Ignorance Is Not Always Bliss

It’s been ages since my last post. So much has happened within barely a year. I’ve traveled thousand of miles and did so much, but since my life has transitioned into living in the van it’s difficult to keep up with writing and working at times….and finding reliable wifi. So, I’m just going to start this blog back up with an experience that I will never forget. Some people say that ignorance is a strength. In this case it wasn’t

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A few days ago I decided to take, what I thought would be a fun  and adventurous overnight hike through the canyons in Zion, Utah. It was on the way to my final destination for the year, Flagstaff Arizona, I figured it’d be magnificent feature to see. The images of the sunset glowing narrow canyons made me think, “I have to see this place.” What I didn’t know is that it would turn into an experience I shouldn’t have lived through.

I parked the van in town, packed my gear, fed my cat, and  took off for the canyons. I stopped at the information desk to ask how I could access the narrows, but the lady said they were closed due to flash floods. I was super bummed, so I asked what would be the next best thing. She said, “Hidden Canyon has canyons but they’re much wider than the narrows and still ok to hike in”.

I took off on the next shuttle from the visitors center. Everyone had shorts, small day packs, and nike running shoes on. I thought, “….am I over packed for this?” A gregarious but stoic ranger gets on the shuttle about halfway up the canyon. He sits next to me talking with the shuttle driver. I hear him say, “I’m going to hang out at the narrows and tell people to not go in them.” I remembered the flash flooding they had reported for the narrows. I asked him if he thought the warnings for the narrows would lift the next day. “Nope. Rain for the next four days.” This whole time I’m thinking that the trail I’m headed too is pretty safe from the floods or at least less risky to go into.

Getting off at the shuttle the skies were blue with scattered clouds. It was so hot hiking up the switchbacks to the trail head I shed my warmer layers. An older man taking pictures of the canyon with a Nikon takes a liking to my pack and plans for the trail. We talked talked about our travels and plans until it began to sprinkle rain. It was at that moment he said, “Well, that’s my cue to head back.” I thought, “man he didn’t even get to the trail head and he’s turning back now?” I press forward following the others up into the canyon.

The trail opens up to a narrow path that hugged the edge of the cliff. There were times you had to hang onto the chains on the wall because the path was so narrow and gave way to a sheer cliff. It was amazing and challenging. Before I knew it I was scrambling up rock walls (some of which were at least class 5 and 8-10 feet tall) into the canyon. The rock rose straight up and bled several hues of red and yellow. It was beautiful. The ground was layered in thick white sand almost like a beach. I joked with myself, “I thought I was never going to see sand again after Kauai.”

I continue up the trail and see two slender guys pop out the right side of the trail wearing shorts, tshirts, and converse tennis shoes wearing a day pack. We looked at each other a minute and they asked about my pack and if I was camping up here. I said I planned on it if I could find a good spot. They were shocked at how old I was. They thought I was a kid at first. I guess that’s what I get for being so small.

We exchanged some small talk and travel stories and walked up the canyon a bit, but they were still much faster than I was, especially with my pack. We met up again at an obstacle they were unsure how to get passed. It was a full on scramble up a rock and downed tree. They followed me up. We came to another wall that was about 9 feet high and has some natural features to step up over the wall, but I hesitated. because the pack pulled me back. I couldn’t really balance. I thought of turning back, but the boys offered to help me so I continued on with them.

We come to a break in the canyon where we either had to jump over a bit of water to another ledge or go up either sides of the wall. I didn’t see that there was an easier alternative path. I tried throwing my pack over the water onto the ledge. It ricochets back and into the water. Fuck. I jump in the water, waste deep, and grab my pack pulling my dslr out in a panic. Still dry. The pack was mostly waterproof even though it was canvas. A few other guys up the canyon saw me go in the water. I was so embarrassed. “You alright!?” They shout down. “Yeah, my dignity hurts a little bit though.” They laughed.

I saw an alternative route and made my way up and over. There were three guys in similar attire looking stumped at the trail. “We don’t know how to get passed this part.” There was a large down tree leading across a pool of water and a pretty technical obstacle that you had no other choice but to stem. It was risky with the pack and would have really sucked going down for anyone that wasn’t familiar with climbing. “Maybe there’s another way.” By the time I started looking around the two guys from earlier had found a much less technical route up the left side. The three guys follow and look at it. I crossed the log for fun and just to check out the obstacle.

I hear in the distance, “Well good luck.”  and I turn around to see the guys head back. I’m alone now. The skies were blue with some scattered light grey clouds. I hear thunder in the distance though and start thinking about going back. There wasn’t really a good place up high to camp anyway and I didn’t want to sleep in the canyon. The obstacles were becoming more technical and I wasn’t really sure how much longer the trail went on for. At the same time I thought about how much I wanted to come out here and enjoy a night in the canyons, but as I tried to press forward I just kept getting a bad feeling.

