal. Eight, nine maybe ten o'clock at the latest. They have a GPS waypoint of my exact location and even though I am totally isolated, I am only a few miles from the highway. So I can be thirsty for a night. No problem. The second I drink the water I have left, I'm on a countdown. I will not touch that water."

I would tell myself that at two o'clock, I'll take just a sip and not swallow it. When two o'clock came around I would convince myself that I didn't need it. So I would extend my objective to 4 o'clock, thus exercising control over my needs. I may want it, but I don't need it.

By the way, the human body totally sucks. There I was dying of dehydration and I had to take a massive pee. You call that evolution? Come on kidneys! How's about you do a little reverse engineering. I finally broke down and took a leak. But in an act of foreshadowed desperation, I decided to not let any kind of precious bodily fluids go to waste. You know, In case I needed them later. So I peed in an empty Nalgene bottle, the same one that spilled the water earlier that day. I wanted to punish that bottle for screwing me over, so it must now face the wrath of my frothy, warm, nearly orange pee. Take that. Of course this also meant that I chose the leaky bottle to hold my urine. I'm not sure if my act of vengeance was really that well thought out.

I took my camera out and considered making a little video explaining my circumstances. But I refused to let that thought linger. That last will and testament kind of crap is for people who are about to die. That's not me. This situation sucks but it's far from the end. Just sit and be patient.

As my mind faded between half sleep and consciousness, I would hear phantom helicopter noises. I kept having involuntary flashes of every helicopter image I had absorbed through a lifetime of watching TV and movies. I would have visions of the opening titles of MASH and Magnum PI. The Airwolf theme song would loop itself in my brain. I kept imagining the Ride of the Valkyries scene from Apocalypse Now. I would hear the beginning of the song Goodnight Saigon by Billy Joel. "We met as soul mates, on Paris Island. We left as inmates from an asylum."

My brain was like a looped episode of Family Guy. Random pop culture references that were more annoying than amusing.

Sunrise came at seven o'clock. This is oddly the coldest time of the day. The sun had been absent now for eleven hours, so the air has cooled significantly. And even though the dawn light is peering over the desert, it was simply light without heat. There was just enough of a breeze to shatter any warmth my skin would feel. I finally let myself shiver, knowing that I was probably just an hour away from being warmed back up.

I found a rock on which to sun myself, where I would be nice and visible when the helicopter flew to my rescue. I closed my eyes in the morning sun and fought back the nightmare that had lingered in my mind all night long. What if Matt got hurt on the way out of the canyon? What if the rope got stuck on the first rappel? What if he landed wrong and broke his leg on that drop that I couldn't squeeze through? My night has been pretty crappy but his would have been agonizing. Not only would that mean that no rescue was coming for me, it meant that it was my job to rescue him.

I think I've watched too many episodes of "I Shouldn't Be Alive".

No. He's fine. He's a smart, experienced canyoneer that just ran an Iron Man triathlon last month. He was miserable hiking out. But he was totally safe. You just have to be patient.

As I was fighting these urges to panic, a crow landed next to me on the rock. I broke out into laughter. "Get the hell away from me. My life will not end like a Far Side cartoon."

Far Side Cartoon "Hey! Look at me! I'm a Cowboy. Howdy. Howdy. Howdy!"

I shewed it away. But that damn buzzard stayed in the area. "You filthy sky rat. You're gonna bet against me?"

Eight o'clock came and went. As did nine o'clock. There had now been two hours of daylight. I was a two-minute helicopter ride from the highway and they knew my exact location. The later it got, the less likely they were coming. And if they weren't coming, then I would have to make a decision.

When 10:00 the previous night came and went and my brother never heard from me, he must have called Search and Rescue. That team would know how dangerous this canyon was and would send a team down first thing in the morning. An experienced team that knows Pandora well could get to the point where we became stuck in about four hours. But, they would have no way of knowing that we had climbed up and out. They could go right past me with no way of reversing the canyon. So I decided that at 10:00 in the morning, I would hike back down the wash and into the slot canyon and wait. I would still be able to see any helicopters flying by and would be found by a team going down through the canyon. If by 4:00 in the afternoon, there was no helicopter or rescue team, I would have to assume that the worst possible scenario has happened and Matt was stuck somewhere. I would climb up the sketchy looking wash on the other side of Pandora Canyon and hope the same rocky terrain wouldn't trap me like it had the in other direction. I would have enough daylight to traverse the open desert and hopefully find the trail back to the car.

It was doable. I was tired, but I wasn't weak. I was, however, significantly dehydrated. I had taken my contact lenses out of my eyes a few hours earlier because I had no tears and they felt like shards of glass. I am severely near sighted and wouldn't be able to climb down safely without at least one good eye. I cleaned the contact off with my scratchy cat tongue the best I could and stuck it in my left eye. It might as well have been a thumbtack. But I blinked and swore away the pain until my eyeball submitted.

As I stood up, I began cramping severely. Both legs and my back seized up. Realizing that I had to prepare myself for the possibility of a physically demanding day, I needed to make the best of the resources I had at hand. I looked over to my left and saw that bottle of pee staring me down.

"Just plug your nose and pound it. Worst-case scenario, you spit it out. Your muscles will fail you without some kind of liquid. You have only had a liter and half of water in the last 30 plus hours (counting back to the drive down to Capital Reef) and you have spent those thirty hours sweating your nuts off in a hot, dry desert at a reasonably high elevation. Your life and Matt's life may very well depend on you trekking through open desert for miles. Not to mention the sketchy down climb that's standing between you and the canyon floor. You have to have fluid."

