September 5, 2013 by Eric Hanson General 32

Surviving Behunin (A Debacle)

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.

Survivor

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.

 

Photographer, filmmaker, journalist, adventurer. I'm somewhere, maybe Flagstaff, AZ.

32 comments on this post

  1. kirstyerikson

    says:
    September 6, 2013

    wow…what a harrowing tale. I’m glad you and your friends/brother survived…you write the story brilliantly. Thank you for sharing your (mis)adventure.

    K

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 6, 2013

      Hey Kirsty,
      Thanks for the comment! I like that – the (mis)adaventure.

      Reply
  2. charity

    says:
    September 7, 2013

    Wow. I live in St. George, and, you know, you always see the signs and the pictures about flash floods. Everyone ‘knows’ to stay out of the way but seeing actual footage of it. Seriously, I think I just finally understood what the signs were talking about.

    So glad you are safe!

    Thank you for posting this. I’ve learned a new appreciation for the power of Mother Nature.

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 8, 2013

      Charity,
      Thanks for your comment! That’s really cool to hear. I too have a new appreciation for the power of nature!

      Reply
  3. jonexe

    says:
    September 8, 2013

    wow im glad you guys are a live

    new view of life, right now

    thanks for sharing this amazing history, best regards from MX

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 8, 2013

      Thanks so much jonexe,
      Its been pretty crazy since the event. Been doing a lot of thinking. Glad others are getting something for our experience.

      Reply
  4. gRAM Hanson

    says:
    September 9, 2013

    What a harrowing tale , very well written but totally terrified at your close encounter with death——thank you LORD for your protection , am so very blessed to have my two grandsons still with us you are very precious to all your family,,, love gram

    Reply
  5. Mike Andersen

    says:
    September 9, 2013

    So glad you are OK!
    Thanks for the Deja Vu.
    Here is our you tube video from Sept 16, 2011 when we had a similar escape. We manged to get up out of the streambed about 300 feet away from the waterfall and waited it out there. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lnsEZAoWZxk

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 9, 2013

      Hey Mike,
      I’ve seen that video before. Its pretty crazy. Looking back, its absurd how close we were to safety, only about 50 feet around the corner. We just weren’t able to get there before the floodgates poured down on us.

      Reply
  6. Brian Erickson

    says:
    September 10, 2013

    Terrifying.

    Reply
  7. Tarik Trad

    says:
    September 12, 2013

    Glad you all are safe. As a former ranger, I’ve seen first-hand the destruction of flash floods coming THROUGH a canyon, but never in my life have I seen it come OVER canyon walls like this. I honestly didn’t believe it until I saw the video. Amazing! Hope everyone gets it – weather reports, clouds, light rain in a canyon area are clear signs to get out. Again, glad you all are safe.

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Tarik, sorry for the late reply, I’ve been out in the wilderness the last 8 days. I have been in Zion when other flash floods have happened (I was thankfully not in a slot canyon), but I had never seen anything quite like the power of this particular one.
      Thanks for the comment!

      Reply
  8. Randy

    says:
    September 12, 2013

    Thank you for sharing your (mis)adventure. The writing and photography was outstanding.

    I read every accident report I can find in the hope that I can learn from experiences of others. Your self diagnosis of events and decisions is very helpful in my education and that of the canyoneering community. I can see my self making many of the same decisions. Thanks to your report maybe some of us will make better decisions next time.

    Having done Behunin just a few weeks ago, I could vividly picture the precarious situation you and your company were in. Like all of us reading this, we are glad you are all safe.

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Thanks Randy, I appreciate your comment. I like your approach to learning, you are smart to gain wisdom from other’s mistakes. Behunin is a beautiful canyon. Glad you’ve experienced the canyon, its a special place.

      Reply
  9. craig

    says:
    September 12, 2013

    As an avid canyoneer, I have to chime in here……

    Although I’m happy to hear you made it safe, you obviously have not done ANY safety classes with ACA or ATS. You should NOT be in any canyon – period – let alone leading others!

    This is a dangerous sport and multiple have recently dies in Zion in the last few months. You went out when rain was forcasted and in the video, you don’t even have helmets and you are wearing (keen?)sandals! You did so many cardinal sins wrong here and although (again) I’m happy to hear no one was hurt, your crew was blatantly stupid!!!!! I hope you never take anyone out canyoneering until you take come classes. I wonder if you do “wilderness therapy”, what other poor decisions you make for your “clients”. TSK TSK!

    Think about it… you and several others almost died for ignorance and lack of education and respect for Zion canyons. PLEASE LEARN FROM THIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    ANYONE who is interested in this sport should take classes. Otherwise, you are cheating death. I recommend these….
    http://www.theatsteam.com/adventureworks/canyoneering.html
    http://www.canyoneering.net/forums/content.php?19-courses

    Reply
  10. Steve

    says:
    September 13, 2013

    What a crazy story! Glad you guys made it outta there. You can pretty much one up all of your canyon buds when it comes to war stories.

