Surviving Behunin (A Debacle)
Today I am humbled.
Yesterday could have been the end of me, swept away in a flood of raging water.
I underestimated nature, and its ability to turn from tranquil beauty to a freight train of violent energy that destroys without mercy.
My longtime friend Eric and my brother Dave have come into town to visit and to do some canyoneering. Joined by a fourth, Ben, we set out to do Behunin Canyon in Zion National Park.
Behunin is a slot canyon with towering sandstone cliffs, epic beauty, and huge rappels. It is a moderate canyon in terms of technical difficulty, but the rappels are big and offer a good thrill. And this day it would offer more than just a thrill.
We wake up early and check the weather report. It warns of a strong potential for rain. Knowing that the day could be a dangerous one for canyoneering, we decide to proceed anyway. Mistake number one. It is 5:30 am. We reason we can go and hike to the canyon. Perhaps we will opt out at the entrance to the canyon if the weather looks bad.
We get our permits at the backcountry office and hit the trail. After two hours of hiking to the mouth of Behunin Canyon, the skies are still clear. We have gotten an early start, and flash floods are usually an afternoon event, so we figure we are going to go for it. We can make it through in plenty of time.
Our party of four enters the canyon, hiking past a freshly dead deer that has fallen from high above. It is an ominous foreshadowing to the dangers of the canyon. The morning is pleasant, blue skies with a few wisps of cloud. I have no sense of urgency. Mistake number two.
A video of our near death experience
This is a gorgeous canyon full of orange and red sandstone. I spend some time setting up my camera equipment to photograph the other guys rappelling. Soon, grey clouds move in overhead. And with them comes only a sliver of worry.
After maneuvering through almost all of the canyon, it begins to rain on us. This isn’t the gush of rain that I would normally be concerned with. It is a light, steady drizzle. Harmless. I think. I know we are approaching our final rappel into the main canyon of Zion, so I still feel no need to take over, to yell at the guys that we need to get the F*$% out of there.
At the top of our exit from the slot canyon, a series of two rappels that navigate down nearly three hundred feet of rock, it begins to rain harder. The view across the canyon from here is spectacular. Behunin joins in with the main canyon of Zion National Park. The incredible monoliths across the way are shrouded in grey clouds, thick with rain.
We set up the final rappel, a huge 165 feet of free-hanging adventure. Dangling off the end of the rope, high above the ground, a surge of adrenaline rushes through me. I can’t tell if the rope touches the bottom. I just have to trust that my 200 foot rope is there. This is an eerie feeling that lurches my stomach like rotten mayonnaise as I step over the edge, lowering myself below the rock and dangling high above the canyon floor.
The rope slides through my gloved hand, heating up with the friction. I can feel the burn beginning. I am dangling in space in the middle of Zion National Park. One hundred feet off the deck, I halt my rappel. I look across the canyon and admire its beauty. I look up at where I have just come from and take a deep breath, my face getting pelted with rain before I resume my descent.
At last I touch the bottom and shout, “Off rappel!” I cannot tell if they can hear me or not.
Standing at the bottom, I feel like we have made it. What I don’t know is that we are working with a ticking time bomb, clueless that we are minutes away from death. Setting up my camera gear, I prepare to capture the last three guys hanging in the free space above.
The rains continue to pour down. Meanwhile, the water is collecting upcanyon from the vast swaths of slickrock, surging and churning its way right at us. I have no idea it is about to pound us.
Our second rappeller, Ben, makes it to the bottom, hooting with joy at his completion of the canyon. The rain is now falling harder, dangerously so. Looking off to the side, I notice the huge sandstone slab just to the right of our rappel now has a light flow of water running down it.
That isn’t good.
As my camera is pointed at that trickle, I hear a dull rush of sound coming from above. The next second, a blast of water pours down exactly where I have the camera pointing.
“Holy cow!” I exclaim. This is an incredible sight, and terrible news. There is a flash flood occurring right on top of us. And two more of our crew are still at the top in an incredibly precarious position. If they don’t make their way down immediately, they will be swept off a 165 foot cliff.
As I’m filming, my brother makes it to the bottom. He is shaken up. As he was rappelling, he had watched the same blast of water I was just recording pouring out of a spout just a few feet from him. He had to leave Eric at the top, hopeful that he could make it down in time.
This is when it dawns on me.
Shit. We are canyoneering in a flash flood.
