I Survived! Falling In Quicksand

When faced with certain death, you need bravery, determination—and plenty of luck. This is the story of one who lived to tell the tale. 

Ryan Osmun,Photographer Updated: Sep 28, 2022 11:49:58 IST
I Survived! Falling In Quicksand illustrations by Guy Shield

It was 16 February 2019, at 8 a.m.when my girlfriend, Jessika McNeill,and I arrived at Utah’s Zion National Park. We’d travelled from our home in Mesa, Arizona, to hike the 14-km-long Subway Trail, so named because of its stunning tunnel-shaped canyon. Halfway through our trek, which included climbing over boulders and fording streams, the sunshine gave way to alight snow. Soon after, we reached the rust-coloured walls of the Subway Trail. A small pond stood in our way,with the trail continuing on the other side. Because the pond looked shallow,we began to wade through, with Jessika leading the way.

About five feet from the edge, her front foot sank into the sandy bottom.Then she fell forwards and both legs started to sink. I lunged, grabbed her under the shoulders and pulled her out of the muck. She scrambled back to shore. But now I was sinking. The muck came all the way up to my right thigh and my left calf. I freed my left leg but couldn’t budge my right.

Jess handed me a long stick we'd picked up earlier in the hike. I jammed it down the side of my leg and tried to wiggle and pull it out. Nothing. I was mired in quicksand.

Jessika started scooping sand with both hands, but it was refilling faster than she could pull it out. “Don’t bother,” I told her. “You’re just wasting your energy.” While I was no longer sinking, I wasn’t getting out, either.

We couldn’t call for help because the only cell reception was back at the trailhead, five hours away over rough terrain. I told Jessika she had to hike back and call for help. She was scared—she had only ever hiked with me and was wary of hiking alone on a trail the National Park Service calls “very strenuous”. But we were out of options.

Thirty minutes after she left, it started to snow heavily. I zipped up my jacket and pulled my head inside.At some point I nodded off to sleep.I don’t know how long I was out, but I woke up with my upper body slip-ping backwards into the quicksand. I quickly planted my stick into the dry ground, stopping my fall.

I was exhausted. If my entire body ever did fall in, I’d never get out. It had been about five hours since Jess left,and it was getting dark.

A few hours later, I saw a light through my jacket. I prayed it was a helicopter, but it was the moonlight shining over the canyon walls. At that point, I was soaking wet and knew I wasn't going to make it. I started to think about what I could do to die faster. But I didn’t want to drown if I fell backwards again. That would be the worst way to go.

An hour later, another light shone across my eyes. A flashlight! I yelled for help. A man hollered back as he ran to me. He said that his name was Tim and that Jessika had gotten through to rescuers. He had hiked up,  and the rest of his crew was an hour behind him. When the three others arrived, they set up a pulley system to yank me out, tying an anchor strap around a boul-der. Two of the rescuers held me under each shoulder as Tim wrapped a strap around my kneecap. A fourth rescuer worked the pulley. With each ratchet, it felt as if my leg was being ripped off. Tim dug into the sand and got a hand around my ankle and started pulling up. It was agonizing, but I could feel my leg moving. “Keep going!” I screamed.

Three more ratchets and my leg was freed. My rescuers dragged me to the side of the canyon because I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t even feel my leg.

It was too dark and snowy for a helicopter, so they got me into a sleeping bag and gave me pain medication. Then we settled in for the night. When I woke up at 6 a.m., snow-covered the top of my sleeping bag, and flakes were still coming down. Around noon, the weather lifted, and my rescuers called in a helicopter.

My entire leg had swollen to the size of my thigh, but when I got to the hospital in St. George, X-rays revealed no fractures or breaks. I had sat in the quicksand for 12 hours and thought for sure I would die. But I didn’t.


—From outsideonline.com © 2020, By Jason Daley. From Outside (6 March 2020), Outsideonline.com


Check out three other stories from the series I Survived! 

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