7th person found dead in Zion National Park after flash flood

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ZION NATIONAL PARK -- The seventh and last person of the group in Zion National Park has been found dead after flash floods.

The party of seven got caught in the rushing waters while canyoneering Monday evening.

The group was in Keyhole Canyon when .63 inches of rain fell between 4:30 and 5:30 p.m., Aly Baltrus said, spokeswoman at the park.

Keyhole Canyon is a short, narrow slot canyon on the east side of the park.

A permit is required to enter and park officials said hikers must complete several short rappels under 30 feet and swim through several pools of water to get through it.

The group, four men and three women, all between 40 and 50 years old, were visiting from Nevada (1) and California (6). Park rangers say they were simply washed away.

Rangers received a report of the group canyoneering in the canyon shortly before the flooding began.

Officials determined the group had not come out of the canyon when crews found their unoccupied cars at the trailhead Monday evening.

Crews started searching for the group Tuesday morning when the weather allowed.

"As search continues for the missing hikers, high water levels and continued rain showers pose further flash flooding concerns and have hampered searchers' access to the technical portions of the canyoneering route," officials said.

"With flash floods a lot of times you'll find people further downstream and that is the case," Baltrus said.

Names of the victims will not be released until next of kin has been notified.

FOX 13 News spoke with a man familiar with canyoneering at Keyhole Canyon.

"It's not a sport without some risk, but I think you can significantly reduce that risk by being smart about the choices that you make," said Reed Skinner of Spanish Fork. "If it looks like the canyon is going to be too dangerous then we say, 'I think we should do something else.'"

Skinner said part of the problem is Keyhole Canyon is known for beginners, but that doesn't mean it can't be dangerous given the weather conditions.

"In weather like this it turns the canyon with stagnant water or still pool, into flowing water and that changes things dramatically," Skinner said. "If you are used to repelling or climbing down into water and now that water is moving you can get trapped under the water."

Skinner's wife is preparing for her first canyoneering trip in Keyhole Canyon later this week. However, she said she won't go unless she is sure it's clear skies all day.

"We talked to some people before we went to Keyhole and said the weather is supposed to be bad today and they said, 'Hey we are going to take our chances, it will probably be bad tomorrow too,' and I think you just don't risk it, it can turn bad so fast," Skinner’s wife said.

This is the second deadly flooding in southern Utah. Twelve bodies have been recovered and one child is still missing after families were swept away in flash flooding in Hildale Monday evening. Three people were rescued.

20 comments

  • Bob Janzen

    That is a terrible tragedy. I wonder how Zion could have issued a permit for that slot canyon, when I thought flash flooding was forecast. Maybe they went in without a permit. Terrible tragedy.

    • Tom Varga

      Bob – Zion has no way of predicting the weather and in combination of when people are issued their permits. These canyoneers could have had their permit from the day before to several weeks before. Plus it is not the responsibility of Zion. When you get the permit there are disclaimers about the weather and dangers of being in the back country. It is always the peoples responsibility to make good judgments. This time that did not happen – unfortunately!

    • dave

      I know these people. They are extremely experienced hikers. The permitting process happens in advance, therefore no weather forecasts for the weather 3 months ahead is available when you receive your permit.

      • Randy Hurley

        IMO, the permit process [they’re difficultly in procuring] is a major part of the problem. I know our trip to Zion was a once in a lifetime event. We didn’t want to miss a thing.
        On this occasion, that exuberance got people killed.

      • Scott Patterson

        No; this is not true. You get a reservation for a permit (not the permit) in advance. You must pick up the permit the day of or the day before your trip. The permit was picked up at 7:40 AM the day of the fateful trip, but the group didn’t descend the canyon until afternoon. At the time the group picked up the permit, they were warned that flash floods were probable. By the time they did the canyon, there was a flash flood warning and the NPS closed the canyon. Since they got their permit in the morning and they were already gone, there was no way to warn them.

    • halloween3

      That is what I want to know, but after reading some info about all these parks it seems they want the Money/people and do Not like to close it/them down for any reason, I think those who should have closed it knowing the weather and warnings should be held accountable for this.

      • S1

        What about the personal accountability of proceeding with no urgency into overwhelming situations without adequate checks and precautions and oblivious to potential dangers?

        The park did close the canyons immediately after receiving official flash flood warnings from NWS, which came more than 2 hours prior to the start of the heavy rain and therefore even longer prior to the actual flash flooding. Earlier in the day, anyone picking up canyon permits was already warned by the rangers that flash floods were PROBABLE.

        Rain could fall from just a few clouds. What? You want them to close the canyons every time there are some clouds in the sky? Or do you want rangers to be trained as weather clairvoyants as well, able to tell ahead of time in the morning which cloudy days are more dangerous than other cloudy days?

