Two hikers dead after flash flooding in Utah slot canyon

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Two hikers were killed and one injured after getting caught in flash flooding in a canyon on the Utah-Arizona border over the weekend.

According to Lt. Alan Alldredge of the Kane County Sheriff’s Office, a group of three men began walking toward Lees Ferry on Friday for what was supposed to be a three-day expedition. A flash flood likely trapped the group Saturday as moisture from the atmospheric river that flooded California last week flowed east.

One of the hikers’ wives alerted authorities Monday, when the group was scheduled to end their hike. Authorities quickly launched a search, which led an aerial team to a campsite that likely belonged to the hikers.

“They were able… to find some areas where it looked like camping equipment, [like] a backpack [were located]Alldredge told Salt Lake City’s KSL.

Searchers soon found the body of one of the missing hikers. Airborne rescuers found the survivor with an infrared camera while investigating flood debris and loaded him into a helicopter. The surviving hiker was hypothermic after days in an exposed, humid environment and had sustained bodily injury, and was still in the hospital at time of publication. On Wednesday, a team located a second deceased hiker ashore in the middle of the Paria River, about 4 miles south of the Arizona border, while investigating a report from a hiker who said he had seen a body.

Police reported the survivor’s name as Ed Smith. The two hikers who died were Bill Romaniello and Jeff Watson.

The trio weren’t the only hikers to get into trouble at Buckskin Gulch in recent days: The Utah Department of Public Safety said it had rescued an additional 10 hikers from two separate groups from the area. Alldredge told KSL that unusually heavy rain in the west meant conditions in Buckskin would remain unusually dangerous “probably for a couple of months.”

Although fatal flash flood incidents are statistically rare, they occur across the country every year. Nearly 2,000 people have lost their lives to floods and flash floods between 1995 and 2021. And deaths appear to be on the rise, with 146 fatalities in 2021 alone. According to one analysis, flash floods are the deadliest weather-related events in the U.S.

Most flash flood deaths occur when vehicles end up on flooded roads. But slot canyons like Buckskin Gulch can also be extremely dangerous for outdoor enthusiasts.

Instagrammable Buckskin Gulch is known for its beauty, with 12 miles of narrow canyons with vertical walls. The entire canyon is over 20 miles long and has very few places that could be used as safe extraction or exit points, which means that hikers tackling the canyon are usually compromised once they enter it. As one of the longest continuous slot canyons in the world, it can be deadly when flooded. Thanks to their fame, it’s not unusual for adventurers to wander off without a proper understanding of the mechanics of flash floods. (Alldredge told Salt Lake City’s Fox 13 that the affected hikers were properly kitted out and “the conditions were above and beyond what anyone expected.”

Flash floods: a danger in the desert

Flash floods occur when a large amount of rain falls faster than the ground can absorb it. It tends to occur most often in the spring, when the snow is melting, or during the monsoon season. The longer it rains and the heavier the rain, the more likely a region is to receive flash flooding. In the arid Southwest, the soil is also naturally less absorbent, making it especially vulnerable to flash flooding.

While flash floods can be very dangerous no matter where they occur, canyons like Buckskin Gulch, which have narrow, imposing walls, can be inundated with large amounts of water in just minutes, potentially drowning those inside.

Canyons can even flood under blue skies: Since canyons are often extensive networks, far-off precipitation can quickly flow downstream. This means, for example, that a canyon like Zion’s Narrows could flood if Kolob Reservoir gets a lot of rain for a short period of time, even though the Narrows themselves never get a drop of rain.

To avoid being caught in a flash flood, hikers should speak with a ranger or someone who knows local conditions before beginning their trek. They should also monitor the canyon’s boundary waters and the forecast there to determine if there is a risk of flash flooding during the time period of their trip. Since GPS units do not work consistently in steep canyons, a paper map of possible escape routes is a must.

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James D. Brown
James D. Brown
Articles: 8685