The three of us scream at the top of our lungs to let Eric know we are off the rope and he can begin his rappel. The water falling to the right of us is gaining power. More and more water is beginning to fall as it collects from the sandstone watershed above. I’m terrified that at any second I’m going to watch a wave of water pour off the rappel, carrying my friend with it. Thankfully, I see the Eric’s silhouette in the grey sky above us. He’s on the rope! He didn’t get washed off to his death.
When his feet hit the bottom, the four of us erupt in a primal yell. We have survived!
Yet none of us know that our harrowing experience is only just beginning.
A huge, house-sized boulder stands directly behind us, leaning out and offering a (very) small roof of protection. But it is also hemming us in. The only way out of this little pocket where we now stand is down and to the right, exactly where the waterfall is pouring. A ripping river is now running in the only spot we can exit.
Like a bunch of mice hitting a maze’s dead end, we try to climb up and out away from the water. We realize quickly that that way is not an option. I look up and see where Eric has just rappelled from is now flowing with water.
“Let’s go under the boulder!” I shout as we get hit by the first wave of the waterfall. “I don’t know what’s gonna come down!” My fear is that at any second a boulder or a tree is going to get washed over with the water and that we’ll be crushed. “We’ll have to wait it out!”
What I did not know was that all of Zion National Park is receiving a massive amount of rain in a bigger storm than anything that has come through that year.
This is a bad day to be in a canyon.
In the span of thirty seconds, what was a light flow of water has turned into a massive, pounding waterfall. If Eric had taken just one or two more minutes, he would have surely been swept to his death.
The freight train I had known was possible in a slot canyon, what I had always feared but never thought I would be in the position to experience, is screaming down directly on top of us. A wave of fear washes over me. We missed our chance to get out of here.
The four of us scramble to get under cover. The massive boulder that is protecting us only leans out about three feet. All four of us are trying to burrow back into any nook and cranny we can find. But this is like trying to hide from the sun under a stick.
The amount of water, energy, and noise that is now barraging us is completely overwhelming. I try not to think that these might be my last few minutes alive.
Amazingly, the volume of water pouring down keeps increasing. The rock above is receiving the brunt of the blow from water pounding down from 300 feet. From there the water is pouring over and around the boulder from all sides. As I am tucked into a crack as far as I can go, water begins to pour out from behind me. Cracks in the boulder have become a fire hydrant, shooting water at my back and out towards the waterfall. I am now nearly engulfed in water. It is constantly pouring over me. Soon I begin to shiver, the constant water slurping away my body heat. It has became eerily dark. The clouds, the curtain of water surrounding us has blocked out nearly all light.
The shivers soon turn to shakes as I grow colder and colder. The thunder of crashing water is near deafening. My legs begin to cramp from sitting on them for too long. After more than a half hour of painful, frigid waiting, there is still no sign of the flood letting up. I shout to the others to see if they are all right and realize my speech is slurred.
Hypothermia. A new concern. We can’t stay here. We will not survive the night if we do. We will all die of hypothermia.
Another half hour passes. Finally, the water shows the smallest signs of retreat. A little more light grows in our dark dungeon. And with it, hope.
“Let’s see if we can get out of here!” I shout. “It might be our only chance!”
The four of us agree to go, to make a move. Staying put is too dangerous of an option. With the thunder of the waterfall still pounding, we work our way down and to the right, around the edge of the massive boulder we have hid beneath. A torrent of water is consuming the normally dry boulders of the drainage. A slip here would drop us right into the churning flood. Trees ripped from the canyon above have been washed down and lodged in our path, broken limbs and branches creating both an obstacle and a bridge across the gushing waters. There is no way to test the trees to see if they are stable, we just have to hope they will hold.
My body is not cooperating. The deadness of sitting on my legs for too long combined with my low function from hypothermia and I am having serious difficulties. I clamber over the tree, below me boils a brown rush of angry water. I can’t look down. I can’t think about it.
Just keep moving.
I hug the boulder on the other side of the torrent, trying to get my body up and over it. But I can’t. I had been sitting on my backpack in the flow of water and it is now half full of sand and sediment washed in from the flood. It is almost impossibly heavy. My brother sees me struggling to climb up and over the boulder and comes back. He extends his hand and clasps it around my arm, heaving me up and over.
We have escaped the prison of the waterfall. We are on the other side of this roaring mud river. Finally. We’re gonna make it. We have survived.
As we cover ground back to the trail head, I can’t believe what we just experienced. It does not seem real. To the right of me, the Emerald Pools which are normally a tranquil eden, are now a charging mass of brown water pouring down another cliff. A Niagara-like amount of water is flowing over the falls. That could have been my fate. I think as I stare at the water cascading off the huge cliff.
I can’t believe I’m alive.