Yesterday, a search and rescue crew looking for three missing hikers in Zion National Park found nine hikers instead. They were huddled together some five miles inside the canyon, having been trapped by rising water. Have we heard similar stories before? We have. People hike into a canyon, a calm brook turns into a raging river, and the hikers are either rescued or drowned. This particular story ended pleasantly enough, but far too many conclude the other way—about 200 people a year in the U.S., in fact. Don’t become the next weather-related death statistic!
1. Don’t go hiking inside canyons
The best way to avoid getting trapped inside a canyon is never to hike inside a canyon in the first place. I realize, however, that some of you have an insatiable urge to hike inside a canyon, and will not be stopped by anybody. You might even feel this urge because you know that people get trapped in canyons—the danger only makes such an adventure more appealing. In that case, do your homework. Check the weather, bring a reliable trail map, learn how to use a compass, and talk to the park ranger about which canyons are currently safe, and which will leave you paying a hefty search-and-rescue bill.
2. Keep an eye on water levels
This is not advice I’ve read elsewhere, but it seems so logical that it would be irresponsible of me not to share it. Since rising water—that is, flash flooding—is what frequently traps canyoneers, it stands to reason that you should make note, every few minutes, of whether the water has begun to rise. Also, you should always keep a comfortable distance between your footpath and the water below, and if it starts raining, get the hell out of there. There is no shame in turning back, but there is shame in a preventable death: the word will be inscribed on your headstone.
3. Don’t panic
Well, you went ahead and ignored my first two pieces of advice, and now a flash flood has trapped you in a canyon. What now? Stay calm. I know, I know—that’s easy for me to say. I’m writing this on my couch at home, and you’re stuck against a canyon wall, hoping that the furious, freezing water below doesn’t rise another five feet. Nonetheless, I cannot help you if you don’t stay calm, and you certainly can’t help yourself. Also, you’re freaking your hiking partners out by crying and screaming, and they might start plotting against you.
4. Stay put
Sorry, but I couldn’t resist a joke. You’re trapped; of course you’re not going anywhere! In all seriousness, though, this will make it easier to find you. Maybe that knowledge will calm you down.
5. Drink water …
… but probably not the rising water at your feet. If you try to reach down and drink it, you might slip and then, well, it’s your turn to learn if there’s an afterlife or not. Instead, drink from the generous stores of water in your backpack. You did bring a lot of water, right? I probably should’ve mentioned that at the beginning. Plenty of food, too—and don’t eat it all on your first night stranded.
6. Time for some heavy petting—or shade, depending
The one smart decision the stranded hikers in Zion made was to huddle together. Not that they had to think too hard about it. It gets cold in canyons, and not just at night. Of course, if it’s in the middle of the day and the sun is blazing, you should probably stop working on your tan and find some shade. Heat stroke and hypothermia—the one-two punch of canyoneering. After flash floods, of course.
If, you know, you believe that works. Otherwise, just sit there and hope the park rangers realize you haven’t returned at the time stated on your hiking permit. (Oh dear, I do hope you got a permit.) Listen for a helicopter. If you see one, or you spot other hikers, signal to them by reflecting the sun off a mirror. If the sun isn’t out, or you didn’t bring a mirror, then go back to huddling and praying. And perhaps propose some end-of-the-world sex.
—Photo Ken Lund/Flickr