Rangers looking for Sue Mitchell in the backcountry of Bryce Canyon National Park found several notes along the trail that eventually led them to her. NPS photo.
Sue Mitchell descended into the colorful embrace of Bryce Canyon National Park on a bittersweet mission, one that pulled heavily at her heart and yet also filled her with joy. Here, among the whimsically eroded hoodoos tinted orange, red and buff and green Ponderosa pines piercing the sky, she would spread her mother’s ashes in one of the most breathtaking and peaceful settings she knew.
Yet while that early November day started out unseasonably warm and filled with the promise of closure, it transformed into one of terror as the Maryland woman somehow strayed from her intended trail into a maze.
When Ms. Mitchell lost her mother, a mere 16 months after losing her father, she thought that she could find peace for her mind, and her mother’s remains, in the rugged yet beautiful terrain of Bryce Canyon in Utah. The terrain along the Peekaboo Loop Trail that dropped below Bryce Point seemed to present the perfect resting place, she thought.
At the trailhead beneath a beautiful sun shining unobstructed, the woman stripped off her warm winter layers, opting instead for some shorts and a T-shirt, throwing an extra T-shirt into her pack for good measure. Then, before descending toward the towering rock spires that populate the canyon, Ms. Mitchell stopped, gathered a handful of her mother’s ashes, and tossed them into the air. “Mother Nature, take her with love and absorb her back into your world,” she said aloud.
That beautiful sentiment colored her descent into the canyon, filling her with joy and genuine appreciation for the gorgeous views and strenuous trail that weaves through the hoodoos for 5.5 miles before ending at the beginning.
Though less than 36,000 acres in size, and with just one trail longer than 20 miles in length, Bryce Canyon’s terrain can be challenging. Most trailheads are on top of the Paunsaugunt Plateau on which the park is located, and so one hikes down into the heavily eroded landscape.
A Wrong Turn In A Rugged Landscape
Ms. Mitchell unknowingly made a wrong turn right from the start and went down not the Peekaboo Trail but the 23-mile-long Under-the-Rim Trail. Not long into her hike, with the Yellow Creek backcountry campsite -- far south of the Peekaboo Trail -- on her left, she paused for a moment at the small creek running with icy cold water that she splashed on her legs, arms, and face.
Here the terrain flattened out somewhat, and amid the sagebrush she spotted small plant with five red flowers. Ms. Mitchell’s mother was an avid gardener, and red had been her favorite color. This coincidence provided the perfect place for Ms. Mitchell to spread her mother’s remaining ashes. It also provided her with peace. “I am leaving you in the most beautiful place on earth I have ever been,” she said aloud in a goodbye to her mother.
Ironically, after finding this peace, Ms. Mitchell was able to focus on the present and realized that something may have gone terribly wrong. “For the first time, I pull out my cell phone to check the time, and am surprised to see I have been moving for three hours,” she said in an interview after her ordeal. “If this is a 3-4 hour hike, and I am a fast hiker, why doesn’t anything look familiar yet? It is here, next to the red blooms sprinkled with the white-gray crumbles of my mom, that I feel the very first twinge in the recesses of my brain, that something is wrong in a very big way.”
Park rangers knew they were on the right trail when they found this S-O-S drawn in the soil. NPS photo.
Ms. Mitchell then reached for two things: her Zuni Horse fetish, and her emergency whistle. The fetish she grasped for protection, the whistle she blew for help. Alternating between the whistle and shouting, it only took a short time to realize that no one was near her, no one was coming.
Rather than staying put and waiting for help, she headed off with hopes of finding her way back to the trailhead.
“I keep a quick pace, stretching my legs longer with each stride as the trail is now moving off of the canyon floor. I am climbing again, slippery, narrow switch back after switchback,” she recounted. “When my stomach growls, I check the time and am stunned to see that it is 4 p.m. I have passed my fourth hour of hiking and this is clearly not the 3-4 hour Peekaboo Loop Trail. I am overwhelmed with the absolute knowing that this trail will not take me back to my car at Bryce Point.
“My mind is suddenly flooded with a single thought: you could die out here tonight.”
Being lost in the backcountry of a national park can be an intimidating experience if you're not prepared for it. Your mind can play tricks on you; every little sound you hear might seem amplified; you might begin to question your ability to survive.
As daylight faded, Ms. Mitchell began to panic. Remembering a sign at the Yellow Creek campsite describing bear activity, she headed for height, far from the canyon floor. She accepted that she was lost and began to think about when people would come looking for her, when would people realize that she was missing?
Distraught, Ms. Mitchell realized that it was only Tuesday. She wasn’t scheduled to checkout from her lodge back in Kanab, Utah, 90 minutes away, until Thursday. She hoped that the friends she had made there earlier in the week would notice when she wouldn’t show up to breakfast the next day.
The woman reached a downed tree near the base of a cliff, and decided it would be the best place to camp for the night.
“When I realize the sun is sinking quickly behind the massive expanse of canyon walls, I pull out my journal and quickly scribble out my will and a short note to my sister,” Ms. Mitchell recalled. “I leave her my three cats, and knowing that her husband is going to be pissed, I leave her a nice chunk of cash to make it work. It feels surreal but I am not stupid – I am lost in what feels like a million-acre canyon and may freeze to death tonight.”
Unprepared For A November Night At 8,000 Feet
Dropping with the sun was the temperature. The hiker struggled to stay warm. That extra T-shirt in her pack provided little warmth, so she tried to cover herself with fallen pine needles. She longed for the warmth and comfort her winter layers, back in the car, could have brought.
In a bid to stay warm and safe, Ms. Mitchell huddled close to this gnarled tree trunk one night. Photo courtesy of Sue Mitchell.
