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Monday, July 26, 2010

Afternoon Thunderstorms Create Danger For Canyon Hikers

Now that we are feeling the heat of summer, the Utah's water-filled slot canyons are popular hiking destinations. It is great fun to wade and swim and scramble through narrow canyons in Zion Park, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other areas in southern Utah.

I'm scheduled to do such a hike on Wednesday of this week, challenging Cottonwood Wash in Capitol Reef. It should be a fun hike, unless thunderstorms turn the canyon into a raging torrent. I'm watching the weather, well-aware than we are in Utah's “monsoon season” where afternoon thunderstorms can boil up with little warming.

Three hikers in Zion National Park learned that first-hand last week, when they were swept away by a flash flood. The Washington Post has this article about their adventure and rescue. Here's a short quote:

“Zion National Park officials say three men who were swept away by a flash flood in a canyon were washed over a 40-foot drop and survived... The men from the Las Vegas area were hiking when about an inch of rain fell in less than 30 minutes. Once they were free of the water, one of the men used a headlamp to signal a distress call and an off-duty park ranger spotted the flashing light.

What can you do to minimize danger? Here are some suggestions:

1.Watch the weather report. Don't enter a slot canyon if rain is likely anywhere in the drainage.
2.Talk to the people in the visitor center. They can give you info on current conditions and potential dangers.
3.Hike early in the day. Thunderstorms are most likely during the afternoon. On some routes if you can start early you can be out by early afternoon.

We plan to hike in the morning when air temperature are cooler and there is less danger of flooding. If we see dark clouds building we will immediately end our hike. We're intentionally choosing a route where we can escape if conditions deteriorate.

(On some routes you drop down rappels, committing yourself to finish the hike. It is virtually impossible to climb out the way you came in. The only thing you can do is continue down the slot until you come out the bottom. Don't commit yourself unless you a confident the weather will hold.)

- Dave Webb


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