So I plugged my nose and pounded it. I drank about two gulps of pee. It had cooled off and actually didn't taste too horribly. This could be because my body was desperate for any kind of liquid that any sense of disgust was silenced. Or it could be that my pee naturally tastes like mountain spring water. Either way, I immediately felt better.

I took several branches from my unused pile of firewood and spelled out "SOS" with an arrow pointing to the wash that I was about to hike back down into. I gathered my gear and began a very slow and deliberate climb down a boulder field. The last thing in the world I needed was a twisted ankle.

It was about 10:30 in the morning when I got to the bottom. I peered into the dark slot canyon. If Matt did hurt himself, there's a good chance it was on that drop that stopped me the day before. I screamed his name into the slot. Nothing. That was either really good, or really bad.

I was going to relax here in the sand and wait until four o'clock. " I'm okay. If no one comes by then, it's time to take control of my situation. But until then, I'm gonna get some sleep."

My body finally relented and I fell hard into a deep, exhausted sleep. Just when I floated away, I heard another phantom chopper blade. But this time it was loud. I jumped up to see a helicopter at the top of the slot. But there's no way for them to see me. I frantically raced back up the wash trying to make a visual contact, hoping like hell they see me. I could hear it circling where I spent the night. It then buzzed the washed where I was running up the boulder field. I saw a guy hanging out the side. He gave me a thumbs up.

Matt's alive and I'm gonna be okay.

The chopper landed and two Search and Rescue guys came hiking down the hill. "You okay?"

"I'm really thirsty but other than that I'm fine." As I was running up that damned wash, oblivious to my cramping legs I realized that my breath reeked of pee.
Son of a bitch!

I drank my pee a half hour before rescue came! A half hour? They couldn't have made it there by 9:59? I mean that's just comical. So I started scraping my tongue with my teeth and spitting. After all, I wouldn't want my pee breath to embarrass me in front of the Search and Rescue guys.

They met me half way with a bottle of water and I sucked that thing down. I was quite embarrassed that I put myself in the spot to need rescue but at this moment I was way too grateful to care. I climbed into the helicopter and we lifted off. I had never flown in a helicopter before and let me tell you, it was awesome. We flew really low over the slot canyon that had tried to kill me and over the terrain Matt and I considered crossing the day before. We were right to stay where were. We wouldn't have made it far. In fact, other than entering the canyon in the first place, I'm confident that every decision we made was the best one given the information we had at the time. Except for only bringing three liters of water, and no survival blanket, and assuming I could light a fire with a flint and drinking my damn pee thirty minutes before a helicopter showed up and not hiking up the other wash to begin with about a million other things but screw it.

I was also incredibly impressed with how cool the Search and Rescue guys were. They were legitimately thrilled to see that I was okay. There wasn't any "What the hell are you thinking?" kind of attitude. I was a little nervous that they'd stick an IV in my arm and admit me to the hospital in some sort of insurance ass covering effort. But when I got back to the road, they just loaded me with bottled water, asked me to write up a brief statement and sent me on my way. They couldn't have been more professional and friendly.

So here's what happened. Matt had gotten back to the car at about 1:30. He immediately called 911 and got into contact with Search and Rescue. The problem however was that the rescue helicopter they typically use had already been sent to Zion in another rescue effort. What can I say? Labor Day weekend. It's a busy time for these guys. So they called all over the state all night trying to find another rescue chopper. They finally found one but it was in Salt Lake and it had to be flown down first thing in the morning. This was the reason for the delay.

Matt had also left several voice mails with my brother Alan, updating him on the rescue status. It turns out that Alan was camping with his family out of cell coverage. He never got my text telling him that we're going into Pandora and should be out by 10:00. When we met up with Alan later that morning, he had no idea anything had happened.

So things worked out alright but it was an experience that scared the hell out of me. And now I have to deal with the nickname pee breath. But I guess it's better than getting my fat ass stuck in a slot canyon a la Winnie the Pooh. When I got out of there, I told myself that I'm done with canyoneering for a while. That resolution lasted a week and half before I lead a group down Birch Hollow. But I don't need to try any more crazy tight canyons. Shenanigans and Middle Leprechaun are not on my list of things to do.

But it's in my blood. I can't walk away.


National Park Service Report:

Capitol Reef National Park (UT)
Canyoneer Rescued From Pandora's Box

On Monday, September 6th, rangers rescued a canyoneer who was unable to complete his planned route due to an inability to make it through a narrow slot in a rock formation. The man and his partner, both from Salt Lake City, had descended into Pandora's Box Canyon the previous day. Pandora's Box is considered to be one of the more difficult canyons to negotiate on the Colorado Plateau because of the extremely narrow slots throughout the canyon. After completing numerous rappels and negotiating several slots, the man, who was quite fit but weighed around 230 pounds, found that he couldn't pass through a particularly tight section.

In an attempt to exit the canyon, the two men scrambled out a lateral canyon, only to find that they couldn't go any further. They decided that the more slender man would continue on and complete the canyon while the larger man stayed behind and awaited assistance. The former completed the slots, descended the 150-foot exit rappel, hiked nine miles to his bike, pedaled four miles to his car, then contacted rangers early on Monday morning. The rangers requested assistance from the Utah State Patrol, which dispatched a helicopter that landed near the stranded man. Members of the county SAR team helped him reach the ship. Neither of the canyoneers was injured. [Submitted by Scott Brown, Chief Ranger]