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    Stranded in the Grand Canyon, my OCS training saved my life

    Stranded in the Grand Canyon, my OCS training saved my life

    Photo By Capt. Travis Mueller | U.S. Army 2nd Lt. Aubrey Stuber takes in the view while on a backpacking trip through...... read more read more



    Courtesy Story

    Joint Force Headquarters - Pennsylvania National Guard

    (First-hand account by 2nd Lt. Aubrey Stuber, intelligence officer with the 628th Aviation Support Battalion, 28th Expeditionary Combat Aviation Brigade)

    I joined the Army because I wasn’t satisfied being on the sidelines and thought service in uniform was one of the best ways to contribute to my community and country. Ultimately, I knew the Officer Candidate School offered at Fort Indiantown Gap would be a rewarding way to achieve that goal.

    However, I never imagined just how rewarding the program would be. In no uncertain terms, my Army training saved my life and the lives of five others.

    Throughout the year-long OCS program, the cadre pushed me and other officer candidates as we worked to become Army officers. There was a heavy emphasis on infantry tactics and field exercises in preparation for the final leg of OCS where we needed to successfully lead squad-level missions to graduate. To be frank, I did not think I would use those skills again for many months after. Turns out, it wouldn't be long at all.

    Just two weeks after commissioning, I was put to the test in real life during a backpacking trip in the Grand Canyon.

    On Saturday, Aug. 21, 2021, I set out on a five-day 35-mile backpacking trip with five others, including my sister, cousin, cousin's wife and two family friends. Just days before the trip, the National Park Service changed our hiking permit to a new route because of recent rains. This new route, we soon learned, had not been traveled since those rains impacted the region, destroying one section of the trail.

    Looking back, here was my first mistake. I had a hands-off approach to the itinerary (I was so focused on commissioning truth be told), but I know one of the most valuable steps of the Troop Leading Procedures is reconnaissance.

    Having our route changed days before our trip was reason for concern, but we knew the park rangers had our best interest in mind. Unfortunately, no one could have predicted what we were heading into.

    Our group of six set off with plenty of food and five liters of water each. Given the Arizona heat, the new route was planned according to water sources - two per day - and distances that could be covered even while avoiding hiking at the hottest times.

    That is, until a rockslide derailed those plans our second morning.

    We watched a beautiful sunrise in the Grand Canyon, then packed up our gear and continued on. Our next water source was about two miles in front of us (compared to roughly five miles behind us), so when we rounded a turn and found a steep, washed out section of the trail, we paused but ultimately decided to keep moving forward. We had to remove our packs and use the rope we had to carefully descend one at a time, letting the person behind us know what rocks we could trust.

    After navigating down that particularly steep, washed out section of the trail, our group came around a boulder previously blocking our view further down the mountain. Immediately, we knew we were in a bad spot. Behind us, a nearly vertical climb. In front of us, nothing but loose rocks from an apparent rockslide roughly 50 meters wide and 400 meters in length.

    The trail was gone.

    We didn’t have enough rope to get back up and we couldn’t trust many rocks with our weight. Not wanting to risk anyone injuring themselves trying to climb back up, we carefully forged ahead one at a time, attempting to find the trail again to no avail.

    After moving a few hundred meters down the mountain, we mistakenly thought we found the trail again. Instead, we found ourselves on the edge of a dangerous drop off. Unable to go any further and with the sun rising, we found the only shady spot and hunkered down to conserve energy. The movement was strenuous, and it depleted our energy and water reserves - I was the only one with water left at just 1.5 liters. With such little water left between six people, we couldn’t afford to waste previous energy forging back up the mountain to find a new route. At this point, my Army training was being used in full force.

    Once the sun set, I sent out a reconnaissance team and established a new ‘patrol base’ to regroup and make a plan. The flattest area we could find was a large rock that was also adjacent to the vertical drop off. Space between slabs of rock provided cool shade to protect us from the sun and the flat surface enabled us to signal for help - there were helicopters periodically flying over the Canyon.

    I pulled out my rite in the rain notebook (the same one from Phase 3) and began writing logs of the times we saw helicopters and what they looked like, all while we signaled for help with our reflective gear. Once the last helicopter circled the Canyon without noticing us, I used a chem-light to signal the center of the patrol base. Then, I instructed our group to bed down at 6 p.m. to conserve energy and restricted our water consumption to zero until the following morning.