        Though more risky, there was adequate time to complete a short canyon run even with a slow group if that was done right away that morning. If not, if the plan was to delay and run the canyon much later in the day, it would be common sense to re-check weather and flash flood warning status to see if those had improved or worsened. Worsened conditions would prompt the already apprehensive to decide not to do the canyon. If conditions had improved, then go do the canyon with less worries and more enjoyment. Or, safer yet, if your group did not comprise of experienced and fast moving members with well developed canyon skills, acknowledge that running a canyon in more dangerous conditions would be ill-advised, and therefore do not do that or even consider doing that in the first place. Do the canyon on a nice day with clear blue sky.

        If you want to be well protected in your “adventurous” outdoor experience, there is already an existing solution. Pay and hire a guide to look after you for the day, who would be contracted to tell you what’s safe to do, what’s dangerous and therefore you should not do, where to walk, which way to turn, when to stop, when to eat, where to pee, and if anything goes wrong because they didn’t protect you enough, then they would be liable and you would get to hold them accountable. That would be the way to go, for you and others to have your kind of “adventures” in the outdoors.

  • S1

    Very sad, and condolences to the family and friends, and hope the remaining missing could be found alive.

    Please don’t turn this into another misguided suggestion that the park staff should do more to prevent mishaps like this by not allowing people to pick up their reserved permits on certain “bad looking” days and thereby needs to be further trained to also perform the duty of weather clairvoyant. Keyhole takes 1 to 2 hrs to run. The group picked up their permits at 7:40 am at the ranger’s office, which also has the latest forecast. Official park-wide flash flood warnings and canyon closings happened at 2:22 pm, when the park received official warning from the National Weather Service. The heavy rain didn’t begin til 4:30, lasting til 5:30 pm. The group was actually passed inside the canyon by another later starting group, who had time to finish the canyon before the big floods flashed through. That was 8 hrs 50 mins btwn 7:40 am and 4:30 pm, to get to and run a nearby short canyon that should take 1-2 hrs, or to decide not to at all on a day with rain forecast. Don’t make the permit process the issue. It isn’t. The issue lies elsewhere.

    Experienced hikers don’t necessarily mean experienced canyoneers. Even if some people feel they need to chance it, there ought to be an urgency to do the canyon quickly and as early ahead of the incoming rain as possible. That’s what canyon experience would implore one to do.

    • Heather

      Thank you very much for your post. I am the aunt to one of the hikers, who was experienced. He had hiked some of the PCT and had done the Westcoast Trail too. I found your post, stating times, and conditions more informative than the newscasts. Your post makes more sense. Maybe we will never know why they waited so long to do what you claim is a quick 1-2 hour run. However, if I find out why, I will post again and let you know. Again, thank you for the detailed information.

      • Scott Patterson

        Heather, take this with a grain of salt since the some of the below isn’t 100% certain, but it is certain that the permit was picked up at ~7:40 AM and it is also certain that the group didn’t do Keyhole until afternoon.
        On hiker in a group I belong to believes he ran into one of the hikers on the West Rim Trail (also in Zion). The man he ran into was from California and said that the rest of his group was taking a canyoneering course and was planning to do a trip through Keyhole Canyon in the afternoon. It isn’t 100% certain that the man met on the trail was in the same group, but it is very probable and explains the time gap between picking up the permit and doing the canyon. S1 is right that the canyon only takes 1-2 hours (I’d actually say that it’s closer to the one for an “average” party).

      • Scott Patterson

        Heather, to add to my other post, the person met on the West Rim was an experienced canyoneer (the only one in the group), which is why he wasn’t taking the course with the others whom he was to meet Keyhole in the afternoon. The Californian person who was met on the West Rim also had a permit for the Subway on Tuesday. If the group is the same (and this seems very probable), it was ZAC (Zion Adventure Company) who was where the other were taking the class). Here is what the class description from ZAC says:

        “Staff-wide, we feel this course is the most empowering of our offerings. Keyhole Canyon in Zion National Park is the “best little slot canyon” in the Southwest. It has drill holes, waterfalls, plunge pools, chockstones, and beautiful stone fins and waves, all carved by flowing desert waters. The Subway (Left Fork of North Creek) is also a very popular canyon in the National Park. It’s sculpted walls and flowing water provide a surreal experience for any canyoneer. Our Keyhole/Subway Ground School is popular because people can go from mild-mannered civilians in the morning to independent, competent canyoneers by the afternoon.”

        It is very probable that the people taking the class were preparing for Keyhole in the afternoon and that it is the same group that got caught in the flashflood. The timeline and circumstances do fit. PS, I am just trying to be helpful, rather than to appear insensitive about the situation.

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