ZION NATIONAL PARK – Eric Hanson, his brother Dave, and his friends, Eric and Ben, were rappelling down the side of Behunin Canyon, a slot canyon in Zion National Park with towering cliffs and huge rappels, on August 25 when they were trapped by a flash flood.
It had been gently raining, but Hanson and his friends felt that it would be safe to hike the canyon that morning. “We thought we’d be fine,” Hanson said, “the monsoon rains are usually in the late afternoon.
In a matter of seconds, the four men found themselves in a life or death situation as a light flow of water turned into a massive, pounding waterfall.
In a blog-post describing the ordeal, Hanson wrote that he had “underestimated nature, and its ability to turn from tranquil beauty to a freight train of violent energy that destroys without mercy.”
Atop the exit from the slot canyon, the men set up their final rappel that navigates down 165 feet of free-hanging adventure. Hanson described the rain as a “light, steady drizzle” as he stepped over the edge first and lowered himself below the rock, dangling off the end of the rope, high above the canyon floor.
“What I did not know was that all of Zion National Park (was) receiving a massive amount of rain in a bigger storm than anything that (had) come through that year,” Hanson wrote. This was a bad day to be in a canyon.
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Video courtesy of Eric Hanson
The rains continued to pour down as the second rapeller in the group made it to the bottom. Meanwhile, the men had no idea that the water spawned by a thunderstorm and collecting up-canyon was about to roar down on them.
As the rain began to fall dangerously harder, Hanson realized there was a flash flood occurring right on top of them, and if the two other members of the group didn’t make their way down immediately, they would be swept off a 165-foot cliff.
The falling water was gaining power as Hanson’s brother, Dave, made it to the bottom.
“More and more water is beginning to fall,” Hanson wrote, “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 Eric’s (the last member of the group) silhouette in the grey sky above us.”
When the last member of the crew’s feet hit the bottom, the four men erupted in a primal yell. Yet none of them knew that their harrowing experience was only just beginning.
As the group was hit by the first wave of the waterfall, they made their way to a boulder directly behind them which offered them a small roof of protection. A ripping river was now running in the only spot they could exit and the men realize that they’ll have to wait it out..
“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,” Hanson wrote. “If Eric had taken just one or two more minutes, he would have surely been swept to his death.”
Hanson described what it was like for four men to burrow under that boulder. It was “like trying to hide from the sun under a stick,” he said, as it only leaned out about 3 feet.
After nearly an hour passed and the first signs of hypothermia had begun to set in, the water began to show the smallest signs of retreat. And as the water dissipated, their hope for survival increased.
The four men agreed to make a move and to try to get out, as staying put was too dangerous of an option. With the thunder of the waterfall still pounding, they worked their way down and around the edge of the massive boulder they had hidden beneath.
“I can’t believe what we just experienced,” Hanson wrote. “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 can’t believe I’m alive.”
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