IVINS — After being forced to leave the corpse of his father behind in a flash flooding Zion slot canyon, then 14-year-old Shawn Ellis and his fellow scouts watched helplessly as the violent current of a natural whirlpool held his scout leader underwater just out of Ellis’ reach.
This real-life narrative continues in a new book that chronicles one of the 73 dark, bizarre, and intriguing death accounts and rescues within the boundaries of Zion National Park. Ivins resident Dave Nally with Search and Rescue veteran Bo Beck have chronicled all of these tragic and sometimes horrific events and recently published a history titled “Deaths and Rescues in Zion.”
“I tried to stay out of the participants’ heads, and not judge them,” Nally told St. George News after his year-long research into these tragedies. However, part of his purpose for writing the book was to find out what went wrong so that modern adventurers can be more knowledgeable as they enter the backcountry.
In retrospect, Nally found that many of these deaths could have been avoided, he said. Ellis’ scout group, for example, saw that the water at the entrance of the canyon was higher than usual, but still chose to go down the canyon. When poor planning is compounded with environmental complications, coupled with remote location rescues, things go awry, Nally said.
Not only is the terror of these stories intriguing, but the ingenuity of the often-controversial subsequent rescues is often just as captivating. Nally doesn’t hold back from the controversy. Like a detective, he uncovers the reports of rescue teams, partners, park officials, and even family members of those deceased in these battles for survival.
Nally’s own battle with testicular cancer at 38 forced him to surrender to the fact that life is fragile. “I thought … I’d never be able to get out like I used to,” Nally said. However, after his successful treatment, he found that his brush with death had given him the resolve to live a fuller life.
After surviving a year of cancer treatment, Nally has spent the last 10 years extensively exploring the backcountry. With the amount of time he’s spent in the wilderness, sometimes alone, he admittedly sometimes finds himself in some hairy situations, he said.
“I started thinking a lot, you know, I could get myself hurt or killed out here.”
He heard stories of death in beautiful, spiritual places that he often frequented – like the Grand Canyon – and he wanted to understand more.
Once he started researching the Zion death stories, he said, it was obvious to him: These stories needed to be told. With the current influx of adventurers into the backcountry, people need to understand the dangers.
According to U.S. National Park Service statistics, although visitation to Zion National Park has stayed about the same the last few years, the number of people exploring its backcountry has increased every year, Nally said. Plus, these backcountry adventurers are sharing their extreme experiences online, sparking the interest of even more backcountry adventurers.
Nally understands the attraction. “These places are so beautiful that sometimes we get sucked into them,” Nally said,”we get drawn in deeper and deeper, and suddenly we’re over our heads.”
Once Shawn Ellis’ scout group rappelled down the first 85-foot drop, they were sucked into a situation that was way over their heads. The deep, narrow, terracing canyon typically only has a tiny trickle of water; but on that day in 1993, propelled by a faraway thunderstorm, the trickle had become a stream.
The flowing water made the numerous rappels lethal, as the scouts soon found out. After the second scout leader got sucked downwards into a whirlpool below them, the scouts were forced to watch from a ledge above as the leader never surfaced from the bottom of the whirlpool.
The conditions of the flooding canyon made it so that the scouts couldn’t navigate in either direction. They were stuck in between their first drowned scout leader – Ellis’ dad – behind them, and their second drowned scout leader in front of them.
The scout group was canyoneering, which is a a sport that is inherently dangerous. Once you’re committed, and you’ve gone down the first of usually a succession of rappels in a canyon, there’s only one way out: the bottom of the canyon. The particular canyon that the scouts were descending usually takes one or two days to finish. If problems arise, like unexpected torrents of water, there’s little chance for rescue.
“Just because it’s a national park, it’s not like Disneyland where you can turn off the ride and be rescued,” Nally said. The stories in Nally’s book show how unfathomable a backcountry rescue can be, and how often times, these rescues are just too late.
The scouts found a corner and huddled hopelessly in the frigid water, without most provisions, for four nights of temperatures below 40 degrees. They were completely stuck and most of their supplies and food had floated down the canyon.
Family members back home became distraught after the scouts didn’t return. Search and rescue teams were deployed, but because of their location, 1,000 feet down in a narrow dark slot canyon, although the teams flew over them multiple times, they could not see them. After five days in the canyon, search and rescue found and rescued them, and removed the two corpses.
After the surviving scout members were rescued from the sheer-walled natural dungeon, Zion National Park was sued by the families. The park subsequently changed many of its liability and safety procedures. It’s very interesting to hear the ripples of some of these true tales and how they affected the policies of organizations like the National Park Service, Search and Rescue and even the Washington County Water Conservancy District, who’s water monitoring policies have evolved with flash flooding in mind. These are all aspects of these death stories that Nally openly discusses in the book.
Not only does this book bring to light the very real risks of the often romanticized concept of backcountry adventure, it brings up bigger, more universal questions like: what risks in your daily life are you willing to take? what are your ideal circumstances for death? and how will you handle traumatic experiences?
Risks are what make adventurers feel alive, Nally said. These people know what risks they’re taking, and are therefore better able to accept the consequences.
“In a way they’re dying where they want to die. I kind of think it’s a beautiful thing to die in a beautiful …, spiritual place,” he said, “doing something I love doing.”
NOTE: A BASE jumping death occurred recently making the total number of deaths currently in Zion 74, not 73 as reported in Nally’s book.
Zion locations with most deaths
- Angels Landing: 12
- The Narrows: 9
- The Tunnel: 8
Nally’s tips for backcountry adventurers
- Be prepared before you go
- Be careful while you’re out there
- Be cognizant of the weather
- Know the ability of our group members – a weak group member could put the entire group in danger
- Update: Search teams locate body of Zion BASE jumper
- News short: BASE jumper’s chute does not deploy, fatality in Zion
- SAR responds to Red Mountain; trail runners lost, shivering
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