Rescue at Cathedral Wash

Susan Leonard and Dan Gindling didn’t expect their Friday morning hike to turn out like it did. 

Susan, a Spanish teacher, recently retired from Parkway Middle School in La Mesa, California. She’d taught there for 34 years. Dan, a travel writer, musician and woodworker, is semi-retired and owns Custom Cutting Boards in San Diego. 

Cathedral Wash Trail is near Marble Canyon. It’s a relatively short hike, 3.2 miles roundtrip, but is rated “difficult” in trail guides. The terrain is tricky. There’s no clear path, so hikers must make route decisions on the fly. Some describe it as a “technical hike” because it involves using both hands and feet—part walk, part climb. After a rain, the paths are wet and muddy, compounding the difficulty and increasing the risks.

Susan and Dan are experienced hikers. They’ve hiked Mount Whitney, throughout the Sierras, Oregon, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, Peru, and Switzerland. This isn’t the first injury for Susan. She cracked her knee skiing at June Lake.

Groups hiking together may take different routes along Cathedral Wash Trail. Dan and Susan had chosen different paths when the accident happened May 10. Susan tried to make a long stretch down the rocks. Her fanny pack caught a ledge; in that split second her calculated maneuver was disrupted. Her foot met more air than anticipated before landing straight-legged on the rock below. The jolt was enough to break the longest, strongest bone in the human body: the femur. At first, Susan thought she could make the hike back, but learned quickly she couldn’t walk, even with help. They were a mile and half in, and out of cellphone range. Fellow hikers walked back until they found cell service. They called for help.

Two hours and 45 minutes later, a rescue team arrived. Cory Black and Trevor Wallace from the County Sherriff’s Office; Mark Rochwick and Hayden Keisling from Page Fire Department; and Brian Smith and Jim Ailey from Glen Canyon National Parks Service made the difficult hike, carrying rescue equipment. It took two hours for the six-man crew to carry Susan to the Colorado River on a stretcher. In some areas, they had to take Susan off the stretcher and help her crawl and slide over the rough terrain. Keisling said it was fortunate she was in good shape and in good spirits. Ranger Peggy Kolar was waiting with an NPS boat when they reached the river. The boat took her to an ambulance. The ambulance took her to Banner Page Hospital. Dan, who documented the rescue, praised them all, saying they were, “patient, caring and professional.”

At the hospital, Susan’s leg was fitted with a brace to make the long drive home. She would need surgery within seven days. Dan drove 14 hours to San Diego after moving and rearranging travel gear in the backseat of his truck to make Susan as comfortable as possible.

Susan had surgery Thursday. Dan says she is “recovering and doing well.” They’re planning to return to Lees Ferry this summer and take a raft trip through the Grand Canyon. 

Dan’s advice to Cathedral Wash hikers: Take your time and read the trail. If a section looks too dangerous, re-evaluate before continuing.


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