It’s hard to describe and I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tried to rationalize with it for a while. I started heading back with the realization that I can always come back up another weekend and continue exploring the canyon when the weather is better. I get about 25 yards toward the trail head and suddenly the skies turn dark grey. Then I thought, “Yeah, I don’t really want to camp out here in a thunderstorm.” I start heading back more surely. Light hail begins to fall and bounce of the rocks.

“Really?  Hail?  What the hell.” Within about a minute the hail went from pea sized to golf ball size and began dumping. I was getting blasted so hard I couldn’t move. It was way too painful. I put my pack over my head and make my way for a tree. It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe the rate at which the hail was falling. “This fucking sucks.” I said out loud. “As soon as this lets up I’m running. The hail had lightened but the rain started to down pour. Ugh, I need a better shelter now. I started contemplating getting out the tent. I knew I couldn’t really be there in the canyon long. But anything to keep the hail off me was a blessing. I started to try and set up my tent but it filled with water and ice quickly. That’s when I realized the trail was now moving….with water. Waterfalls start spewing from all sides of the canyon. “Damn it I need to just get out of here.” I start squeezing out my tent and shoving it back into my pack. All of a sudden the hail calms down and rain slows. Everything became eerily quiet. I was relieved and ready to run, but fiddling with my tent still. That’s when I saw something brown moving quickly toward me up the trail from the corner of my eye. It didn’t make a sound.

I look up and see at a four foot wall of water rushing towards me. “Shit!” I run up the steep embankment on the side of the cliff and clung to a tree with my pack. “Oh fuck! Shit this is not good!”…I knew exactly what was happening, but I didn’t think it was going to happen there in that trail.

I start tossing the tent in the river that was once a dry trail. “Drop the weight! Drop the weight!” I said to myself. The water continues to rise and move more forcefully. I climb up higher and into another tree. I pull out my phone to call for help and then became rational. “No one is going to come up here and save you. You are the ignorant idiot that search and rescue recovers 3 days later.” I remembered what the ranger said again, “Nope, rain for four days straight.”

I started to think seriously about death. I knew that the water had nowhere else to go but up. Large debris flowed down the river smashing into the rocks. I started to think about people to call to say goodbye to. I took out my phone and managed to turn it on. “No Service” it read. “Naturally.” I thought. I put it away.

All I could think for several minutes was, “I messed up. I really messed up.” The water level had sunk a bit, but held steady at about 3 feet. That doesn’t seem like much but when it’s rushing downhill at 40 miles per hour it’s deadly enough to sweep you off your feet and under a tree or smash you into a rock wall. I pull myself together, “Ok, Julie, you’ve got to find higher ground.” I get in the brown ice filled water and sink up to my knees. “Jesus!” The water couldn’t have been more than 40 degrees. I walk forward a couple 20 feet through the water and saw a cave that was 15 high from the water. “There’s no way the water will get that high. Will it?” I climb out the water soaking wet from top to bottom. My legs are numb. I crawl on my hands and knees up into the cave with the pack. I wait and stare at the water hoping that by some miracle it just trickles down within seconds but it held steady. I started shivering uncontrollably and started doing jumping jacks.

“The water’s holding steady. There has to be a way to get out of here.” I left my pack and climbed down and pushed forward on the sides of the canyon and felt all hope drain from my body. The wall I climbed up with the boys was now a raging waterfall filling up the canyon below. Hundreds maybe thousands of gallons violently spewed from the top of the wall. There’ was no way I could get passed it.

I was stuck. The only thing I could do was wait. I climbed back up into the cave and starting taking out my sleeping bag. I stripped down to my undies, dried off, and got into the sleeping bag. I put on a dry pair of wool socks and took out my stove and prepped it to make hot water. My lighter was soaked. I tried to get it to work for at least a half an hour. No good. I shoved it in my sleeping bag hoping it would dry out. I laid there and watch the pool of white gas evaporate from my stove.

“Why isn’t it going down? It’s been an hour!” I continued to lay there and then watched the last bit of sun leave the top of the canyon. “It’s going to be dark soon….you’re going to have to sleep here over night. Let’s hope it doesn’t rain and the water is down by morning. I mean technically you wanted to camp right?” I hated my brain for saying that to me.

I kept remembering what the ranger said, “Nope, rain for four days straight.” What if it rained again in the middle of the night? The water would be even higher and would only get higher. I’m far from religious, but prayed that the rain would stop. I thought about screaming for help once and stopped. “No one’s going to hear you. You can at least die with your dignity and a fight.” I must have waited for another hour and then got out my flashlight and swapped the batteries and settled into the thought of sleeping there.

