Burning Man Attendees Attempt Exit after Weekend of Slippery, ‘Quicksand’ Mud

Washington Post photo by Kathy Baird
The sun sets at the Burning Man festival on Sunday.

Burning Man attendees were attempting to exit the festival’s muddy grounds Monday, as the organization’s CEO stressed that there is “no cause for panic” in an event that left one person dead and tens of thousands of people stuck for days in Black Rock City, Nev.

On Monday afternoon, the festival lifted its driving ban, it said in an update, adding that those exiting should stay on hard-packed roads and stay away from standing water. Rain and mud had left the roads impassable and had stranded an estimated 70,000 people over the weekend.

As of midday Monday, 64,000 attendees were still on the festival grounds, Burning Man said. The organization asked those driving out to “take it slow.” It also reminded attendees to pack everything they brought and to clean their camp spaces before departing, a part of the festival’s 10 principles known as “leaving no trace.”

The National Weather Service said Sunday that dry and warm conditions would help the area improve. Conditions near the festival site were sunny early Monday afternoon, with a high temperature expected in the 70s, warmer than much of the previous three days, according to the National Weather Service.

Burning Man organizers stressed that people should not leave on foot and advised that some attendees consider staying through Tuesday.

“Consider delaying your departure from Black Rock City until Tuesday 9/5,” organizers wrote. “This will alleviate large amounts of congestion throughout the day today, Monday 9/4.”

The scene at Burning Man gained national attention over the holiday weekend as videos and photos of muddy festival grounds, vehicles attempting to leave and celebrities hitching rides out flooded social media. President Biden was briefed on the situation Sunday.

But Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell maintained that the increased attention surrounding the muddy terrain, closed roads and at least one reported death at the festival was needless, describing it to NBC News as “a fuss.”

“There was no cause for panic. We are accustomed to extreme weather here,” she said Sunday, adding that it was 107 degrees for several days at Burning Man in 2022. “It’s kind of part of the challenge and the ritual to actually be in the middle of extreme weather and work our way out of it gracefully.”

Despite the conditions and plans for stranded attendees to exit, Burning Man officials said the Man burn in which a massive effigy is torched – was rescheduled for 9 p.m. local time Monday. The festival said the burning of the Chapel of Babel, a large-scale art piece, was scheduled to begin Tuesday at midnight. On Monday afternoon, organizers said the Temple of the Heart, another massive structure, would be burned at 8 p.m. Tuesday.

Officials noted that, although hotels were ready to help Burning Man attendees, the airport in Reno, about 120 miles away, would be stretched to accommodate all travelers.

“We are discouraging people from camping out at the airport. We really don’t have the space,” Reno-Tahoe International Airport spokesperson Stacey Sunday told The Washington Post. “Don’t come to the airport unless you have a boarding pass and you’re ready to board a flight.” Sunday added that the airport was looking into getting boot scrapers for people to scrape off mud and making booties available throughout the airport.

As Burning Man dominated headlines and social media over the weekend, misinformation and conspiracy theories also spread on platforms such as X, formerly known as Twitter. Burning Man has denounced the false claims, saying “the online rumors of transmissible illnesses in Black Rock City are unfounded and untrue.”

Goodell did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday morning.

The Pershing County Sheriff’s Office is still investigating one death from the event but hasn’t issued a statement on the cause or whether it was related to the weather.

“As this death is still under investigation, unfortunately there is no new information that can be released at this time,” Sabrina Adams Wallace, the records clerk for Pershing County, said in an email Monday morning.

Sanitation trucks were moved into Black Rock City to keep toilets clean and functional, organizers said Sunday. WiFi was made available at multiple locations across the festival site. Mobile towers were also set up around the city to help improve cellphone service.

The NV Energy company delivered four “Cell on Wheels” vehicles to the Black Rock Playa on Saturday to assist emergency responders with helping evacuate attendees, company spokesperson Katie Nannini said in a statement. These vehicles are used to provide temporary cellphone service during emergencies.

Shuttle buses are running from Gerlach, roughly five miles outside of Black Rock City, to Reno.

Despite the harsh conditions throughout the weekend, plenty of attendees continued to celebrate. Guests said they watched movies projected onto tents, while others danced among their friends into the dead of night. More experienced Burners, as attendees are called, provided resources to newbies.

Some decided to start their exodus early on Saturday and Sunday, marred by the wet world they found themselves in.

Among the videos from Burning Man was one of comedian Chris Rock and Diplo leaving the festival. The DJ wrote that he and Rock walked in the mud until they were picked up by an attendee in a truck. The five-second video shows the DJ pulling up his ski goggles and Rock, in a New York Knicks jacket, sunglasses and mud-stained pants, smiling and taking in the absurdity of the situation with at least five other people in the bed of the truck.

“We walked about three hours in the mud,” Diplo told CNN on Monday, adding that model Cindy Crawford and actor Austin Butler also joined him and Rock on the trek. “We were just like: ‘Look, we can make it out. There is no one stopping us from walking.’ It was a challenge, but honestly one of the highlights of the whole trip was getting out there and enjoying the time out there.”

Diplo, who said he’s going to give the guy who picked him up tickets to future shows, added, “It was like the old times, just caravanning across the country.”

Neal Katyal, a 53-year-old law professor from Chicago and the former acting U.S. solicitor general, said he and others around him weren’t worried about the weather when they arrived Friday. “The vibe was strong,” he said.

The celebration didn’t last long as he and others were stuck in heavy and sticky mud by Saturday morning. “You sink into it like quicksand, and it’s very hard to get your foot out,” he said. “Basically it was more slippery than ice.”

Katyal joined others in exiting early Saturday to avoid another round of oncoming rain. They walked together on a one-lane asphalt road amid wet, sticky and gluey conditions, Katyal said, and wrapped plastic bags on their bare feet and put socks and boots over the plastic. The group carried backpacks with essential items such as flashlights, water and socks. An Uber driver eventually picked them up.

For Katyal, who said he is a “pretty experienced hiker” fresh off a hike in Colorado about two weeks ago, the trip was not easy.

“The issue isn’t the six miles. It is the mud,” he said. “A few of us almost tumbled. … But we made it.”

The Washington Post