Four friends (Mckell Crandall, Dustin Cammack, Cliff Chandler, Anthony Dunster) and I decided that we were going to head down to Zion and run Das Boot through the Subway. We were pumped to be getting into a new season of canyoneering. We did Keyhole, on Monday, the day before we were planning on the Subway and ran into some other canyoneers. They had recently done the Subway and told us that there was a lot of water and hydraulics that could potentially pull you back into dangerous water if you weren't a strong swimmer. We thought that sounded pretty cool so we were excited to do the Subway the next day. However, when we went to get our permits we were told that a couple of hikers, Evgenia (Jenny) Buzulukova and Jon Wilson, were missing and that they may have tried to do Das Boot or Russell Gulch. We reevaluated and decided we would definitely take a good look at Das Boot before we committed to that route.
The next day we left early, excited and ready for some adventure. We got a little more than we had bargained for. When we arrived at the Wildcat Trailhead it was crawling with rangers. They told us that some rangers had been down to Das Boot looking for the couple that had gone missing and that the water looked very dangerous. These rangers looked fairly on top of things so we believed them and told them we would just do the regular Subway route. They also told us that another canyoneer, David Balkcom, who had headed out the day before at 3 pm, had not yet returned either. We told them we would keep an eye out for any of these people and headed down.
When we arrived at the entrance to the Subway there was a lot of water coming down from Russell Gulch. This section of the subway was usually dry with a few pools but now it was flowing with water from edge to edge. It was a river. We got into our 7mm wet suits, climbed into our neoprene booties and strapped on our helmets and harnesses. We were ready for some interesting stuff. As we were about to head down canyon a couple came down the trail that were going to do it too. We had them to take a picture of us together and then we started down canyon. As we began I looked back at the couple and wondered if they could possibly have enough gear to safely get down the route; they only had one backpack that the guy was wearing and it didn't seem full enough to have enough protection from the very cold water. "But this is just the subway we're doing" I thought, "they'll probably get a little cold and realize next time they should bring a little better gear. Some natural consequences might get people to prepare a little better. It's just the Subway, they'll be fine."
We started down the canyon, which was a very different beast from what I'd seen the previous times I'd done the subway. The water was flowing very rapidly and anywhere the walls came together tightly it created hydraulic effects that would pull you back into the whitewater falls. We used various methods to get past these including handlines after the strongest person was across. We had been going about 1.5-2 hours when we heard a whistle as we approached a particularly narrow section. As I moved closer to the point where it narrowed up and the water became very strong I could see around the corner a man stuck in a nook on the side of the canyon. He yelled to us, "don't come down here, I've been here since yesterday". I started thinking hard then.
Hypothermic guy down canyon who could be next to useless or even dangerous to himself or us, gotta get him out of there, got to keep my team safe, have to assume that if he is stuck there then the water could be really bad here and I don't want us getting stuck too. Luckily there was a ledge system above us that was more than large enough to walk on. One guy from my team, Dustin, Was able to get up on the ledge and anchor himself down. I had him toss me a rope from above and I was able to stem/chimney/swing over to where David was stuck. He was in bad shape but wasn't spouting nonsense. Mild Hypothermia I decided. He repeated himself and worried about his sling and rope that didn't matter at all but he did what I told him to and seemed to understand he wasn't quite on top of things. I had my other friend Anthony come across too and we made sure he ate some food and drank some water, which he hadn't done in awhile. Meanwhile Cliff and Mckell had been able to get on the ledge up by Dustin. I hooked back on rope and climbed/was pulled up out of the section of canyon onto the ledge system above. We then pulled out David followed by Anthony. After doing a more thorough assessment of David I decided that he was in good enough shape to move down canyon with us. As we moved he became more and more aware and competent as his hypothermic symptoms disappeared. We went down the ledge a little way and found an easy descent back into the main section of the canyon, thus avoiding the spot where David had become stuck.
I realized things
were a little more serious now and went into - get down canyon mode - as
opposed to just having a fun time. But David was doing well, we would be
okay I thought. Around a few more bends we came across our next surprise.
There in the curve of the canyon was a bunch of clothes, some food, and a
pair of nice shoes just sitting there. I thought, "Oh crap. I've read about
this stuff before. Somebody got stuck here, went crazy hypothermic and is
running around in the nude singing chants to the canyon gods and kissing
rocks." We started yelling and searched the surrounding slopes for anyone
who might be there. I still do not know where those clothes came from or why
they were there but I'm grateful that we stopped and yelled because from way
down canyon my friend Cliff heard a faint reply.
