Surviving 12 Hours in Quicksand
Just after noon on the day before Thanksgiving 2011, 25-year-old NOLS student Rob Tesar unwittingly walked into quicksand in the Utah backcountry. Half a day later, he was still stuck upright, trying to stay awake.
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Forget the corny black and white movie scenes of a jungle explorer getting swallowed whole in a pit of quicksand. In 2005, University of Amsterdam physicist Daniel Bonn and his colleagues concluded the stuff, which consists of fine sand particles lightly held together by friction in a water and clay gel with the consistency of yogurt, simply doesn’t work that way. To test how far someone might sink, Bonn and colleagues put aluminum beads that were the same density as a human body on top of quicksand in a giant box. No bead sank more than halfway down. The scientists said a human would respond likewise, sinking only up to his or her waist. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that once the sludge fully settles around an intruding object, the strength needed to retrieve it would be equal to the might needed to lift a Ford Taurus. Without help, a victim near the ocean might be susceptible to drowning in an incoming tide. A person in a river canyon in the Western United States might be susceptible to hypothermia. That was exactly the situation in which ROB TESAR found himself stuck. This is his story.
On the morning of November 23, I began hiking with three other NOLS students along the Dirty Devil River in Southeastern Utah, just outside of Canyonlands National Park. The instructors went their own way, and a few other groups of students went theirs. We moved along the eastern shore of the river toward an area where we’d meet everyone the next night. About 12:30 P.M., we came to a point where we could no longer walk on the shore because the canyon wall had come to the river’s edge.
We spotted a bank in the river where sand and mud were exposed. It looked as though you could walk on it without hitting any water. We didn’t talk too much about it. A couple people would check it out and then the others would follow. I said, “Oh, I’ll go.”
I got about 20 feet from shore and realized it wasn’t easy moving my feet, so I started turning around. As I hit 90 degrees—facing the canyon wall—I sunk knee-deep in mud. The guy with me sank too, but only one foot got stuck.
After about 15 minutes of struggling, it became clear that we were going to need leverage. We had a static line for rappelling through slot canyons. At about one o’clock, we built a three-to-one haul system where we rigged up some rope and carabiners to an anchor point on a rock and tried to pull ourselves out. After about an hour, the other guy got out. One of his feet had some solid ground that he was able to use as leverage, and he slipped out of his stuck shoe. This trip was the first expedition on which I had worn hiking boots. I thought if I was wearing different footwear, and not gaiters, I might have been able to get out.
I decided to take the weight off my feet. The struggle to get out had moved mud and led to maybe an inch or two of water around me. When I put my hand in the drink, it went numb after maybe 30 seconds. I’d been pretty conscious about not getting my body wet, but I lay down in the mud on my belly. I tried different angles. Nothing worked.
It was roughly 2:00 P.M. and maybe 65 degrees. I was wearing a pair of work pants, a wool longsleeve shirt, and wool gloves. The woman with me was talking to keep me comfortable. I tried rocking back and forth to move the goop away from my legs. I was able to get the quicksand where it was right above my boot line, but that was it.
The sun started going behind the canyon wall around three o’clock, and the temperature dropped substantially. I would be in the shadows until dark. The woman connected a trash bag filled with my coats to the rope and moved it out to me. The runners came back around 3:40 and we talked about using the Personal Locator Beacon. It was a weird conversation because the situation didn’t seem super serious. I was stuck in mud and it was cold, but there was no blood. There was no traumatic injury. At four o’clock we hit the beacon because we didn’t know when someone might come. We thought that hypothermia would make this a life or death situation.
I was worried about passing out in the water, so I asked if we could create a system to hold me up. We built a raft using Thermarests and driftwood. and I lay on my belly. Every 15 minutes or so, one of the people with me would say, “Hey Robbie, How did this happen? How old are you? Where are you from?” In between that, I was meditating, Be as calm as possible. Just breathe. When I got cold, they got the MSR stove going and gave me hot water and a meal—sausage, couscous, and cheese.
I felt the pressure on my legs right after I sank, but eventually my lower body from my waist down went mostly numb. I put my hands against my crotch to stay warm. My hands hurt the most. They were getting warm, they were getting cold, et cetera. I kept the muscles in my legs moving.
Sometime after 8 o’clock I heard a helicopter. When I led canoe trips in Canada, a helicopter was something I never wanted to hear. It made me worry about someone else. But I thought, “Fuck yeah. This is the best sound I’ve ever heard.”
