Drea Briggs, a senior finishing her bachelor’s degree in interdisciplinary studies, would not consider herself an outdoors extremist, but her recent Award of Valor would beg to differ. After working as an IIC intern in Pipe Springs National Monument, she and her friend Sarah Merritt, a seasonal ranger, embarked on a multi-day backpacking trip, not knowing the unfathomable events that were to follow.
Briggs and Merritt planned a four day and three night trip through Vermilion Cliffs National Monument’s Buckskin Gulch, the world’s longest slot canyon. Familiar with multi-day solo hikes, the two did everything they could to prepare. They secured the proper BLM permits, checked trail conditions and the weather forecast preparing for deep pools and quicksand.
Though they were prepared to encounter quicksand, they didn’t know to be extra careful around natural springs due to excessive underground water movement. At 4:00 p.m. on the second day, they filled up their water bottles at a nearby spring and continued on their way without concern. Moments later, something went terribly wrong.
“All throughout the day we would step into quicksand and just pop out again,” Briggs said. “It hadn’t been an issue but that time we both went in- I popped out and [Sarah] did not.”
At first the two laughed, thinking Merritt would be free in no time but the sand locked around one of her legs and didn’t let go. The two tried to remember the tips on how to escape:
- Make yourself as light as possible– Discard your backpacks and gear.
- Try to take a few steps backwards and wiggle your knees.
- Reach out for a branch or a person’s hand to pull yourself out
- Take deep breaths– Remain calm.
- Move slowly and deliberately to conserve energy.
After an hour spent in several attempts to dig her out, including Briggs almost getting stuck herself, they realized Merritt wasn’t going anywhere and the sun was beginning to set.
Luckily, the two had previous wilderness first aid training. Together they strategized how to make Merritt comfortable for a long night in the cold while Briggs continued down the canyon in search for help.
Briggs made dinner and cut up a wetsuit for Merritt to avoid hypothermia. They blew up an air mattress for all of her belongings and were thankful for nearby dry vegetation to start a fire on a rock pile they constructed above the stream. Once Merritt was taken care of, Briggs left into the night with an optimistic shout, “Good thing I’m not afraid of the dark!”
Leaving a friend to hike 12 miles in the dark would be hard enough but Briggs was exhausted from a day of hiking, lack of sleep and a light foot strain she had received that morning.
“Normally I like going on full moon hikes and I like going out in the dark,” she said. “But knowing if I wasn’t fast enough or good enough, that would mean she might lose her foot… That was really stressful.”
An hour into the night, Briggs came across two hikers who were separated from their group. But with their personal injuries and problems, she found herself helping them instead. After giving them a spare map, they said the rest of their group was camping not too far away.
An hour and a half later, she saw some people but upon approaching them, she realized they were the same two individuals from earlier. Briggs, who was focused on remaining on dry ground, failed to notice in the darkness that she had accidentally got turned around downstream.
“That’s when I first snapped,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that I had then been out twice as long and it would take even longer to get help.”
In need of a recharge, Briggs tried her best to take a power nap in her wet clothes but gave up and continued into the night. After a few more miles up the canyon, with stretches through chest-deep pools, came to a junction and searched for hikers in both directions. The exhaustion was getting to her with hallucinations of tents that were actually boulders or branches.
Finally, Briggs was able to rouse campers perched atop a nearby bluff by blowing her emergency whistle. She gave them the location of their missing party and sent them to assist Merritt, sitting patiently five miles away.
“It’s just this crazy rollercoaster,” she said. “I get lost and I’m down. Then I run into people so I’m up. But then I realize I have to keep going then I’m down again and it’s really hard because I’m all by myself, unlike the other guys I ran into.”
Briggs still had a long road ahead of her until she reached the campground at the trailhead (seven miles to be exact). Hiking alone at night skewed her senses, making it hard to keep track of distance. Eventually driven by exhaustion, she came to a little rock clearing and decided to rest.
Awakened by the rising sun, Briggs was surprised to realize she reached the end of the narrows and had only four miles to go. Upon arriving, she was welcomed and treated by several campers.
Almost 17 hours after Merritt was first stuck, Briggs finally contacted 911 for Search and Rescue. A helicopter was dispatched to extract Merritt from the canyon soon after she was successfully pulled from the quicksand. The two campers Briggs sent to aid her spent hours digging a six-foot radial trench to alleviate the sand’s pressure on Merritt’s leg.
Months later, on Nov. 8, 2018, Briggs was contacted and presented an Award for Valor by Pipe Spring Superintendent Fred Armstrong and SUU’s President Wyatt. The acknowledgment was a perfectly timed blessing, giving Briggs the courage to finish out a particularly rough semester.
“[President Wyatt] looked at me really sincerely and said, ‘is there anything I can do for you?’” She remembered with a smile. “He’s done that hike before so I really felt supported… I can say that I feel like he’s got my back and who else could say that about their president? Only people at SUU.”
When first given the award and attention, Briggs expressed that she felt she didn’t deserve it, seeing the experience as a team effort in keeping Merritt alive. Despite her personal beliefs, when all is said and done, many would agree that Briggs is more deserving than most for the words printed on her award:
“Demonstrating the strength of mind and spirit that enabled her to encounter danger with firmness and personal bravery.”
Story By: Ansleigh Mikesell
Photos Courtesy of Drea Briggs