All of a sudden I thought I heard voices. “it’s just your head. You think the water is talking.” The water made weird noises as it flowed down the canyon.  Then I was sure I heard two men talking. “Hello?!” I yelled. “Hello!” a deep voice came from the canyon. “Are you alone?” the voice asked. “Yes.” I never thought I’d be happier to here voices. I thought it was search and rescue calling down from above the canyon. Then suddenly a slender man runs out from ahead of the canyon. “Oh hey! I’m up here.” I shouted to him. It was the two guys that helped me with my pack. “Oh my good sweetie are you ok? Are you hurt?” This guy went through the same hell I went through and he’s asking me if I’m alright? That’s how you know someone is a good human being. “Yeah I’m ok. I thought I was alone and you turned back with all the other guys.” The other guy he was with comes running out of the canyon too. “I think the rain has stopped! If we’re going to get out of here we need to get out of here right now.” I paused and asked if they would wait on me. “You got two minutes and I’m gone! I’m sorry but I’m leaving soon.”  I understood. I mean primal instinct is what’s going to get you out of a situation like this. I get out of my bag and start shoving things in my bag aimlessly. “Oh, she’s naked. Hey you’re cute!” I laughed a bit as I struggled to stuff my giant sleeping bag on top of everything. I definitely took longer than two minutes because I struggled with gear and putting all my wet clothes on. I thought they were gone, but to my relief had waited.

I run down to them. “The water may have stopped but the climb up ahead is a waterfall. There’s no way we can get passed it.” He asked me to look at the clouds and if I thought another flood front would come. “It looks clear but it could be raining somewhere else in the canyon. For now it’s calm, but I just don’t know.” He said, “Ok we’ll we go see if the water is down up there.We at least have to check.” We run up and over the rocks. We get to the climb and while it wasn’t a raging waterfall quite like it was there was still hundreds of gallons of rushing water going down it. “Ok, we’re going to get a little wet.” The rock was surprisingly grippy in the rushing water. We get down just enough and jump 6 feet onto soft, muddy, quick sand like sand. “C’mon you guys we have to hurry run!” We push forward. Running through waste deep icy water at points. There are downed trees that have fallen and drifted down the canyon. Getting smashed into any of those would not have been good. I see my tent mangled in one of them.

We emerge from the canyon to a half crescent moon and partially cloudy skies. “Wooooo! We made it!” one of the guys shouted. As we ran down the switchbacks and talked about what had just happened to us. It didn’t quite hit me what I had just survived. I wanted to hug my newly made survivor friends. It was about 7:30 at night and we ran for the last shuttle. The guy turned to us and said, “You’re lucky you made it out alive.”

The guys offered me a warm place to stay, shower, food, and best of company. We sat on the couch, ate pizza, took a few shots of rum, and watched family guy. Their roommates came down and talked with us about our experience and told us stories of how people died in that canyon just a few weeks ago. I remember one of the roomates saying, “They found the last body 25 ft above the trail. He got smashed with 40 mile per hour water into a wall and died.”

As we sat there and started to feel a bit recovered a loud thunder struck and lightening began crashing every second. Then, downpour. Even more so than in the canyon. The rain lasted for hours. “We would still be up there right now.” I thought, or at least me if those two hadn’t been there. The water would have continued to rise and I would have woken up dead.

In this case, I got really lucky and I really understand that now. I went into that canyon with a lot of ignorance and was lucky to come out. Most people don’t I realized that most people going into that canyon don’t know what a flash flood is. This was the one time I didn’t check the weather either and someone is always telling me I worry too much. So I just went to it. My instincts were louder than that those voices and may have helped save my life.

The two on the canyon I will never forget. They saved my life. They helped me be stronger and push myself out of an experience that I may not have come out of. They could have run for their lives and easily just shouted, “Fuck you bitch I’m out of here.” But they waited. In possible death they waited.

So, I wrote this as a warning to others and as a reminder to myself. If you hike in a canyon, know that there are rainy seasons and dry seasons. There’s rain even in the dry season. Don’t ever underestimate the warnings of flash floods or just the weather in general. Checking the weather and talking to people about what you’re doing is taking preventative measure. It doesn’t make you less bad ass. It doesn’t make you worrisome. It doesn’t make you less of a daring person. It makes you a smarter person and one that is alive, and not being recovered at the bottom of a pool of water by search and rescue. It doesn’t matter how many push ups and sit ups you do or how much weight you can bench, that’s not going to help you when you’re being smashed into a wall at 40 miles per our, or when you’re being pushed down by thousands of lbs of water to the bottom of the trail floor, or when you’re foot gets lodged in a root and you drowned.

I’m also going to give a bit more credit to those of us who are ignorant. There are plenty of stories out there where people that have known better, that are the best of the best at safety, and slip up sometimes. There’s been quite a few guides that have died in that canyon as well and non guides that new but pressed their luck a bit. Sometimes you get lucky and make it out alright, but then sometimes you don’t.

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2 responses

  1. Marie Hanson

    Julie I’m just stunned. I’m also thanking God that you survived that ordeal. You sound like you learned a valuable lesson and gained respect for canyons. Just let that same knowledge and respect for the elements go with you into other situations. NEVER assume.

    October 22, 2015 at 12:50 am

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