It was Valentine’s Day 2019 when Ryan Osmun, a 34-year-old from Mesa, Arizona, and his girlfriend, Jessika McNeill, decided to hike the Subway, a remote, semi-technical slot canyon trail in Utah’s Zion National Park. Well into their trip, Osmun stepped in a tiny patch of quicksand that completely swallowed his leg. As a winter storm moved in, McNeill had to make a desperate hike out of the canyon to find help while Osmun tried to stay alive, stuck in an icy riverbed as more and more snow fell.
Here is Osmun’s story, as told to Outside.
We’d hiked in Zion before this, but not the Subway. I figured it would be a long day—five hours in, five hours out. And the weather was sunny when we started. At the beginning of the hike, we found a stick that was about six feet long and took it with us to poke into the ground whenever we crossed water to make sure it was okay to step there.
As we hiked, snow started lightly sprinkling off and on. About five miles in, we had to walk through a pond. Less than five feet from the edge, Jessika’s front foot sunk. Then she fell forward, and both legs started to sink. I told her to stop moving and not to freak out, and then I went to help. I got her by the shoulders and pulled her out. That’s when I felt my leg sinking in. I didn’t pay attention to what was going on; I figured I’d just pull it out.
When Jessika got to shore, my right leg sank all the way to my thigh. It was also up to my left calf, and I was able to free it. The ground that sunk was just a tiny area around me, but I couldn’t move my right leg at all. I couldn’t even stand to get leverage to pull on it. Jess gave me the stick. I jammed it down the side of my leg. She got another stick, and I tried to wiggle and pull my leg, but nothing was moving at all.
She started scooping sand with both hands, but it was refilling faster than she could pull it out. Her entire body was soaking wet. I told her she had to stop; she was wasting her energy. I was not going to be able to get out of the sand.
It was just us. There was no cell reception. And I knew no one would ever come across us until the next person hiked the canyon, and who knows when that would have been. Jessika was afraid we were going to die.
I told her she had to leave. I didn’t know what would happen, but I didn’t want to think that she wouldn’t be able to get out.
About a half-hour after she left, it started snowing like crazy. That’s when I thought that I probably was not going to make it out of here.
I was wearing a big jacket that would keep me warm for a while. I pulled my beanie over my face and zipped my jacket all the way up so I could pull my head inside. The stick had a Y shape at the end that I was able to rest on. The snow lasted 30 or 40 minutes. When I pulled my head up out of my jacket, there was close to an inch of snow on top of me. Then the skies cleared up, and it was actually kind of nice for a couple hours.
It started snowing again and didn’t seem like it was going to stop. I pulled my head back into my jacket and fell asleep. I don’t know how long I was asleep, but I woke up falling backwards into the water. It had been about five hours since Jess left, and it was getting dark. I figured if they were bringing a helicopter to pull me out, it would have been there by now. Sitting in the water, I tried to get up but couldn’t. I had no energy. So I pulled my hands into my jacket sleeves, which were basically frozen, and grabbed the stick, which was still stuck in the ground, and pulled myself up. I knew that if I fell back in, I wouldn’t be able to pull myself back out.
At that point, I was soaking wet and knew I wasn’t going to make it. I started to think about what I could do to die faster. But I didn’t want to drown if I fell again. That would be the worst way to go.
I just thought about my family and tried to remember the last time I’d seen them. I fell asleep again, then woke up when I thought I heard people. I pulled my head out of my jacket to look and saw snow piling up on the sleeve. I could barely get my head back into my jacket because it was starting to freeze. That’s when a light came across my closed eyes. I figured it was nothing, but the light moved more, so I pulled my head out. It was definitely a flashlight.
I started yelling for help. The rescuer, Tim, started yelling back to me. He ran up to where I was and strapped himself onto the rocks to make sure he didn’t sink. I asked who contacted him. He said it was Jessika and told me she made it out and was okay. She fainted right after making the emergency call, but they were able to find her. She showed them a picture of where I was. It took Tim three hours to get to me. The rest of his crew was an hour behind.
At first, he attached a pulley system around my waist, with the other end on a gigantic rock. When he started ratcheting, I was screaming because it was so painful. He had on a drysuit and began to dig around my leg but realized it was going nowhere. Then he secured the rest of the area and waited for his crew.
They had to pull me out by my leg. Tim explained to me that the machine pulls at three pounds per square inch, so it would get me out, but he didn’t know what it would do to my leg. I didn’t really care at that point.
Two guys held me under each of my shoulders, and Tim scooted a strap all the way to my kneecap. My leg was so cold—every time he touched my skin, it felt like the most jagged knife going into it. He dug as fast as he could while another person ratcheted. It felt like a crazy amount of pressure ripping my whole leg off. Tim got his hand around my ankle and just started pulling up, and I felt it moving. I screamed to keep going. After about three more ratchets, my leg was out of the ground. I felt all the pressure release, and they dragged me to the side of the canyon. I couldn’t feel my leg at all.
I was so cold. I hugged one of the rescuers for five minutes for warmth. They got me into a sleeping bag with some heating pads. Within 15 minutes, my body was back to normal temperature, but my leg was still frozen.
That’s when I asked them to radio in and tell Jessika I was okay. It was dark, and the weather was too bad for a helicopter. They gave me an IV and some strong pain medication, and we settled in for the night. When I woke up at 6:00 the next morning, there was six inches of snow over the top of my sleeping bag, and it was still coming down. We sat there for three or four hours. When it finally cleared up, around noon, they called in a helicopter.
When I got to the hospital in St. George, they brought in Jessika, and we both started crying. I couldn’t stop thanking her and telling her how strong and brave she was.
I wanted to look at my leg when the doctor came in. It was really swollen; the whole thing was the size of my thigh. They x-rayed it and found no fractures or breaks or anything. “This is honestly not too bad,” the doctor told me. He wanted me to try walking on it. Jessika held me up, and I walked on it. Everything was fine.
The mental recovery has been much harder. I took a week off, but when Jessika would go to work, in my mind I couldn’t figure out if she was going to come back. It was crazy to feel like that. For the first three months, I would wake up wet with sweat. I had dreams of falling in water and drowning. It’s hard talking about it. I’ve never found somebody who was in a similar situation. I sat there for 12 hours and knew for sure I would die. But I didn’t.