As her mind whirled -- Where was her car? How far could she have really traveled? -- her body began to shake. She began to shake so violently that the pine needles she had covered her body with for warmth began to scratch and cut her skin, and she couldn’t keep her teeth from chattering.
Though she felt drained of energy, Ms. Mitchell got up and launched into a series of jumping jacks to generate warmth. Checking her phone, willing the sun to rise, she was astonished to see it was just 7:45 p.m. Unsure of the stages of hypothermia, she wondered if her uncontrollable shaking was due to seizures, or if it was the first step to dying from exposure. She stopped jumping at the sound of an uncomfortably close chirping sound.
“There is a tree next to the log I first laid down next to. I turn on my cell phone and use the light to crawl under the tree. With my spine pressed against the trunk, I break all the branches I can reach and lay them on top of me,” recalled Ms. Mitchell. “I know that mountain lions prefer to blitz their prey from above so I rationalize that no carnivore is going to drag me out from under this tree.”
While whatever the animal was soon left, the night only deepened in cold.
“The air turns colder and a tortuous routine begins as my violent shaking is followed by a few short minutes of catching my breath, only to be thrown back into intense shivering- which I am now convinced could be pre-death seizures,” she said. “I bite down on a nylon strap from my pack to protect my tongue, and the full reality of my situation crashed down on me: I am in a life-or-death crisis. When my whimpers turn to crying, dehydration prevents my body from producing tears.”
Ms. Mitchell tried to re-focus her mind; thoughts of death were getting her nowhere. Overhead, the sky was putting on a magnificent show of bright stars and meteors.
“My thoughts turn to knowing I will never see my cats again. The cat sitter won’t be coming after Thursday morning and they will starve to death,” she said. “And, my poor sister is going to have to clean out my condo eventually. Wait a minute…will she find anything embarrassing? Did I write anything bad about her in the journal on my nightstand? Shoot, I hope not.”
These amusing thoughts caused Ms. Mitchell to giggle out loud and actually enjoy herself. Unfortunately, this small respite in her mind was cut short by another noise from the dark. What animal could it be this time? The woman didn’t wait around to find out. She jumped up to get her camera and whistle. She used her camera flash to scare the critter, while blowing her whistle and moving around, hoping to intimidate it.
Refusing To Give Up
Daybreak eventually arrived, and though it was still cold Ms. Mitchell decided she had to move on. If she didn’t keep moving, she figured, she would feel like she had given up.
“Two hours later, I am standing stock still and exhausted, staring in utter disbelief in the realization that the spot I have hiked to is not the place I thought it would be,” she said. “I was completely wrong and have not reached the Yellow Creek campground. Nothing looks familiar and I have spent precious daylight hours, expended tremendous energy and used too much water to get absolutely nowhere.”
Frustrated by her lack of progress, Ms. Mitchell decided to return to where she spent the night and rethink her options. Back at her original campsite, she went into survival mode. “All I have to do is stay alive until tomorrow and they will see that I don’t checkout and my room is full of my stuff,” she told herself.
One of four notes she left along the trail. NPS photo.
Tearing a page from her journal, she wrote the first of four messages and left it in the middle of the trail: “Tues. Nov. 5? Started at Bryce Point to hike Peekaboo Loop 5.5 miles. Lost trail need help. I’m right here. Sue Mitchell.”
She then headed back down the trail, back down towards the canyon floor. The sun felt warm, and while she was thirsty, she decided to ration her water.
Not longer afterward, she left her second note: “11-7-12 SOS 2nd day lost – no food, warm clothes, low on water. Sue Mitchell Quail Park Lodge, Kanab Call my sister: Lisa Flemming Davidsonville, MD”
Not long afterwards, she realized how she became lost when she spots a sign noting the connecter to the Sheep Creek Trail from the Under-the-Rim Trail. Somehow, she realizes, she had picked up Under-the-Rim-Trail at the start, not her intended Peekaboo Trail.
The woman marched on; sure she was now headed in the correct direction. When she reached a clearing, she saw that she was very wrong. Miles and miles of desert could be seen, without a car- or person, in sight. Confused and deflated, Ms. Mitchell turned around, and went back to where she saw the Rim Trail sign.
It was only around 2 p.m, but Ms. Mitchell was exhausted. She used the remainder of her energy to create a small shelter out of tree branches. At least this night she wouldn’t be as exposed to the cold and the animals.
“I am not sure what is happening to me but I already know that I am physically incapable of making the hike across the canyon for water tomorrow,” she remembers thinking. “I decide I am OK with dying in beautiful Bryce Canyon and I am definitely close enough to the trail for someone to eventually find my remains. I am so at peace and feeling lighter and lighter by the minute. At least this way, my sister doesn’t have to come west and sprinkle my ashes in a national park, like I would have wanted anyway.”
Thanks to Ms. Mitchell's friendliness back at her lodge, some of the fellow hikers she had met earlier in the week had taken note of her disappearance that morning, and called in a report to the park. The rescue team found the Maryland woman shortly after she constructed the shelter and began to feel at peace with her seemingly-hopeless situation.Today, back home in Maryland, she is working to get back on track.
“I like to think of my experience as an adventure. There is no doubt that I will return to the canyon, for I must see for myself exactly what went wrong, and I won’t be alone this time,” she said. “I would definitely consider repeating my hike, only this time I will prepare for the three-day experience the trail descriptions suggests.”
Originally published in National Parks Traveler. www.nationalparkstraveler.com
Hadley Kunz is a Traveler intern. A recent West Virginia University graduate with a Bachelor of Science degree in Journalism, she grew up with a regular diet of outings in the Poconos, and expanded that once in college to outdoors locations in Pennslyvania, West Virginia, Colorado and Utah. She recently wrote about Burrowing Owls for the Traveler.