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Ha! Thanks Steve. Well having a war story was never my goal, but that’s a fun positive from experience!

      Reply
  11. Rinus

    says:
    September 13, 2013

    Glad you all made it out. Probably now it’s easier to understand why not so experienced people get in to trouble but also can’t get them out of a bad situation. As a qualified climber and survival teacher I have been there done that. Never thought I would make such a stupid decision. It is a very good wake-up call. Evaluate, get back on the horse, do the same canyon again and get back in touch with your gut(feeling). You’re still here to enjoy and teach others to always be aware.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Thanks RInus, a wake up call indeed. It’s crazy the small things that separate a pleasant day of fun, a near-death experience, and a total disaster.

      Reply
  12. craig

    says:
    September 13, 2013

    I have no apologies here for my passionate replies here…… I’ll say it again, you should NOT be leading ANYONE in canyons. You do not know what you are doing (no helmets, sandals, and going out in flash flood conditions… (who knows what other mistakes you may have made) and people need to know that if they are out for your “wilderness therapy” that the leader has no clue on their responsibilities or safety for lives. Seriously… when you are in Zion, there are awesome qualified, insured and experienced guides who would have NEVER gone out that day or let you or anyone with you not be appropriately geared. Even with 30+ canyoneering adventures (in CA, AZ and UT) I’d NEVER lead a canyon team unless they were friends who I knew have experience….. When I was in Zion last, we skipped canyons due to potential rainfall and we drove in from Los Angeles. It wasn’t worth risking death………..

    Reply
    • bob

      says:
      September 14, 2013

      Awesome wake up story. good lesson for all of us. by the way craig harsh words next time I see the M.D. on his Harley out on the streets of L.A wthout his PPE after spending a day in the E.R. I will remember your Chide

      Reply
      • craig

        says:
        September 19, 2013

        Bob-
        Nothing harsh at all. Just the REAL truth about bad decisions and being responsible. Somehow Eric’s story has been somewhat glorified as being lucky when if he made a smart decision from the beginning, he would have never been in this situation.

        Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Hey Craig,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad that you showed the wisdom to back out after driving in from out of state to do a canyon, good call. That made me think of something,I spent more than 50 days in Zion last year alone, many of those days were spent in slot canyons. I live just outside of Zion and feel quite familiar with the place. I have seen lots of weather conditions there, and I think the familiarity I have with the place led me to feel more comfortable with the risk I was taking. I’ve seen wild weather in the park before, but nothing quite like what happened on this day.

      I’ll tell you what, if I was taking a trip to Denali for some mountaineering, I’d probably be a lot more skittish (and perhaps wise) about the weather and would be quicker to opt out, simply because I do not know the place. But if I lived on the mountain, I probably wouldn’t stay inside any time there was some snow in the forecast. Regardless of my reasoning, I should not have been in that canyon that day. I admit it was quite a mistake.

      Additionally, my work in wilderness therapy is totally separate from canyoneering or this experience. I have never claimed to be a “guide,” and I never “lead” anyone into a slot canyon. This was simply a day of canyoneering with a few friends, a day that we should have exercised much more caution.
      And yes, you are correct, there are many excellent guides for Zion National Park, I recommend Zion Adventure Company to anyone interested.
      Thanks again Craig.

      Reply
      • craig

        says:
        September 19, 2013

        Hey Eric-
        Thank you for appreciating my candor and for keeping my post on your site. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad you made it out alive for sure and I think this is should be the “poster child” for canyoneering safety. Also, you should really wear helmets and have proper gear. Move on, be safe, god bless the work you do to help others…. just be smart and safe bubba. =)

        Reply
  13. Josebug

    says:
    September 16, 2013

    Wow.. next time leave the camera at home and bring yer helmet instead

    Reply
    • Eric Hanson

      says:
      September 18, 2013

      Good call! I’m staring at my helmet right now! Shoulda been wearing it for sure!

      Reply
  14. Jack Bowman

    says:
    June 2, 2015

    I didn’t see anything about this on the news. That’s good news.

    Your write-up was incredible. I almost felt like I was there with you.

    Unfortunately the video is set at “Private” and I was unable to watch it. What are the chances?

    Reply
  15. fran

    says:
    June 18, 2015

    Eric, my family just got back from a short trip to Zion where we hiked the Narrows from the bottom up, our first experience with anything even remotely like this. All of us want to come back next year and do the top down today hike. But I am posting this story on our group site so that everyone can be well aware of the potential for early death. Your story had me on the edge of my seat, & I almost can’t believe how you made it out alive! unfortunately the video is listed as private and I was not able to watch it although I would love to. I hope you have many many more years of enjoyment in Zion and God willing be safe.

    Reply

Leave a Comment!

Your email address will not be published.