Canyoneering history day; the art of epic adventures in narrow – and sometimes deadly – places

Composite image. Background image of the Subway in Zion National Park by Sascha Wenninger via Flickr. Inset left photo shows Springdale stockman John Winder exploring one of Zion's narrow canyons, Zion National Park, Utah, circa 1913. Inset right photo shows Seth Compas descending a steep rappel in Pine Creek, Zion National Park, Utah, July 4, 2018 | Winder photo courtesy of Zion National Park. Compas photo courtesy of Jenny Compas, St. George News

FEATURE – To some, it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To others, it is an obsession they enjoy repeating over and over. And unfortunately, for some, it is an activity that ends in tragedy.

The exploration of canyons that requires climbing equipment for rappelling as well as swimming and scrambling up or down rock faces has become a popular activity among adrenaline junkies who seek fantastic scenery and the chance to get away from the crowds. Known as canyoneering or canyoning, it is a relatively new sport that has seen a steady rise in popularity in the last 20 years.

There is no short supply of captivating canyons in Zion National Park, which has transformed it into a hotbed for canyoneering.

According to the park’s data, permits for canyoneering day trips have risen from 28,783 in 2008 to 38,183 in 2017.

Some canyons in the park, such as The Subway and Mystery Canyon, are so popular that an online lottery system has been implemented, meaning would-be canyoneers must plan well in advance what dates they would like to complete their excursion.

Fifty years ago, however, hardly anyone was exploring these now-popular canyons.

Early canyoneering

This historic photo shows Springdale stockman John Winder exploring one of Zion’s narrow canyons, Zion National Park, Utah, 1913 | Photo courtesy of Zion National Park, St. George News

In the mind of Zion National Park Chief Ranger Cindy Purcell, the first canyoneers in the Zion area were the pioneers themselves. She notes that John Winder, a Springdale stockman of the early 20th century, explored some of Zion’s canyons during that time period. His explorations proved essential in showing surveyors of the Zion Tunnel where the best route for it would be.

Tom Jones, a canyoneering guide who has written books on canyoneering and maintains the website canyoneeringusa.com, said canyoneering started in the 1950s in the Pyrenees Mountains on the border of Spain and France. It has been a big thing in Europe, he explained, complete with associations and university-level certification courses for guides.

Most of the pioneers of canyoneering in the United States began their pursuit of the adventure as rock climbers and started to utilize recently developed climbing equipment to go down instead of up. These adventurers used pitons as anchors for rappelling where there were no other anchor options, to drop down over waterfalls and overhanging cliffs. At first, canyoneering did not have its own identity but was rather just something for climbers to do when they weren’t climbing.

The earliest record of what could be considered a canyoneering excursion in Zion National Park was in 1966, and in the 1970s, there are more records of technical explorations in what has become known as Zion’s “Black Book.” 

Climber and professional photographer Dennis Turville was a canyoneering pioneer in Zion. Turville made the first recorded descents with a group into some of Zion’s most notable canyoneering routes such as Heaps, Keyhole and Pine Creek canyons.

Turville didn’t go into great depth about these adventures, perhaps wanting his hidden hobby to remain that way, said Nick Halberg in a recent article for Wasatch Magazine. 

“As it stood, he never saw other people in his canyons, or even signs of people,” Halberg said. “The only information that slipped to the public’s eyes were the photographs Turville snapped inside the canyons, offering glimpses into the tantalizing world beneath the rim.”

According to Halberg’s article, by the early 1990s, canyoneering had grown in the Southwest among small groups of serious outdoor recreation enthusiasts. A tragedy in Kolob Creek in 1993 helped canyoneering come into the mainstream. For many who read about the ordeal, it was the first time they had ever heard of the sport, and it made some of them want to try it themselves, despite its inherent dangers.

The Kolob Tragedy

On July 14, 1993, a group of five young men from a Salt Lake area ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and their three leaders – including David Fleischer – ventured into Kolob Creek on what was supposed to be a four-day canyoneering adventure that would end where the Zion Narrows begin, the Temple of Sinawava.

The unbounded enthusiasm of Fleischer from a previous trip down that same canyon were the inspiration for the adventure, which would traverse the most technical route through the canyon and would require 11 rappels.

The initial rappel in the descent through Kolob Creek, where two young men’s leaders died during an excursion in July 1993, a tragedy that brought attention on canyoneering, Zion National Park, Utah, 2005 | Photo courtesy of Dustin Hinton, St. George News

Fleischer’s previous foray down the canyon happened while the water was running at about 3 cubic feet per second, which was extremely manageable even for novices. However, when he and the youth group attempted the canyon this time, the water was running at 30 CFS due to the Washington County Water Conservancy District’s management program of Kolob Reservoir, which sits above the creek.

