In a press release yesterday, Zion National Park reported that Christian Louis Johnson was killed Friday, Oct. 2, in a canyoneering-related accident in a canyon known as Not Imlay Canyon.
Sadly, this is the second time for me in the span of a few weeks that I am writing about the park in such a light, only this time it is so much closer to home. Louis was my friend.
When taking in the events that led to the deaths of seven people in Keyhole Canyon, and feeling the power of such a sweeping tragedy, I was still somewhat insulated from it. I reasoned that nature suffers neither inexperience nor mistakes. It just is. As the investigation unfolded, it was determined that the party fell victim to pushing the limits of the canyon’s most dangerous attribute: rainy weather and flooding. It cost them their lives. Often in such tragedies, experience is called into question. That simply is not the case in the accident with Louis. This was their second time doing this canyon, and one of many they had done overall.
From dialoguing with Louis’s husband Everett Boutillet, I know that Louis was on the first of two rappels in the canyon that would be the first two in the canyon. They had just begun, and apparently Louis went first, as he often did. This is a position commonly taken by the more experienced of a group to be sure ropes are set and that a safety belay from below is present. I recall Louis doing this often, smiling as he stepped off.
Everett says the rope did not reach the first landing due to a recent change in the location of the second rappel station they were not aware of. Louis did not look in time to realize he was in trouble and by the time he knew, he was only able to shout up that the end of the rope was eight feet from the landing. He presumably had no choice but to try to land on his feet in a treacherous place as the rappel was multi-pitched. This means he would ideally have tied in to the second anchor before coming off the first rope but was unable to. The party could not see Louis but heard him come off the rope and land, and they believe he rolled off the second rappel unroped.
The following is beta (climbing information) from bluugnome.com about the sections of the canyon where they were.
The Canyoneering / Technical Section:
From the drop with the brown stains … walk down the sloped slick rock on the left (north) bypassing the drop.
About 250 feet down canyon is the top of a drop that can not be bypassed. … Rap 1 is anchored form a pine tree about 40 feet left (north) of the center of the watercourse and drops right at 100 feet into a side ravine. At the bottom of rap 1 the ravine is steep and dirt filled so be careful not slide down uncontrolled while getting off the rappel.
From the top of Rap 1 you can see people hiking down in the narrows if you look carefully. Also of note from the top of rap 1 you are only 750 horizontal feet from the river down in the narrows with about 850 feet of elevation to lose to get down to the river.
Rap 2 is right at the bottom of rap 1 and is anchored from another pine tree. Rap 2 drops about 180 feet down a series of ledges to a large ledge. The intermediate ledge on rap 2 is about 100 feet down while the large ledge that rap 2 stops on, 180 feet down.
From this, it is ascertained that even if Louis was not injured from the initial drop at the end of the rope that did not reach on the first rappel, the fall from the second was imminently fatal.
Everett confirms saying this: “The rope didn’t reach. We couldn’t see him. Can only use conjecture that he went to land, then rolled, and went over the edge of the second rap. The sounds suggest this and will never leave my mind.”
Being one who does these types of adventures myself with my wife, I cannot imagine this. I do not know at this point if because it was the first rappel someone was able to travel back up the approach to call for help. But oftentimes, once in a canyon, it must be finished before help can be attained. Either way, the tragedy of this day cannot be understated.
Louis is survived by his dear friend, soul mate, and husband Everett. The two of them were experienced canyoneers with hundreds of descents to their credit. I personally have done several canyons and hikes with them, and Louis added a measured sense of confidence and safety to every outing. Meticulously cautious and prudent, unyieldingly concerned about everyone in the party, and ever with a smile on his face, Louis was in every way a delight to go out with. I can personally attest to several times when I was in a bit over my head, and he seemed to be right there, giving me an anchor or some measure of beta to make my own adventure safer. Adding to this was the equal measure of passion and experience Everett brought to the trips that, aside from what amazing people these men are, made me always eager to venture out with them.
Louis had an almost childlike enthusiasm for life. In the midst of the obligatory danger that comes with descending canyons, his awe for them was contagious. In 2014, my wife Greta and I traveled the 22 miles of Buckskin Gulch with he and Everett along with a friend of theirs, Deborah Davis. I remember stopping along the way with him at different points to scramble up vantage points for a better view, or to stand in the cool subterranean breeze flowing from open cracks in the canyon walls. His smile was infectious.
The love these two men shared for one another was a testament to their 25 years together and embodied the loyalty, respect, humor, and ardent joy that comes only with time and experience. They found and shared a common love for the canyons of southern Utah, and anyone who had the pleasure of traveling with them was better for it in more ways than one. I know I am.
Everett asked me to convey to all that Louis would not want us to do anything short of continuing to live life to the fullest, as that is what he most poignantly did. There is a certain bittersweet comfort that comes from the knowledge that someone died doing the thing they most love to do.
Louis most loved to be in the canyons of Zion with his family and friends, and he did it well, much, and with abandon.
Robert Fulghum penned a sentiment I find apropos in my mixed joy and grief as I ponder the loss of my friend.
To get through this life and see it realistically poses a problem. There is a dark, evil, hopeless side to life that includes suffering, death, and ultimate oblivion as our earth falls into a dying sun. Nothing really matters.
On the other hand, the best side of our humanity finds us determined to make life as meaningful as possible NOW; to defy our fate. Everything matters. Everything.
It is easy to become immobilized between these two points of view – to see them both so clearly that one cannot decide what to be or do.
Laughter is what gives me forward motion at such intersections. We are the only creatures that both laugh and weep. I think it’s because we are the only creatures that see the difference between the way things are and the way they might be. Tears bring relief. Laughter brings release. Some years ago I came across a phrase in Greek – asbestos gelos – unquenchable laughter. I traced it to Homer’s Iliad, where it was used to descibe the laughter of the gods. That’s my kind of laughter. And he who laughs, lasts.
Louis laughed unquenchably. He loved unhindered. He lives in our hearts and will be so truly missed.
Louis Johnson was my friend.
See you out there.