Rattlesnake Bites- First Aid, Treatment, and Myths; Personal Locator Beacons; Everett Ruess

29 October 2009

I first wrote about rattlesnakes a few years back on the Desert Explorer website. The research was as much for myself as for visitors to the site. My goal was to find out the truth about rattlesnake bites.  Some of the questions I addressed, or tried to, included asking what first aid measures should be employed. What kind of treatment can be administered if you are deep in the bush and cannot get to medical help? Is the venom of young snakes more potent than older snakes? And does the latest suction device, the Sawyer Extractor, really work?


I searched the web, visited the library, and called the Poison Control Center with a list of questions.  My main question for the Poison Control Center was about treatment, about what to do if I was a five-day walk from help. I called them a number of times, as my research developed, and asked that question again and again.  I got the same answer: “Seek medical attention.”  None of the doctors I spoke with would commit to anything beyond that statement.

A good friend of mine told me how he encountered the same answer in a seminar he attended as an environmental scientist. The treatment for rattlesnake bite: “Seek medical attention.” On a recent trip to Utah one of my fellow canyoneers told me how she heard the same phrase during a wilderness medicine course.

With this in mind I decided to revisit my rattlesnake bite research.  I have since scoured the web for more recent data, finding quite a bit including literature about Crotaline Fab antivenom (a brand name antivenom) and it’s effectiveness, the toxicity of venom and it’s possible increase in potency,  and recent studies on the epidemiology of snakebite and trends in mortality rates.

I also made a couple of calls to the Poison Control Center, still asking the same questions and getting the same answer, but this time with a qualifying statement.  I asked my usual question about what to do if I am a five-day walk from medical help and get bitten by a rattlesnake. On my second call I was given the usual answer, but I had been persistent enough in my questioning that the doctor added to his stock statement: “Seek medical attention, or die.” Finally an answer, but not the one I wanted to hear.  He told me that there is no field treatment, made it sound like first aid should be quick, and limited to stabilisation of the patient, and was resoundingly against suction devices such as the Sawyer Extractor. Here he made a good point saying that if you can extract 30% of the venom, as the manufacturer states, the other 70%  is still in your system and just as likely to kill you if you don’t get antivenom. (I will still carry the Extractor with me- if there is at least some chance that it might help save my life, it’s worth the few ounces of weight.)

Personal Locator Beacons
This same doctor made another good point- if you walk off  into the bush, are many days away from help,  and are bitten, the only sure way to save yourself is by having a satellite phone or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB). Rattlesnake bites might be reason enough to look into a PLB, something I have never considered before. And oddly enough today I found an article online about abuses of PLB’s by people who probably shouldn’t have been let out into the wilderness alone anyway, using it to call for help because their water tasted salty. This a far cry from Dave Foreman’s fantasy Primeval Wilderness where there would be no trails, no signs, no guidebooks,  no maps, and no rescue. True Wilderness, with a capital W. So much for that. For more PLB stories, click here.

Red more about rattlesnakes, bites, first aid, and find links to some of the data I found at the Desert Explorer website.

Everett Ruess
In case you didn’t hear, Everett Ruess is no longer found.  The family had doubts that the bones found along Comb Ridge really were those of Ruess and sought a second DNA test from the Armed Forces DNA lab. The test results conclusively stated that the remains were not those of Everett Ruess.  The remains found along Comb Ridge are now being returned to the Navajo Nation, as they are not those of a caucasian. So the mystery of Ruess’ disappearance remains a mystery. And I still have an excuse for crawling around amongst the rocks searching for bones in the Utah desert.

North Wash Canyoneering Trip, Rock Art

13 October 2009

I have just returned from a long weekend in North Wash with a group from the Boulder area.  We were in the canyons throughout the day on Friday and Saturday, and on Sunday morning.  We managed Blarney Canyon on Friday, a first canyon for many of us, then Leprechaun Canyon’s left and middle fork on Saturday, and finished with the right fork of Leprechaun Canyon on Sunday.  Each canyon day was about 5 to 8 hours long. Friday was longer for those that went through both forks of Blarney. Saturday was longer for those that went through the left and middle forks of Leprechaun. These are considered beginner canyons, rated “G” for the most part (middle Leprechaun is a “PG”), and they were a great place to start. A selection of photos form the weekend can be found on the Desert Explorer Flickr page.

Canyoneering- Equipment and Climbing Skills
Canyoneering is not for everyone.  It can be strenuous and challenging both  physically and mentally, not to mention dangerous. Our group was “fully informed”; we all had a pretty good idea of what we were getting into and  everyone seemed to be up for the challenge. Everyone was helpful and encouraging as we moved down the canyons. And we had knowledgeable and competent leaders.  Ours was a group operation and it held together well, something important in any group activity, but even more important in an activity such as this where lives could be at risk.


Moving down canyon, Blarney Canyon, North Wash.