That amount of water doesn’t sound like much, but for a small creek in a narrow canyon, it is powerful enough to fill four bathtubs in a second, Noel de Nevers wrote in his book “The Kolob Tragedy: the Lost Tale of a Canyoneering Calamity.”

Even though the water was higher, Fleischer did not call off the trip and felt like the group could not turn back after the first few rappels, nor did anyone in the group notice cracks that could have been scrambled up to safety, de Nevers wrote.

The next day, July 15, 1993, Fleischer was caught in a whirlpool, and another leader, Kim Ellis, dove into fish him out. She succeeded but was caught in the current again and drowned. Later on, Fleischer was swept over a waterfall and fell into another whirlpool and drowned as well. It took two more weeks for the Park Service to recover Fleischer’s body. Besides the bodies, the current also swept away much of the survivors’ supplies.

The remaining leader, Mark Brewer, and the five young men waited near the whirlpool for the next five days until rescuers arrived.

The widows of the two drowned leaders and four of the young men filed suit against the National Park Service, saying they failed to warn them of conditions in the creek, as well as the Water Conservancy District, which is responsible for the flow of water into the creek. They originally sought $24.6 million in total damages.

The Park Service said there was no evidence of negligence by any park staff even though the plaintiffs said the ranger issuing the permit did not give any warnings, which the ranger flatly denied.

Canyoneering pioneer Dennis Turville was quoted in Salt Lake Tribune story a year after the incident as saying Fleischer should have called the trip off after seeing how high the water was.

“You have to drive right over the creek on the way to the trail head so there’s no excuse for even continuing from there,“ Turville said in the story. “Because they lacked the common sense and the experience to be on such a difficult hike, now they are saying someone else should pay for it.”

Other expert witnesses called in agreed with Turville’s assessment.

In February 1996, the Water District filed motions for the judge to dismiss the case, saying it had no responsibility to care for the Fleischer group, whom, the district said in the motion, “made no effort to learn what the District was or ask the District if it was safe to make the trip.”

The Park Service also motioned to dismiss, saying Zion National Park had no “duty to care” for the Fleischer group.

A steep rappel in Kolob Creek, Zion National Park, Utah, 2005 | Photo courtesy of Dustin Hinton, St. George News

In the end, the lawsuit never went to trial. The Water District settled for $750,000 and the National Park Service for $1.49 million.

In the aftermath of the lawsuit, the National Park Service stressed that a permit to enter the backcountry is not a guarantee of safe passage but is “an agency tool to track the number of users, gauge the impact on the land, and assist rangers locating travelers who run into trouble,” the Salt Lake Tribune reported on June 20, 1996, a few days after the settlement was reached.

Throughout his narrative about the canyoneering tragedy, de Nevers does his best to take an objective tone and stick with the facts. But in his epilogue, he provides his own opinion of the situation, saying he feels the Park Service and the Water District stood blameless in the case.

“The Park Service conducted a trying and dangerous rescue and a difficult retrieval of Ellis’ and Fleischer’s bodies for which, if press reports are correct, survivors never publicly thanked them, “de Nevers wrote.

According to de Nevers’ book, the plaintiffs’ attorneys served them well by taking a total of $2.24 million from two agencies he believes had no legal or moral responsibility for their clients’ misfortunes and, in the case of the Park Service, were deserving of gratitude, not public condemnation.

Jones, in his foreword to de Nevers’ book said that outdoor enthusiasts and rock climbers found the case troubling and followed it closely, feeling like it would answer questions such as whether land managers are responsible when adventure-sport enthusiasts got in trouble on public lands.

Such outdoor adventurers felt that if the case did not go well, it might lead to limited access to public lands where they engage in the activities for which they are so passionate. They were relieved when the lawsuit was settled.

The lawsuit helped define the responsibilities of groups undertaking canyoneering adventures as well as the role of public land management agencies in such excursions.

Sadly, other canyoneering tragedies have occurred over the years. Most of them, however, were due to flash flooding and not human error. One of the most recent was a group of seven adventurers who met their demise in Keyhole Canyon in September 2015 as a result of a flash flood.

Canyoneering today

The birth of what Jones calls the modern era of canyoneering coincided with the birth of the internet.

“Canyoneering does not naturally create interaction between disparate groups of canyoneers, thus, the groups tended to not every interact and drew in few new members,” Jones said, “that is, until the internet, which made it much easier for people with similar interests to connect.”

Seth Compas descends a steep rappel in Pine Creek, Zion National Park, Utah, July 4, 2018 | Photo courtesy of Jenny Compas, St. George News

The sport was legitimized when Rich Carlson, who started the first professional canyoneering guide service in the U.S., established the American Canyoneering Academy, which is responsible for deciding on professional certification standards and requirements for the sport. Jones himself started Imlay Canyon Gear, which makes equipment specifically for canyoneering.

