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Marble Canyon Adventure October 2010

By John and Becky Cortesy

Marble bridge
The bridges over Marble Canyon one mile from our camp.

We recently bought a used RV and wanted to get one trip in before the winter. We spent five weeks working on the RV, getting it ready to go to Marble Canyon, Arizona, over the Columbus Day weekend. We had a few problems including a forced landing in the trike at a spot 12 miles from the nearest road just before dark. We had no emergency kit, not even a flashlight, and the cell phone was useless.

Thursday, October 7, we headed out but found the refrigerator won’t work on the RV. We finally located a mobile RV repair service and got it fixed. But the stop threw us off schedule by three hours, so we didn’t make it to Marble Canyon on Thursday as planned. A friend from Holbrook, Arizona, told us to spend the night at the airport, as it would be quiet. So we pulled into the airport, then heard fire trucks with their sirens on roaming around the airport like they were searching for someone. They left for the other side of town. Did someone run away? Was it an evacuation from the nearby power plant? We just didn’t know. Two hours of sirens. We finally got used to the sirens and fell asleep. We Googled Holbrook, Arizona, the next day and found out it was Fire Prevention Week; the fire department was giving rides to any people outside their homes. Thus, the roaming around town and blaring sirens!

Marble Canyon
Our camp at Marble Canyon, Arizona

We got to Marble Canyon late Friday afternoon in time to unload the trike and set it up. John took a solo flight to see the area and check engine temperatures. Everything looked good. Saturday morning we flew about 1.5 hours up to Page, Arizona, over to Lake Powell, around the horseshoe in the Colorado River a couple times, then down the canyon to the cliff dwellers. The trike climbed well and temps looked good.

Glen Canyon Dam
Glen Canyon Dam at the southern end of Lake Powell

Saturday evening Elijah Tate joined us flying south to the Grand Canyon to see the big hole in the ground. The trike climbed poorly. We wrote it off to high-density altitude due to temperature and humidity. The engine sounded fine and the temps looked great. We made 10,000 feet for the canyon flyover and flew from the north rim to the south rim with a ground speed of 80 mph. The flight over the canyon was awesome, but it was cold as $#*& up there! We crossed back to the north rim in a descending glide at a ground speed of 38 mph. It was getting colder and darker, and we wanted to make good time getting back before it got too dark.

We met up with Elijah at 6,500 feet and were taking pictures of each other when we heard a pop and the engine started running ragged. Something was out of sync. The vibration was rough but not severe enough to cut the engine. Even though we had partial power, it wasn’t enough to maintain altitude. We were now about 2,500 feet above the ground.

Marble Canyon
View headed back to Marble Canyon and our camp

John radioed to Elijah that we were going down and started looking for the flattest, least bushy area to set the trike down. We circled one-and-a-half times (funny that we couldn’t have told you that without seeing the tracking on the GPS), and it only took about one to two minutes to get to the ground. John kept the front end high while scrubbing off as much speed as possible before we hit the brush. It was the shortest ground roll ever. A spark plug had popped from the engine head and was dangling on its wire still sparking in vain.

Elijah circled overhead and then flew to a house he saw off in the distance. He radioed back that it wasn’t too far to the east of us and we could probably walk to it. Oh, by the way, we didn’t have a flashlight, matches, water, food, anything. John took the emergency kit out a long time ago. We sure could have used it now! It was getting dark and cold and we were 12 miles from the nearest road according to the GPS which only had a 30-minute battery life. John’s cell phone was practically useless. We were headed east on a two-track dirt road. A sliver of a moon came up and then immediately went down again.

We walked for about three miles until it was so dark we couldn’t see. We would never find the unlit house in the dark, we thought. Now we decided to head back to the trike. Thank goodness we marked the trike as a waypoint on the GPS, because without it we would have really been in a world of hurt. You couldn’t even see the brush that you were walking into – it was that dark. Becky used her camera as a flashlight when we really needed to pick our way back through the thick brush. Man, was it work. We held hands as we walked to keep each other from falling when we tripped. It took us about 40 minutes to go the 1.2 miles back to the trike. Every five to ten minutes John would turn on the GPS and get a heading to the trike and pick out a star to follow.

Elijah knew the general area that we were in, but as dark as it was, we didn’t think he would be able to find us. We called on the emergency frequency 121.5 to see if anyone was listening. A United Airlines flight (at 40,000 feet) heard the call, and John gave him our coordinates. The pilot said that he would relay them to Denver Center and that help would be on the way. So we waited. After a while, another plane flew overhead low and slow. We turned the radio back on and heard him talking on the emergency frequency, so we flashed the strobes on the trike. The pilot radioed that he saw us and was with civil air patrol and had our position. Then he left. So we waited and looked at the stars. Becky spotted a vehicle’s lights off in the distance. We turned the strobes on. The lights disappeared. We were wearing our headsets and helmets to keep our heads warm, and Becky said that she thought  she heard a car horn.

We were facing north sitting in the trike and Becky’s back was hurting  so we got out to stand up for awhile. That’s when we saw flashing lights from the south. It looked like someone was in a canyon waving a flashlight around. We couldn’t see the light itself, just the beams waving across the dark sky. Then we heard an engine, and a truck popped over the ridge. We turned the strobes on and left them on until the truck’s headlights were illuminating the trike. Rescued, what a relief! It was Elijah, Dave, and Mark. They brought food and water, too. The waving lights were Elijah’s bouncing headlights as his truck crashed through the brush making roads where there were none. We secured the trike and got in the truck to drive 1.5 hours back to our campground.

Sunday we went back to get the trike. It only took us six hours to get in and out with the trike. The forced landing location was 36.7 miles from our camp and 12.8 miles from the nearest road. We noticed on the way in for the retrieval that the power lines stopped a couple of miles in from the road. The houses that were scattered across the mesa had no power unless they ran generators. That’s why when the sun went down and the moon disappeared we didn’t have any house lights to guide us to our target. The people living there were off the grid. Even with a heading from the GPS we could have walked right past the house in total darkness if we deviated 1 degree over the 5 or 6 miles between us and the house we were walking toward.

John and Becky
John and Becky Cortesy

Becky adds this: All in all, I knew we would be fine; people knew where we were, we had on the best weather gear for spending the night, we got to see an amazing night sky, and I got my walking in for the day. Back when John said we were headed east to the house Elijah spotted, I said we should stay with the plane, but we were in our bed by midnight as John had promised me. Dave Dixon mentioned earlier in the day, when everyone was sitting around at camp, that when you get married, there are only two phrases a man needs to know: “Yes, Dear” and “I’m sorry.” John, “Yes, Dear” was appropriate for staying at the trike, and “I’m sorry” was appropriate for leaving the trike and not having an emergency kit.

John, you were amazing, and I was so glad we were together for this adventure. You’re my hero and I’d do a forced landing with you anytime! Footnote: We have an emergency kit now.

This video Flying Marble Canyon has some great views of the area and was produced the same weekend as John and Becky’s adventure.

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