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The Black Hole of White Canyon

Flash Flood
in the Black Hole

          The following story was compiled from various interviews, television news reports, Associated Press news releases, local news releases, personal experience in the Black Hole of White Canyon and other sources.

The Story:
          Saturday September 14, 1996 was supposed to be a fun, six hour trek for a group of 13 hikers from Highland, Utah. The group planned on hiking through a unique section of slot canyon known as "The Black Hole". By all accounts, the Highland party that entered the Black Hole was experienced. Many of the group members had traversed the slot canyon before; several had multiple trips to their credit.

          Wearing shorts, T-shirts, life preservers and fanny packs stuffed with food and drinks, the five adults and eight teenagers departed the trailhead at 10 a.m. The sky was blue and the hikers felt safe with so much previous experience. However, the group was missing an important fragment of information. During the night a giant thunderstorm had hit the upper drainage located 30 miles east in Natural Bridges National Monument. The storm had dumped thousands of gallons of rain onto the slickrock and a wall of water had rushed through the night and was about to explode into the Black Hole.

          The hikers suspected trouble when the ankle-deep water they were hiking in quickly rose to knee deep. The group stopped for about an hour at a large boulder to contemplate what they should do. At this time the water was not really rushing and did not appear too sinister. The group had not yet grasped the adversity they were about to face.

          Suddenly, the knee-deep water turned to a wicked violent torrent, shoving everything in its path through the narrow corridor that forms the Black Hole. The group realized they had to get to high ground, and fast. This meant jumping off a platform of rocks, across the deluge of water. Six in the group made it. The remaining seven scrambled up the narrows to a ledge above the water. Tanya Humpheries was the last in line. She lost her footing and slipped, falling into a cove filled with frigid water. Although Tanya was not in danger of being swept away, her companions worried about her getting hypothermia. The group decided to take action.

          Gary Vawdrey tied six life jackets together with square knots. After five tries, he swung the makeshift life preserver rope to Tanya. She wrapped the makeshift rope around her wrist and jumped into the water wearing her personal life preserver. Tanya could not pull herself up and out of the water. She slipped into a rocky hole where the rushing water was being funneled. The weight of the water pounding down caused the makeshift rope to slide off her wrist. Tanya slipped down in between the rocks. She was next spotted some 20 seconds and 200 feet downstream where she resurfaced. To those standing on the shore it appeared as if she was unconscious. Tanya was sweep round the corner and out of sight.

A flash flood roars through White Canyon - Photo by Peter Jamieson.

          T.J. Humpheries (Tanya's father) was helpless standing there watching as his daughter was swept away. Tanya's brother and sister were also witnessing the catastrophe.

          The six hikers, which included Tanya's brother, who had initially made it across the surge of water screamed that they were going for help. The group was able to scramble out of the gorge and alert Search and Rescue personal at Hite Marina on Lake Powell Saturday night.

          As evening approached, T.J. decided those on the ledge had to move. It was simply too cold to stay where they were. He used his hands to hoist them, one by one, to a little plateau. As darkness overtook the stranded group they decided to get out of the wind and sought shelter in two tiny caves. Watching the group lying on their life preservers, eating an apple, an orange, a plum, two fruit bars and two fruit drinks. T.J. was aware of the fact that they were still depending on him to get them out of the predicament. Time to grieve would come later. He was handling the situation and they were counting on him to be the guide, so he kept his composure.

          A Search and Rescue team attempted a search Saturday night, but conditions were too dark and dangerous. A search helicopter from the Arizona Department of Public Safety flew to the canyon about 3 a.m. Sunday, its crew was using special night vision goggles, but they were unable to locate the hikers.

          When the sun cracked the desert plain Sunday morning, the infuriated torrent below had subsided. The six who had spent the night stranded hiked out to a nearby road, showing up at the Search and Rescue camp about 7 a.m. Sunday. Tanya's body was discovered about 2 p.m. Sunday, 900 feet downstream from where she was last seen.

The Black Hole

Related Link:
Canyoneering Guide to the Black Hole


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