Would-be canyoneers must have the right equipment, be safety minded and take into account information provided by the park. Zion’s backcountry staff will not deny a permit to any parties wanting to go canyoneering, though they do everything they can to warn of any dangers, and every group leader must sign the back of the permit after hopefully reading all of the warnings asserting they are responsible for their party, Purcell said.

Permits for exploring Zion’s backcountry are nothing new. They have been in existence since before 1980. Zion’s wilderness management plan, initiated in the mid-1990s, supports the use of a permit system and managing numbers in the wilderness to the point where they have it down to the numbers of people they will permit in each canyon, Purcell said. They gather data for the numbers of visitors in each canyon by month to track patterns of use.

The most popular use for backcountry permits is canyoneering day trips and for the ever-popular Narrows, which is included in that number even though it is not a technical canyoneering canyon and does not require rappelling equipment.

The park does not permit guided canyoneering trips in the wilderness areas.

All guided canyoneering should be happening on licensed Bureau of Land Management and National Forest Service land surrounding Zion,” said Zion Adventure Company co-founder Jonathan Zambella, who now operates NamaGuides. “I am just guessing there is a fair amount of rogue guiding going on, but not by licensed guide services.”

However, Zion does allow limited front-country commercial guided trips. For instance, commercial groups can guide up the Riverside Walk through the beginning of The Narrows until about Orderville Canyon. The footprint of many of the outfitters can be seen by the gear that they rent, most prominently canyoneering shoes and hiking sticks.

The park’s educational outreach includes information disseminated through Zion’s webpage and social media channels, and there is one place the park sends a visible message warning of the dangers of exploring more challenging and dangerous routes. There is a sign before the ascent up to Angels Landing from Scout Lookout communicating to visitors how many hikers have died on the trail since 2004, and the number on the sign is updated after each death occurs.

“We wanted people to really get it,” Purcell said.

The Subway in Zion is reached by rappelling down cliffs and wading in water
The Subway is a popular backcountry hike for which potential hikers must put in for a lottery months in advance to obtain the permit necessary to traverse it, Zion National Park, Utah, June 23, 2012 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Recently, Purcell noted, the park called out two groups hiking the Subway for not following the rules. The groups scoffed at rangers’ warnings and were ill-prepared, venturing into The Subway without the proper equipment, including ropes and harnesses. Eventually, they needed to be rescued.

Read more: Zion National Park visitors rescued after mocking rangers, hiking The Subway unprepared

Lucky for them a helicopter from the Grand Canyon was available, but Purcell said that was a fluke because usually the Grand Canyon is very busy and such a mode of rescue in Zion is rarely possible.

Purcell said the park does not make a habit of chastising unprepared groups but took this occasion as an opportunity to teach potential hikers that park rangers really know what they’re talking about when they issue their warnings.

“They’re on their own,” she said of groups who venture into these backcountry canyons. “There is no guarantee of rescue.”

In extreme cases, these canyon explorers will be forced to make life and death decision, Purcell explained, which the Kolob Creek tragedy sadly illustrated.

Purcell noted that search and rescue is a discretionary function of the National Park Service, not a mandatory one.

Currently, there are five permanent rangers available for search and rescue efforts and that professional guides bolster those numbers when needed. Purcell said the park loves the professional guides around the park and has a great relationship with them.

Additionally some shuttle bus drivers help with rescues as well as personnel from the Washington and Kane counties’ sheriffs’ offices. All of these supplemental rescuers go through special training and clear themselves physically before participating in a rescue.

There are currently nine professional canyoneering guides in the Zion area. The first one was Zion Adventure Company, established in 1996, followed by Zion Rock and Mountain Guides in 2004. However, most canyoneering excursions are self-guided.

Most of the guided clients, as in about 90 percent, are doing canyoneering for the first and only time they will ever do it in their lives,” Jones said. “Guided canyoneers has almost zero overlap with canyoneering in general. Canyoneering is essentially 99 percent self-guided.”

Zambella said his current company, NamaGuides, will serve about 2,500 clients for canyoneering, but they’re one of the smaller outfitters in the area. He said his company’s most popular offering is a half-day canyoneering adventure.

Trying canyoneering

Those wanting to try canyoneering themselves should be in good physical shape and be comfortable rappelling down steep drops. If participating in a self-guided tour, it is advised to have someone experienced in climbing and rappelling and to bring the proper equipment.

In many cases, canyoneering groups must plan months in advance in order to get a permit.

For information on permits, visit Zion’s canyoneering permits website and for detailed information on the Zion area’s canyoneering routes and other Utah routes, visit Canyoneering USA.

Photo gallery follows below.

About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

Read more: See all of the features in the “Days” series

Click on photo to enlarge it, then use your left-right arrow keys to cycle through the gallery.

Email: rwadsworth@stgnews.com

Twitter: @STGnews

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