Personal account: Louis Cicotello’s accident

Rex Welshon, associate dean, College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and a personal friend of Professor Emeritus Louis Cicotello, shared his first-person account of Cicotello’s rappelling accident and the rescue of David Cicotello from the Utah mountains.

Portrait of Louis Cicotello
Photo by Carol Dass

This account of the events leading to Louis Cicotello’s death on Sunday March 6, 2011, in No Man’s Canyon relies in large part on the memories of Louis’ brother, David Cicotello, who was with Louis and who then survived for six days until rescued by Wayne County Search and Rescue on Saturday, March 12. David talked to Ted Maynard, Michael Campbell and Rex Welshon on five different occasions between Saturday night, March 12 and Monday night, March 14. With David’s expressed permission, Ted and Rex have compiled the following. David has approved it.

David and Louis entered the North Fork of No Man’s Canyon on Sunday, March 6, about 9:30 am. They successfully went through the canyon and reached the last rappel at 1:00 pm. They planned to eat lunch at the bottom of the rappel and then walk up the old horse trail back to the rim. This particular rappel is a two-stage affair, the first part being about 40 feet down to a ledge, the second part being about 100 feet down to the ground. They had a 200 foot dynamic 10 mm climbing rope with them. In rigging the second rappel, Louis threaded a long piece of new webbing (with a rappel ring attached) through a biner clipped into the existing bolt and hanger on a wall next to the ledge. This long loop of webbing extended down from the bolt hanger over a sloping ramp about twenty feet long and almost to the edge where the rappel proper begins. Upon completing the anchor, Louis fed one end of the rope through the rappel ring, located the midpoint of the rope, and threw both strands down. A biner block was not employed and the ends of the rope were not tied together. Louis clipped into the rope using a variable speed ATC. He backed down the ramp to the rappel ring and safely loaded the anchor. Upon reaching the edge, he recommended that David be careful not to get his hands pinched between the rope and the rock as he came over. He then went over the edge from the ramp and informed David that he was on the free portion of the rappel. David lost sight of Louis. A few seconds later, Louis called up to David that he could see that the ropes were unequal but that it was “no biggie.” Those were his last words. Almost immediately, the rope whipped through the rappel ring and disappeared out of sight below.

David could not see Louis but called out to him. There was no reply. Stranded on the ledge without a rope and desperate to help his brother, David rummaged through his pack and found a length of static rope used to lower packs over short drops, some webbing, and an etrier. He knotted them together and realized that it was not long enough to reach the bottom. He tried climbing up the previous rappel but could not make it. Louis had brought a bolt kit and an Ibis hook, but both were in his pack at the bottom. David was ropeless and 40 feet down from the top of the pour-off and 100 feet above the bottom. He had a liter bottle full of iced tea/lemonade, another small bottle of water, an orange, a sandwich, a high energy bar, some cashews, some matches, a flashlight, a knife, extra wool socks, and a jacket.

David figured no one would come looking for him until the following Friday, six days hence.  He and Louis were on the second day of a trip that was planned to go through to the next Thursday. They had already done Lost Spring Canyon the previous day and were planning on driving from No Man’s down to Cedar Mesa to go through Cowboy and, conditions permitting, Maidenwater. Then they were going to drive back up into the Swell, descend Music, and finish the trip with Greasewood Draw as dessert before checking into a motel on Thursday night and calling loved ones. David determined then and there that he would have to survive until Friday. He took his pack apart, removed the foam back, and began his vigil. He allowed himself two ounces of water or tea per day, one segment of orange, a bite or two of sandwich and energy bar, and a few cashews. At night, he collected detritus from the ledge and started small comfort fires. He inserted the foam pad under his shirt to keep his core body temperature up. Attaching the wool socks to his baseball cap allowed him to keep his ears and parts of his face warm at night. During the day, he watched animals and birds come to the pool at the foot of the big rappel to drink water, and each night a bat flew out from above him on its nightly rounds.

David had left with his girlfriend a detailed map of their camps and the nights they intended to spend at each. On Friday morning, David’s fiancee called Louis’ wife in Colorado Springs and the two of them called Hanksville BLM, the San Juan County sheriff office (Cowboy), the Emery County sheriff’s office (Music and Greasewood), the Wayne County sheriff’s office (No Man’s and Lost Spring), and anyone else they could get hold of to hear out their concerns. Since I was familiar with these areas (Louis, David, Ted, Mike, and I have done more than fifty canyons together, although we had never been down No Man’s), late on Friday I emailed details about each camp and each trailhead to Louis’ wife, who then forwarded the email to the SARs and sheriffs. Wayne Country SAR got a helicopter up that night and, with all of our information in tow, flew over the No Man’s drainage, locating Louis’ truck at the trailhead.

David heard the helicopter that night and knew that he was going to be rescued. He had thrown out the last few bites of his sandwich on Wednesday when it had rotted, and he tossed the small amount of remaining tea on Thursday after it became rancid. By Friday evening, he was down to an ounce of water, a few cashews, and one slice of orange. He told himself he would not drink that last ounce until he heard a rescuer call his name. Reason:  he refused to look at an empty water bottle.