    Before sunrise the next day, Monday, Aug. 23, I made a list of ‘priorities of work’ including clearing brush/cacti to lay out a large orange sheet to signal for help and creating a barrier (using rocks, cacti, anything we could find) on the edge of the drop off so no one would wander unsafely off the edge. My cousin’s wife, who is a medical professional, helped us sort food by levels of sodium to reduce dehydration. Once that was completed, we used an electrolyte tablet in roughly a half-liter of water and shared just sips of water each as the day’s allotted hydration. That gave us one liter left. Then we prepared our spots to remain cool as best we could.

    Worried about expending energy, I kept telling everyone to essentially put their bodies in airplane mode.

    Starting at 8 a.m., I continued to track helicopter patterns and we would all emerge from the shade to signal them whenever they came nearby.

    By 1 p.m., after almost two days of rationing food, water, and energy and unsuccessful attempts to signal helicopters in our vicinity (we had hope at first they saw us because they were nearby, but we realized that they came at 15 minute intervals, so we assumed we just happened to be near the Grand Canyon helicopter tour path), it became clear park rangers were unaware of our location or that we were in distress.

    That is when panic really set in. We were dangerously low on water, no rescue effort was underway to come help us and we were officially in charge of our own fate.

    I remember being wedged between two slabs of rock to keep cool, thinking that I didn't want to attempt the climb because it was too risky. I kept imagining myself falling backwards and getting injured.

    Then eventually I heard the voice of one of my OCS cadre saying, "I'm going to be so mad at you if you don't even try to survive this." I knew we were approaching a crucial tipping point - if someone was going to hike out, it had to happen now.

    Knowing others in the group were looking to me for our next move, I decided that I would attempt to climb back up the rockslide, retrace the trail and get help.

    I repacked my ruck with only the necessities to reduce weight: a woobie, empty water bladders, medical supplies, minimal food (a stroopwafel, pack of peanut butter and a cliff bar), my headlight, a gerber and a few other small items.

    With a little less than a liter of water left, we split it - .4 liters for me to get to the closest water source and roughly .5 liters for the remaining five hikers to finish the following morning. I also had about .3 liters of filtered urine, just in case. Then we all gathered and said a prayer. Leaving a five-point contingency plan (known to us as a GOTWA), I took the two who were in the best condition with me as my 'security element' to scale back up the rockslide so they could have eyes on me getting to the top uninjured. One of them became too exhausted just getting to the base of the rockslide and he couldn’t continue on, leaving it to me and one other.

    In Phase 3 of OCS, we were taught to always have a security element. Beyond having them there to see me safely reach the top of the rockslide, I wanted to take someone with me for the entire journey (the buddy system had been drilled into us). We ultimately decided against it. It was a tough decision to go alone, but everyone’s physical condition was already deteriorating and we simply didn’t have the water.

    Trying to find rocks I could trust was the hardest part, but the initial climb was mostly physical. Then we got to the base of the near vertical section with few foot and hand-holds, and that was physical and mental - there were some literal leaps of faith that day. Using the other hiker there to give guidance on where to place my hands and feet since it was hard to look straight up with my pack (an uncomfortable truth I came to know during OCS low-crawling with my ruck), I made it to the top by the grace of God and a few sturdy rocks.

    At the top, I could look down and see our patrol base. I called to my cousin and reminded him of a critical part of my GOTWA - if he didn't hear from me or a rescuer by the following day they should leave all their gear and attempt the climb as well. I had promised to meet them along their journey with water. As a last resort, he was also prepared to start a fire.

    I specifically remember not saying goodbye to anyone on purpose. I didn't want to stress anyone out, myself included. I just casually said, "If I don't make it to the top of the rockslide, I'll be back in a couple hours. But if I do make it to the top, I'll see you tomorrow with some water!" I really tried to be a reassuring voice. Before disappearing out of sight, I yelled back, "I'll do everything I can to help, I promise." My voice broke at the end. It was the most hopeless feeling leaving them stuck down there with barely any water.

    Now, it was a race against the setting sun to get to the water source miles away. Almost immediately, muscle cramps and headaches set in. That level of physical strain was a challenge I learned to push through during our 12-mile ruck training in OCS.

    I had the voices of all my OCS cadre running through my head telling me to not give up no matter what. I started to think of worst case scenarios - having to tell my family I made it out alive but it was too late for my sister and the others. I knew I had to keep moving my legs.

