Last July, family friends of mine Dennis Carter and his sons Sam and Ben made a trip to Moab for a quick and needed vacation. Dennis almost died.
As an avid mountain biker, Dennis would visit Moab with my father every few years when I was younger for weeklong excursions. They never took me on those trips, but the joke is on them now because I get to go biking in Moab whenever I want.
The first night the Carters were in town, we went on a quick ride before sunset at Slickrock. We started in on the full loop, but a wave of fatigue hit me a few miles in. We turned around at the base of the hill up to the zipline area.
It was no big deal; we had planned to get in our big ride the next day. Slickrock was just a warmup.
Dennis pitched the idea of doing the Whole Enchilada. It would have been my first time doing it, so I didn’t have any great insight on whether it was a good or bad idea.
What I did know was that a local shuttle company’s website showed five open seats for a ride the next morning, and we needed four. I booked them, and we made plans to meet up at the departure location the next morning.
I realized on my way to the shuttle pick-up that I had forgotten (of all things) to refill my water after the ride the evening before. I decided not to turn around because surely, I thought, there would be a spigot or water cooler or something at the meet-up or on the mountain.
There was no water.
Dennis and the boys arrived just as the shuttle started leaving the parking lot. They got their bikes on; we all masked up and climbed into the back row; Dennis started chatting up the passengers who were going up with us.
At the drop-off, I looked around again for an opportunity to fill up my bladder and my hydration pack. To nobody’s surprise, there was no running water at the top of the mountain.
There actually was running water, but it was in a stream we crossed early in the ride. I joked to Sam and Ben about filling up my pack. The junior EMS responders reminded me that we didn’t have any iodine for purifying the creek water, so I shouldn’t do that.
I also broke the news to them around that same time that my back brake was no longer working. It seemed squishy at the start of the ride and eventually bled all the way out, leaving me with only my front brake functioning — a perfect setup to flip myself over my handlebars.
Sometime before Hazard County, Ben started asking about an easier way down the trail. We got to the Forest Service road that leads to Sand Flats; he gave me the rest of his water; Dennis, Sam, and I continued on without him.
The three of us stopped at the Castle Valley overlook at the start of Porcupine Rim, the last opportunity for getting off the Whole Enchilada before the bottom of the trail, nine miles later. I let Dennis and Sam know that we were either getting to the end the hard way or the easy way.
We went the hard way. Within two miles, we ran out of water.
The July heat and lack of water quickly hit us. Dennis and Sam got to walking their bikes up moderate climbs.
With about six miles left, Dennis proposed that I leave him and Sam behind and make a run down the trail for water, as I was obviously in much better condition than they were. I’m not sure how clearly he was thinking at that point or what precisely his plan entailed, but his thought had also crossed my mind earlier, so we went with it.
I bombed the trail like I had no rear brakes because indeed I didn’t. I was flying also because I knew Dennis was seriously struggling, though Sam was fine. Dennis, who had been all about a conversation with the medical school student next to us in the shuttle, wasn’t really saying anything once we ran out of water.
I just caught sight of the group with that same medical student when my trail bombing crashed to a halt. I flipped myself over my handlebars.
Somehow uninjured, I dusted myself off and told the group about Dennis and Sam’s situation. I got a bottle of hot water off them and chugged it down, unsure whether it would help or hurt my situation. It seemed to be hotter than my insides.
Frankly, though, I was fine. The lack of water felt to me inconvenient rather than dangerous. My concerns about Dennis were more severe.
I twisted my handlebar back into place, thanked the group for the water, and continued bombing.
Once I reached the trailhead, I approached the first occupied campsite I found. I let the couple I found know that I had a dehydrated, middle-aged man and his son up the trail. The couple had a large enough supply of water to fill some empty bottles for me. They gave me some ice to boot.
I abandoned my bike and started walking up the trail toward my dying friend and his son. I was concerned that my walking wouldn’t shorten their journey to water by much, but I had too much energy to simply wait around.
A half-mile in, I stopped underneath a big rock, exhausted. I wasn’t dying, but I didn’t want to start dying. I just needed a breath.
Sam soon turned the corner, walking his bike downhill. His father followed. Dennis was down bad.
Dennis seemingly needed to stop moving more than he needed water. He eventually drank, and I gave him the ice to cool him down. He put the bag on his neck, but it unraveled, and the ice cubes fell out into the sand.
He picked up the now-gritty pieces and put them on his chest and neck. He unceremoniously popped a few into his mouth. He was not in a good state.
I shared my plan to bike into town, pick up my car, grab some supplies, and return with them. Sam, the only one between them present qualified to think or listen, okayed it. I let him know that there were campsites only a half-mile downhill, where they could beg for water and cool down in the river in the meantime.
The roughly five-mile ride back to my car was easy enough. I plotted what to buy from City Market before returning to Grandstaff. I ended up finding frozen fruit where I expected to find popsicles, but I went with it.
I found Dennis splayed on a park table when I returned. Sam was sitting next to him, nursing a bottle of water. I gave Dennis a Gatorade, one of the frozen fruit bags, and some nuts. He slowly began returning to life.
The air-conditioned ride home brought Dennis back to full consciousness. He was punch-drunk by that point. We all were. He relayed the story of dropping his drawers to go diarrhea in the wash a few minutes after I had left them with the ice and water — a classic sign of severe dehydration.
As we got out of the car at the hotel, Sam and I stood behind as Dennis retrieved his things from the back of my car. We spotted a bit of dried diarrhea on the back of his leg. Dennis caught on to our snickering. He joined in when he realized what was so funny.
Ben had reached the hotel room hours before and was already out on the town when we got back.
In the evening, we were in the middle of a Mario Kart Wii race in the Carters’s hotel room when we heard distant explosions outside. We all realized together that it was Independence Day.
We stayed in and ate pizza. Dennis and the boys stayed some extra nights to recover and do some actual relaxation.