Beautiful and alluring, slot canyons can quickly turn deadly as this one, Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park, did last week
As wondrous and mesmerizing as slot canyons in southern Utah and northern Arizona can be, they can be even more deadly, as last week's tragedy at Zion National Park underscores.
The twisting, serpentine sandstone canyons have been carved into the landscape by countless flood waters down through the centuries. Wandering through them is one of the joys of exploring the region. Some require a series of rope rappels as you descend deeper and deeper into the canyons while moving downstream. Others feature pools of water in varying depths that can be both refreshing and bracing, as they seldom are warmed by the rays of the Sun.
Depending on the type of rock they are worn into - sandstones or limestones - the slots are distinctively colored in buffs, caramels, blacks, rouges, grays and blues. The national parks in Utah are well-known by canyoneers for the adventures they hold.
Zion holds arguably the most enticing slot - the Narrows, a 16-mile-long route with walls rising 1, 000 feet. It starts north of the park and ends in Zion Canyon, where the Virgin River exits the slots and flows down and out of the park. Elsewhere in and around the park there are more than a dozen other slots: the "Subway, " Kolob Creek, Hidden Canyon, and Keyhole Canyon, where last week's drowning of seven canyoneers occurred, are just a handful.
Capitol Reef National Park northeast of Zion also has some notable slots - Cottonwood Wash, Burro Wash, and Sulphur Creek - as do Arches and Canyonlands national parks.
Flash floods don't just turn slot canyons deadly. Their walls of water, such as these in Courthouse Wash in Arches National Park, pose a serious threat to anyone in the stream/Patrick Cone
But the tight, sinuous nature of slot canyons make them extremely deadly when thunderstorms send torrents of rain either directly down on the slots or miles upstream, as the National Park Service staff at Zion notes on its website:
The Narrows are susceptible to flash flooding because much of the surrounding area is bare rock that does not absorb water. During storms, runoff is funneled rapidly into the Narrows. During a flash flood the water level rises almost instantly-within seconds or minutes. Flash floods are common in Zion and hikers have been stranded, injured, and even killed by venturing into narrow, flood prone canyons.
These torrents not only rage as suprising speed, but push tons of trees, rocks, and any other debris caught up in the waters. And when they flow through slot canyons, where walls can be spaced as little as 3 feet apart, this flow of water, mud and debris can quickly rise to 12 feet high, according to the National Park Service.
Even without flash floods, canyoneering is a dangerous sport due to the needed rappels, awkward footing at times, and heights. Despite the dangers, the slot canyons continue to draw the adventurous. And, over the years, they've been the scene of deaths. Here's a look at just some of the incidents, with details where available:
September 5, 1965: Authorities didn't know that anyone, let alone the Scotowa Expedition, a group dedicated to exploring remote tracts of the Southwest, was even in the canyon. Twenty-six people had walked into the world-class wonder, but only 21 walked out. Because of the gorge's narrowness and despite being alerted to both the storm and the hikers, rangers were helpless to even enter the flood-swollen trap.
One survivor said he "heard a sound like thunder and looked up and couldn't see any clouds. (We) turned around and a wall of driftwood, rocks and mud was bearing down on us." Another recalled, I have been through hurricanes in Florida, but they were nothing compared to this. There were hailstones as big as half an inch, and the flood, when it came, seemed to be a great white curtain of water. The rains blotted out everything around us."
The first dead child was found three hours before any of the surviving 21 hikers swam free of the canyon. Two more were soon discovered nearby; coming to rest in Springdale, the little bodies had been dragged 10 miles by the rampaging river.
By 5 p.m., after spending up to 27 hours trapped, the last of the fortunate survivors had waded out through the rushing chest-deep waters. Two teenage boys were never found. - From Death, Daring, & Disaster, Search and Rescue in the National Parks by Charles R. "Butch" Farabee, Jr.
Postscript: In 2012 a skull fragment found in the Virgin River in 2006 was linked to one of the missing teenagers.
July 15, 1993: Nearly paralyzed, he watched his father swirl face down in the frigid pool only feet away. The horrified 14-year-old struggled against the powerful current of the narrow creek. Scant yards into the Mormon Church-sponsored quest, 37-year-old Kim had vaulted into the icy waters to free David: the trip's leader had a dangerously snagged backpack strap. But something went horribly wrong as two of the group's three adults whipped around in the foaming, bed-sized whirlpool. Kim died, not David. Tragically, in less than two hours, 27-year-old David would also suffer a savage death in the shadows of the rocky abyss. - From by Charles R. "Butch" Farabee, Jr.
The bodies of two men who possibly had intended to build a log raft to float the Virgin River through "The Narrows" of Zion National Park were recovered Monday.
Sept. 18, 2012: A visitor to Zion National Park who was canyoneering in the popular "Subway" section died when his foot became trapped on a descent, according to a park release.
Slot canyons, such as Oak Creek Canyon in Capitol Reef National Park in Utah, are intriguing and beautiful, but they can be quite dangerous/Patrick Cone.