Technical Canyoneering Rescue
April 17-18, 2002
Written by Ben Gowans
I was browsing a web site for a canyon
that would fulfill the requirements for our annual 'Man Trip'; a chance for me
and two of my fellow educators to get away from our wives and all the other
women in our predominantly female line of work. I ran across Leprechaun Canyon.
The pictures looked awesome and the description inviting. I had to go.
My two good friends with whom I teach with were looking foreword to our annual Man Trip. They were not experienced canyoneers but had descended several other canyons in the Zion area. When I read them the description of Leprechaun they were concerned with the whole 'Mae West'; issue. I assured them that according to the description, the Right Fork had only short sections of Mae Westing and we would be fine.
Little did I know what was to follow.
The day before we were to leave there was a snow storm in Northern Utah. I wasn't happy, but I was confident that no snow covered the North Wash area. A little research confirmed my feelings. We could still go.
My two companions had different feelings. One of them started proposing a more relaxing trip to Mesquite. A little golf, a little food, and a whole lot of nothing. I put up a fight. I had my heart set on a rugged, manly canyoneering trip. It took a little convincing, and some manipulating, but I got my way.
We made our way to Hanksville and checked into a motel. We grabbed some dinner and turned in for the night. We wanted to get an early start. We woke at 6:00 the next morning and went through our gear check list. We had everything I thought we needed. We divided up the load, hopped into the car, and set out for the trailhead.
When we arrived at our destination the wind was whipping. We thought it wise to keep a close eye on the sky, any strong signs of rain and we wouldn't enter the canyon. We trudged through the sandy wash and found the sandstone ridge that would take us out. We consulted our topo map often and found the rout easy to follow. When we came across a survey marker we knew we were headed the right way. The wind had died down now and we saw nothing but blue sky all around. Everything was going perfect except for the occasional vomiting from one of our group members. Bad food I was guessing.
We stopped to give him a chance to rest and decide if he wanted to continue on. He did. We soon reached the cap and began looking for the head to the Right Fork. I have to admit I was confused as to which way to go, but I was determined to descend the canyon. After some discussion and consulting the map we were sure where to go. I found out later I was wrong.
We arrived at what I thought was the Right fork. We walked a steep grade and were in the canyon. The fun was about to begin. I took the lead and soon found myself about 100 yards ahead of the other two members of my group. When I stopped to wait for them it became very apparent they were a little out of their element. They were not feeling the same rush I was feeling. Being in this place was my drug. How could they not feel the same? Neither of them had ever been in a canyon this narrow, and they were not comfortable with it. Had I made a mistake bringing them here?
As the day went on one of the members of our group became more and more concerned with the narrowness of the canyon and repeatedly asked me to "get us out of here." We reached a point in the canyon where we were "stemming" about 20 feet above the canyon bottom, and the narrowness of the canyon was increasing. I was worried one or both of the friends I was with might fall and become wedged in the bottom of the canyon. With the tension mounting I decided to free climb up one of the less vertical walls in a wider part of the canyon. I would set a rope for the other two members to ascend and free themselves from the canyon. As I made my way up the canyon to the spot I thought would be best, one of the other guys became lodged between the walls. He was stuck. I asked him if he needed help and he said he thought he could get himself out.
I put on my climbing shoes. They had only been used 5 times previously. I am not an experienced climber but I was extremely worried about the other members of our party and felt this was our best recourse. I began to climb the pitch and found every crevice and hole filled with fine, dry sand that was constantly raining down from the gap above me. I noticed at once I had no protection as I was climbing. I had no pieces to set to guard against a fall, but I felt I had to get out. The rest of this story is second hand, as I don't remember any of it.
I've been told that I did reach the top of the pitch (about 60 feet above the canyon bottom.) When I attempted to pull myself over the lip the sandstone crumbled and I began to fall. I slid down the face of the rock for about 15 feet, my feet caught and I was tossed to the opposing wall of the canyon. I've heard I bounced back and forth between the opposing walls several times before I landed on my back on the canyon floor. This fall took place at about 3:00 p.m. on April the 17th.
I was quickly attended to by my friends and I complained of injuries in my chest and stomach area. The two men I was with did not know I had sustained serious head injuries a subdural hematoma and an epidural hematoma (bruising and bleeding of the brain.)
Like I said before, I have no memory of this fall or the following 2 weeks.
