UTAH - Two hikers were found dead and one was rescued by helicopter this week after storms and heavy rainfall triggered floods that surged through a narrow canyon in southern Utah in the United States, the authorities said on Thursday.
The hikers, men in their 50s whom the authorities did not publicly identify early on Thursday, had set off last Friday from Wire Pass, a trailhead that leads into Buckskin Gulch, one of the nation’s longest and most rugged slot canyons, or narrow gorges, which runs through the south of the state.
“It’s very popular, and it’s quite a big deal if you have got the stamina to do it,” said Lieutenant Alan Alldredge, an emergency services official and spokesman for the Kane County Sheriff’s Office.
“Four hundred-ft (122m) cliff walls, 2ft apart.”
The men were experienced hikers on their way to a site on the Colorado River, Lees Ferry, a distance of about 80km that they had hoped to reach by Sunday night, he said in an interview.
They never arrived at their destination.
On Monday morning, the wife of one of the hikers called the authorities to report that the group had not been in contact.
While the men were well-prepared and experienced hikers, the prospect of their disappearance was alarming, considering the weather and the challenge of searching kilometres of narrow canyons by helicopter.
Southern Utah had been deluged by stormy weather.
The Bureau of Land Management and the Kane County Sheriff’s Office this week issued an advisory to discourage visitors from continuing their hikes, saying that “severe and unpredictable” flash flooding could occur in Buckskin Gulch, another canyon, called Paria, and Wire Pass, a starting point for hikers setting off into the canyons.
The effects of stormy weather are daunting on the pathways that thread through the steep canyon walls, particularly in Buckskin Gulch, a narrow gorge that winds for about 25km through steep, sandstone walls, making it one of the longest slot canyons in the world.
While the area is attractive to hikers, the slot canyon’s slender passages can be perilous during heavy rainfall, forming a chute through which powerful floods can surge.
Rescuers evacuated at least 11 hikers from other groups from the area in the past week, Lt Alldredge said.
He said Buckskin Gulch is typically dry, but hikers come across a patch of water or a knee-deep pool occasionally.
The days before the three hikers set off had been rainy, adding to a season of wet winter weather that had already spewed run-off into the canyon.
“It was slow going for them,” said Lt Alldredge.
The hikers did not get very far that first night, and set up camp, he said.
On Saturday morning, Lt Alldredge said, they could hear the quickening sound of water.
“Then they got hit with the flash flood,” he said, describing such floods as “horrible, violent events”, with water pushing forward between towering canyon walls.
“You got a 5-foot coming at you, and the walls are 3ft wide,” he said. “There is nowhere to go. You go where the water takes you.”
The rushing water had carried the hikers kilometres downstream, until at some point two of them clambered onto a bank, the official said.
The men regrouped before pressing on to search for the missing hiker.
One of the men had hurt his leg and said he could not go on, Lt Alldredge said.
“The other one got him situated and left him there to see if he could get help,” the lieutenant said, recounting what the man who had been rescued told the authorities.
They were about 16km into the canyon, he said, and “conditions were so bad. They were cold and beat up”.
On Monday, when the search and rescue helicopter was launched, the rescuers started to spot signs that they were zeroing in on the hikers.
Camping debris and a backpack were spotted.
Using infrared equipment, rescuers detected a “glimpse of a body” a few kilometres from where the two had split up, the officer said.
It was one of the hikers.
He was alive, but “just spent. He was done. Out of energy. He was kind of leaning up against the side of a rock cliff”, Lt Alldredge said.
“Then he kind of laid down, but he could wave his hand.”
From the helicopter, the search team lowered a rescuer into the canyon, who was able to harness and hoist the hiker out.
He was taken to hospital, the spokesman said.
Search teams also went in on foot, entering at a spot about halfway into Buckskin Gulch, where there is access into the depths between its walls.
Late on Monday, they found the body of the second hiker from the group.
On Tuesday morning, they found scattered gear.
On Wednesday, there was another rainstorm, Lt Alldredge said.
The helicopter was unable to fly, but was kept ready for a safe break in conditions that would have enabled rescuers to lift off.
When that break came, the rescuers went up, pursuing a tip they had received on Tuesday from a man who said he had seen a body.
It was the body of the third hiker, on a patch of land in the middle of the Paria River, about 4.8km inside Arizona, Lt Alldredge said.
“It will forever be a mystery to us how he got that far downstream,” he said.
“We will never know.” NYTIMES