Nooshin George, left, and her husband, Dennis, try to avoid slipping into the fast-flowing icy waters in Subway in Zion National Park. (Photo by David Whiting, Staff)
From left to right: Gary Favela, Don Teichner, Muku Reynolds, Steve Arthur, Linda Arthur, Robin Brum, and Mark MacKenzie, before their first rappel of Keyhole Canyon on Monday, Sept. 14. (National Park Service)
Dennis and Nooshin George of Aliso Viejo make their way through fast-flowing icy waters in Subway, part of a canyon in Zion National Park. (Photo by David Whiting, Staff)
The left fork of North Creek in Zion National Park claimed seven lives two years ago. (Photo by David Whiting, Staff)
Massive cliffs inspire people in Zion National Park. (Photo by David Whiting, Staff)
Nooshin and Dennis George of Aliso Viejo make their way through the enormous Subway in Zion National Park. (Photo by David Whiting, Staff)
Search and rescue team members carry a body after it was found along Pine Creek, Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015, in Zion National Park, near Springdale, Utah. Authorities are searching for other hikers killed in flash flooding that swept through a narrow canyon at Utah’s Zion National Park. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
ZION, Utah — There are places of grandeur, beauty and death on this planet that mysteriously attract humans, and one is a legendary canyon in Zion National Park called Subway.
At this time of year, cold winds whip. Submerged green moss clings to smooth red-brown rock, making it nearly impossible to avoid a slip and fall. Torrents of record snowmelt flow fast and furious.
“Smooth as snot,” warns a lone man stuck in the middle of a 25-yard-wide flow of icy liquid last weekend just before the entrance to Subway. He knows that one slip could shoot him down a series of waterfalls and into a labyrinth of boulders.
With the California Department of Water Resources reporting water runoff hovering close to 200 percent above normal this month, his dicey situation is a useful lesson about our own state’s flood areas, rivers and streams.
After the Golden State’s winter of massive snowfall, some campgrounds are expecting to be underwater, small creeks have transformed into rushing streams, and some streams — especially those near high country — have transformed into raging rivers.
Zephyr Whitewater Expeditions, near Stockton, notes, “The current snowpack in California is about 180 percent of normal after one of the wettest winters on record.”
It is the day before our Subway adventure and Nooshin and Dennis George drive to the Zion Visitor Center to pick up a pre-approved permit for our route.
The ranger asks George if he’s taking the bottom-up route, considered the far safer route this time of year because of high water flow and raging, icy currents.
George, a wellness instructor from Aliso Viejo and 20-year rockclimber, shakes his head. “Top-down.”
The ranger leans across the desk, eyes the couple and inquires if George has Class C canyoneering skills. Class C canyons require route-finding, navigating strong currents and waterfalls, wet-rope rappelling abilities.
Among other trips, George has led a party through Blue John Canyon where Aron Ralston cut off his right forearm in 2003, and led a group through the exceptionally narrow and plunging Robbers Roost canyon.
The ranger reports the water is 38-degree snowmelt and wonders about wetsuits. George allows he has a 3-millimeter “Farmer John” that resembles neoprene overalls with bare shoulders. I have a 3-millimeter shorty.
The ranger squints, pauses. He suggests full-bodied 7-millimeter wetsuits and neoprene insulated boots. He adds the water is so deep and fast that hydraulics pull you under.
George thanks him for what he considers suggestions. But his wife hears something different. She knows rangers almost never tell visitors what to do. Instead, they “suggest.”
She is convinced the ranger was saying we have equipment that — at the very best — means a very, um, risky time.
That night, the three of us debate our long-time plan to explore the top-down route. We’ve driven a long way to rappel through the famous Keyhole and Subway. Even without proper wetsuits, maybe we can hack it.
But we also know that more than anything, adventure is about managing risk. Each member of the team has a responsibility to be fit, have the right equipment and know how to use it.
It was less than two years ago when more than a half-dozen men and women from Southern California died attempting Subway.
Deadly flash storm
It is Sept. 14, 2015, and seven members of an informal club on Meetup.com called the Valencia Hiking Crew pick their way down a steep slope toward the Left Fork of North Creek.
Their plan includes taking in both Subway and an area called Keyhole Falls. They know it to be a relatively moderate route with hundreds of yards of narrows, swimming and wading through pools of water and three 30-foot rappels.
But in the outdoors, conditions can change as fast as lightning.
That morning, the National Weather Service predicts a 50 percent chance of rain and the possibility of heavy thunderstorms. A cardboard sign goes up at the Visitor Center: flash flooding “probable.”
About 2:30 p.m., the weather service sends out a flash flood warning in upper case letters: “MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND NOW. ACT QUICKLY TO SAVE YOUR LIFE.”
But the hiking crew is out of cellphone range.
As the party approaches the area called Keyhole several hours later, a massive storm system 15 miles south gathers. Within minutes, a flash flood rips through a wash. Thirteen people — including children — drown in vehicles on a rural road.
A second storm hits Zion. Rain pours down.
In the Subway area, a group of three spots dark clouds and races through the narrows. A wave of water with the force of a firehose tears through the canyon.
Over the next few days, the battered bodies of the entire crew of seven are found scattered through the canyon.
A haunting photo shows three women and four men, all in their 50s, smiling and celebrating the first rappel.
Before we sleep, the Georges and I decide that the only sensible decision is to hike the canyon bottom-up, the route favored by nearly all canyoneers this time of year.
The next day, we make our way down a steep, rough trail, wade through numerous stream crossings and after four hours finally approach Subway.
I pick my way around a blind corner at the base of a cliff so tall it covers half the sky. Suddenly, I’m staring at the entrance of a giant tunnel. The perspective is mind-bending.
Sure, it’s big but until someone is actually inside the tubular chamber that resembles something out of an “Alien” movie it’s impossible to believe that the tunnel is large enough to accommodate several passing subway trains.
Dennis George and his wife slowly, carefully walk upstream. They wear wool socks and sturdy hiking shoes. But nature pays no mind.
She slips. Dennis grabs her. With each step, the numbing 38-degree rushing water feels like tiny nails stabbing into skin. The pads on the bottom of feet turn to pillows of pain.
As we enter the mouth of this gargantuan, gray-ribbed chasm, six humans in black wetsuits emerge.
Partly in shock and shivering from hypothermia, a young woman approaches. It’s obvious her party has come top-down. Her eyes are like saucers; her skin pale white.
Although she’s only been in the canyon for eight hours, she behaves as if she hasn’t seen other humans for weeks.
She and her companions — save one expert — lack the usual giddiness of adventurers after a scary epic outing. From her wobbly demeanor, it’s clear that seeing us coming from the opposite direction means only one thing: Her ordeal is over.
The group survived three rappels and swirling high waters. They swam through icy flows while fighting being pulled under. Cold sucked away core body temperatures.
I assure the woman that while she has another three hours to go, the rest is a cakewalk compared to what she has endured.
The group’s experience convinces me that we made the right decision to pass on the top-down route. And while I admire this group of six — which includes a 14-year-old boy — I quietly wonder about the decision of a mostly inexperienced group venturing into a narrow slot canyon filled with rushing 38-degree water.
But even more, I wonder at my own lack of planning.
Read more about Massive snowmelt makes Zion canyons, local rivers, dangerous This post was shared via Orange County Register’s RSS Feed. Irvine Shredding Service
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