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image Sports Editor Mark Watson fell off a cliff above South Willow Lake 35 years ago and nearly died.

January 30, 2014
Falling off a cliff wasn’t exactly in his plans

Sports editor shares his near-death experience on the Stansbury Mountains 35 years ago 

My recollection of the following personal drama has dimmed since it happened about 35 years ago. My mental haziness about it results from the passage of time— and that the incident borders on stupidity.

Hence, the unwillingness to share the event with anybody but my closest friends. But here goes. Well, not just yet. I have to ease into this one. First, a little preface.

Because it’s my assignment to write an Out and About column every six weeks, I’ve kept a list of possible things to write about.

The short list includes stuff like working in Hawaii on a pineapple plantation, finding a mouse in my desk drawer, the mystery of why people like country music, the stranger who wanted to fight me at a shopping mall because he thought I was taking pictures of his girlfriend (I wasn’t. I was checking messages), old people who get married, and burning up my sister’s bedroom.

There seems to be a theme here of bizarre situations. When it comes to the tale I’m about to unfold, it has always ranked on that list.

So here goes:

About 35 years ago, I fell off a cliff above South Willow Lake in the Stansbury Mountains.

I took some Boy Scouts on a day hike to South Willow Canyon. The plan was to hike to Deseret Peak and then over to South Willow Lake. We did hike to Deseret Peak, but instead of following the trail over to South Willow Lake, I decided to blaze a new route down the cliff right above the lake. Not a good idea unless you have rock climbing equipment and know how to descend the face of a cliff.

I was in front and as I inched down the escarpment the situation became perilous. I kept my body as close to the cliff as possible with the entire back of my torso sucked up against the rock. At several hundred feet above flat earth, in my mind I thought; if I leaned forward I was sure to plummet to my death.

I had told the boys that I would find a good path down to the lake — but I never found one. I told them to go back to the trail, and hike down to the trailhead at Loop Campground and wait at the truck. I would be there as soon as I found a way out of this predicament. My dog wanted to stay with me, and soon he was in a predicament as well.

I tried to go back up, but that seemed more dangerous than to descend. As I looked down the cliff, I always thought I could see a spot that if I reached it, it would be smooth sailing from there to the shale and then down to the lake and the trail.

It never happened that way. I inched and inched and inched down the cliff. Instead of just a pure vertical drop, the cliff seemed to jut in more, providing no safe route down.

For a while, I became remarkably calm. Nothing in my past seemed to haunt me as I contemplated my possible demise. I had just served an LDS mission and was still in “the trance” (as my dad used to call it).

I finally got to a place far enough down the cliff where I thought: If I fall from here I might break a leg or an arm or both, but I think I will survive. It was starting to get dark, so I knew I had to pick up the pace.

I flipped my body around and away from the cliff — and fell.

I don’t remember anything from that point until several minutes later when I woke up and was situated about 200 yards down from the base of the cliff on the sloping shale of rock above the lake. One shoe was gone, wallet was gone and dog was nowhere in sight.

It was dark, but I could see a bright campfire at the southwest corner of South Willow Lake and yelled “help!”

Soon, a former high school classmate of mine was at my side. Kay Stice, a friend I had played sports with in high school, was camped at the lake with his brother, Burt.

Kay helped me down to their tent where he put blankets on me and gave me a few spoonfuls of soup. Burt headed out in the darkness to get help. My head was bloody, but the blood seemed to have dried, or was just frozen to my face. I could feel pain in the shoulder area, but that was about it.

The next morning, my mom, dad and brother made it to the Stice’s campsite. Then I heard a helicopter land near the lake. Medical personnel from Dugway Proving Ground carted me over to the chopper. My mother tried to get in with us, but the pilot said they needed to fly as light as possible in order to get over the cliffs and then on to Dugway. She was not allowed to go with us.

Not to be ungrateful or anything, but once we reached Dugway, my body didn’t feel so great as I was hurriedly wheeled around on a gurney in what I assume was a hospital. I am very grateful to those MASH personnel.

Then, a helicopter from the University of Utah Medical Center picked me up. From there, it was like flying first-class. I even enjoyed the few days at University of Utah Medical Center and the attention of all the female nurses.

Injuries included a cracked head and broken thumb, but surprisingly, no broken shoulder. The shoulder hurt the most. The doctor told me I would probably get early arthritis in the shoulder and thumb. I had to visit a neurologist once a week for about three weeks after being released from the hospital.

Kay and Burt were my saviors. If they hadn’t been camping there that night, I may not have made it. The Scouts were OK because they didn’t follow me down the cliff. They hiked back down to the trailhead at Loop Campground, and one of their mothers picked them up. She said she had a feeling that her boys were in trouble.

My brother went back to South Willow Lake the next day. He found my wallet, but could not locate my missing shoe. Sadly, he could not find the dog either — a cherished pet my brother and I had for nearly 10 years.

My friend from Australia visited my family last Sunday. We had dinner and what we call a “jam session” of singing and playing the piano with family and friends. My Aussie friend asked: “What happened to that great dog you had named Mervyn. You lost him Mark, right?”

“Wasn’t that when you fell off the cliff?” another friend asked.

“Um, yeah,” I reluctantly said.

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