This article originally appeared on Backpacker
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In this gripping tale of survival and heartache in No Man’s Canyon, David Cicotello is left stranded on a perilous ledge after a tragic rappelling accident claims his brother’s life. Alone, with dwindling supplies and the weight of despair, he faces a daunting 6-day struggle for survival, all while waiting for a rescue that remains uncertain.
Host: Today’s episode originally aired back in 2019, but it stayed one of our favorite episodes filled with heartbreak, resilience, and hope. This episode does contain adult content and may not be suitable for all listeners. The stakes never get higher than life and death, and those are the stakes on every story we tell on this show.
A person who through a combination of grit, luck, and skill overcomes extreme adversity. They were going to die except then they did something impossible. Extraordinary. They changed the ending. I think that on some level, we all fear death, or at least dying. But then some people have the, I don’t know if it’s courage, or stubbornness, or arrogance, or what it is, to say, "Not yet." And so we get to test ourselves against their example. To make plans for if the same thing ever happened to us. How would we escape? How would I beat death?
David Cicotello: When I entered kindergarten in 1958, my brother Louis was entering college as a freshman. According to our dear mother, he was a legend. And when you grow up with a brother who has these stellar qualifications, I could have gone one or two ways. I could have become very jealous and very resentful, but I didn’t. I was in awe of him.
Lewis and I began to take these canyoneering trips beginning in 2006, and this became what I would call the second phase of bonding with him, because it was just Lewis and me.
We would go every year, sometimes twice, and this trip was planned in March of 2011. I flew to Colorado Springs out of Nashville. We drove into Utah, and the next day, we did a short hike to get adjusted. And No Man's Canyon, the north fork, was scheduled for Sunday, March 6.
And that we were to call our loved ones sometime on Thursday from the road. Now, before leaving, I left a detailed map with my significant other, Rhonda Hoffman.
Rhonda Hoffman: As David was preparing to leave, he put a map together for me. And then he marked it meticulously with yellow highlighter, and green, red, and black pen.
And he highlighted roads, and he labeled three different campsites. He listed the dates that he expected to be in each campsite, and I thought it was sweet. So he’s marking a map since we can’t chat, and I could know where he was, but I didn’t really want to think about ever needing the map and I remember asking him, "What would I do with this map if I needed to use the map?" And he looked at me and said, "Well there’s a Bureau of Land Management office in Hanksville," and so he marked that with a dot, and he looked up the phone number and he wrote it on the map.
David Cicotello: We had scouted the trailhead the day before that leads into the north fork of No Man’s Canyon. So when we parked the truck, we could see our footprints because there was nobody else around. It was rare that we ever A) saw somebody camping near us, or B) we ever saw anybody in the same canyon. This canyon is noted for its spectacular exit rappel, 100 feet.
So we only needed a 60-meter rope. And so, this hike with any reasonable time through the canyon would take six hours. We set out at 9 in the morning.
We set up four repels. In fact, we set up an additional repel to what’s in the trip report. We’re being sensible and we are using the 60-meter rope in every case. It took us a little over three hours to get to the exit. And the exit out of No Man’s Canyon North Fork is in two parts. The first stage is set up from a mantled area and you drop down a little, about 10 feet and then you’re on a little ledge and then you go down the rest of the way. It’s no problem. We got down to the crack exit part of it and we’re now going to set up the final repel to go out, and Lewis at this juncture checked his watch.
He said, “It’s 1 p.m. Let’s go down and have our lunch." And that was the plan. Now we’re working in a space that’s pretty tight because we’re in that crack exit area. It’s ledgy there. And we begin threading the rope. We’re watching for the piece of tape that my brother always used to tape the middle of what he called his big rope.
And we’re threading and threading and threading, and then we see the tape, and we say, "Stop!" Once we saw that tape on the rope, at that moment in time, we considered that the middle of the rope, okay? And that is the key part of this story.
My brother was an experienced climber. And I did not challenge him ever. One of his commandment rules. The most experienced climber goes first, and he rarely, I mean rarely, let me go first. So we set up the rappel, and the exit crack is another interesting formation because it’s not straight out to the edge and down.
This exit crack slopes for about 20 feet to the edge of the canyon, and it’s tight. So I’m back at the anchor, and my brother starts down. He gets over the edge, and the first thing he says, "Goes fast." Well, that is a free repel, and free repels go fast. And within the next moment, he calls back and says, "Oops, the rope is short."
And this wave of panic comes through me. Because I know what he means when he says the rope is short. It’s been set up wrong. Pulling that rope through four rappels moved the tape and shifted the position of that marker, which means that the ropes were uneven when he went down. So he’s going to eventually run out of rope on the short side.
He calls back and says, "No biggie." But the next thing I remember is that rope zipped through that rappel ring and down over the canyon edge.