    Hiking during the cooler hours of the evening with little weight, I made good progress. I knew my pace count from land navigation and took a sip of water every mile. I arrived at the water point right as the trail became difficult to see with the setting sun. Whether from exhaustion or relief, or both, I momentarily passed out when I arrived. When I came to, it was dark and I grabbed my headlight. The water spring was only dripping from the top of the cave, so I used my hands to funnel water into the filter bit by bit. It was almost comical how little water dripped down, blown around by the slightest wind, but I was so relieved. My attention quickly turned to rescuing my family.

    I thought about filtering water throughout the night and returning to them first thing in the morning, but I knew the best way to help them was to notify park rangers. I couldn’t do it alone.

    After hydrating, I pulled out my trusted woobie and slept on the ground of the alcove with bats flying overhead throughout the night. I had my gerber in hand since I was at the only water source for miles and could hear coyotes in the distance.

    I genuinely laughed at the prospect of having to fight off an animal (my food was hung in a tree a distance away). Thankfully, that didn’t come to fruition.

    The next morning, Tuesday, Aug. 24, I woke up and began the 1,400 foot switchback ascent out of the Grand Canyon at first light. As I raced to get help, I knew the rest of our group was likely taking their last sips of water.

    On the final leg of the trail back to the rim of the Canyon, just 30 minutes from the top, I ran into two hikers. I call them my “trail angels.” After explaining the situation, I asked one of them to turn around and quickly return to the top and notify park rangers I was coming to give them the location of my group. The other one stayed with me.

    Soon thereafter, I was using terrain association to show park rangers and the pilot exactly where the other five were stranded. The Grand Canyon Emergency Services then used a helicopter to drop water to the group around 9 a.m., which was unfortunately dropped out of reach of the group. Soon after though, around 1 p.m., they inserted a park ranger to give them water and help them evacuate.

    By this time, severe effects of dehydration were setting in, one person appearing to have a panic attack and other members of the group unable to stand to greet the park ranger. The park ranger was candid: our situation could have been much worse if we didn’t work together as a team. After a few hours of letting the group hydrate and finding where to pick up the trail, the park ranger took the gear I left behind and was able to lead the group to a flat area where the helicopter could safely get them out.

    (I still joke they all owe me a private helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon since I had to hike out.)

    When I was still waiting for the helicopter to deliver the group water and get them out, the first person I actually spoke to was Capt. Kristopher Mall, my senior platoon training officer from OCS. I told him that I would have been dead if it wasn’t for the training he and other cadre provided. I meant it then, and I still mean it today.

    When I was reunited with the group around 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 24, I heard what they experienced after I left. The group told me that they didn't know if I was alive until they asked the park ranger who rescued them if “someone named Aubrey” was the reason the helicopter found them. When the park ranger replied that I had in fact made it out that morning, they all cheered and shed tears of relief.

    Many of us had cuts, bruises and lingering headaches, but thankfully no major injuries. Afterwards, we had a few days in Arizona to fully recover, which is when I finished writing down all of my thoughts and lessons learned in my notebook. Later that week when I flew home to Pennsylvania and saw my mom, the first thing she said was, "I told you not to die." To which I replied, "Well, it wasn't pretty, but I listened."

    In the end, I learned a lot of lessons. I’ll be the first to admit we made mistakes, and if you’re thinking this was avoidable I don’t blame you. We should have invested in GPS technology to send distress signals. We should have brought better tools to signal helicopters. We should have researched the new trail better. But we didn’t, and life will throw some unexpected challenges at you sometimes. That’s why we need to be physically and mentally prepared - I have OCS to thank for that.

    Each step of the way, figuratively and literally, I was incredibly grateful for the Army training I had. Without it, I don’t think I’d be here to tell this story. Not to mention, my cousin and his wife are now even expecting their first child. What a blessing!

    I wanted to share this story because I hope it serves as a reminder to fellow Soldiers and future Soldiers that our training transcends beyond the hangar, drill pad or motor pool. Each and every one of us has the capacity to help others through what we’ve learned in the Army, and we never know when we might be called upon to use it.

    For me? Well, I’m sure glad I decided to raise my right hand (and my family is too).



    Date Taken: 04.19.2022
    Date Posted: 04.19.2022 00:35
    Story ID: 418727

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