After my fall, the other 2 people I was with moved me to a wider section in the canyon to await rescue. Night soon came and the temperatures dropped to the low thirties.
When we did not check in with our wives that night to let them know we were safe, they began making calls to organize a search. Meanwhile we sat freezing in the canyon.
About 25 hours after my fall a helicopter was spotted flying near our position. The 2 men I was with began to shout and bang to show our position. One of the rescuers found us and relayed our position to the rest of the search team. Several bolts and anchors were places in the sandstone above us. One of the rescuers rappelled down to the canyon floor to assess my condition. He determined I was not fit to remove myself from the canyon, and I would need to be lifted out by Life Flight. After several hours of problem solving and rescue attempts, I was finally lifted out of the canyon and flown to LDS hospital in Salt Lake City.
During the flight I became combative due to my injuries and had to be placed in a paralyzed state to prevent further damage to my brain. Upon arriving at the hospital I underwent cat scans to check my brain damage, and full body x-rays to look for broken bones or internal injuries. None were found barring a minor rib injury.
The swelling in my brain had stopped making surgery unnecessary. The doctors credit this to the cold temperatures in the canyon during our wait for rescue.
All in all, I have made a welcome yet unexpected recovery. I still have some annoying yet necessary restrictions put on me by the doctors. I will not be making any canyoneering trips for the next year.
This whole incident has been a good thing in some ways. I have learned that I am not 18 anymore, and I am capable of error and poor judgment. I will certainly be safer for this experience.
When I got home from the hospital the first thing I did was buy a climbing helmet, and a GPS. I can't wait to get out there and slip through some cracks.
NATIONAL PARK SERVICE MORNING REPORT
To: All National Park Service Areas and Offices
From: Division of Ranger Activities, Washington Office
Day/Date: Wednesday, April 24, 2002
02-124 - Canyonlands NP (AZ) - Search and Rescue
At 6 a.m. on April 18th, Glen Sherrill, district ranger for the park's Maze District, received a request from the Wayne County Sheriff's Office for assistance in a search for three overdue hikers. Sherrill called the wife of one of the hikers and found that the trio had gotten canyoneering route information from a web site (http://www.climb-utah.com) and that they'd mentioned a location called Leprechaun Canyon. Sherrill relayed this information to the sheriff's office, then called Shane Burrows, the web site owner, and obtained the password to gain access to the route descriptions and maps from the site's "Circle of Friends" section.
Sheriff's deputies found the missing party's vehicle parked at the Leprechaun Canyon trailhead along Utah Highway 95 south of Hanksville and asked Sherrill's assistance in conducting the search. At 1 p.m., Sherrill and two Wayne County SAR volunteers headed into the search area. Within an hour, they'd made voice contact with the three hikers. A Utah DPS helicopter arrived shortly thereafter and began ferrying other rescuers to the scene. The hikers had reached a point in the slot canyon where they could go no further downstream. They couldn't return up the canyon, either, because they'd pulled their rope down after them. While trying to climb out of the slot, one of the hikers slipped and fell about 40 feet, suffering a fractured skull and other injuries. Since there were no natural anchors on the slickrock. Sherrill set bolts for rappelling and a possible litter raising. County EMT's then descended and provided treatment to the injured hiker. At 5 p.m., a Life Flight EMS helicopter from Salt Lake City arrived on scene. The helicopter's scoop litter was lowered to the rescuers in the canyon, and they began the difficult task of moving the patient 40 feet up the slot to the best point for retrieval. The two uninjured hikers ascended the rappel ropes. The Life Flight crew dropped their short-haul rescuer into the slot at 6 p.m. and he rigged up the stretcher. It turned out that the slot was too narrow to accommodate both the rescuer and the litter, so the litter had to be raised without a rescuer alongside. Rescuers on the ground stabilized the stretcher with a belay line. Given the nature of the terrain, this was a high-risk operation for both the helicopter crew and the ground crew, as the pilot had to hover for a long time with his rotors just a few feet from the wall of the canyon. The patient was lowered to the bench after being extracted from the canyon, then transferred to the helicopter and flown to Salt Lake City. He was admitted in critical condition, but his condition was upgraded to 'serious' on April 21st. The operation involved about 20 people from the Wayne and Garfield county SAR teams, the counties sheriffs' offices, and Arizona DPS and Life Flight helicopters.