I didn’t hear him cry out. I didn’t hear him land hard. And I screamed "Lewis" over, over, and over again. There was no reply. What I was engaged in immediately was how am I going to reach my brother? I could not go down because I didn’t have a rope. I could not go back up because I could not climb up the way we came in. And so I found a place on that ledge, and I began to weep.
I certainly was focused on anything that would give me an indication that he was alive. And I sat there long enough to hear him moan. When I heard him moan that created a response in me that I went to the anchor near that sloping slot and I called out his name again. No response, and that was the only time that I heard anything audible from my brother. Now if I had chosen to walk down that slot, tie in, go to the edge and look down, yes, I could have seen him. I never tried to do that because I didn’t want to see my brother down there.
Shortly after that I made a decision to survive. That was a decision of will. It is Sunday, March 6, approximately 3 in the afternoon. I need to get to Friday. Why Friday? Well, the loved ones are going to miss our call Thursday and I was counting in faith that Rhonda would respond. They had the map, they knew we were to call in and they would respond.
So my goal became my mantra. Get to Friday. Get to Friday. Get to Friday. I audibilized it. I prayed it. That was my goal.
Now, the first thing I did was I deconstructed my pack. That was useful because inside that pack, there were two things that I used that week. There was a piece of styrofoam padding that I would use at night and put up under my shirt and sort of hug my arms so I can keep my core warm with that padding under my shirts.
The other thing in that pack was a hard plastic piece. And I fashioned a help sign and threw it over the edge at the exit slot, hanging down. And the other thing that pad did for me was I slept on it at night. That wasn’t the softest thing, but at least it protected me from the cold of the sandstone.
Second, I had a lunch. I had a sandwich, cashews, and some gum. I had 16 ounces of water and I had a liter full of ice tea. That’s it. And I made a decision on Sunday that I was going to ration all my food until it ran out. Now, what else did I have in my backpack? So I had two pieces of webbing, 25 feet, I had an atriate about 8 feet, I had a smaller piece of webbing about 10 feet.
And I had a static rope about 25 feet. I thought, "What if I could get out of here? What? What if I could get down?"
I decided to put all these pieces of equipment together. So I threw it over and I thought, "No, you’re not doing it. You’re not doing it." Pulled it all back, took it all apart, wrapped it all up, stowed it away. The next day, I did it again, but both times ended with you’re not going to go down on that because when you actually hike into that canyon and you see that exit slot and you see the distance of the repel, I think you might understand the physicality of what we were up against.
I found the driest, most secure place on that ledge, and I began my vigil. I was very ritualistic, day after day, planning my meals, passing the time. I watched the birds. I sang. I prayed. Did I think about my brother? Of course I did. But I also thought about Rhonda and I thought about my children. And it’s just that my focus was survival.
This was a fight. I had all the symptoms and signs of dehydration. What’s next? What’s next is losing consciousness. But I was prepared that that might have happened, right? I mean, you don’t get enough food and water. You’re gonna pass out. The brain is in survival mode.
My heart at the end of that week was beating more rapidly. I could feel that I was shivering more at night because I wasn’t combating the cold. I knew what was going to happen if I didn’t get rescued.
Rhonda Hoffman: Thursday came and there was no word. I texted David, I know I texted him a couple of times, even probably Wednesday, knowing that he’d never get it. But if it makes me feel better to text, I’m gonna send him a message. And I, on Thursday, I was texting more, saying, "Hey, now we’re worried. You need to call in. Don’t forget to call us." And there was nothing.
David Cicotello: If I were to describe how time passed that week, Sunday, Monday, and part of Tuesday, very slow. Wednesday, Thursday accelerated a little bit. Friday was a long day because I was waiting to be rescued. It didn’t happen.
Rhonda Hoffman: I would tell you a lot of this is probably burned in my memory forever. So Friday morning, I called that number of the Bureau of Land Management office, and what I found out very quickly was how remote the land is. Because I remember saying, "Well, the campsite’s near this chute canyon," and the sheriff said, "which one?"
There are two. I’m looking at the map and I’m looking at the legend and I’m realizing that there are miles and miles and miles and that David’s little word campsite 3 covered 25 miles all by itself. So then I said to the sheriff, "Well, how do I get you this map? Can I email you the map? Can you fax the map?" and he said,” Do you have any idea where I am and what it’s like here?"
I’m over an hour out from the office, so I realize I have no idea what I’m doing, but I need to figure it out.
David Cicotello: All week I’ve been living in my head. All week I’ve been living in my head. And I come on Friday, and I’m waiting for this day. And all I have left on Friday It’s about 2 ounces of water, and I was depressed, and when I went to lay down that evening, doubt was there, but that doubt changed very late at night when I heard a helicopter hover momentarily, flash its light into that slot, and when I saw that, I got up off that ledge and shouted, "I’m here," knowing that they couldn’t hear me, of course, right? But it gave me the indication that the search was on.
