I remember being afraid of heights as early as kindergarten. At the top of the playground slide, I chickened out. No amount of coaxing or encouraging from my teacher or classmates could persuade me to slide down what was really a very high slide (especially to a five-year old). Eventually, every child awaiting their turn to slide on the rungs below me had to back down so I could climb down the way I had climbed up. That is why the predicament I found myself in as a teen-aged girl one hot summer day was so unlikely.
Let me explain that I was a very foolish teen. I was also a very prideful teen and that plays into what happened on this particular day on the Moab Rim high above my hometown, Moab, Utah when a small group of friends and I decided to hike up to the ruins of an old Indian fort that sits back in behind the rim. The Moab Rim is a tall Navajo Sandstone formation that runs along the South and West side of the Moab valley.
I had first visited what we referred to as the “Indian Fort” when my mother hiked a group of us (my siblings, cousins, and me) up there several years earlier. Mama had fond memories of hiking to it as a young girl and wanted to share those memories with us. Once we had visited the old Indian Fort, it became a favorite destination for us. It is not an easy hike. The ascent to the top of the Moab Rim is basically straight up though you can get there on a trail without ropes or other equipment. The trail starts near what was my grandmother, Etholen Holyoak’s home which was nestled up against the foothills just below the Moab Rim South of Moab along what is now Highway 191.
There were four of us making the trek that day. Our group was a small one comprised of myself, my cousin Holly, and our friends Jeanine and Theresa. In order to get an early start, we had slept over the night before at grandma’s house. We had spent a fun night listening to 50’s and 60’s music, talking about boy’s, eating our favorite snacks, including some of our favorite goodies baked by Gram (as we lovingly referred to her). We did have another friend Dixie, who also attended the slumber party, but whose mother declined to allow her make the hike with us. She would later say she felt her mother was inspired not to allow her to go with us. It may have changed the outcome of what was to happen that day.
We arose early the next morning. Gram had made us wonderful, fluffy pancakes that we quickly wolfed down. After breakfast we were ready to make our trek up the Moab Rim and back into the Indian Fort. Our provisions were our canteens filled with cold water and two additional partially-filled gallon bottles of water which we had frozen. I think we each packed a peanut butter sandwich to eat for lunch.
If my memory serves me right, we were taking turns carrying the gallon jugs of water as we made our way up the mountainside. On the way up those bottles of water became heavy and we eventually cashed (found a place to stash) them. That meant the only water we would have would be in our individual canteens. Each time we cashed our water supply, we refilled our canteens as best we could and hid the gallon jugs in shaded areas behind red rocks which are so abundant along the trail. We rationalized that the cashed water would come in handy during the late afternoon when we would be making our descent.
The hike to the top, though difficult was uneventful. Once at the top, we made our way back to the fort on flat ground. By the time we got to it we were somewhat rested from our grueling ascent. It was a hot day. We began to regret that we had left our extra water. But we climbed up through a slit to the flat top of the red rock formation where parts of the ancient fort remained. I remember thinking those ancient Native Americans were smart to build the fort where they did. By the time the enemy had stormed the rim, they would be too exhausted to fight.
We were joined by another friend, Jeff, who came up a different way. We had invited him to come join us, along with another guy friend who did not come. It was fun to have Jeff visit, but feeling quite outnumbered as the lone guy, he soon left us and was off. I can’t remember when we decided it was time to make our way back. We knew we needed to get home before sundown. Because we had exhausted our water supply and it was a hot summer day, we eventually decided to find our way back to the place where we would make our descent into the Moab Valley and Gram’s home where ice cold water and possibly a treat would be waiting for us.
The cashed water was really calling to me as I made it down the hill, with my three companions. When we were about a third of the way down, I decided there was likely a shorter more direct way down, and I determined to find it. The others were leery of this, and smartly stayed with the known path. Their attempts to convince me of my folly were to no avail. I separated from them and went on what I thought would be a straighter more direct path down the mountainside.
The rest of the group kept calling out to me to make sure I was still all right. I resented their lack of trust of my climbing abilities, but begrudgingly kept replying. At one point, I got down on the seat of my jeans to lower myself over what was a small rounded ledge. A small rock was wedged between two pieces of slick rock. As I put my foot onto the rock, it moved slightly as it lodged itself even more deeply into the crevice between the two large rocks. I attempted to remove it thinking it might be dangerous to anyone else traversing the same terrain. In attempting to dislodge the rock, my empty canteen became detached and fell down the mountainside. I was shocked at how long it took for my canteen to hit the edge of a ledge below, (which ledge I was attempting to get down to). It was a lot further down to that ledge than I realized. The canteen barely hit the edge of the ledge before it fell further down the hillside never to be seen by me again. The closer ledge, which I did climb down onto, was much more narrow than I had perceived it to be. As soon as I made it down to that ledge, I quickly determined I was in trouble. I could not go up or down safely. I swallowed my pride and called out to my friends.
It was my cousin Holly who came creeping cautiously along the ledge below me. When she saw me perched precariously on the ledge above her, she turned white. “Gem,” she commanded very sternly, “don’t move. We will come up to get you.”
I pondered my situation. As I mentioned, I was a very prideful youth. I was also worried that in trying to rescue me, one or more of them would fall to their death or serious injury. That fear, coupled with my pride, were the reasons I determined that I must get back up over the top of the rounded ledge. I turned around on the tiny ledge I was on and searched for foot and hand holds.
