Learning from the worst outcome imaginable
We all find ourselves wanting the best from the outdoors. We are drawn to it by the adventure and solidarity; there is nothing quite like finding yourself in a canyon barely wider than the width of your body. Preparing and planning for the next adventure is what keeps a lot of people pushing for “the next big thing.” All too often it seems we read stories on how that next adventure became the last. This has to stop. There is no reason for anyone to be trapped in a flash flood in any canyon, at any time.
Before blame can be placed, we must come to understand that not one single event can turn a great day of adventuring into one that will weigh on the shoulders of family members and friends for the rest of their lives. These small but critical miscalculations are the cause of 99% of the accidents in nature. It is time people come to the realization that it is not the responsibility of the NPS or Forest Service to babysit people in the outdoors. Flash floods happen in St. George every year. For those of us that live here, we come to understand the telltale signs of when they might occur, and every year we read of people ignoring the signs. This is aimed toward everyone, those that are new to the southwest and those that were born here.
The three most important factors for avoiding accidents in the outdoors are preparation, humility, and responsibility.
While most everyone may stop reading at this point, it is safe to say that every incident can be avoided with proper preparation. In respect to an afternoon stroll on one of the “easier” adventures in the area, it is critical to plan ahead for all instances and all contingencies. Slot canyons are not forgiving; they do not discriminate, and they will kill you if entered unprepared. When preparing a trip, ask yourself this, “What happens if … ?” then include the following:
What happens if the weather changes? Weather changes quick. Have you looked at the forecast? Can you tell what is going to happen during the day? Do you know when?
What happens if you are advised against the trip? The park rangers say it may become unsafe. (ASK YOURSELF THIS EVERY TIME!)
What happens if someone gets injured? Accidents happen. If someone sprains an ankle, can you help get them out? If hypothermia sets in, are you prepared to help warm them up? Do you know how?
What happens if I have not done this canyon/hike before? First trips down canyons require a little extra attention. Is everyone in your group qualified? Have you read the appropriate data on the route? Have you accompanied someone who has done this before?
What happens if it gets dark? Well shit, now what?
What happens if we get lost? It is part of the adventure. Can you route-find well enough to get yourself back on course or to civilization?
What happens if we discover we don’t have the proper gear? There have been plenty of times when I have been in a resource in Zion where I encountered people in groups with complete inadequate gear for what they were doing. My tenth time through Pine Creek, I encountered a father and son attempting to complete the route with a 100-ft rope they had purchased at a hardware store on the way to Zion. No harness, no belay device. I was with one friend when we encountered them at the top of the cathedral.
Can you answer each and every one of these questions truthfully and honestly to yourself and the people you are in charge of? If a person hesitates on answering any of these, they have no place being in a canyon in the Southwest. This goes for people that plan trips as well as people that accompany on these adventures. There are novels written on the importance of preparation for trips. Think about it. Preparation.
Humility and Responsibility
A close friend of mine works as a park ranger in Zion. Every year, there are numerous people that they caution against entering a canyon. This can be for many reasons, but the underlying recurring theme is that people are vastly unprepared for the adventure that they are planning, and the lack of humility is what initiates the domino effect. This is not an easy concept, however. When people travel hundreds of miles to have a day filled with adventure, nothing is going to stop them from the fun they had planned on.
It is quite simple: The people that work in the park get paid the same whether you live or die. They will continue to have their jobs. They won’t get in trouble because your trip leader made the decision to put everyone in danger in the name of adventure. What people don’t see is the stress that it puts on park employees to try to prevent it. These people care about each of the 3 million visitors each year. They try their hardest to prevent the dominos from starting to tumble, and for the most part, they do a damn good job at it and rarely get the respect they deserve.
Listen to the people that know: the weathermen, the rangers, people in the park that are leaving early because the weather is turning sour. When it comes to it, the majority of us that crave the adventure all have one thing in common; we want to summit the mountain once started and finish the canyon once entered regardless of what others are saying.
It is high time we ask ourselves if we are humble enough to accept that “Today is just not the day. Do something else.” In the end, it is the responsibility of the trip leader to ensure every person makes it out of the canyon safe.
Jason is a graduate of SUU, has lived in Southern Utah since 2001 and has been working on completing every canyon in the region since 2010. He is a Wilderness First Responder and Outdoor Enthusiast. He has worked as a raft and adventure guide for the past 12 years.