The helicopter landed on the east side of the river where there was more open mud. An air medic got out and started walking along the canyon wall. When he reached me, he asked how deep I was. “I’m balls deep in the river,” I said. The mud came up to my thighs. The water came up to my crotch.
The medic shared the plan. They’d throw me some webbing. I’d build a harness. They’d land the helicopter behind me, I’d attach myself to the skid, and they would take off. I thought, “Yeah, that’s going to work.” I mean, a helicopter versus the mud?
As it descended, the helicopter pushed all the water out into the canyon wall and the middle of the river. The pilot couldn’t touch down completely, so I grabbed the ski. I couldn’t quite sit. I leaned against it and held on as tight as I could. I gave them a sign and they started pulling.
I wanted so badly to be pulled out that I held on tight. My body has never been pulled on in such a way, but I didn’t let go. I didn’t go anywhere.
After the third time, I remember telling them it wasn’t working. The fourth time, I ended up slipping up a little bit as the helicopter went up, and it pulled me in a weird way. I just felt my back go, “Pop, pop, pop, pop.”
I gave the no go sign—both hands across my face. The pilot came back down immediately. I heard him over the air medic’s radio. “If I try this anymore, I’m going to rip this kid in half,” he said.
Around 9:30 or so, the helicopter left to get more responders. A NOLS group with my adviser, Jessie, hiked to us. The helicopter came back. Altogether, there were maybe a dozen people. They passed plywood and a shovel out to me, but I couldn’t get any leverage. It was clear that the rescuers would have to figure out a way to have someone come out and help me.
A different helicopter landed and rescuers unloaded rafts. They set one to the left side of me and one to the right side of me. There were four or five guys in each boat, wearing Carhartt’s and cotton t-shirts. They were wet, and must have been cold. A couple of guys in each raft held me up. The other guys dug at my feet. One guy in each raft used a shovel. They dug behind my heels so my feet could slide back. Others used their hands to make sure the water, silt, and sand didn’t flow back in.
Sometime around midnight, they pushed an empty, yellow-and-blue raft between the canyon wall and me. After maybe 45 minutes of digging, I felt my right leg inch up. I said, “Alright! It’s happening. It’s happening. Yeah, pull, pull, pull.” They sped up. My right leg came out, and then my left leg came up right after.
They tried to gently help me into the yellow life raft, but I was so excited that I tried to step into it. My legs had no feeling so I slipped and face planted into the boat. On shore, I asked the medic if I could stay. She said, “Well, it’s up to you.” I looked at my adviser, Jessie, and I saw that I shouldn’t. That’s the only time that I got emotional.
They flew me to the hospital. My temperature was surprisingly high because of the coats and the warm food my friends fed me; I couldn’t feel my legs, though. The staff was shocked that I was in good spirits, considering that I looked like such shit. I had been in the desert for 25 days. I had wild hair, a beard, and was covered in red dirt. I stank. They were so disgusted with my filth, that after they warmed me up, they wouldn’t do anything until I had taken a shower. I couldn’t stand, so they said they had to have somebody help me.
They gave me two options. The first was this guy Jed. The second option involved two beautiful nurses. One was a young blonde and the other was her ten-year-older counterpart.
“I’m going to take Jed,” I said. “I’m not in any place to be hanging out with you women in the shower.”
It was Thanksgiving, so I called my parents at 5:00 A.M. Three days later, my legs regained their feeling and I joined the group for a ten-day backcountry skiing session in the Grand Tetons.
Trying to self-extricate is always the first action. Using a rope to rig up a mechanical advantage was good thinking. Wiggling and digging is often the only way to quickly extricate. A trowel or even the stay from an internal frame backpack can help break the suction.
Once Tesar knew he was stuck, preventing hypothermia was important: putting on a coat, eating a meal, using a Thermarest to keep dry. His partners’ cautious behavior to avoid getting stuck was also wise. Often in these types of situations, rescuers become secondary victims. Activating the PLB quickly was smart, as was remaining calm—sometimes that is the difference between survival and death.
It sounds like the nerve compression was significant, considering it took three days for full function to return to his legs. In the lower pressure of quicksand, it usually takes many hours or even days to cause permanent damage to nerves or blood vessels. It can happen, but it is not as dangerous as being crushed by a building or automobile. The only way to really mitigate this is to make an effort to wiggle the toes and flex calf muscles and change positions frequently.
The critique I have is of the helicopter attempting what sounds like a dangerous maneuver. Trying to lift him with a skid under power not only clearly caused further injury to the victim’s back, but it put bystanders and helicopter crew at great and unnecessary risk.