Luke Bowman: So my name is Luke Bowman, and I’m the chief pilot for the Utah Department of Public Safety. We got down there probably about 6:30 p.m., just before dark, before the Wayne County search and rescue guys had arrived on scene. The trailhead when we got there, their truck was there and unlocked. It was evident that they weren’t planning on staying the night, but yet had been missing or hadn’t been heard from since Sunday the week before.
David Cicotello: When I saw that helicopter, my spirits were uplifted, and it was now just waiting for the rescue.
Luke Bowman: We started looking in No Man’s Canyon, and by now it’s dark, and so we’ve got our night vision goggles and infrared camera out. We flew around, flew up and down No Man’s Canyon, but weren’t picking up any light sources or anything like that. And so we flew some of the other canyons in the area. We saw quite a few different camps and lights and so we would land down in the canyon and go talk to those people, and none of which had seen David or Lewis.
Rhonda Hoffman: But so Saturday morning, I was driving to work and the Wayne County Sheriff called. His question was, which fork of no man’s canyon would they take? And I’m like, "Wait, what?" And he says, "Well, the truck is found. We found the truck last night, but the truck had David’s journal in it. And the last entry he wrote was No Man’s Canyon, and that was five days ago."
Until that moment, I’ve been telling myself everything would be okay, that David and Lewis were stuck somewhere, but they were together, and it would be this big adventure story. At that moment, all of a sudden, there’s this very real gripping fear.
Luke Bowman: Wayne County Search and Rescue had come up with a plan to send people into a couple of different canyons.
So we took the first group of people into a canyon that they wanted us to, and then on the way back we overflew, No Man’s Canyon, and I actually noticed some footprints in the sand, and they led into the slot canyon portion of No Man’s Canyon, and so we were flying really low, slow over that slot Canyon, but it was really narrow.
We had a very limited view down into the canyon, but followed that down to the big drop-off and as we turned around, there was a hole in the cave and I could see movement.
David Cicotello: So Saturday I’m waiting. I’m waiting. I’m waiting off and on. I hear the sound of a helicopter. And it was about 1 p.m. when they again came around to the face of that exit slot, hovered there, hit their horn to signal. I stood up in the slot with my help sign.
Luke Bowman: David had made some sort of sign. You know, got some webbing and things that he had and taped them all together and reached them out as far as he could and was waving them around so I could see that movement in the cave.
David Cicotello: They recognized that they’d seen me. And I knew momentarily I was going to be rescued.
Luke Bowman: So then we started hauling in the search and rescue guys to that rock. And then that’s when they set up their systems for extraction and pulled David up out of the slot Canyon. Shortly after that, my TFO, tactical flight officer, noticed Lewis down at the bottom.
Rhonda Hoffman: I got the call from the sheriff that they had found David. I remember asking about Lewis and I knew with the silence of the other end of the phone that he didn’t want to tell me that Lewis had fallen and did not survive the fall.
Luke Bowman: To relay that completely mixed emotions to the family like, "Hey, we found them. Unfortunately, one has died," is a really, really tough thing. That’s definitely the hardest part about my job.
David Cicotello: Once we got into the helicopter, I said I want to go back to the truck. And Sheriff Taylor was there and he notified me about my brother’s passing. During that flight, I was able to speak with Rhonda on the way to the hospital, which I thought was just a wonderful moment.
Rhonda Hoffman: David met me at the airport, and he looked like he’d aged 10 years, and I still had that silly map with me, I just couldn’t let it go, and then there was Rex saying, "Oh, here, I think this is yours," and he hands me these rolled up papers, and it’s the map that the helicopter pilot had, the same map.
I just felt like I got it to somebody who understood it and we found them and it didn’t turn out at all the way that we wanted it to turn out, but we found him.
David Cicotello: I was out of the canyon, but the canyon was not out of me. I did get stuck in it sort of that valley of guilt and grief and my priest gave me a book to read. It’s called Interior Freedom by Father Jacques Philippe, and he says something to this effect that we often must consent to something that we wished we did not have happen to us. That was certainly the case for me.
Luke Bowman: It’s pretty amazing. What the human body can go through, and then it’s also on the flip side, it’s crazy to think how fragile it is at the same time. He definitely had a will to survive that pushed him to do something, which I think is pretty out of the ordinary.
Rhonda Hoffman: I cannot imagine what he went through. He figured out how to hold out. And I think that it certainly teaches us about how strong you are. In the face of extreme adversity that he saved himself.
David Cicotello: Assuming the risk in life is part of life. I come away with this profoundly humbled, profoundly humbled. And that’s the beginning of getting through that valley.
Host: Thank you to David Cicotello, Rhonda Hoffman, and Luke Bowman for sharing their stories with us. This episode was produced by me, Louisa Albanese, along with Amelia Arvesen and Zoe Gates, with sound design by Matt Coderre. Our sound editor was Christopher Wright from Work at Bird Studios. Our interns were Will Halpert and David Gleisner.
Thank you for listening to Out Alive, and if you have a survival story you want to share, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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