No matter what, David Cicotello knew he had to survive.
Cicotello, 57, was stranded on a ledge in No Man’s Canyon, in the rugged wilderness 180 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. His climbing partner, 70-year-old brother Louis, lay motionless on the ground 100 feet below, having fallen while rappelling.
Cicotello made a “HELP” sign with some climbing equipment. And then he waited.
Over the next 146 hours, he sipped water and nibbled an orange, a sandwich and a few cashews until rescuers arrived. Cicotello survived, but his brother did not.
David Cicotello’s ordeal is a rare survival tale from Utah’s unforgiving canyon lands.
Sometimes, travelers have to take extreme measures to survive. In 2003, Aron Ralston was exploring a slot canyon alone in Canyonlands National Park when his right arm was pinned beneath a boulder. He amputated the arm, fearing he would die there if he didn’t get free. His story became the subject of the movie “127 Hours.”
“If you come down in this area, you better be prepared. It takes hours for search and rescue members to get there,” said Tal Ehlers, a member of the rescue team that found the Cicotellos on March 12.
David Cicotello, an admissions official at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., spoke to friends about the Utah trip and approved their sharing a written account. Family members wouldn’t comment though.
According to the account, the brothers had explored canyons together for several years. On March 5, they set out on a six-day trip.
David gave his fiancée a map of their planned camps. He was supposed to call her Thursday evening, March 10.
By the second day, the brothers were in the North Fork of No Man’s Canyon. They rappelled 40 feet to a ledge in a crevice. There was 100 feet to go to the canyon bottom.
The plan was to eat lunch after rappelling down, then walk an old horse trail back to the rim.
Louis set an anchor and fed rope through a rappel ring. And then went over the ledge.
Moments later, the rope whipped through the ring and disappeared. David called out to his brother; there was no reply.
He tried to reach his brother, but couldn’t. He soon realized that he would have to stay on the ledge until Friday, a day after the brothers were to check in with family.
In his pack was a liter bottle of iced tea, a small bottle of water, an orange, a sandwich, a high energy bar, some cashews, some matches, a flashlight, a knife, a pair of wool socks and a jacket.
He had left his cell phone in his truck, knowing it wouldn’t work inside the canyon.
David allowed himself some water or tea and a few bites of food each day. To keep warm at night, he attached the wool socks to his baseball cap and lit small fires along the side of the ledge. Ehlers said the temperature was in the 30s at night.
He passed the hours keeping vigil over his brother. Animals and birds drank from a pool at the foot of the slot canyon.
Rescuers began their search on March 11, after relatives reported the brothers missing.
David was down to one slice of orange, a few cashews and an ounce of water. The sandwich and tea had turned rancid. He held on to that last ounce of water, telling himself he wouldn’t drink it until he heard a rescuer call his name.
He didn’t want to look at an empty water bottle.
David Cicotello was airlifted to a hospital in Moab, where he was treated for dehydration and minor injuries. Louis Cicotello’s body was recovered an hour after the rescue.
A memorial service was held Saturday for Louis Cicotello, a professor emeritus at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs, Colo.