Under the leadership of Sheriff Ernie Robinson, Wayne County SAR was on the scene first thing Saturday morning. Ted, Mike, and I left Colorado Springs at 8:00 that morning. We caught up with Louis’ wife at Ray’s Tavern at about 2:00 pm (she had caught the 6 am flight to Grand Junction and rented a car). Thank goodness for cell phones – as we were driving, we were on the horn with Louis’ wife, Dave’s girlfriend, and the search team on-site. We talked with both Sheriff Robinson and the helicopter pilot and suggested that they focus exclusively on the North Fork of No Man’s, and, in particular, inside the slot rather than any of the surrounding country. Sheriff Robinson sent in a team from the top and landed a team down below the big rappel. Flying back up the drainage, the pilot spotted a long piece of webbing protruding from the ramp on the middle of the big rappel. David had fashioned a HELP sign from parts of his equipment (webbing, his foam pad, some tape, and a couple of biners) and was dangling it at the end of the webbing. The helicopter passed over once, twice, and then a third time. Within an hour or so, David heard the team coming up from below and called out. The team coming down from above rescued David soon after. He was immediately airlifted to Moab hospital at about 1 p.m., rehydrated, and released that evening.

The four of us — Ted, Mike, Louis’ wife, and I — were in Hanksville by 2 pm, where we were met by Sheriff Webster. He informed Louis’ wife that Louis had not made it but that David was alive. We drove out the Roost Road and had just turned toward the South Fork of Robber’s Roost and the Ekker ranch when we saw a helicopter fly over, heading to No Man’s. Arriving ourselves there a few minutes later, we were introduced to Sheriff Robinson and watched the helicopter lift off down canyon to recover Louis’ body.  An hour later, the helicopter returned with him.  Sheriffs, search team, helicopter, and the four of us caravanned out of the Roost together right at sunset, reaching Hanskville about 8:30. We talked with David for the first time later that evening.

This is an extraordinarily difficult time for the families. David’s incredible endurance, intelligence, loyalty, and toughness are immediately countered by Louis’ tragic death. The family is grateful for all the condolences and well-wishes received. We would like to express our deepest thanks to Sheriff Robinson, Sheriff Webster, Sheriff Micah (sorry, we don’t know Micah’s last name), and all the other members of the Wayne County Search and Rescue team. They worked tirelessly, professionally, and expertly to save David’s life and recover Louis’ body. We would also like to thank Magleby Mortuary in Richfield for their equally professional and expert service to Louis’ wife.

9 Comments on Personal account: Louis Cicotello’s accident

  1. Thank you Dr. Welson for sharing David’s account of this tragedy. David’s positivity, strength and tenacity, despite the utter sadness of losing his brother, is a testament of the amazing person that he is. All of us at UNO are thinking of him and Louis’ family.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing this information. I know David well and my heart is so sad for him. I worked with David for many years at UNO and his survival is not a surprise to any of us here in the office. He is truly a remarkable human being and we all admire greatly, he is forever a true inspiration. I know the loss of a brother and it is not an easy loss! David has endured so much and has always risen to the top. As I read this and heard other accounts of the ordeal, I just kept thinking how this sounded like a movie and it could not possibly happen to someone I know, let alone this incredible man. I firmly believe God does not allow us to endure anything we cannot survive. David is a true testement this. We all love him here and wish him the very best. All our thoughts, prayers, heart felt condolences to David and Louis’ family! He talked of his brother often and I know he loved him dearly and will miss him even more.

  3. I worked with David at UNO for four years in student orientation. David was one of the best bosses I have ever had. I am truly sorry to hear about David and the loss of his brother. I will keep David and his family in my prayers. I wish him a speedy recovery and hope that everything goes okay through this tragic loss. David is a very kind, caring individual and I am very happy to hear that he was able to survive this incident. I couldn’t agree more that his wisdom, intelligence, and toughness were the reasons for keeping him alive. I wanted to just reply and let David know that he has friends here in Omaha thinking of him and wishing him the best. Again David is a great individual, and I am truly blessed to know him and gotten the chance to work with him.

    Adam Hamilton

  4. What an amazing and also tragic story. David, we are all thinking about you during this very difficult time. Take care of yourself and we can’t wait to see you back in the ‘boro!

  5. David is a decent man whose intelligence, resourcefulness and fortitude are even more evident from this horrific experience. He does not deserve the family losses he has experienced. I ache for him as do his many friends, and we all wish him peace.

  6. I was fortunate to have hired David as one of our English teachers and he proved to be the best! We became very good friends,and still are,and I was dismayed to hear of his ordeal and the loss of his brother. I did not realize he had moved from UNO until this last Christmas card,and I failed to reply. I will no longer put it off as I value his friendship very much. I know that many people here at Eastern Wyoming College will be shocked and concerned when they hear this news.

  7. My son Jason called as soon as he heard the news. David, I’m so sorry for your loss. I know how badly it hurts, having lost my own brother not even a year ago. You are in my prayers as well as in the prayers of my friends here in Necedah. I hope that God has picked you up and brushed you off, and that soon you will be ready to live life some more. May God’s love be with you always.

  8. David has always been an inspiration to me and a big part of my continuing with the New Student Orientation at UNO. At every adviser session he quickly captivated the attention of all the students in the room. His crazy stories of his college experience in the 60’s and his modern street talk made him one of the best presenters to listened to. He didn’t just do his job at UNO, but he aspired to change lives by really caring and connecting with all of the new students and the people who worked for him.

    Thank you David for being a light.

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