Just as I had
finished deciding what we would do this guy popped up from the other side of
the ledge and said "is everything okay here?" I looked at him and thought,
"What the heck is going on?" The guy looked tough with a full beard and long
hair, sinewy muscles and a capable look about him. I'm pretty sure the first
thing I said was "did you just climb up that cliff over there?" and he
simply replied "yes." We talked a bit and he told me he'd picked up the
couple we'd left at the beginning of the canyon. They had been trying to do
the canyon in only dry pants with no upper body protection. Awesome. I
should note now that this guy does not want to be known or mentioned by name
so I will refer to him as simply Canyonman. He is a trained guide and has
been doing canyons for about 13 years I think he said. I thought... this is
We were past the technical section! But it was about 6:30 pm already and I knew there as no way we were making our way out of this before nightfall. Helicopters had passed over a few times but hadn't seen us and we hadn't run into anyone as we came out and I didn't hold out much hope of seeing anyone helpful. We were on our own. We started moving very slowly; 1-2 mph is where I would put our pace. Jen was tired but moving well. David was fully recovered. The couple, Brooke and another Jon (I'll call him Jon 2), Canyonman had picked up were doing fine. Brooke had her nerves hit a bit; I don't think this was quite the adventure they'd envisioned, but didn't let that stop her from moving on. After about a half hour and as the canyon became easier Brooke and Jon 2 decided that they would go on ahead and try and send back help since it was obvious were moving too slowly to get to the cars anytime soon. Jon was moving very slowly and was very unsure of his feet. We kept moving.
As darkness approached we were still a few hours away from the cars. I worried about sprained ankles and other falls that would come as it became very dark. Helicopters continued to pass over from time to time; but we didn't count on any help. It got dark, we kept our headlamps off for as long as we could and I kicked myself for not remembering mine. Luckily we had about 4 or 5 headlamps that worked and we made due. We had to do a few more river crossings (and it really was a river) so I went first and we set up a handline for the others as they came along as I anchored my side and Cliff on his side. Here Canyonman made a big difference again. I had only done subway a few times and knew more or less where the exit was, but it was dark and I was worried. He knew exactly where it was though. After we crossed the river a few times with more handlines we were able to find the exit trail. We hiked up it with breaks fairly often for Jon who was very tired at this point. We kept on moving and reached the canyon rim.
Helicopters were now passing over more frequently, they could see our headlamps, but we didn't really care because we were almost to the lower trailhead. But about 5 minutes out this helicopter came screaming over really close to us, shot dust into our eyes, and passed over a little ways. We kind of looked at each other confused, couldn't figure out what that was about and so we just kept on hiking. About two minutes later we hear shouts from behind us and see headlamps shining. At this point Canyonman said "rangers... see ya" and took off up the trail because he didn't want to be known or talked to when the reports were put together. The men coming out of the woods weren't actually rangers but were Air Force Parajumpers and had rappelled out of their Blackhawk helicopter. They came up asking where Jon was and wanted to give medical attention. Apparently Brooke and Jon 2 had gotten out earlier and phoned in that we were still down there. But the message that Jon was having difficulty walking got turned into, "we heard Jon can't walk and you guys were carrying him". We told them this was not the case and that we would just like to walk the rest of the way to the cars. They looked at each other and said, "Okay... why don't you lead the way." So now we had two Air Force guys join the back of our party and we continued hiking to the trailhead. We got to the parking lot, gave some hugs, handshakes and high fives. About 10 minutes after arriving at the parking lot a ranger showed up who asked us if we needed water. We had Gatorade and water in our cars. The ranger asked me for an explanation of what had happened and I gave a brief explanation while he recorded audio of it. He got our names and numbers and that was it. My group went and picked up our car from the Wildcat Trailhead and headed back to Mosquito Cove for a much needed warm sleeping bag.
Local News Report:
Zion National Park •
Hikers love the narrow canyons and towering rock walls of the popular hike
known as the Subway in Zion National Park. But those same features,
complemented by a torrent of icy cold water, are what caused several
adventurers to become briefly stranded.
NPS Morning Report:
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