Last week’s Keyhole Canyon tragedy marked the single largest loss of life at one time due to natural disaster in Utah’s history. Heartfelt condolences to the families and friends of all who were killed in the flash flooding that struck multiple areas of Washington County.
Some sobering reflections are often what follow such things in an effort to not only cope with what has happened but to prepare for it in the future.
Flash flooding, while potentially devastating, is not necessarily a natural disaster in this part of the country so much as it is a common occurrence. Especially in the slot canyons. It is obvious from the footage in Hildale that what could be considered a rather prepared community was completely caught off guard.
But what happened during the Keyhole Canyon tragedy in Zion National Park is distinctly different. From the photograph of the now deceased group, it is inferred that this was a group of at least semi-experienced people. Wetsuits, harnesses, canyoneering-specific packs, and helmets are not necessarily indicative of experienced outdoorsman as anyone can buy or rent the equipment, but they looked like they knew what they were doing as opposed to first-time canyon explorers with a friend taking them through.
I have done Keyhole multiple times. It is a great canyon for beginners to the activity. The rappels are not long or technical, the scrambling and down-climbing is moderate, and it is short in length. It can be done in a few hours or less depending on the size of your group and the number of people and, unlike many canyons in the park, can be completed car-to-car. This is to say that you finish where you began, in essence completing a loop.
The last time I did the canyon, I took some friends visiting from Australia. They were driving down on Sunday morning from Park City, and the original plan was to do Pine Creek, the next canyon to descend after Keyhole and quite a bit longer and more technical. They were experienced climbers, so I would not so much be taking them through as I would be going along with them with the added benefit of local knowledge of the area, an express permit, and the extra car for the entry or exit.
They arrived in Springdale around 3 p.m., and I informed them that Pine Creek would be pushing it a little. By pushing it, I meant to say that we could potentially run out of daylight. The weather forecast was good.
So we opted for the shorter but still spectacular canyon, Keyhole. It was a great afternoon that ended with good food and beer in Springdale and much recounting of the adventure.
I imagine that something along this line happened to that group. They left late afternoon and in fact were passed by another group who also did the canyon. (That group has to be contending with fact that had the larger group not let them pass in the slot they would have surely suffered the same fate.) Weather advisory for flash flooding was eminent, but somehow the decision was made to go for it.
This may have been because it is such a short canyon and they thought that rain would precede flooding, giving them enough warning to speed up and get out. Granted, I am only speculating here from my own experience.
It has been said, however, that those who push the limits sometimes find that the limits push back, and like any other environment on earth, neither the bad decision or the fool is suffered by nature. I do not believe this group to have been foolhardy or reckless but rather a group who rolled the dice somewhat and died horrifically tragic deaths.
I do not so much know that I am opining here as I am myself trying to cope with the reality of what happened last week. I did not know these people, none of them. But I easily could have, and I clearly have some things in common with them. And I have taken my share of chances pushing the limits and thus far have lived to tell of the adventures.
But the sobering reality of this loss has me once again evaluating my own approach to such endeavors as I am painfully reminded of how dangerous things can be sometimes.
Be safe friends.
See you out there.