Canyoneering requires typical climbing skills, although you are moving down canyon, and therefore down climbing for the most part. It requires typical climbing equipment- harness, helmet, slings, carabiners,  (static) ropes, and so on, and much more depending on the canyon you are traveling through.  The canyon walls can tear you up, and wearing old, disposable clothing is advised.  We also wore elbow and knee pads and gloves for climbing and rappelling.

Most of the details of the trip, such as directions, the time involved for each canyon, and necessary equipment is thoroughly covered elsewhere- information on the technical parts of the trip can be found at Tom’s Utah Canyoneering website.  More general information on canyoneering can be found at CanyoneeringUSA.com. General information on desert hiking and backpacking can be found at the Desert Explorer website. Be sure to visit these websites and DO YOUR RESEARCH before you go into the canyons.  Plan your visit, know where you are going, and exactly what you are getting into before you go.

If you are new to canyoneering, do not rely on these websites to teach you how to do it.  Find a competent teacher with experience and credentials (see the CanyoneeringUSA.com website for course information). Canyoneering is a potentially hazardous undertaking and proper training is a must.

Sandthrax Camp- Toilets, Fires, Water
The campsite we stayed at is worth mentioning.  It was not a campground with assigned sites, nor did it have a toilet.  On Saturday morning there must have been close to 70, 80, possibly 90 people there for trips into the canyon that day.  It made for some pretty tight quarters, and I understand that it was an anomaly.  No one had seen so many people there at any other time.   The only toilet in the area was about 5 miles down Highway 95 towards Lake Powell.  We can only hope that everyone who needed to made the drive.  If not, Sandthrax campsite won’t be habitable for much longer with this number of people moving through it. Our group brought a groover along just in case.  If you don’t have one available, at least carry along Wag Bags and use them if you don’t want to make the drive to the Hog Springs pit toilet.


Sandthrax camp on saturday morning showing maybe half of the vehicles that were there.

Also worth mentioning are the number of fire pits at the site.  Most of them seemed to have rock rings around them, and there seemed to be enough of them. I did find fires built at the mouth of Blarney Canyon and Leprechaun Canyon directly on the ground, with the ashes and charcoal scattered all around. I hope I don’t see any more there the next time I visit.  In keeping with Leave No Trace principles, no more fire pits should be made.  And whenever possible those that exist should be cleaned out, and the ash and charcoal removed and taken home with someone. Perhaps people should consider bringing along fire pans like on river trips?  Just my two cents.

As for water, there is none available.  Be sure to get all you need at the Hanksville BLM office parking lot, at a gas station in Green River, or somewhere else along you route.

The canyons and campsite were incredibly clean otherwise, especially considering the number of people who use them.  This was encouraging.

Rock Art of Lower North Wash


Barrier Canyon style pictographs high in an alcove near Hog Springs.

On Friday afternoon a few of us took  a walk around the Hog Springs area and found a pictograph panel high up in a large alcove and a petroglyph panel across the wash from it.  The pictograph panel was Barrier Canyon style, dating from between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 500.  The anthropomorph (human form) was near a meter and a half in height.

Although hard to see in the images, the eyes and mouth of the anthropomorph were pecked into the rock before the application of pigment.


Detail of anthropomorph showing "beaded headdress and necklace" and simple, linear interior body decoration.

The same is true for the visible indentation in the chest. The spalling seen at the bottom of the image likely occurred  prior to its creation, based on the fading out of pigment towards the bottom of the image.

The zoomorph (animal form) to its right may have been unfinished in antiquity, although some pigments fade more readily than others and it may have been a polychrome image, part of which has faded with time. The zoomorph may represent a canine, my guess based on the overall shape and the tail.  Canine figures are common in Barrier Canyon sites in the area. The preservation of the pictographs was good, due to their sheltered
location in the alcove.


Poorly preserved and vandalised panel in North Wash.

The petroglyph panel across the wash fared less well with time.  It showed extensive signs of vandalism, both with modern additions to the panel (note figure with square head and feathers) as well as outlining, circling, and crossing out of some of the elements. The petroglyph panel was likely the same age as the pictographs, although probably of the Glen Canyon Style 5 tradition. I say this based on the fact that it is pecked rather than painted, and because of the elements of the panel- the “atlatl” figure, the snake or “power lines”, and the abstract lines.

For more information on the rock art of Utah and the Four Corners Region, see Sally Cole’s Legacy on Stone– be sure to get the 2008, revised edition.

The Next Step
I have been planning to try my hand at more technical canyoneering for years.  I already spend lots of time in the canyons, backpacking and hiking mostly, but with scrambling, climbing and squeezing every now and then. Recent trips down the Dirty Devil River and in the Escalante have pushed me into taking the steps to find capable guidance for a foray into more technical canyoneering. For more on our fearless leader of the past weekend, visit A.J.’s website. With that said, I am ready to see more slots and look forward to returning to Utah and the challenges that await.