On a fall day in a Utah canyon, 25-year-old Robbie Tesar WAS nearly swallowed by quicksand

Oct 8, 2013
Outside Magazine
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   Photo: Matt Mahurn

It was late fall 2011, and I was three weeks into a course with the National Outdoor Leadership School in southeastern Utah, hiking with three other students along the Dirty Devil River. Around midday, we came to a point where the canyon wall met the river. A sandbank extended into the water, and I walked out on it with another guy. About 20 feet from shore, I suddenly sank knee deep. The other guy did, too, but only one foot. After 15 minutes of struggling, it was clear we were going to need some leverage. The two students on shore helped us rig a pulley so we could yank ourselves out. After about an hour, the other guy was able to slip out of his boot. He and one of the other two students went for help while the last one stayed with me.

It was about 65 degrees out when I first got stuck, and I was wearing cotton work pants and a long-sleeved wool shirt. When the sun went behind the canyon wall at around 3 p.m., it got cold, and I was wet. I put on a couple of jackets. The runners came back after not finding anyone, and we agreed to activate a personal locator beacon. They passed me warm food and hot water over the pulley. We built a raft using a sleeping pad and sticks so I could rest my upper body without sinking deeper. From my waist down I went mostly numb, though I kept my leg muscles moving.

A helicopter arrived at about 8 p.m. The plan was for me to build a harness with some webbing and tie it to one of the skids, then the chopper would take off while I held on to the skid. But when it started pulling, I didn't move. On the fourth try, I felt my back go pop. I heard the pilot say over the radio, “If I try this again, I'm going to rip the kid in half.”

The helicopter left to get more help. When the rescuers got back, they passed me a backboard and a shovel, but I couldn't get any leverage to dig. Then ten guys got into rafts on either side of me. I held on to the sides while others dug. I finally broke free around 2 A.m. I was so elated that I tried to step into a raft and face-planted.

At the hospital, after they warmed me up, they wanted to give me a shower. I couldn't stand, so they said I could get help from either a guy named Jed or these two beautiful nurses. I hadn't bathed in 25 days. “I'll take Jed,” I said. “I'm in no state to be showering with women.”