Last weekend we headed down to Zion National Park to do some canyoneering. The forecast said it would rain. We got down there and it rained pretty hard all night. The next morning we went to see what canyon permits we could get for our group of six including 3 experienced canyoneering (me, Ben, Chris) and 3 first-timers (Brian, Brett, Chad). We asked the rangers about the conditions and whether it was safe to go canyoneering given that a small storm was expected later that day. Neither ranger had ever even been canyoneering so when they said they wouldn't go in any canyon at all that day, we sort of discounted it since no official flash flood warning had been issued. Of the available canyons we could get permits for, I suggested Behunin Canyon, an intermediate canyon with a smaller drainage and a relatively short narrows section. I convinced our group members this was a safer alternative and that a light afternoon shower would be alright in such a wide canyon.
Since we had to wait to get permits in the morning we got a pretty late start hitting the trail at about 9:30am. We made good time though as we passed Angels Landing, hiked along West Rim trail, cut up through Little Siberia, and finally began our descent down the wide section of Behunin Canyon.
The views and scenery were spectacular.
There was some drizzle from about noon on but the canyon was safe. No signs of rising water or flash flood- everything was going to plan and as expected.
The last part of the hike from rappel #7 to #9 was the narrowest section and at the bottom of the drainage with very large cliffs meaning it was the worst possible spot for a flash flood, but it can normally be finished in about an hour. Once you do rappel #7 you are committed to the narrow final section until the 165 ft big final rappel down to emerald pools.
Our group was just finishing rappel #7 when the rain increased significantly. It went from the slow drizzle we'd experienced all day to a much heavier rain. We started to feel pressure to hurry up. We ran to the top of rappel #8 and were hugging cliff walls to try and stay out of the rain but looking down I could see the water level rising at our feet! It wasn't quite panic, but definitely fear that was setting in as we realized a flash flood was possible and perhaps imminent. Ben hurriedly descended rappel #8 and went to set up the rope and anchor on rappel #9.
Ben had just descended the final rappel leaving the 3 first-timers (Brett, Brian, and Chad) at the final precipice about to rappel. Brian was already tying himself in to the anchor and couldn't get his gated caribener open and then he dropped his ATC off the cliff (the device you use to slowly descend down the rope instead of falling). Dropping that ATC probably saved his life because otherwise he might have been tied to the rope when the flood hit and wouldn't have been able to get untied in time.
I was just about to begin belaying our last group member, Chris, on rappel #8 when I heard him screaming frantically from above. I at first thought he must be yelling "On Belay" and was ready to begin his descent. I looked up and saw him waiving wildly though and heard him clearly yell "Get to high ground!!" I heard what sounded like loud thunder approaching and that's when real panic set in. I screamed to Brett, Brian, and Chad below "Get to high ground! Flash flood!!"
Everything happened so fast.
Brian had to get untethered and then he, Brett, and Chad had to climb out of a little cave/crevice area where the final rappel began and up ~15 feet up to the platform where I was standing that was very rapidly getting covered in a cannon of water.
Here's a picture off of the internet of the little cave/crevice area they had to climb up and out of.
(this is a picture from another group, not our group)
The water went from a low trickle comparable to what a bathtub faucet could put out to a raging torrent in ~ 1 minute. As the last person, Brian, climbed onto the platform the flood was dangerously strong. We ran to the only place available, a very small, slanted ledge off to the side of the raging water. It was barely big enough to fit the four of us there standing. We watched in awe as the flood grew stronger and stronger getting closer and closer to us. We had no idea if our little ledge was safe so I pulled out the little camera we had to video it and say goodbye to my family.
The raging water stopped getting closer. It wasn't weakening, but at least we seemed to be safe on our small ledge. We knew Ben was at the bottom and probably safe but we had no idea what happened to Chris above. At first we figured the flash flood would probably just pass and we would only need to wait 30 minutes. It even showed a momentary sign of relenting after ~1 hour, but that didn't last long and it gained in strength again and it was still raining on us. We realized we were going to be there for a very long time.
Our ledge we were standing on was so small that we were touching shoulder to shoulder. This was good though because standing by this flash flood there was tons of mist and wind and we were soaked. It got very cold. Fortunately I had decided earlier that day to put my emergency space blanket in my backpack and I was then able to take it out and we four huddled under it as best we could. It was so small it could only cover the front of us up to about your chest, but it was so much better than nothing.
We stood on that ledge for 4 hours before the flood abated just enough that we could move down to the next ledge below us and sit in a half-crouch which was better, if only slightly, than standing. The ledge had these sharp jutting bump/nodule things everywhere that helped us keep from slipping and falling off, but were so uncomfortable to sit on!
It got dark and much colder. We signaled Chris above with our headlamp and he signaled back so we knew he was alive at least. We tried to sleep but the fear of falling off the cliff was very real and the cold kept us in a constant violent state of shivering. The flash flood had struck at ~4:30 and we stayed up there on that ledge until 1:30 am when finally the water had receded enough that, even though it would still be wet and dangerous, it was no more dangerous than hypothermia and staying on that ledge until morning. 9 hours on that ledge, we simply had to get down.
We screamed up at Chris and signaled him to come down which he did. Amazingly, neither rope had been lost in the flood even though the upper rope was only secured around a chockstone. We had enough gear to descend (although we had to send an ATC back up for Brian who dropped his). I was the first to drop down into that inky black abyss of rappel #9. It was so dark you really couldn't see a thing and that 165 ft rappel has the majority as a free rappel where you aren't touching the wall but are instead lowering like a spider through the air. I kept trying to look down not knowing if I'd be landing in a pool I'd have to swim in while untying or if it would be solid ground. Fortunately it was solid ground. We all made it down safely and were extremely cold but we were alive and had survived a flash flood! Ben had seen our headlights descending in the distance and he ran the few miles to our position and found us trying to descend through the Boulder field near emerald pools. There were tears of joy and prayers of sincere gratitude.
This experience was terrifying and
The lesson that stands out to me is that of prophets. The few seconds of warning that Chris gave us by shouting for us to get to higher ground was without a doubt what saved Brian, Brett, and Chad's lives and probably mine as well. There's no way they could have climbed out of that cave/crevice at the precipice in the full strength flood and there was no way to survive if they'd have stayed. Prophets are inspired servants of God who reveal his will to us. The scriptures are filled with stories, counsel, and warning from ancient prophets. Likewise we have living prophets today who reveal us God's word. It's not enough for us to just know the Bible stories and basic traditional counsel from God. We need their guidance today. If we are to receive warning we first have to be listening, we need to trust the message (maybe without the proof we'd like), and then we must act immediately without delay. I'm so grateful to be alive. I'm so grateful for the numerous miracles that I'm convinced were involved in helping us survive this flash flood. I'm grateful for the Gospel and for God's eternal plan and love for us even when we make poor choices and put ourselves in stupid positions at times.