Not sticking to the trail had been a big mistake for me to make. Deciding to disobey my cousin’s commands to stay put, turned out to be another serious mistake. In attempting to get back up, I lost my footing. I am not sure exactly how it happened, but instead of falling, I found myself clinging to the little wedged rock that I had previously tried to get rid of. It was all that was keeping me from a fall to almost certain death! My heart was beating wildly in my ears. I must have had to jump some to reach the rock I was clinging to, because the ledge I had been standing on was now within only tip-toe range of my feet. That was my situation when the group reached me.
When they arrived to find me in my predicament, the girls above me began talking among themselves about what they should do. I shared with them my fear that I would dislodge the rock I was clinging to. Eventually, they decided they would form a human chain, anchored by a large red-rock sandstone boulder perched near the edge of the rounded ledge. It was so large they reasoned, that it was not going anywhere even if all our weight was on it. One of the girls, Theresa, got behind the boulder, straddling it. She extended her right arm to Holly. Holly reached toward her with her left arm and hand. Teresa and Holly interlocked wrists. Holly and Jeanine likewise interlocked wrists. Jeannine, then extended her leg down over the edge for me to grasp. It took some maneuvering, and some coaxing (remember that I was worried I would pull the girls off the cliff with me), but I eventually did reach my right arm up, and grasp Jeanine’s ankle with my right hand. I kept my left hand holding tightly on the wedged rock which had thus far saved me. I braced my feet against the face of a slick-rock formation which I found myself up against. The tip of the toes of one foot were barely touching the narrow shelf I had been standing on.
It was very uncomfortable being in the position I was in. My back especially was in a considerable amount of pain. I would attempt to put more weight on my feet to ease the spasms in my back. Though I was in excruciating back pain, my arms and hands were numb. I could not feel my arms and hands well enough to determine how firm my grip was. I feared that I would relax my hold on Jeannine’s leg and the rock. I kept asking Jeanine if I was holding tight enough. My friend kept assuring me that I was. I’m betting she had quite a bruise on that leg when our ordeal was over.
We were all extremely thirsty. My mouth felt like it was filled with hot, dry cotton balls. I am sure the other girls felt the same. We regretted cashing our water, which was now below us on the trail. We should be enjoying that warm, wet liquid which would hardly have been refreshing but at least would have helped re-hydrate us. The decision to leave most of it, had been our first mistake, and for the other three girls, their only mistake.
My companions kept calling out for help, in the hopes that their voices would carry down the mountain and get the attention of someone. “One, two, three,” one of them would count, and then she would be joined by the others with, “HELP.”
Eventually, we did get the attention of a young man riding his horse on a trail below us. “No thanks,” he called up to the pleas of my companions. He and his horse had a few years earlier come to the rescue of my brother who was having a difficult time getting down off of the mountain, due to a medical condition. Even though that young man refused to come to our aid, I believe he may have helped us by alerting someone (perhaps my grandmother) to our strange predicament.
As the sun sank lower in the sky, my friends noticed my father’s car pulling up into the driveway of my Uncle Dan whose property adjoined my grandmother’s. According to my companions, two figures emerged from the car and began making their way swiftly up the trail. Being so far away, they were unrecognizable. One of them stopped and remained stationary, in a little sagebrush clearing. That person, according to my companions was wearing a white shirt. I determined that person to be my mother Genevieve Johnson. “She’s praying,” I stated, emotion welling up inside me. If I could have produced tears, I would have begun to cry.
It soon became apparent that the other figure was my father, Loren Johnson. Dad wasted no time climbing up to us. His long legs and the adrenaline that must have been rushing through his veins, had likely given him the strength to practically run up the hill. I was fearful that he would die of a heart attack trying to reach and rescue me. As he approached us, he removed his belt and hooked it back together again so it formed a circle. He crouched down low at the rounded edge of the cliff and extended the unhooked part of the loop down to me, holding tightly with each of his hands to the belt on either side of the buckle. He instructed me to grab it one hand at a time. At first, I was fearful of letting go of each of my strong holds, but I knew I had no choice. As soon as I let go of Jeanine’s leg, and grabbed onto the belt, the girls quickly backed away from the edge. I was relieved that at least they would be safe. When I had one arm through the belt, and both hands locked around the opposite wrist, Dad pulled me to safety.
Violent sobs racked both of our bodies as we hugged each other. “You’re okay now,” comforted my father between sobs. I think I can count the times I saw my father cry on one hand. Then he called out to my mother, “She’s safe now Genevieve.” We all waved down to the white-shirted figure who arose and began to make her way back to her childhood home to inform anxious family members that the danger was over. My mother’s prayers always seemed to be answered, and this time was thankfully no exception.
The sun was swiftly dipping behind the Moab rim and we had no time to waste in making our descent the rest of the way down to my grandmother’s home and the nice cool water and treats she had made for us. I don’t think we even took time to search for our cashed water. I remember being very shaky and needing Dad’s strong arms to steady me. I kept whimpering, and the others kept comforting me. Over and over, I apologized to them for what I had put them through. They each assured me that they were just glad it had ended well for all of us. The four of them (my father, my cousin Holly, and my friends Jeannine and Theresa) will always be my heroes. They saved my life and I will be forever grateful to each one of them.
As I descended, I kept looking back to the site where I had been, suspended on the Moab Rim on a slick rock formation. Daddy kept urging me on because we had no time to stop and look back. Many years later, I can still identify the spot where I was.
My father never talked of the incident to me again.
Years later as my aunt Berdene Gramlich, my grandmother Ruth Johnson and I we were driving North out of the Moab valley, to attend a relative’s funeral in Provo, Utah, I remember my paternal grandmother professing her love for Moab. “I love every red rock in this valley,” she ardently proclaimed. I think I can echo my grandmother’s sentiment. But there is one rock I have a special fondness for. For all I know, it may still be wedged in the crevice of a slick rock formation on the face of the Moab Rim.