COTTONWOOD HEIGHTS — With her energy waning and no idea how to get back to the trail she knew, Dawn Rohde watched an afternoon thunderstorm roll across the sky above Little Cottonwood Canyon and decided her best chance at escaping disaster was to make her way toward a road she could see below her.
“I was going through the brush, so I didn’t really see what was ahead of me,” the 41-year-old Cottonwood Heights woman said. “I wanted to focus on the road, and then all of a sudden there was that river. And it was getting dark, so I lost my footing.”
Rohde slid down the side of a cliff leading to the river, bruising her left arm and wrist in the fall. Luckily, she was wearing spikes on her running shoes, and that’s what she used to stop herself from sliding all the way down the ravine and into the river.
“The only time I was scared was when I was going down, and I could have fallen to my death going into that river,” Rohde told KSL on Sunday afternoon. “I couldn’t see anymore because it was getting dark, so I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to stay here tonight.’”
Sunburned and still exhausted two days after being rescued following 36 hours in Utah’s backcountry, Rohde detailed how a holiday trail run turned into a harrowing overnight ordeal, beginning with a decision to leave the well-marked trail she’d planned to run the morning of July 4.
I gotta get off this mountain. I want to go home. I was thinking about hitchhiking home. I want to go home and take a shower. I want to sleep in my bed.
Dawn Rohde began trail running a few years ago after a mountain biking accident. Her husband, David, said they chose to buy a home in Cottonwood Heights because of its proximity to dozens of picturesque mountain trails. On Thursday morning, she set out to explore Red Pine Lake and White Pine trails with no particular time or mileage in mind. She told her husband where she was headed, and he reminded her what they had planned for that afternoon.
“He told me all the plans we had for the day that we had to get back for, and I didn’t want to miss the fireworks,” she said. “We have awesome fireworks on our block. Unfortunately I missed that.”
Rohde started out on Red Pine Lake trailhead, a route she’d run in various seasons and was very familiar with, but she decided to venture onto Maybird Trail, a trail she’d wanted to explore, but hadn’t, when she ran into another runner headed that way.
“I went off that way, and it was more secluded, and I liked that,” she said sitting in a sundress that showed the sunburn she suffered on her arms and legs while lost on Thursday and Friday of last week. “There was a lot of traffic on Fourth of July coming up on Red Pine.”
She said she wasn’t very familiar with the AllTrails App she was trying to use on her phone, and she hadn’t downloaded that trail map. It was less well marked, and more rugged, and she quickly fell behind the hiker she’d been following.
“I kind of got lost with the patches of snow up there,” she said. “And I didn’t really know where to go because the trail wasn’t very clear, and it wasn’t very well marked.” She couldn’t keep up with the other runner, so she told him to go ahead and she followed his tracks through the snow. That led her to the lake, but once she got there, she lost his tracks. Eventually, she decided to turn around and follow the same route back to the original trail, something her husband advised her to do as she’s been lost on trail runs or hikes in the past.
“But the snow had lots of footprints, and then the scenery changed from morning and the colors became more vibrant in the afternoon,” she said, acknowledging she got disoriented. “So I just kind of lost my way going back down. I actually ended up going in a circle. … Then I remember seeing that road, and I was like, ‘Road! People! I could hitchhike back!’ So I started trying to head to the road, trying to find my way back to civilization.”
She began making her way to the road, tromping through dense foliage, when she suddenly found herself on the edge of a “cliff” that led to a deep, fast-moving river. She said she lost her footing, and fell backward, and had to use the spikes she’d velcroed over her running shoes to stop her from falling all the way down the mountainside into the frigid water.
She felt exhausted and the ominous dark clouds began dumping rain and sleet on the mountains. The lightning and thunder concerned her, but she was more worried about being wet, cold and without food or water.
She took the thin reflective plastic blanket from her running pack and “hunkered down” next to a large pine tree. As darkness took over, she focused on trying to keep her feet and legs warm, and thought about the pizza she’d like to eat with her husband.
“I gotta get off this mountain,” she said. “I want to go home. I was thinking about hitchhiking home. I want to go home and take a shower. I want to sleep in my bed.”
Rohde never felt like her life was in danger after stopping herself from falling into the river. In fact, she felt rescue so close so many times, it was a bit maddening.
First, that afternoon, after David Rohde and his family became convinced she was lost, they called police. Dawn Rohde said police called her cellphone, but when she tried to answer, the battery life was too low to answer.
Then, as she huddled under that silver blanket in the night, she could hear people camping nearby, and she yelled to them. She set of an alarm she carried, hoping someone might hear it. She also used that alarm to scare animals she saw or heard approaching her during the night.
In the end, she concluded, the river was just too loud, and even in the stillest part of the night, campers didn’t hear her calls for help.
“It was so frustrating,” she said, her voice almost a whisper. “It was like so close but so far away.”
Rohde couldn’t sleep at all during the night.
“I slept more during the day,” she said. “I just had to make sure I was warm. … I was up against a tree, and that helped protect me.”
She kept her mind busy thinking about her husband, about keeping warm, and about what she would eat when she got home. What she didn’t imagine was the number of people who’d mobilized in the night and early morning to search for her, including the Wasatch Mountain Wranglers, a group of trail runners, members of her Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints ward, and Salt Lake County Sheriff's Search and Rescue.
“I didn’t realize it,” she said, her voice softening. “I was very grateful, very appreciative for all the support I got from all the helpers and all the volunteers, more than I expected. Very grateful. And I want to say, kids don’t try this at home.”
The next morning, she began searching for a way to cross the river so she could get to the road.
“There was a fallen tree, and I thought maybe if I could just push that tree over, maybe I could walk across,” she said, noting that her situation felt more dire because she lost both of her water bottles. “But that was way too dangerous. And my energy level was already down.”
She made her way to a clearing where she tried to use the reflective blanket to signal to helicopters she assumed were looking for her. She heard people at a campsite, and this time she used a whistle that she carried, but it also didn’t bring rescue.
After several hours, she saw a father and daughter hiking on the other side of the river. They used hand signals to communicate — her asking for help crossing the water and him letting her know he was going for help.
Friends from her neighborhood arrived shortly after that and threw water and food to her while she waited for search and rescue volunteers. They used a helicopter to pluck her off the mountainside, where she was taken by car and reunited with her family.
David Rohde said he knew his wife was determined and tough, and they’d discussed what to do if she was lost in the mountains. He said he doesn’t expect her to give up her passion, but he might invest in technology that would track her and alert him if she ever became hurt or lost on an outing. She said trail running gives her peace and brings her joy. She may find friends to run with or limit her adventures to places she’s more familiar with in the immediate future, but she has no plans to give up the sport.
“I’m grateful it’s not as bad as it could be,” she said, acknowledging, she’d take more food on any trail run in the future. “I’m grateful I’m here.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Dawn Rohde became lost in Big Cottonwood Canyon. She was hiking in Little Cottonwood Canyon.