Inexperience, Poor Planning Tied To Canyoneering Accidents Outside Zion National Park

Inexperience and errors of judgment, factors often cited in accidents and injuries in the National Park System, played a role in two recent canyoneering accidents just outside Zion National Park.

Both accidents, which occurred in the same canyon over a two-day period, stemmed from inexperienced participants, according to officials involved in rescuing the injured. Fortunately, the accident victims survived the incidents, albeit with significant injuries, but the episodes highlight the need to have the proper skills and gear when participating in high-risk activities such as canyoneering.

“Canyoneering and rappelling have an inherent risk associated with them," said Kane County (Utah) Sheriff's Sgt. Alan Alldredge. “When you add haste and inexperience, it can result in injury or even death. As the canyons of southern Utah and Zion National Park grow in popularity, we urge everyone to come prepared with the proper skills and equipment so their outings end successfully and without mishap.”

The first incident arose June 29 and required a multi-jurisdictional search-and-rescue mission in a rugged area of Kane County, just east of Zion, after officials received a cellphone call that a 21-year-old woman had fallen 40-60 feet in the Birch Hollow Slot Canyon.

Sgt. Alldredge and Zion Chief Ranger Cindy Purcell served as incident commanders for the Unified Command Rescue. Kane County mobilized its technical rope rescue team while Zion National Park responded with medics, a technical SAR team, and short-haul rescue.

Two park rangers with medical training, Medic Andrew Fitzgerald and EMT Paul Holthouse, rappelled down into the canyon and stabilized the young woman, Petri Moses of Pocatello, Idaho, the park reported. She sustained a possible hip fracture and potentially significant internal injuries, park officials said. After placing her in a full-body splint and litter, the teams raised the young woman 90 feet up out of the deepest area of the slot canyon. The rescuers then had to overnight in the backcountry with the victim to await a short-haul extraction.

On Sunday, June 30, a Park Service helicopter utilized a 250-foot line for the short-haul operation. Ranger Fitzgerald and the patient were lifted out of the canyon and delivered to a helispot north of the Zion Ponderosa ranch, where a Life Flight Medical ship was standing by.

The young woman had come to the area with four friends from Utah, Idaho, and Colorado for a long weekend of canyoneering. They had already successfully completed Spry and Orderville Canyons inside Zion National Park. However, on their route through Birch Hollow, they experienced what all canyoneers need to be prepared for -- "something going wrong," park officials said.

The accident was caused by the incorrect use of a technique referred to as 'simul-rappelling' with a non-experienced person on one side of the rope and Ms. Moses on the other counterbalancing each other’s weight. Simul-rappelling is considered an advanced skill by many in the canyoneering community.

“She was still 40-60 feet from the bottom of the rappel when her tandem partner touched down and apparently let go,” said Chief Ranger Purcell.

According to a park release, the canyoneering party acknowledged that they were in the process of trying to pass another group in the canyon and that their attention was divided between the task at hand and their next move. They had also purposefully packed to be “light because they didn’t think anything bad would happen,” according to Ranger Medic Fitzgerald.

“Canyoneers need to have the ability to ascend ropes. They should carry extra food, headlamps, and a water purification system in case something goes wrong and they need to spend the night,” said Chief Ranger Purcell. “It seemed this group relied on luck to be able to send someone to make a cellphone call and they were indeed lucky that they could get cell service. They were lucky, too, that the weather was not a factor in flying, and that the short-haul helicopter was available.”

The day after Ms. Moses was rescuded, the Kane County Sheriff's Office received another call of a rappelling accident in Birch Hollow.

A 21-year-old woman from Oregon, new to canyoneering and rappelling, had rappelled off the end of her rope and fallen 20-25 feet, park officials said.

The victim, Ms. Zoe Lindstrom-Demant, and her partner evidently misjudged the length of the rappel. The victim, who was the first to descend, sustained spinal and lower limb injuries. Luckily, a second canyoneering party was able to hike out and notify Kane County Dispatch.

Search-and-rescue teams from the sheriff's office, the national park, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, and state parks personnel, worked together to extract the woman and get her to a hospital. She was accessed, stabilized, and raised out of the slot. Once again the park helicopter performed a 250-foot short haul with NPS Medic Craig Thexton riding with the injured woman to an awaiting Life Flight Medical Ship. From start to finish the rescue took less than seven hours.

The success of the two SARs reflect the great working relationship of the numerous agencies involved, park officials noted.